14-18: The Hartmannswillerkopf, the man-eater

14-18: The Hartmannswillerkopf, the man-eater

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Occulted by the names of great battles from 14-18 such as Verdun, Champagne or Artois, Vieil-Armand or Hartmannswillerkopf remains largely unrecognized, although the intensity of the fighting there made it one of the deadliest battlefields of the war, given the small size of the terrain. Midshipman Martin, a soldier who served in the Hartmannswillerkopf, wrote in one testimony: " I have never seen such a mass grave and during the following years I will not see, even in Verdun, such a pile of corpses in such chaotic terrain in such a small space. ».

Le Vieil-Armand is perched on the heights of Cernay (68) and rises to 956 m. Last buttress of the Vosges, it dominates the plain of Alsace.

Several explanations are possible to explain its name. First, "Hartmannswillerkopf", named after the village of Hartmannswiller at the foot of the hill. He was nicknamed Vieil-Armand by the French during the Great War but also "the man-eater" (or "the mangeuse of men", designating the hill), "the machine to break the world", the "mountain of death ”or more simply“ HWK ”or“ HK ”. So many emblematic nicknames that testify to the fierce fighting that took place on this hill as well as the self-sacrifice of the soldiers who were the first actors, but above all the first victims.

The Hartmannswillerkopf in 1914, a peaceful hill

Before the fighting, the HK is a peaceful summit, covered by a thick almost virgin forest, only a few hunting trails testify to the human presence.

The hill is located between the Thur and Lauch valleys, between the towns of Thann and Guebwiller. Two major ridges descend towards the plain, from north-east to south-east, called “thighs”, left or right, by the soldiers.

For the French, the HK is the best possible observatory with a breathtaking view of the Alsace plain. For the Germans, it is the obligatory passage through which they hope to retake the valley of the Thur via the crests of the Vosges.

In addition, the HK site falls within the criteria of the French tactics of "maneuver from the heights" which foresees excessive offensives in order to master the summits with a view to the domination of the Alsace plain. This explains the weakness of French facilities: light and not made to last. Today there is little or nothing left of the Vosges French positions.

The Germans prefer to settle for a long war. They use the tactics of infantry economics. That is to say that from the winter of 1914-1915 they built masonry, dig galleries, stretch cable cars, build roads, set up special units of pioneers and miners, install running water, electricity and telephone.

Thus, this meticulous defense work turns the Vosges battlefields into formidable defensive bastions, almost autonomous fortresses designed for a staged defense of the Alsatian hinterland. The economy is there, with a minimum of troops and a maximum of fortifications, they secure significant enemy forces that could be useful elsewhere. Linge and Reichackerkopf are dominated by the Germans, unlike Hartmannswillerkopf or Hilsenfirst which are dominated by the Alps.

It should be remembered that Alsace has been taken by war since 1871 and now belongs to the German Reich. It is considered a glacis to protect the empire against a French invasion. Thus, the density of troops present there is four times the average for all of Germany.

The French, on the other hand, never admire the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. They therefore fortified the eastern border between Belfort and Verdun, to concentrate most of their forces there for the next revenge.

World War I was wanted by everyone and everyone had invasion plans in their "drawers". Joffre, for example, the commander-in-chief of the French army, foresaw an offensive plan in the direction of Saarbrücken to break through in the direction of central Germany. The Schlieffen-Moltke plan, meanwhile, called for passing through Belgium to overrun the French army and wipe it out.

In Alsace, there are around a hundred French units, mainly made up of reservists and territorials (soldiers over the age of thirty-four, they are assigned to quiet sectors) against two hundred Germans.

General Serret commands the 66th infantry division (which includes the 152nd Infantry, which we will discuss later) and was replaced by General Nollet when he was killed in 1916. Opposite, the Germans are commanded by General von Lochow .

