Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 228th installment in the series.
March 6-10, 1916: Germans Widen Verdun Attack
With their original offensive towards Verdun on the eastern bank of the Meuse bogged down and casualties soaring due to French artillery on the western bank, on March 6, 1916 the German Fifth Army commander, Crown Prince Wilhelm, and his chief of staff general Schmidt von Knoebelsdorf unleashed a new assault, massively expanding the scope of the battle as they attempted to clear French forces from the western bank. In the months to come some of the bloodiest combat of the Battle of Verdun, and indeed the entire war, would take place on the west bank as the French and Germans struggled for control of two strategic heights – Cote 304 (Hill 304) and the aptly named Le Mort Homme (The Dead Man).
The attackers faced more obstacles on the west bank than the east – or rather, fewer. Because the terrain on the west bank of the Meuse was flatter and more open than the east bank, with its hills, ravines and forests, there was less cover for vanguard storm trooper units to infiltrate French lines in the opening stages of the attack. True, the clear lines of sight made artillery spotting easier, but this cut both ways, as the French guns could also target advancing German troops more easily. Finally, unlike the first attack on February 21, this time there was no possibility of surprise: the French were expecting a push on the west bank (in fact general Philippe Petain was surprised it took so long).
Nonetheless the initial German attack succeeded, once again, by sheer weight of firepower, as the brunt of the assault by four full-strength German divisions fell against two French divisions in the frontline, while artillery bombardments cut French communications with their artillery in the rear. With snow falling, the German 12th and 22nd Reserve Divisions slammed into the ill-prepared French 67th Division near Forges, threatening the French with encirclement at Regnéville and forcing them to fall back to the village of Cumières, finally occupying the forest at Bois de Cumières and the heights above Cumières but failing to take the village itself.
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Meanwhile the Germans were also mounting attacks on the east bank of the Meuse in order to tie down French divisions and prevent Petain from sending reinforcements to the west. These attacks also succeeded in gaining some ground, solidifying German control of the key fortress of Douaumont and its surroundings, and capturing important French artillery positions outside the village of Damloup.
But once again the Germans failed in their main goals, frustrated by massed French artillery and machine guns. An anonymous American volunteer with the French Army described seeing a wall of the famous 75-millimeter French field guns firing into advancing Germans at Verdun at point blank range (the date is unclear but it describes a common occurrence):
I shall never be able adequately to describe the sight. Masses of Boches surged forward in counter attack. Closer and closer they drew toward the French positions until there was an earth-rending crash and forty sheets of flame from the mouths of cannons beside me. I was too stupefied to realize what had taken place for a moment, but soon regained control of myself. The guns never stopped a second… We could observe quite clearly the shells landing among them and over them, and with each explosion could see gaps torn in their lines and men mowed down like so many weeds. Finally they faltered, and the next instant fell back in disorder to the positions they had left. The ground was literally strewn with their dead when the cannon ceased.
On the western bank of the Meuse, the strategic heights of Le Mort Homme remained in French hands, and while the Germans managed to capture the forest at the Bois des Corbeaux, strategically located at the foot of Le Mort Homme, on March 7, the French recaptured it the following day amid incredibly savage fighting, opening three months of bloodshed there (below, a soldier’s skeleton on Le Mort Homme).
Meanwhile on the west bank the Germans also failed to capture Fort Vaux (despite some confusion which caused German propagandists to claim it was in German hands, resulting in considerable embarrassment). Once again the fighting on the slopes below Fort Vaux left many observers speechless, although the French novelist Henry Bordeaux did his best to describe the scene as he made his way up to the fort not long afterwards:
The ground is riddled like a sieve; at the cross-roads the corpses, men or horses, lie in piles. The light of the moon covers them with a mysterious winding sheet… The shells fall like hail. The earth which they have churned up has crumbled to such an extent that it looks like a mass of cinders… Every moment we have to walk across bodies flung across [the path]. At every ten or twelve yards, soon at every five or six paces, we are compelled to stride over a corpse, or even bunches of corpses, some slashed and torn, others in a running posture as if they had been overtaken while in full activity… Many of them belong to the scouts who ensure connections, carry orders, show routes to be followed.
Further on, the slopes below Fort Vaux have ceased to resemble any recognizable landscape:
The lava of a volcano, the shocks of an earthquake, all the cataclysms of nature would not have flayed it more unmercifully. It is a chaos without a name, a circle in Dante’s Inferno… The craters meet and open like the yawning mouths of volcanoes. Broken branches, scattered boulders, detritus of all kinds and shreds of human flesh are mingled. A nameless stench rises from the tortured soil.
As the battle ground on, infantry on both sides were becoming accustomed to the nightmarish reality of living in a perpetual artillery duel. An anonymous German officer described the fighting near the village of Vacherauville in his diary entry on March 7, 1916:
Because of the mud and the wagons it was difficult to advance… The way forward was littered with the dead, especially at a bend in the road where carriages -French ambulances-, then an Artillery battery had been caught in the fire. Just before Vacherauville we turned left, through a ravine, then in groups, quickly up the slope to the front line positions. The 3rd section and other three companies were not able to advance through the heavy artillery fire. We were relieving the 81. I.R. which had to remain until nightfall, it was impossible to leave the positions by day. During the day we dug new positions in the forest. My section was the furthest forward. We were under constant artillery fire and had 6 wounded in the battalion.
