Image credit: bm-lyon
The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 176th installment in the series.
March 30, 1915: St. Mihiel Offensive
The St. Mihiel salient was a part of the Western Front where German-held territory bulged out to reach the town of the same name, a strategic bridgehead across the River Meuse between the great fortresses of Verdun and Toul. Conquered in September 1914, possession of the crossing at St. Mihiel allowed the Germans to threaten Verdun with encirclement and menace the French armies further west in Champagne and Artois from the rear. The salient would remain a thorn in the side of the Allied armies for almost the whole duration of the war, until the First U.S. Army finally liberated it in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in September 1918.
However this wasn’t for a lack of trying, as the French made a series of attempts to push the Germans out of the exposed and seemingly vulnerable salient, all of them unsuccessful. The first campaign began on March 30, 1915, when chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre ordered the French First and Third Armies, along with a newly formed army detachment under General Augustin Gérard, to mount a multi-pronged pincer attack against the salient from the north and south. The result was a bloodbath ending in stalemate, and the failure of the third major Allied offensive on the Western Front, after Champagne and Neuve Chapelle (below, a French trench outside St. Mihiel).
The first attack, against the eastern end of the salient’s southern flank, would be led by General Auguste Dubail commanding Army Group East, consisting of the First Army and the Army of the Vosges (at the last minute Joffre cancelled a supporting attack by the latter, a smaller force guarding the less active southern end of the front, due to lack of manpower and ammunition). On March 30, 1915 the First Army’s 73rd Division attacked north along the Moselle River, followed over the next week by three more army corps attacking in sequence to the west, spreading the battle along the whole southern flank of the salient (below, a map of the salient).
These attacks were intended to force the German commander, General Hermann von Strantz, to redeploy forces in his Army Detachment Strantz south to defend against the First Army’s onslaught—leaving the northern flank weakened for another attack by the French Third Army and Army Detachment Gérard, which began on April 5. This northern attack included an assault on a ridge east of the town of Les Éparges, a strategic position which gave the Germans a vantage point for artillery spotting, leading to some of the fiercest fighting of the war (top, the “Valley of Death” at Les Éparges).
The attack on Les Éparges was hindered by the hilly terrain and the failure of French artillery to destroy the defensive obstacles in front of the German trenches, especially barbed wire entanglements, which limited French gains to 500 meters, won at huge cost (above, French soldiers carried a wounded comrade from Éparges). Meanwhile the southern offensive was hardly going any better, as German artillery, machine guns, and massed rifle fire inflicted huge casualties. German artillery bombardments of the French frontlines proved particularly devastating. On April 5, according to the German war record, “Hundreds of corpses were being thrown forward from the French entrenchment.” The following day,
German positions on the southern wing… were kept under the fire of the heavy French artillery the whole night, to which our guns successfully replied. These artillery duels lasted… the whole of the following day... Four times consecutively they assaulted our positions only to be thrown back each time with heavy losses. Heaps of dead lay before our trenches.
Despite the spiraling body count Dubail returned to the attack on April 12, with three simultaneous operations from the north and south, including another attack on the German position at Les Éparges. This time he ordered even heavier artillery bombardments to precede the infantry advance, in order to cut the barbed wire and other defensive obstacles. Once again however the Germans hit back with massive artillery fire against the French artillery and frontlines, and according to the German war record, “it was observed later that the French heaped up their dead like sand-bags on the parapets of their entrenchments, covering them with clay…” On April 14 Joffre removed two infantry corps from the attacking forces, signaling that the battle was basically over (below, the Bois-le-Prêtre, or “Priest’s Wood,” after the fighting near the town of Pont-a-Mousson on the eastern end of the salient’s southern flank).
However the Germans had other plans: on April 23, 1915 Strantz launched a surprise attack against the French near Les Éparges, and the following day succeeded in capturing several kilometers of French frontline and secondary trenches—a victory due in large part to a massive artillery bombardment. In his memoir Storm of Steel, Ernst Junger recalled his first experience of combat at Les Éparges, which had a somewhat surreal flavor:
Towards noon, the artillery fire had increased to a kind of savage pounding dance. The flames lit around us incessantly. Black, white, and yellow clouds mingled. The shells with black smoke, which the old-timers called “Americans” or “coal boxes,” ripped with incredible violence. And all the time the curious, canary-like twittering of dozens of fuses… they drifted over the long surf of explosions like ticking copper toy clocks or mechanical insects. The odd thing was that the little birds in the forest seemed quite untroubled by the myriad noise… In the short intervals of firing, we could hear them singing happily or ardently to one another…
Afterwards, Junger encountered a horrifying scene in the conquered French trenches, where he encountered the casualties of previous battles:
A sweetish smell and a bundle hanging in the wire caught my attention. In the rising mist I leaped out of the trench and found a shrunken French corpse. Flesh like mouldering fish gleamed greenishly through splits in the shredded uniform. Turning round, I took a step back in horror: next to me a figure was crouched against a tree… Empty eye-sockets and a few strands of hair on the bluish-black skull indicated that the man was not among the living. There was another sitting down, slumped forward towards his feet, as though he had just collapsed. All around were dozens more, rotted, dried, stiffened to mummies, frozen in an eerie dance of death. The French must have spent months in the proximity of their fallen comrades, without burying them.