The Alsace offensives

General Bonneau, commander of the 7th corps, fought for Mulhouse and Thann from August 7, 1914. The fighting took place in the Haut-Rhin and mainly around Mulhouse. The front stabilized fairly quickly and Joffre created the Army of Alsace on August 11, which he placed under General Pau. The offensive resumed and on the evening of August 19 the French entered Mulhouse. On the 25th, French troops evacuated Mulhouse as well as almost all of Upper Alsace. On the 28th, the Army of Alsace was officially dissolved to form the Vosges grouping, the tactics changed and a shift was made from the front of the plain to the Vosges mountains. The fighting continued punctually in the villages of the Doller valley. , as was the case in Steinbach, the scene of very violent fighting, where we fought house by house.

The man eater

Until the end of 1914 neither of the two adversaries was interested in the Hartmannswillerkopf, the hill was ignored and without a garrison. On December 22 of the same year, a company of the 68th B.C.A. sends 28 men to the top. The Germans mount a detachment of 43 men on December 28. The opponents are unaware of their reciprocal presence, yet separated by a few hundred meters.

On December 29, the Hartmann was occupied by alpine hunters. Hostilities began on December 30 after the death of the first HK soldier, the German Ott of the 123rd L.I.R. during a skirmish in the forest.

From that date, the fighting only started between patrols and it was not until the start of the new year to see larger offensives and a change in strategy on the part of the high commands.

Thus, the Hartmann battles took place mainly in 1915. The offensives and counter-offensives followed one another by period and the real planned offensives took place in January, March, April, September and December.

From January 4, the Germans brought in ever larger numbers and attacked incessantly to dislodge the handful of hunters who contained them at the top.

On January 21, the Germans seize the summit after heavy fighting

On March 26, the summit was won by the 152nd R.I., the 7th and the 53rd B.C.A.

On April 25, a German counter-attack reoccupied the summit and the ground lost in the previous months. Two battalions of the 152nd were annihilated. However, a French counter-attack made it possible to resume the summit the next day at 6 p.m. but it was abandoned because it was considered too exposed. The front stabilized then and there followed a lull that lasted all summer, barely disturbed by a few shells. The Germans took advantage of this to carry out extensive fortification and construction of the trenches.

On the other hand, the French do their development work according to the bad geography and with "the means at hand". However, they are ingenious and take the opportunity to dig saps. To counter them and remove threatening trenches, the Germans are planning a flamethrower assault for September 9.

It was around the first decade of September that the new weapons of war appeared in Vieil-Armand, namely flamethrowers and gas shells.

In October 1915, after a draw, Dubail (commander of the French 1st Army) instructed Joffre to "widen the still very precarious position of the Hartmannswillerkopf and sit there solidly to definitively avoid ebb and flow. The operation would not be very costly and would appreciably promote the outlet in the Alsace plain. Unfortunately, he was sorely mistaken.

The Vieil-Armand drama: the attack of December 21, 1915

The French attack of December 21, 1915 was the largest of the entire war on Hartmannswillerkopf. It engaged sixteen battalions and 239 artillery pieces, or one cannon for 13 meters of German trench! The guns thundered for five hours and sent more than fifty thousand shells on the opposing positions.

All German communications were destroyed. The Germans then committed all their available troops to the battle and had no reserve elements for the rest. They were quickly overwhelmed and their losses were considerable. Thousands of corpses from both camps then litter the battlefield, the French take 1,358 prisoners of war including 26 officers.

However, it was a well conducted but poorly exploited assault and the French are victims of their own victories, because the reinforcements are not sent in time to the 152nd IR to hold a front of more than 5 km² after a breakthrough of more than 400 meters forward. Unaware of the capital fact that a last still achievable push would complete the dislocation of the enemy system and make it possible to push in the direction of Wattwiller, the French bury themselves and organize themselves for the next day to ensure links with the rear, but c it is already too late.

Indeed, the Germans entrenched themselves and counterattacked immediately because they had detected the preparations for the assault earlier thanks to a French deserter who warned of a grand style attack for days to come.