As this diary entry indicates, both sides were also suffering from supply disruptions, which were fast becoming the norm as artillery cut the frontline trenches off from food and water as well as ammunition, leaving their inhabitants facing the real prospect of death from starvation or dehydration (above, French horses preparing to bring up supplies). These miserable conditions were compounded by the environment, as the weather turned cold and men were forced to crowd together in small spaces out of sight of the enemy. On March 9, the same German officer wrote in his diary: “Little sleep. Cold. Infantry and machine gun fire… In the night heavy artillery… It is a terrible chaos. It is memories and hope that keep us alive. At least some warm soup. Field Kitchen under fire. As it is cramped everyone has to lie on their side.”
As elsewhere, some of the most heroic feats fell to unarmed stretcher-bearers and ambulance drivers, who trekked to the frontline under heavy artillery fire to retrieve badly wounded men for treatment in the rear. An anonymous American volunteer ambulance driver serving with the French Army left an impressionistic description of the drive to collect wounded men from the village of Bras, north of Verdun, in a letter home:
Houses and debris burning all along the road from shells. Thunder-storm; impossible to see on account of lightning. [Horse-drawn] Artillery crashing along road at you at full gallop to get by shelling places on the road. Terrible driving. Got to post on second trip; rear wheel completely entangled in barbed wire; tire blown out; no wire cutters; got some from next car; cleared wire (shells going overhead). In act of slipping on new tire; heard a whistle close; slid head and shoulders under car; shell went off right in center of place; my back and legs covered with rocks and stone; corner torn off car; full of shrapnel holes, which I discovered next day… Could not get blesses [wounded] to come out and take last place in car, standing ten feet away between two brancardiers [stretcher bearers]; another close whistle coming, dove under car; shell went off; brancardier dead; other wounded; myself OK except slight scrape on nose from flying rock or shrapnel… Waited for next shell, after which dragged blesse into car and got started… All men lived, but floor simply slippery with gore.
Fifth Battle of the Isonzo
The German attack on Verdun had ripple effects across the war zone, as French commander in chief Joseph Joffre put intense pressure on France’s allies to mount their own attacks on German and Austria-Hungary, in order to force the Germans to divert forces away from Verdun, taking some of the pressure off France.
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The most immediate result was the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo from March 11-16, 1916, in which Italian chief of the general staff Cadorna once again launched the Italian Second and Third Armies against the Habsburg Fifth Army, well entrenched along the Isonzo River. Once again, Cadorna used the same strategy on the same ground, and unsurprisingly got the same result.
After the Third and Fourth Battles of the Isonzo, the Habsburg commander, Svetozar Boroević – one of the war’s most talented defensive strategists – had taken the opportunity to complete extra trenches and strongpoints behind the first defensive line, with fields of barbed wire and machine guns protecting bunkers where his troops could wait out Italian bombardments before returning to the frontline. For his part Cadorna had fresh – meaning inexperienced – troops as well as some help from the French in the form of additional artillery, bringing the Italian total for the battle to 1,300 guns.
The outcome was short and inglorious. After a two-day bombardment beginning March 11, on March 13 the Italian infantry advanced up the slopes on the east bank of the Isonzo, concentrated on a front between the town of Tolmein (today Tolmino) and Mount San Michele – the strategic defensive heights, 275 meters tall, located south of Gorizia in the treacherous Carso (Karst Plateau). Will Irwin, an American correspondent, described the rugged terrain of the Carso:
It is a kind of desert-patch, dropped by some freak of nature in the midst of a country which drips fertility. It is all iron-red rocks, dusted with an iron-red soil in which little grows. It rises in a range of low hills with abrupt drops here and there; and the crests are sown with bowls called “dolinos,” almost as round regular as the craters of the moon or the bubbles in boiling porridge.
Italian troops made modest gains on Mount Sabotino and briefly advanced on the slopes of San Michele, but were quickly repulsed in the latter area after a deluge of Austrian gas shells. After five days the weather turned against the attackers, with snow and fog, and Cadorna called the whole thing off. The price of this extremely unimpressive display was 13,000 Italian casualties.
The Italians were also waging war in the air, with scarcely more success. On March 6, 1916 Italian Caproni bombers attacked the Austrian town of Adelsberg, as recounted by one pilot, who found the Habsburg air defenses were much stronger than expected:
I was almost directly over the city and aimed my telescopic site at the train station. All of a sudden, the whistling sounds started. I pulled the trigger releasing the first bombs at the station. I looked around. For a moment I was in a daze. I was being surrounded by bursts of projectiles. They were like hundreds of confetti being hurled at me… With every burst, my plane made a sudden jump… Suddenly, one of the projectiles struck my plane with a very loud explosion. The gas tank had been hit… The cockpit was getting filled with gasoline. The pressure in the tank was quickly decreasing and the engine began to sputter. I looked in the direction of Italy and saw the sea very far below me and very far away. For just a moment, I felt that I might never see my homeland again.
