The French Offensive in Champagne

(September-October, 1915)

By Captain X, of the French Staff
[Raymond Recouly]

[Scribner's Magazine, May 1916]

At the crossways near the batteries one has to leave the highroad which, at this point, is raked by German guns, and follow a rutty track that makes a long circuit through the fields. Near the crossways, at the A———farm, the soldiers of the colonial corps, who have already spent one winter there and are cheerfully preparing to spend another, have built themselves the queerest and most exotic of villages—a real Sudanese settlement of conical-roofed huts, shaped like a Mandarin's hat. In the middle of the village is a tiny wooden church, with a belfry that does its best to taper up into a spire. A soldier-priest says mass there every Sunday. He and the altar take up nearly the whole of the space inside the church, while the faithful gather outside, piously following the service. On the façade is a Latin inscription:


[To the Queen of Victory the Poilus (Pilosi Milites) have erected this church." (The "Poilus" have not all forgotten their humanities!)]

Just beyond there rises a steep slope bristling with batteries; on its crest are the artillery observation-posts. They are admirably fitted up and protected by thick courses of logs and beaten earth. A general is there, attentively examining with his field-glass the opposite slope, the greater part of which is in German hands. The general is one of the youngest chiefs of the French army. When hostilities broke out he was a colonel commanding a brigade; now, after just twelve months of war, he stands on one of the highest rungs of the ladder. He is tall, slim, young-looking, with an air of extreme distinction, quick, incisive speech, and resolute blue eyes. Whenever those eyes of his light on a new face he feels the immediate need to label and classify it and store away the image in some pigeonhole of his marvellously lucid memory, where thereafter it will always have its distinctive place. Looking at him and listening to him, one has the impression that the art of warfare is above all things a matter of precision, foresight, and tenacity. The masters of military science, the men predestined to shine in war, are those in whom the balance between brain and character, between understanding and willing, is most perfectly adjusted.

General X, having finished his minute inspection of the enemy's lines, emerges from the obscurity of the observation-post and descends by zigzagging communication trenches to the motor awaiting him at the foot of the hill. When he drives off he leaves on all of us the impression that his visit portends some big event.

We were in the first days of August, 1915—it was just a year since the war had begun. The great German scheme of taking Paris and subjugating France in a few months—or a few weeks—had utterly failed. The battle of the Marne had broken down the first German offensive; six weeks later the furious dash on Calais was no less effectually checked. As for the numerous local attacks in the Argonne, in the course of which thousands of men, the best perhaps of the German army, were recklessly sacrificed in the effort to enhance the military prestige of the Crown Prince—all these attacks were far too local and limited to produce any lasting result.

Despairing of a decisive success on the Western front, the Germans last spring turned the weight of their forces on the Eastern lines. To help out the demoralized army of Austria-Hungary they began, first in Galicia and then in Poland, a vigorous offensive which made them masters of a considerable extent of territory. Their formidable heavy artillery and their almost inexhaustible reserves of munitions gave them a rapid ascendency over the Russian army, which, at that time, lacked not only munitions but rifles. Russia made a magnificent defense; but in August, 1915, her armies were in a difficult position. The German hopes, which had ebbed during the previous winter, were once more at the flood. It was clearly our business, on the Western front, to draw off some of the army corps which were threatening to break through the lines of our Allies.

The French offensive in Artois, made four months earlier, on a narrow front, had resulted brilliantly. It had confirmed the faith of France in the valor of her troops and in the vigor and intrepidity of their powers of attack; it had proved that, even after a winter of stagnation in the trenches, the French army had lost nothing of its dash. At the same time, the movement had shown that the German defenses, in spite of their perfection, can be successfully attacked and taken if only the attack is carefully enough studied and minutely enough prepared on the lines which previous experience has indicated. So much we knew last August; and the time seemed to have come to renew the assault of the previous spring on a larger scale and with more important forces.

Those forces were now available. The arrival of large English reinforcements had allowed the English front to be lengthened and had thereby released a corresponding body of French troops. That it is always a delicate operation to substitute, along any part of the front, one body of troops for another, is a fact that must be obvious to the most superficial student of the art of war. The present war is one of scientific precision and complexity. The solidity of any portion of the front is insured only by a combination of precautions and previsions as intricate and smoothly running as the wheels of a complicated machine. If one of the wheels stops the whole machine is likely to break down. The artillery fire, for example, must be so accurately regulated that the shells fall with mathematical precision at the predetermined point, without even a few yards' deviation. The attainment of such a result necessitates extraordinary exactitude of aim, observation-posts skilfully selected, and such perfect telephonic communication that, at a word of command, batteries several kilometres away can instantly and unerringly pour a hail of shell on any given point.

