Campaign History of the 151e Régiment d'Infanterie - XIII
~ 1916 ~
Verdun - Second Tour (5-9 April) - Part I
The origin of the name Le Mort Homme (literally, the "Dead Man") has now been lost to time. Alistair Horne posited it perhaps some forlorn traveler who became lost in a snowstorm centuries before and died alone in the cold. What's more certain is that it had already been the scene of savage fighting for weeks when the 42 DI is sent up in early April 1916. German forces had made multiple bloody attempts to take Le Mort Homme and the other heights on the Left Bank of the Meuse in March. Mort Homme was a large twin-peaked summit situated at the end of a long ridge that rose from Left Bank of the Meuse in a southeasterly direction. The summits of Mort Homme were referred to by their height in meters: Côte 265 and, several hundred meters to the south of the Côte 295 (which itself had a lower summit at 287 meters just to the north of 295 proper). Any literal reference to height of the summits can be forgotten. would become irrelevant. The shelling unleashed here was so extreme that 10 meters of top soil was blasted off the surface.
At the cost of enormous bloodshed and loss of material, the Germans had managed to get a foothold on the 265 in late March, pushing the French out of their first-line positions. The intermediary line in the saddle between the sister summits on Côte 295 (i.e. 287 and 295). then became the new French first-line, with a covering trench line on the reverse slope immediately below the summit. A secondary line fortification was located several hundred meters to the south of this. General Deville's warning to be ready for combat would prove all too correct in a matter of days.
5 April: On 5 April the 151 is alerted that it will be going up to the front to relieve the 150 RI. As usual, Lieut.-Colonel Moisson with his senior officers and machine-gun company commanders leave in the morning to carry out a reconnaissance of the regiment's new sector at Mort Homme. Around noon the regiment is boarded onto trucks where they progress up a country road until linked up with the la Voie Sacrée ("the Sacred Way"). Jubert reflected on the dualistic nature of the road:
Every day for two months there were two kinds of processions that passed each other continuously. In convoys by the hundreds, there were the endless lines of heavy motor trucks veiled in long green tarps. The convoys looked alike, but they are not the same. They follow each other like night follows day, like death follows life; those coming from Verdun and those going there.The convoy continues its slow, lurching drive along the critical artery until it reaches Baleycourt, where the men are told to get out. The trucks can go no further without risking coming under artillery fire, so the rest of journey will be done on foot. From Baleycourt the regiment must backtrack a short distance to Blercourt. Mobile kitchens waiting for the men there, though it seems only some companies were able to enjoy a meal before heading up to the front lines. The 1 Company (1 Battalion) set off immediately without receiving any food. The 11 Company (3 Battalion) on the other hand fared better. They wouldn't depart Blercourt until later that night. The men quietly ate their soup in the darkness and then took advantage of the delay to get a little sleep in the damp grass and the icy wind.
These trucks, loaded and containing men packed together, hot air, strong odors, shining eyes, a feverish and congested mass. Some are young, dressed in nine; their faces and their hands are clean; they seem dressed for a party, but their faces are sad, their dreamy eyes, their voices silent and abandoned. The others are dirty, ragged; their hands are black and their faces; they wear bruises and linens; in relation to other they seem poor. But their faces are gays; they sing ; we feel they would not change the point of fate; even they have some pity on the best clothes they intersect. Were not they the same yesterday? The rag is enjoyed at this time, because the danger that has made it a respected man she raises now. There was a striking contrast between the gaiety in dirty faces, finally issued a distress too long and serious faces, silent, of those who, dressed as for a party, had not yet won their game against fate.
The relief march up to Mort Homme would be long and difficult. The first stage took them over muddy roads that traversed up and down the rolling ridges. From Blercourt the regiment first passed through Jouy-en-Argonne before proceeding onto Sivry-la-Perche. German 380 shells thundered loudly as they passed overhead like some enormous invisible wagons rolling down a cobblestone street. A little ways further columns reached the ridges overlooking Germonville, where the French heavy artillery thundered away ceaselessly, the muzzle blasts lighting up the column in a fevered flickering as it trudged by. Jubert recalled:
The march lasts all through the night, slow and trying, toward the luminous zone that envelops the battle. Now and then, a hellish noise throws one's hearing off as a big caliber cannon spits out a heavy shell. The flame bursts not 10 meters away from us. There is the sound, and then for a minute we are deafened. The young new recruits were grave and silent. Even before encountering the enemy, the first sensation of the brutality of death's workings makes an impression on them...Upon entering Germonville the regiment had already gone over 13 km, but the march would only get more difficult from here. From the village the column left the road and took to the open country, skirting Bois Bourrus to the west before crossing over the plain that led toward Chattancourt and Mort Homme beyond. Cpl.-Four. Laporte noted:
A shell bursts 10 meters away from my company causing disorder in the ranks. In the darkness, there was yelling and running, and we had to reorder the files and the ranks. But the ineffectiveness of the projectile had already reassured them. The new recruits retake their place without too much trembling. They've had their first lesson in danger.
After having skirted along the edge of a large woods [Bois Bourris] and by a few villages in ruins, we pass through the area of what had been Chattencourt [sic, Chattancourt], this village being the closest to the front. The shells here fell without nonstop and numerous gaps were torn in our ranks before reaching our trenches.By the time Campana's company passed Bois Bourrus it was midnight, with the most difficult part of the trek still to come. Campana recounted the experience:
Our torture commenced. The waterlogged ground was strewn with telephone wires, barbed-wire, and especially shell-holes. The night was so dark you couldn't see a meter in front of yourself. The men, in single-file, held onto the bayonet scabbard of the man in front. We advanced blindly groping our way forward to the far off front lines. We were led by a guide who, fortunately for us, knew the terrain. At 2 am we rested for a few minutes. On the horizon, flickering pale-colored lights appeared and then disappeared. A low roar reached our ears as we approached the battlefield.The regiment entered the first communication trench while they were still several kilometers from the front lines. The windy and seemingly interminable trenches and -- as per the norm at Verdun -- were also too shallow to afford any real protection from projectiles. Already, the men could hear stray bullets singing by overhead and smack into the earth around them, like deadly songbirds hurtling down from the sky.