Although his crew improvised a primitive solution for the broken gas pump, their problems soon multiplied with the appearance of an enemy Fokker:
The other two men continued to hand pump the gasoline for a full half hour… The shoreline was nearing and beneath us appeared Trieste in a blaze of magnificent light. By now we felt certain we would reach Italy… We were at an altitude of about 8,400 feet when we noticed a small enemy fighter plane approaching us from the front. It was a Fokker. I immediately aimed at it with my forward machine gun while one of the other men stayed on alert at the rear machine gun waiting for the attack… The plane passed me laterally at a distance of about 900 feet. I held it under fire with my machine gun until it disappeared beneath my wing. Then it swung around and started attacking us from the back from a distance of about 300 feet. We kept shooting at until we saw the Fokker stagger. It had been hit and it was soon out of sight.
Ultimately the Italians made it home, but only barely, gliding down to an altitude of just 60 feet before landing.
Pancho Villa’s Troops Attack Columbus, NM
Angered by the withdrawal of American support in 1915, the Mexican guerrilla general Pancho Villa was determined to precipitate a war between the U.S. and Mexico in hopes that the government of Venustiano Carranza would collapse, clearing the way for Villa to take power. To achieve this goal he did his best to antagonize the U.S. with raids targeting American citizens.
In January 1916 Villa’s troops killed 18 American mine engineers in northern Mexico, outraging public opinion across the border – but President Wilson remained reluctant to invade Mexico, hoping that the Mexican government would be able to deal with its own bandits. This was not a realistic expectation, and on March 9, 1916, Villa upped the ante with a raid into U.S. territory at Columbus, New Mexico, where he led around 500 of his troops across the border, killed 18 people (ten civilians and eight soldiers) and set much of the town on fire.
Villa’s troops attacked in the early morning hours and rampaged through the town before U.S. troops from the 13th Cavalry Regiment were able to drive them out. Dr. Roy Edward Stivison, a local school principal, recounted the chaos as the U.S. troopers finally counterattacked at dawn:
About five o’clock flames began to appear from the big frame Ritchie Hotel and from the Lemmon Store just across the street from it. In the lurid light we could distinguish men dashing hither and thither and riderless horses running about in all directions. The continuous firing, the shouting of the Mexicans, and confusion in general continued until about seven o’clock. Then with the coming of daylight, the firing diminished and finally ceased altogether.
An American officer, Sergeant Fody, recalled that the fires set by the Mexican raiders actually helped the defenders:
When the Mexicans set fire to the Commercial Hotel, the blaze illuminated the section. We were then in the dark and had the advantage. The group of which I was a member, numbering twenty-five men under Lieutenant Castleman, was the largest group under one command during the fight. Our forces were scattered in little bunches throughout the camp and vicinity but did very telling work. As soon as the light was bright enough we made every shot count and soon thoroughly discouraged the invaders. About 6:30 the Mexican bugler sounded “Recall,” it was a welcome sound. The Mexicans began immediately to retreat. Major Frank Tompkins obtained permission from Colonel Slocum to give pursuit.
The next morning the townspeople surveyed the surprising scene of devastation. Stivison recalled tragic scenes in the main street of the small town, including dead civilians and young Villistas:
Coming to the Walker Hardware Store we found our old friend and neighbor, James Dean, a grocery merchant, lying in the middle of the street, his body riddled with bullets. We learned that he had thought the Lemmon Store had been set afire accidentally and that he might be of assistance in putting it out. The raiders got him before he reached the scene of the blaze. Continuing to the Ritchie Hotel, we found the body of Mr. Ritchie with his legs partly burned off, lying beside the building. His wife told us later that he had offered the Villistas all the money in his pocket ($50.00) if they would spare his life. They took the money but shot him and threw his body into the burning hotel… Dead Villistas were lying in the streets all over town. Many were mere boys, fourteen to sixteen years old. Many of the dead and dying had taken crucifixes from their pockets and were clutching them against their breasts.
By the standards of the Great War in Europe, Villa’s raid on Columbus was a small affair, leaving 18 Americans and 90 Mexicans dead (the disproportionate Mexican casualties demonstrating, once again, the power of machine guns against attackers operating in the open). However it succeeded in provoking fury in the U.S., leaving Wilson no choice but to mount a counter-invasion of Mexico.
On March 13, 1916, Carranza’s government agreed to recognize the American right to “hot pursuit,” meaning U.S. forces could pursue Villa across the border, and Wilson ordered General John “Black Jack” Pershing to lead 6,000 troops into northern Mexico to hunt down Villa. The mission, known as the “Punitive Expedition,” would capture the attention of the American public over the next year, distracting from events in Europe, and set the stage for the Zimmerman Telegram – Germany’s foolhardy attempt to foment war between the U.S. and Mexico in order to keep the U.S. out of the war in Europe.