On the other hand, the French, exhausted by the fighting of the day before, were caught in a pincer movement between the troops holed up in the tunnels dug during the summer which they submerged during the assault without exploring them and the soldiers freshly arrived from Colmar and Mulhouse the next day (December 22). The fighting is furious, we fight hand to hand, but the French are overwhelmed and 152nd Infantry is wiped out.

On December 28, 1915, a new French assault was ordered. They made a big breakthrough but General Serret, commander of the 66th Infantry Division fell in action (wounded, he died at Moosch hospital a few days later) and was replaced by General Nollet.

On January 7, 1916, the French command began to think about the strategy to adopt at Hartmann because the attacks were costly and unnecessary and human resources were not inexhaustible. In addition, since December, we have also been thinking about a generalized offensive on the western front, in northern France ...

On January 9, 1916, everything was consumed. The promising gains of December 21, 1915 were canceled and the French found themselves in their starting positions. General Dubail then declared to Joffre: "it is therefore important to close operations in the Hartmannswillerkopf region as soon as possible by carrying out the relays essential for the troops to rest, but by carefully avoiding allowing them to rush into the Vosges of new divisions that it is only too visible that we are going to ask you ”.

In short, it is "finished" with the Artmannswillerkopf.

The mountain calms down, interspersed with bloody blows or artillery duels and is crisscrossed by incessant patrols, the summit is shared between the adversaries facing each other sometimes twenty meters.

Rest at the top? The major development works of the summer of 1915

As we have seen previously, the lull period from April to September 1915 was taken advantage of by the two adversaries to arrange positions and fortify the acquired ground.

The Germans took refuge for a long time in fortified positions that were largely concrete and set up the most efficient “comfort” installations. This is how they bring water and electricity to the front line. Electricity is used, among other things, to power the electric perforators to dig the rock and the left thigh is practically fortified with special attention to the Bischofshut which will become an almost impregnable bastion.

They climb hundreds of tons of cement by cable car and the men are led by a stone staircase of 560 steps from the valley, called "Himmelsleiter" or "celestial ladder"

The French for their part are retreating as far as possible, despite the poor geographical location. They build shelters with logs from uprooted trees and increase the size of parapets with sandbags and salvage materials after the bombings. Nevertheless, even if the majority of the development works are less successful than that of the Germans, they also have some solidly fortified and concrete positions, such as the Sermet and Mégard rocks, for example. They also took advantage of the human and material resources of the Place d'Epinal and the forts of Haute-Meurthe. The supplies were mainly done by back of mules and by teams of oxen even if there is mention in some books of two tractors requisitioned in Tunisia! Transport is therefore extremely slow and quantities are limited, but the French develop an important communication system and their artillery system is complete. Batteries are installed at the Molkenrain and the Grand Ballon to bombard the Hartmann.

1916-1918: the war in the trenches

After January 10, 1916, Vieil-Armand became a calm sector where no major action would be taken until the end of the war, except a few helping hands.

The hill has already kidnapped ten thousand French and twelve thousand Germans without either side gaining any advantage.

In the impossibility, because of the other offensives which are prepared in other points of Alsace, to provide the means in men and artillery necessary for a continuation of the offensive operations on the HK, the general Maud'huy, commander of the VIIIth Army, prescribed to organize themselves on the spot and to give up mounting new counter-attacks. From that moment on, the front stabilized on either side of this highly contested summit which, after having cost so many human lives, became a no man's land between opposing positions often only a few meters apart.

As everywhere on the western front where the war of position dominates the battlefields, the men suffer and the living conditions are deplorable. They suffer from hunger and vermin but perhaps even more from the cold in winter when the hill is swept by gusts of wind which "pierce" the men, especially since in the winter of 1914-1915 they are not yet well equipped and coats and shoes against the extreme cold are lacking. On the other hand, transporting weapons and ammunition on steep and icy roads often resulted in bad falls and fractures.

The Germans had the advantage of being located south of the hill in concrete and dry positions unlike the French, as we have seen, who were exposed to the north and in makeshift shelters.