Kilometers followed kilometers. The darkness became less thick as the dawn light began to bathe us, the sky taking on an ashy gray, then violet to pale green, and finally a bluish hue. The morning clouds were burned away by the first rays of the sun.The 1 and 2 Battalions went into line on the summit of Mort Homme; 1 Battalion on the left, 2 Battalion on the right. From his position, Campana could see another company in front (north) of his own installing itself in the first-line trench that traversed the saddle between the sister summits on Côte 295 (i.e. 287 and 295). This afforded Campana and the men of 1 Company some relative security, allowing them to get a little rest. Once they arrived in their trench, exhaustion immediately overwhelmed the men:
It was now 4:30 am. We had been marching since 9:00 pm the previous evening and we still hadn't arrived. We passed over several defensive lines of entrenchments, followed a line of batteries, passed the brigade PC, and at last arrived at our trenches we were to occupy on the top of Mort Homme at 6:00 am.
They didn’t even have the strength to find shelters. They laid down randomly, wherever they could -– on the fire-steps, in the communication trenches, in the mud -– and immediately fell asleep, totally wiped out from the dreadful march. I followed their example, stretched out on the ground and passed out.Laporte and the 1 MG Company set their guns up in a position on the left (western) side of Mort Homme. As they had experienced during their first rotation on Côte de Froideterre and Ravin de la Mort, the situation in the second-line positions was in fact worse than that in the first-line:
We took up our positions around 5:00 am...in the middle of a violent bombardment. Wrecked night and day by the bursting of shells of all calibers, only the remnant of trenches now remained. In reality, we were connected simply by a line of holes (or more accurately, excavations). Only a few shelters still remained.Because of the inevitable slow progress and endless delays faced by 3 Battalion in it's approach to the front, it was unable to reach its assigned second-line position before daylight arrived, forcing a halt its movement until darkness returned. To avoid the risk of being spotted by enemy aircraft and artillery spotters, it would spend the day at Germonville.
The rising sun seemed to further rouse the god of war. The enemy artillery now became more active and the intensity of the bombardment grew stronger. It would continue throughout the length of the day. Despite this, Laporte again volunteered to lead a ration resupply party. The harrowing tale is recounted here in full:
Not a meter of ground escaped the shelling and it was a miracle that any human being could survive under this deluge of hell-fire. Everything was flashes, detonations, smoke. That evening around midnight, I took advantage of a light lull and went out on a rations resupply, accompanied by eight poilus, all volunteers. The "promenade" was certainly hazardous. We were just leaving our positions when a rain of shrapnels [shells] hit us. One of the poilus in our party was thrown to the ground, killed instantly by a shrapnel ball that struck him right in his forehead. We stopped for a moment and after relieving our poor comrade of his load of canteens, we set back off on our route right through the bursting shells.
Countless times we had to throw ourselves down to the ground to avoid the huge fragments that whistled their death cry as they plummeted down in all directions! After much excitement, we finally reached the small village of Chattencourt [sic], which we passed through without incident. A Small village! In reality, imagine piles of bricks and scorched beams with streets made of water-filled shell-holes. It wasn't very easy to walk through on this black night, amidst all this chaos.
About 2 km past the entrance to the village we found the mobile field kitchens. And how happy our cooking comrades were to see us: "So, over there? How's it going?" etc. Our provisioning complete, we rested a moment before heading back fully loaded, the body draped with canteens and stew-pots. While moving back through the village, we pass other fatigue parties. We weren't entirely alone out here; this route was the most practicable. And after each spectacular chute of mud [from bursting shells] rained back down, the curses of the men always ended in laughter. The most important thing was to not lose the slightest portion of the precious rations.
We left Chattencourt [sic] in the direction of Mort-Homme around 2:00 am [on 6 April]. The bombardment was going stronger than ever, gradually increasing in intensity as we advanced. Once again we reentered Hell. We walked in zigzag in order to avoid (so we believed) the fire of the German batteries, which sometimes continued firing on the same point. We trudged on like this for more than an hour when all of a sudden, believing to be in our trenches, we heard shouting in a voice we knew all too well: we were at the edge of a German trench. In the pitch-black night, we had lost our way. Needless to say (with now weapons and only the precious rations in hand), we all huddled up in an enormous shell-hole. After we could no longer hear anything suspicious, we turned back in the direction from which we came with the greatest speed despite our load.
I've never been able to explain how, but an hour later we arrived back safe and sound in our own trenches this time (if we hadn't had the death of a comrade to mourn, we would’ve had a good laugh). It was around 5:00 am. We were given a good welcome. Our comrades were afraid that we had all been laid out in this desert of fire. A chore duty of this type made it back one time out of two. That's why we had to call on volunteers. Anyways, we hadn't been knocked around all that bad this time. I recounted our story to the captain [Capitaine Antoine], who couldn't help from laughing despite the circumstances. We have to keep up morale afterall, don’t we?
The rations distributed, the men of the fatigue went back to their places in their sections. Separated from us by about 100 meters was a section that only had an effective of fifteen men at this time. Our comrade who had been killed during the course of the fatigue was from this section and as the fatigue volunteers from the other sections were going back to their emplacements, I took the stew-pots and canteens myself to hand out the rations for this neighboring section. The 100 meters that separated me from them wasn't easy ground. It was a true obstacle course: nothing but shell-holes. Fortunately, the bombardment had calmed down some. I had hardly gone 20 meters when I fell flat on my chest. I had collided with a big poilu, who I had knocked also off his feet. He let out a curse which brought me back to my senses!
With my helmet in my hand, and before he had the time to get back on his feet, I landed a strong blow on his head (his helmet, by good fortune, had rolled off onto the ground). It was in fact a German who, without being fazed by the blow he had received, lifted his hands into the air and stammered out: "Kamarad Français." The only weapon I had on me was my revolver, but it was covered over by the canteens and when I fell. Even more, I had let half the stew-pots, which held meat and vegetables, tip over. I first made sure that he didn't have any weapons -- he was a young German of 18 or 19 years who was leaving his lines to surrender. I made him get in front of me and brought him to the captain. He wasn't the first one who had come over to our lines since the last two days...