In addition, the soldiers undergo the trauma of the German Minnenwerfer, these weapons invented after the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 and that the Germans had manufactured by the S.A.C.M. (now ALSTOM) in Mulhouse. The projectiles, called “charcoal seals” by the French and launched by the “Erdmöser” (buried mortars) were of all calibers. Buried in the trench, they could shoot almost vertically to reach enemy positions just a few dozen meters away.

Thus, from 1916 to 1918, the area was rather calm apart from a few "marmitages" and clashes between patrols. The Hartmannswillerkopf becomes a "calm sector of the front", relegated to the background by the operations of Verdun which will mark the beginning of the year 1916.

A few large-scale patrols with intensive line bombardment were carried out, notably Operation Rumänien in January 1917 during which the Ziegelrücken gallery disaster took place. Indeed, this gallery served as shelter for the men who were preparing to assault except that a too short blow of a minnenwerfer exploded near the entrance and caused a landslide which buried 65 of the 85 occupants.

Gallieni, who had become Minister of War, even wrote in January 1916 "of the need to put an end to isolated operations of the Hartmannswillerkopf type and to spare the lives of men".

The Victory and the future of Hartmannswillerkopf

At the beginning of November 1918, rumors became clear that the war was approaching end and the German troops transported from Russia after the armistice showed signs of rebellion. On November 4, the Hartmann made its last victim, a German soldier named Weckerle who fell at the head of his patrol.

On November 9, the L.I.R. 124 is about to unleash a hand, but the French come out of the shelters and shout "The war is over!" Peace ! And the German command immediately canceled the operation.

On November 10, for the first time in four years, no shots were fired at the mountain. On November 11 at 11 a.m., artillery rounds and gunshots rang out to greet the end of the war, and soldiers from both sides who had fought relentlessly for four years came out of the trenches, shake hands, offer drinks, show visitors to the shelters ...

On November 15, the Germans left the Hartmannswillerkopf for good.

The site was left abandoned until 1921 when it was classified. It was thus decided to build the national monument. Moreover, the site avoids the decree of 1923 which prescribes the reforestation of "red zones" as was the case in Verdun where the battlefield has completely disappeared today.

In 1945, Gauleiter Wagner ordered the building to be blown up, but nothing happened. However, during World War II, the bones of the crypt were moved and buried in mass graves in villages in the valley and the land was used as a maneuvering ground for Wehrmacht troops.

Were the battles of Vieil-Armand useless? Did we fight for the honor? These questions deserve to be asked. As we have seen, the relentless struggle, the long battles, the massive bombardments won out against either side. The offensives and counter-offensives followed one another without result. A gain of land one day is lost again the next. In addition, the losses are roughly the same for everyone. The French lost about 14,500 men against 12,500 for the Germans.

The battles of the Hartmannswillerkopf were in fact not a one-off phenomenon but resulted from the manifestation of operational reflections and larger plans of the staffs. Indeed, the German command hesitated between Verdun and Belfort to lead the general offensive of 1916 but the Belfort gap represented too many risks and Verdun was chosen because if Belfort was entirely in the hands of the French, the HK posed a double threat. on the right wing of the German attacking forces by the possibility of flanking them or taking them from the rear. For the French general staff, the Hartmann represented the mainstay of an offensive from Belfort towards Upper Alsace. The direction is reversed but the problem remains the same, the HK would thus threaten the left flank of the French forces if this one is not conquered. The battles of 1915 were therefore not fought for honor and to regain lost ground, but they did fit well within the much larger framework of the tactics and offensives of the First World War.

For further

- General de Pouydraguin, The Battle of the Hautes-Vosges, Payot, 1937

- Thierry Ehret, 1914-1918, around the Hartmannswillerkopf, Éditions du Rhin, 1988

- A. Wirth, Les Combats Du Hartmannswillerkopf (Vieil-Armand) 1914-1918, Committee of the National Monument of Hartmannswillerkopf, 1977.

- Jean-Paul Claudel, The battle of the borders, Vosges 1914-1915, The blue cloud, Strasbourg, 1999.

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