I was weary after this long walk over the devastated terrain. I went to find my captain again. The interrogation of the prisoner was still going on. The "Fritz" seemed at ease. He confessed that they had suffered enormous losses. They'd been sent up as reinforcements, being previously on the Russian border, and were told that they were going to Paris. For them, Verdun was Paris!...But all they had managed to take up till now were shells of every caliber falling without letup. The interrogation over, the prisoner was lead to the rear, accompanied by a liaison agent.
Capt. Savary is evacuated from illness and Lieut. Le Gallo transfers from 9 Co. to 12 Co. to take command.
6 April: Up on the summit of 295, Campana had managed to get a few hours of sleep before waking up and conducting a quick inspection of the lines. This done, he went to find his shelter and was pleasantly surprised with its soundness – it was halfway interred in ground with railway ties covered with a layer of stones and earth. He noted:
...It was an old artillery command post very solid and comfortable, even luxurious I must say. It contained two suspended frame beds made with wire mesh, a table, two stools, and a stove with a stove pipe, all of which had surely been taken from Chattencourt [sic, Chattancourt] by a poilu who was fond of the material comforts. Since I’ve been at war, it’s the first time that I was the temporary proprietor of such an agreeable abode.From his shelter, Campana had a commanding view of the surrounding landscape. Far away on the horizon he could make out Montfaucon atop on its dominating height. In the shell-plowed plains below him he could make out the Forge stream winding its way through the devastating countryside. To his right was Chattancourt, which sat obscured by the yellow smoke of 105 shrapnel shells. On his left, Esne, the ruins of which were bathed in the soft light of the morning sun. And overlooking this village was Côte 304, where large plumes of smoke spurted up from the 210s and 305s that were crashing down just now on its slopes.
While Campana’s position was so far spared from the same heavy caliber shells, the same could not be said about the 151’s second-line positions. Laporte was with 1 MG Company in a support position and noted:
Our first day at Mort Homme was bad. The German artillery along with the French artillery gave us no respite. At nightfall, the bombardment lightened a bit...But the artillery duel continued to rage away over by [Esnes]. Our first-line trenches were very well situated and didn't suffer as much as the second-line, which was a hundred meters away from it.As darkness again obscured the land, the 3 Bat. is now able move up in reserve of the second-line positions. Jubert is among them and described the position he came to occupy:
The second-line fortress was dug below the summit, separated from the mother-summit of Mort-Homme [meaning Côte 295] by an angular double system of ravines. A company occupied the position, along with some machine-guns. On its wings it was joined to a line of trenches heading off to the east toward Chattancourt, and to the west across the Hayette Ravine. Dominated it from afar by Montfaucon hill (which was a threat to us), to the west of Côte 304, and to the northwest by the top of Mort-Homme, known as 291 [in reality, 295]. Under the view of these two hills, each of which protected the other, the second-line position wasn't really all that dangerous a place. The shells fell around it. Though there were no shelters to protect us from the rain, the majority of men rested in the communication trenches under their under tent-canvases, despite a daily bombardment that enveloped us with smoke.The disposition of the regiment on the evening of 6 April was as follows: on the left, 1 Bat. with three companies in the first-line (from left to right: 1, 3, 4) and 1 MG Co. and 2 Co. in support in the cover trenches; on the right, 2 Bat. with three companies in the first-line (from left to right: 8, 6, 5) and 2 MG Co. and 7 Co. in support in the cover trenches; in reserve in the second-line, 3 Bat. and 3 MG Co. The 162 RI is in liaison to the left of 1 Bat. and the 8 BCP is in liaison to the right of 2 Bat. Losses for the regiment on 6 April include 1 wounded (Sdt. Paubin). Capitaine Savary is evacuated for illness. Lieut. LeGallo is transferred from 9 Co. to 12 Co. to take command.
7 April: The men work to organize the sector, with the regiment on high-alert in expectation of a big attack. In the reserve positions, work on the fortress was handed off from the engineers who had constructed it to the companies of the 2 Bat. Each night, a section would be tasked with carrying on the work at night. The nights were brisk and those off-shift slept huddled up with a comrade, sharing blankets to keep warm. Otherwise, Jubert’s men had little to concerns themselves in their sheltered position. As a distraction from reading letters and books, they could look on Côte 304 and, in front of them less than kilometer away, Mort Homme smoking and bursting like a volcano under the storm of German shells. This bombardment continued to increase in intensity, a box barrage that saturates the first and second lines as well as in between. Laporte was up in the first-line under this avalanche of steel and remarked: I have never witnessed such a deluge of fire, to the point that deafness had begun to overcome those who still remained standing. Losses for the regiment on 7 April include 3 killed and 8 wounded. The casualties recorded in the JMO include:
Killed: Sdts. Phillpe (Paul), Caillet, Michel (Paul)
Wounded: Sgts. Paradis (René), Mangras; Cpl. Le Gall (Louis); Sdts. Chambat, Plichou, Colin (Octave), Luce, Brun (Joseph).
8 April: The day is calm. Around 1900 hrs, a German soldier was spotted coming over to the regiment's first-line trench with his arms up in the air and was let into the lines. Sous-Lieut. Campana asserted that the deserter was in fact first caught by a patrol lead by Lieut. Olivier and that he was brought straight to Capitaine Carrère's PC for an initial interrogation. The German, of Polish origin, declared that he'd deserted his post when he'd learned that his regiment would be attacking the next day. He also stated that a comrade of his had planned on surrendering as well. The JMO states that the deserter did not know the time of the attack. Campana claimed otherwise, saying that the man put the zero-hour of the preparatory bombardment was 0800 hrs, followed by the infantry attack at noon. Artillery of all calibers, heavy mortars, and even flame-throwers were to be used to soften the French positions. If the attack failed, the bombardment was to continue unabated until the evening.
Cpl. Laporte also recorded the episode of the two deserters in his diary, claiming that he in fact was present when the two deserters had surrendered. Perhaps understandably, there were some minor variances about the episode between his account, Campana’s, and the JMO. For example, Laporte claimed that the two men, who spoke French very well, were Alsatians. The JMO and Sous-Lieut. Jubert assert that the men were Polish in origin. Either way, Laporte's account is still interesting:
My captain and I accompanied them to the battalion leader's PC, which was located 100 meters from us. There, our two prisoners immediately declared that the Crown Prince's army was going to launch a large-scale attack at noon on 9 April. These declarations concurred with other intelligence already received and the amplitude of the bombardment couldn't deny it.Both Campana’s account and the JMO mention that, having provided this intelligence, the two prisoners were immediately escorted to Lieut.-Colonel Moisson’s PC where the information was repeated. After listening attentively to the report, Moisson thanked them for the invaluable information they had provided. But before dismissing them, he also told them that they were traitors to their country. It was a hard lesson for the now-dejected men.
All companies of the regiment were alerted to the imminent attack, immediately follow by reports to the other units of the 42 DI. Extra stores of ammunition and grenades were brought up. Laporte reported that a machine-gun had been placed every ten meters with all fields of fire pre-sighted. The anticipation amongst the men was palpable they were spoiling for a fight where they at last had the upper hand.
The news of the imminent enemy attack spread throughout the regiment. When Jubert was told to be ready to move his men forward the next day for a possible counter-attack, he quipped to a fellow officer: "This will do us good. We were starting to get out of the habit of dying."
Campana’s section was located on the south slope of Mort Homme (height 295), just below the crest, and was sheltered from frontal fire. However, his position was open to enfilade fire from the German guns on Talou. Moreover, German air craft had photographed their trench, which ensured that German artillery could easily target their position.
At the same time, Campana had no view whatsoever of his friend, Lieut. Olivier’s, positions at the bottom of the north slope of Mort Homme (height 295), nor of the enemy’s trenches save his third lines on height 265. That said, there was an advanced post 30 meters from Campana’s trench that was placed just on the crest of the hill, which had a much better view of the surrounding terrain. He knew his own position would be targeted by German artillery, so Campana resolved to enlarge the post at night and shift his men there for the coming assault. Distributing picks and shovels to his men, he explained the purpose of their work and the men immediately understood the importance of the task. They would literally be digging for their lives, so Campana’s men dug without break throughout the night. When morning came, the advantage of the position was obvious. The post overlooked the valley between heights 295 and 287, and afforded unobstructed views of Lieut. Olivier’s positions in front, the entire German defensive system, and the positions of 7, 8, and 9 Cos. to his left. To his right, Lieut. Gontran had placed one of his machine-guns, which enjoyed a superb field of fire.
The rest of the night proved uneventful. The German side remained quiet: it was the calm before the storm. Lieuts. Boissin, Lielhoudt, and Teisserenc (previously evacuated) are brevetted as capitaines. Losses for the regiment on 8 April include 6 wounded (Cpl. Jau; Sdts. Morel (Eugene), Chuavet (Louis), Fauvart (Paul), Gelin (Jean), Roger (Lucien)).
9 April: The early morning remained calm. As he woke, Jubert gazed at his slumbering men: "They were sleeping, with no suspicion that death hovered over them. Like condemned men, they would only be awoken in order to die." At 0700 hrs, the German artillery opened up with a massive bombardment on Mort-Homme and the neighboring Hill 304. In fact, it was the heaviest one since the opening of the battle on February 21, So as to feign ignorance of the impending assault, the French artillery, contrary to the normal practice, fired only a few number of shells and far away from the interior of the German lines. All units in the 42 DI were on high-alert and the troops were all at their combat posts, waiting and ready. Campana was sitting in his newly expanded advanced post with his section. He had already ensured his men had their rifles ready and placed stockpiles of grenades within arm’s reach, and then waited.
As the sun rose, the day revealed itself to be clear and the sky free of clouds. Suddenly, at 0800 hrs as anticipated, a single 105 shrapnel shell burst in the air, producing a yellowish-green cloud of smoke and breaking the serene calm. It was the signal for the attack. Three more shells burst, one after the other, while on Côte 304 huge plumes of smoke burst out of the ground. Innumerable shells now roared overhead. At Chattancourt, a veritable storm of 150s plummeted down. Then from all around, columns of smoke – black, gray, white, and yellow – shot up from the earth as the general bombardment of the entire sector began. The ground under our feet shook as hundreds of shells detonated around them.From the sheltered position of the second-line positions, Jubert watched the spectacle unfold.
There were two distinct zones of fire: one smashed the trenches along the line of Côte 304 to 285 [really, 295 of Mort Homme], the other blocked the Colonel's ravine [Ravin de Chattancourt at the base of 295] where the enemy judged our reserves to be built up.The JMO states that the positions of 1 Bat. (on the left) began to be heavily bombarded at 0830 hrs. The storm of shells continued unabated for another three hours. The bombardment then doubles in intensity around 1100 hrs with shells of all calibers. Meanwhile, 2 Bat. (on the right) came under an even heavier bombardment than 1 Bat. The 7 and 8 Cos. (on the right flank of 2 Bat.) was particularly targeted by heavy minenwerfers. Campana could see both companies from his position and counted the shells coming down on the 7 and 8 Cos. positions at the rate of five a minute. Meanwhile, behind him, eight shells exploded nearly simultaneously in the trench he had abandoned the night before. A close escape indeed. To his right, he could see heavy plumes of black smoke rising up into the air – the Germans were using flame-throwers against the chasseurs of the 8 BCP, turning the men into living torches. Meanwhile, in the skies above, German aircraft were very active, reporting back to their artillery the effects of their fire. One of these is shot down by a French Nieuport and crashes down in the French lines, the pilot burnt to a crisp.
I have rarely seen such a sight. It was massive in scale and had a life of its own. It spread out like a game of death in the beauty of the morning...Brushstroke was being added to brushstroke in quick succession, dozens at a time. So heavy you could suffocate if you were close. From a distance they looked fresh, harmonious to the eye. Thunderclouds floated across the sky, touched with the color of the morning. The sun has this virtue: beneath its rays, death takes on pure beauty.
At noon, the German artillery lengthened their fire and the bombardment achieved its maximum ferocity, the sound of the explosions now changing into a demented confusion of noise. A flare shot up from the German lines. It was then that the German infantry assault began. (Note: While Campana and Laporte said that the German infantry went over the top at 12 on the dot, the JMO states it was at 12:15). From his advanced post with its commanding view, Campana recorded the scene:
Suddenly, waves of German infantry now jumped out of their trenches and rushed forward toward our lines. A company of German infantry with bayonets fixed now charged against Campana’s position. It pressed on a few meters, then, under the tac-tac of our machine-guns, it collapsed. Some men having escaped our volley of bullets fled back in disorder towards their jumping off positions. None made it back. Our merciless fire stopped them in their tracks and the survivors threw themselves to the ground.Laporte was also a witness in the first-lines and recorded the scene:
They were all superb, strapping fellows. When this mass of men in tightly packed ranks had gone a dozen meters, the cross fire of our machine-guns literally mowed-down the first ranks. The second wave then took its turn and immediately suffered the same fate as the first. Those Germans, and there weren't many, who managed to pass through this storm of metal were taken down by rifles or grenades.The situation was far more critical though elsewhere on the regiment's front. On the right, other waves of German infantry broke against the 7 and 8 Companies, whose trenches had been pulverized by the well-sighted heavy artillery fire and could not be adequately defended. Campana could see them clearly.
Gunner-Sergeant Dufour pointed his weapon on the teeming horde: the Hotchkiss spat out 300 bullets a minute. Under the rain of steel, the Boches tumbled down like toy soldiers and in a few seconds, many green-gray bodies lay scattered on the ground. Seized with panic, the survivors scattered in all directions. So each of my men chose his victim and did his best to knock off another pretty target. Not a single German made it back to his trench. In front of us, a calm settled in, but to the right and left waves of enemy advanced toward our positions and on the side of the 8 Chasseurs, the hideous black smoke continued to rise up.With the 1 MG Co., Cpl. Laporte was awestruck in the face of the fury of the fighting.
What an inferno of fire! What an infernal noise! The unending German waves were all made of tightly packed ranks. They gradually grew larger. Heaps of bodies were already laid out in front of us. The muzzles of the machine-guns turned red. We fired without stop. From their part, our 75 canons created enormous devastation in the German trenches, just behind the assault waves. Our heavy artillery rained down on the German reserves without stop. The Germans continued to fall in front of our lines. It was a real slaughter...Savoring the carnage unfolding before his eyes, Campana couldn’t help but think back on the 6 October 1915 in Champagne, when the 151 had been slaughtered in the impenetrable barbed-wire. Though few of his men had been there with the 151 and escaped the massacre, Campana told his men about the disaster and inspired a deep abiding desire for revenge.
Angrily, hatefully, but with calm, they chose their prey. Rifle placed in the crook of the elbow, attentive, they scan the slopes covered in dead bodies. Under our violent bursts of gunfire, many Germans were pinned to the ground, hoping to escape the massacre by playing dead. But sometimes, either taken by a sudden panic or profiting from a moment of calm, they leapt up and ran back towards their trenches. Amused by this new type of hunt, my men took carefully aim and shoot them down like rabbits.Recovering from the shock, Campana could now see the German communication trenches that led back to the enemy’s third line teeming with little green men, like branches of a tree: it was Prussian chasseurs. They were over 1,000 meters away [on 265] and likely thought they could not be seen by the French, as many marched across the open ground in order to move up quicker. They Prussians advanced carrying their rifles in one hand, their bayonets reflecting the sunlight. Campana ran over to the corporal-gunner manning the nearby Hotchkiss of this excellent target and then rejoined his men. Once again, the machine-gun spat out its bullets by the hundreds and the men see a great agitation suddenly produced among the enemy columns. The German chasseurs quickly jump down into their communication trenches but the storm of bullets contains to rain down on the tightly-packed enemy troops.
I had taken the rifle of my orderly and see a big German hurtling down hill 265. I fired in repetition. On the third shot, he threw up his arms and collapsed with his body stretched out. I continued to empty my magazine on him. Out of the six rounds that still remained, four hit his body, the other two throwing up little clouds of dust behind him. I was certain that he was truly dead.
Boche planes overhead look down on us. A few moments later, a volley of 105s and 210s slam down around us. My soldiers jump down from the fire-steps. In order to give them confidence I remained at my post and photographed the explosions. I was thus able to take one of a fantastic explosion of a 210, a fragment of which struck my chest but didn’t have enough force to penetrate.
"Get back up to your places, the Boches are going to come back at us again. We don’t have anything to fear from the bombardment, these shells aren’t for us."
The Captain [Carrère] arrived in the trench. He was tranquilly smoking his old pipe:
"How’s it going in front of you?
"Not bad. See for yourself.
"Oh, hey, that’s nice work. I’m coming from the 3rd Section. They already have three killed.
"For the moment I don’t have any killed or wounded.
"Gontran has had his second machine-gun buried by a 105.
"He’s doing marvelously. Look at this whole line of Boches it took less than two minutes to mow down." The Captain advanced toward Sergeant Dufour to congratulate him:
"It's a pleasure to see that you haven’t wasted any time!
"The pleasure is entirely mine, mon Capitaine. It’s fantastic stopping these bastards right in their tracks and to see them come tumbling down like chips of wood. There was an officer leading them, making big gestures with his arms to give his men nerve. I shot him down with my musket. He must be over there, in the group of dead. I’m going to try to find him with my binoculars…I see him, hold on, mon Capitaine, would you like…"
A dry crack rang out and Dufour collapsed into my arms, his skull split open. The bullet striking him square in the forehead had burst his head open and bits of brain splattered our greatcoats. The sergeant had been knocked off.
Suddenly a loud explosion rings out to Campana’s right and a corporal comes running up to him.
"Mon lieutenant, the 210 fell close to us, the machine-gun is in pieces, the aimer and loader have been killed. I’m done for too.After calling over a stretcher-bearer to take care of the wounded corporal, Campana tells his men to fire as if they’re at the shooting range, with calm and taking care to not waste ammunition. They had already gone through an entire sack full of cartridges and they’re muzzles were burning hot. Yet with their machine-gun out of service, the 30-40 bullets that the rifles could fire a minute weren’t enough to stop the rapidly advancing German troops, which moved across open ground and up through the communication trenches before deploying into the departure parallels before throwing themselves forward.
"Are you wounded?
"I am in the chest, I’m f-cked."
My men fired without stop and each time they knocked off a Boche, they laughed like a big children…I carried out target practice for more than a quarter hour, while my orderly reprovisioned his comrades with ammunition. I’d hoped that our artillery fire would open up on them soon, but their fire appeared to be concentrated to the right where the Prussian chasseurs had taken the [French] first-line and were moving on to the second.There was a new lull in this part of the sector. But from Cumières side (to the east), the bombardment continued to rage on. For his part, Laporte watched the progressive destruction of his regiment and the bravery displayed by so many.
In front of us the Boches came at us but en masse this time. In a few minutes the slopes of hill 265 were covered in enemy rushing toward us. This time, we only had our rifles to stop them, and that was not sufficient. At our feet, in Lieutenant Olivier’s trench, the fighting was already hand-to-hand. On the off chance, I sent up a red flare to request artillery fire. The situation had become critical. The green horde had already overwhelmed our first-line and was advancing toward us…Suddenly a terrifying barrage was unleashed on the German waves: the 75s and 155s rained down as thick as hail on the hundreds of men packed elbow to elbow. My soldiers screamed in joy while the fire continued.
"Go on then! Bing! Bing and bing! Oh, mon lieutenant, take a look at this omelet!"
The bodies were piling up, whole lines of Boche were dropping like wheat before the scythe. Others under the explosions of our shells were thrown several meters up into the air mixed with clouds of earth and stones before crashing back down. German grenadiers, with greatcoats rolled around them in bandolier fashion, advanced toward us. Barely thirty meters separated us from them.
"Fix bayonets! Get the grenades ready!"
The fire of our 75s redoubled in intensity. Fortunately one gun fired too short and several shells fell on the enemy grenadiers. Seized by panic, the survivors tried to about-face but in the violence of the bombardment, they ran around lost. So they made the "Kamerad!" [to surrender] and headed toward us. There still were about forty of them. We were too overexcited to have pity on them.
"No prisoners, boys! Shoot all these vermin!"
Caught between our rifle fire and our bursting shells, they ran panic-stricken to the right and left. My men cold-bloodedly shot them down. Soon…the last grenadier collapsed. For the second time the enemy fell back in disorder. Heaps of corpses lay on the slopes of hill 265. It looked like a field recently harvested where bales of hay wait to be collected.
One of our sections had lost all of its men except for one, Faglain*, who was able to save his machine-gun and continued to fire into the enemy waves. We took some losses, but nothing compared to the bloodshed across from us. Thousands of their men were stacked up one on top of each other in front of our lines, the ones further off were countless. Further away, the Meuse carried along streams of bodies. We (those of us who survived) looked like filthy chimney sweeps after this terrible massacre. They didn't think much of their assault troops, sacrificing countless men. Our losses were less severe than theirs.
*In fact Soldat Faglain's actions are cited in the official regimental historical: "...[T]he sole survivor of his machine-gun section and with an extraordinary calm, he set his gun up on the parapet and coolly mowed down the enemy columns which, after several attempts, fled back in disorder, holding them off for two hours until a bullet arrived felling him across his gun."
On 2 Battalion’s front, the situation had continued to deteriorate. Around 1300 hrs, under the weight of the German infantry attack, 7 Company is no longer able to hold onto their trenches and falls back creating a gap between the 1 and 2 Battalions. Meanwhile, the 5 and 6 Companies fight desperately to hold onto their own trenches, as waves of German attack troops begin to overwhelm them. Gradually they begin to cede ground to the enemy. Effectively, all companies in 2 Battalion (5-8) had now been pushed out of their first-line positions. Further down the line, the 8 BCP, which was in liaison to the right of 2 Battalion, had been forced to abandon its first-line too. This resulted in a large gap opening up between the 8 BCP and the 151's right flank, a precarious condition that could be disastrous if exploited by the enemy.
As the German assault troops signaled back their progress, German artillery largely ceased firing to avoid hitting their own men. Below the summit in the second-line, Jubert and his 11 Company remained largely out of touch with the events going on above them. They took the slackening of the enemy’s fire to mean that the attack had been thwarted. Believing they had been spared, the men vented themselves in hysterical relief. Soup was served to the men who feasted voraciously. As the smoke overhead began to clear and suns rays began to break through once again, the men sat down to play cards as they awaited further orders. Jubert was doing quite well for himself with a lucky run of cards when a message arrived from the battalion commander, which quickly blew away the false-pretense of comfort like the arrival of a 77 shell. The top of Mort-Homme had been overrun and they were ordered to retake it immediately. The prospects seemed dire indeed. They would be counter-attacking uphill against an enemy who was quickly entrenching in the newly conquered positions. To make matters worse, Jubert and his men would have to advance across open ground, as navigating the communication trenches up the slope would only slow their progress.
The counter-attack to retake 2 Battalion’s positions would be led by 12 Company, together with the remnants of 5 Company and two sections of 7 Company. From his post, Campana could see the units moving up the communication trenches to the second-line positions back to his right. They were composed largely of new recruits of the class of 1916, which had only joined the regiment two weeks before, now about to face their baptism of fire. Campana took out his binoculars and recognized a classmate from his Saint-Cyr promotion class, Sous-Lieutenant Camusat de Riancey. Suddenly Campana was struck by a small detail and could hardly believe his eyes. His classmate was wearing his white dress gloves!
French 75s rained down now with their high-pitched screams on the regiment’s lost first-lines for several minutes to soften the enemy’s defense before lengthening its fire. As it did, the counter-attack force, bayonets fixed, jumped up out of their trenches and bounded forward in two waves. Observing from his position above and to the left, Campana watched his Saint-Cyr comrade climb out of the trench only to immediately collapse on the parapet, already struck by a bullet. Taking a moment to recover, he got back up on his feet and ran another dozen meters before being struck a second time and falling down again.
Ahead of him, his men rushed upon the enemy defenders. Between the brief moments of silence punctuated by explosions, Campana could hear singing as the attackers closed in. Here we encounter one of those great incidents of war that has become ensnared in the murky reality of myth. Campana claims that he heard the sound of the "La Marseillaise" being sung. Many official accounts at the time reported the same. The French Etat-Major along with the Press seized on these reports, trumpeting them around as a display of the patriotism and zeal of French troops. The reality is probably something different but no less compelling, as will be recounted later by Jubert.
Many of the men in 12 Company by now had been shot down. Those who made it to the objective now jumped down into the trench and for several minutes a short but brutal hand-to-hand fight ensued. Soon the remaining Germans fled the trench, pursued close behind by the French attackers and their now bloodied bayonets. Few in number, the survivors of 12 Company pulled back to the retaken line.
Looking back at the spot where his friend had fallen, Campana could see Camusat de Riancey lying motionless upon the ground, his white hands resting crisply on his blue greatcoat. He would learn later that evening that his young friend had not been killed outright. Thrown to the ground by a bullet that had torn open his side, he had the strength to get back up again and continue to lead his men. But he was struck by three more bullets in the belly and collapsed a final time. Transported back to a first-aid post, he would die in horrible agony late in the evening.
Despite their valiant efforts, 12 Company was unable to reestablish contact with the 8 BCP on the right. Around 1420 hrs, the remnants of 5 and 6 Companies were enveloped by the enemy and largely wiped out. Shortly thereafter, 11 Company received orders to prepare to counter-attack to the right of 2 Battalion’s positions where 12 Company had advanced in order to reestablish contact with the chasseurs. Sous-Lieutenant Jubert helped to assemble his men, noting that at the moment there were only a hundred or so men present in the company.
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Jubert saw no hesitation his men, many of whom were the 20-year-old recruits of the Class of 1916. As soon as the order was given by a sergent, the men went about quietly collecting their gear and loading up on extra rations and ammo. As soon as they are all kitted up, the company moves forward through the communication trench to the jumping off trench in the second-line. Based on Jubert’s account, the 11 Company likely advanced in a northeasterly direction toward 2 Battalion’s lost first-line trenches stretching to the east of Mort Homme. Up on the erupting summit of 295, isolated handfuls of survivors from the 5, 6, and 8 Companies held onto the small holes and folds in the ground that now comprised the French first-line. Following another preparatory artillery bombardment, at 1545 hrs 11 Company sets off to retake the positions lost by 6 Company.
Climbing out of the trenches, they quickly formed up into well-aligned skirmishing lines and began to advance up the slopes of Mort-Homme. The majority of the men's faces were grave, though some managed a pale, taught smile when Jubert caught their eye. As they approached the combat zone, spontaneous shouts of encouragement were exchanged:
"We'll show them what the boys from the North are made of, mon lieutenant! "And those from the Ardennes too! "And the boys Paris!"As he and his men the colonel’s dugout, Jubert could see wall of fire and steel in front of them. Jubert turned to look behind himself and as he did, he saw a shell burst on the ground and hurl a man several meters into the air. As the dead man plummeted back, he was immediately jerked back up by the blast of a second shell. The same shell that tossed the ragged body back up caused a half-section to flatten itself in anticipation on the ground. Yet as soon as the danger had passed, the men rose back up from the ground one-by-one and get back into line. As the elements of 11 Co. continued forward to the bottom of the crest, Jubert saw an officer gesturing to them and he made his way toward the man. It was Mollet, who’d been posted to give last-minute directions
We’ve taken the crest. Once there, we go down towards the ravine where, like at the bottom of a crucible, we meet a hellish fracas of explosions and smoke that dispenses death amongst us. Another hundred paces, we’re in the danger zone. The shells fall all around us. Men are getting killed. With grave faces, they move in pace and in good order.
"The Boches are up there [on the crest] or behind it. One section will progress through the Boyau de Zouaves, the rest of the company will take the crest by the right oblique.After advancing another 200 meters, Jubert and his men reach the first crest and see the second (265) ahead of them. They’re unable to spot any indications of a trench line. Jubert and the other section leaders order their men to resume a walking pace and maintain their order for the final push. They have another 100 meters to go as their eyes continually scan for the enemy. Amazingly, their skirmishing line is still intact and in good order, as the men advance with their rifles balanced in one hand.
"Where’s the enemy?
"That’s for you to tell us."
Us section leaders are at our posts several paces to the front. I look at them: an admirable line to my right, Noël, Dubot, Buisson. "We’re going to give them a thrashing!" a man shouts, laughing. "The bastards won’t get past us." More voices join in, building their confidence. Laughing, I appease them and calm them down with a gesture.
"We’ll sing on our way up there! Forward, boys!" There’s a real sense of satisfaction making this assault. We’re advancing, Noël, Dubot, Buisson, and me. We maintain good order. It’s a pleasure to face death in this way.
Suddenly on their left flank, a German machine-gun opens up on them, which the Germans had set up near the PC of 8 Co. At this very moment, in attempt to bolster his courage, a man struck up a popular café-concert song, which soon the entire company joined in on. But the machine-gun had its own song of death to sing and men were now being struck down by its rain of lead. Jubert could hear the cries of his fellow officers, Noël, Dubot, and Buisson, as they are hit and fall but he presses on all the same.
"Watch your alignment!" I yell.The momentum of the charge had hurtled the survivors of 11 Co. to top of the hill. The singing had now stopped as eyes now fixed on the final objective that was thirty paces away, then fifteen, then five. Jubert turned around and asked himself where the company had gone to. Finally, he reached the trench and jumped down into it, but found it deserted, the enemy fled. Where were the Boches? Jubert’s men asked. Jubert quickly took count of his men. He saw a handful of his old soldiers and a few new recruits from the class of ’16 (who he’d still not learned their names) -- ten in all out of the hundred who had started off. That was it. Looking back on the ground behind them, he could only see the dead and some wounded who were trying to drag themselves up to the trench as they continued to be fired on by the enemy machine-gun.
"Forward!" someone repeats behind me, "We’ve got them!"
My men follow the command. Bullets patter down by the hundreds and plow up 20 cm of earth, as a light smoke rises around me. That’s their effect on this beaten ground, as the dust rises up. They brush past my feet and graze past others as I dodge about them. Behind me a man is singing and the cries of the wounded are silenced.
In the safety of the trench, a soldier offers Jubert some fancy tobacco, which he always takes into combat. Jubert shares it with the survivors around him. In the uneasy calm, anxiety now began to seep into Jubert and his men, as the cries of the wounded and their calls for help reach their ears. To help boost morale, Jubert seized a German envelope lying on the ground and ceremoniously recorded the names of the men to recommend them for commendation for the Croix de Guerre.
A quick exploration is made of the trench system they now occupy. There’s no one there except for the dead: French zouaves and chasseurs and Germans, all mixed together. Jubert recognized the importance of the position, albeit that it was only defended with ten men, and quickly jotted down a brief note to Lieut.-Colonel Moisson: "I don't know where I am, but the position is of the first importance, and I have only ten men to hold it. I request the two companies be sent up immediately.”
Sending the man off to regiment, Jubert goes on a brief reconnaissance with two wounded comrades. Proceeding two hundred meters down a flattened communication trench, they suddenly spot an entire platoon of German infantry only twenty meters away, heading up another trench running perpendicular to their own. The Germans, loaded up with grenades, have their gaze fixed straight ahead though and Jubert with his pitiful company go unseen. After the platoon passes, they beat a quick retreat back to the center of the position.
Once arriving back to the small party of defenders, Jubert is told that the runner he had sent out was wounded and returned unable to deliver the message. A wounded fellow officer, Dudot, volunteers to go to deliver the message. When Jubert protests, the officer insists he be the one to go since he was effectively out of the fight. He shakes Dudot’s hand, the fingers already stiff and paralyzed. As he watches Dudot scale the parapet and head down into the ravine, he can’t help but think to himself, "There goes another dead man."
The small band of survivors of 11 Co. had made it to the 295 summit having taken about 600 meters of ground. As Jubert’s impromptu roll call had confirmed, of the 100 men who had begun the counter-attack only 10 were left. Most had been cut down by enemy machine-gun fire in the final portion of the advance.
Following 11 Co.’s counter-attack, at 1830 hrs the 10 co. is sent forward to counter-attack to try to retake additional ground lost by 2 Bat. This company advances in the same perfect order as as the 11 Co. had but the same enemy machine-gun that had been placed in the from 8 Co. PC and forces it to halt it's advance on the summit of 295. The 10 Co. makes a final attempt to advance shortly after once night had fallen but is unable to progress. At this point, only 9 Co. still remained in reserve in the second line.
Gradually, the German bombardment begins to diminish in intensity. Some final salvos fall on Chattancourt and at the foot of Côte 304. A salvo of yellow-green shrapnel shells burst in the sky and then an impressive silence settled over the land. The last rays of sun bathed the heaps of bloody corpses covering the slopes of Mort Homme. The sky turned a blue-green, then pale green, then purple. Above Cumières the moon rose glowing red. As it continued its ascension, the light changed to yellow and illuminated everything in a blue light.
The regiment's situation on the right was tenuous. On the regiment's right, a 600 meter gap existed between it right flank and the 8 BCP's left. There also remain gaps between 7 and 10 Co. and between 10 and 11 Cos. Meanwhile, Jubert's request for reinforcements meanwhile went unanswered and the young officer decided to try to reach the regimental PC himself. He struggled down the ravaged, shell-hole strewn landscape, scrambling up and down endless craters. In one large crater, he encountered a group of wounded, among whom is Sous-Lieut. Noël whose leg has been broken. Noël pleaded with Jubert to take him with him. It wrenched his heart to leave his friend but his first duty is to get to the colonel. Jubert pressed on but encounters a group of stretcher-bearers and directed them to group of wounded he's just left behind. When he finally arrived at the colonel's PC, Jubert was greeted like a man returning from the grave and was showered with congratulations. Sous-Lieut. Coureaux (flag-bearer) informed him that both General Deville and Lieut-Colonel Moission had observed his company's counter-attack and were brought to tears at the moving sight.
Yet to Jubert's call for reinforcements, there was none to give. After some further discussion, eventually Jubert is promised that a company will be sent up as soon as one is available. Dejected, Jubert headed back up the hill and on the way passed Sous-Lieut. Noël being carried back on a stretcher and who'd grown very pale. The two embraced without speaking, his friend's fate all too obvious: death was taking another life. When Jubert arrived back at the summit, he found his men still nervously holding on to their position, though it comforted him to see them eating their reserve rations of bread and tinned meat.
Shortly after, Jubert would go out on reconnaissance with one of his men, stumbling upon the dead in front of their trench. Fortunately, he was able to find the battered remains of the 8 BCP and reestablish the liaison between the two units, albeit tenuous. All along the line, the battle-worn exhausted men of the 151 waited vigilantly through the night fully expecting another German attack, but it does not come. Nonetheless, Jubert and his small handful of survivors of 11 Co. would be left to hold on to their dearly-earned positions for 36 hours without any relief, all the while under non-stop artillery bombardment and machine-gun fire.
The situation at the end of the day is as follows: on the left the front of 1 Bat. has held; 5 and 7 Cos. are back in their former trenches; 12 Co. is in the Boyau de Chattancourt; the remnants of 10 and 11 Cos. are along the Cumières Road. An unknown gap exists between the right of the 151 and the 8 BCP. A reconnaissance by an officer to find the 8 BCP determines that the chasseur battalion is located on the north crop of Chattancourt, having three companies in line and one in support. There is a gap between the two units of around 600 meters. Lieut.-Colonel Moisson instructs for half of 9 Co. to the right of 11 Co. (now reduced to only eight men) to re-center itself with two available sections of machine-guns from Capt. Gelly's company. From it's side, the commander of 8 BCP sends a request to Moisson and a company commander of 94 RI sent up as reinforcement to reestablish the left to help close the gap.
During the night, two companies of 1 Bat/162 RI and takes the company of the 94 RI to rejoin the first-line, several sections remaining with 11 Co. as well as a company of elements of -- to reassure the liaison between the 151 and 8 BCP. Starting at nightfall, the Engineers Co. 6/3 ter. is employed to rectify the connection between 10 and 7 Cos. The 12 Co., which advanced forward at night outside of the communication trench, had come to occupy the Chattancourt - Bethincourt Road. The Engineers Co. 6/3 ter. also dug a trench 150 meters long to reconnect the 10 and 11 Cos. There still remained 150 meters to watch over, which is covered by a scattered line of men placed in shell-holes.
At the end of day, the disposition for the regiment is as follows: the 10 and 11 Cos. are in positions along the old Cumières Road; 7 and 5 Cos. occupy Tranchée Pernet; 2, 1, 3, 4 Cos. occupy Tranchée Guilbert. Losses for the regiment on 9 April include at least 51 killed, 149 wounded and 229 missing, most of whom were likely dead (for a total preliminary loss of 42