The substitution of one army corps for another necessitates a change of artillerymen, telephonists, sappers and miners, and so on; and the exchange must be carried out without the least delay or the slightest break of continuity along the front. In the present instance the feat was accomplished with complete success. Everything had been so intelligently prepared that when the English front was extended the change did not produce the slightest fluctuation anywhere along the line. The fact augurs well for the future.

Some of our army corps, which had taken part in the May offensive in Artois, had meanwhile had time to rest and reform. The attacking power of a body of troops is exactly analogous to the nerve-power of a man. When a man is young, active, and full of life, no matter how great his temporary exhaustion, a few days of rest and a few nights of sleep will put him on his feet again. The French army is in this happy prime of its recuperative powers. Such and such a regiment or division may return from a hard battle considerably depleted; but after a few weeks of rest in good quarters, where the men can eat, sleep, and wash, the troops will have recovered their original temper and be ready to meet a fresh onset.

This surprising elasticity, this promptness in throwing off fatigue and suffering, is not only the dominant characteristic of the French soldier, but the fundamental quality of the whole race—the quality which again and again has shone out in its long history.

Every preceding experience of the war had shown that an attack, to have any chance of success, must be backed by a formidable artillery with an almost inexhaustible supply of ammunition. The time had come when this force of artillery was at our command, and this supply of ammunition in our reserves. We were beginning to see the result of the prodigious industrial effort by which France, within the space of a few months, had mobilized the greater part of her factories to the sole end of the intensive production of war material. At any moment we chose it was in our power to sweep the German lines with a deluge of shot and shell.

The ground chosen for the attack, which extended from Auberive to a point east of Ville-sur-Tourbe, covers a length of about twenty-five kilometres, and is far from being an undiversified surface. Looking from west to east, it presents the following features:

(1) A glacis about eight kilometres wide, of which the gentle slopes are covered with scattered clumps of trees. The road from St. Hilaire to St. Souplet, passing by the Baraque de l'Epine de Vedegrange, is nearly on the axis of this glacis.

(2) The hollow at the bottom of which lies the village of Souain. The first line of German trenches followed the inner lip of this hollow. "The road from Souain to Somme-Py makes, as it were, the diameter of the half-circle. The Navarin farm, 3k500 north of Souain, is on the crest of the hills commanding the hollow.

(3) North of Perthes comes a level stretch running between the wooded hills of the Trou-Bricot and the Butte-du-Mesnil, like a long corridor three kilometres wide, barred at intervals by lines of trenches and abutting on a series of heights, the so-called "buttes de Souain," the "côtes" 193 and 201* [* The numbers of these "côtes," or hills indicates their altitude in meters.], and the "butte de Tahure," crowned by the German second lines.

(4) North of Mesnil is a very-strong position, bastioned on the west by the twin heights of the Mamelle Nord and the Trapèze, and on the east by the "butte" of Mesnil. Between these two points the German trenches formed a powerful curtain, behind which a broken region of dense woodland extends to Tahure.

(5) North of Beauséjour is a bare stretch of easy country sloping up gradually in the direction of Ripont to the farm of the Maisons de Champagne.

(6) North of Massiges the powerfully fortified "cotes," 191 and 199, which look on the map like the pattern of a hand, form the eastern flank of the German defenses. From here the ground slopes away gently toward Ville-sur-Tourbe.

The two chief positions of the German works lay from three to four kilometres apart. The deeper of the two was formed by three or four lines of trenches, separated from each other by barbed-wire entanglements and running back to a depth of from 400 to 500 yards. The second position consisted of a single trench, reinforced here and there by a support trench. This portion of the line, and the barbed-wire entanglements preceding it, were built almost entirely on the reverse slope of the hill, so that it was extremely difficult for our artillery to get the range.

In addition to these main points of the line, admirably organized centres of resistance had been formed wherever the ground permitted—so many little fortresses, nests of concealed mitrailleuses, to which the troops of defense had orders to cling to the last round of shell if the intervening trenches were overwhelmed.

It is obvious that the attack of lines organized on this scale could have nothing in common with the war of manoeuvre that preceded the battle of the Marne. This was a wholly different kind of conflict, a siege war with methods and regulations of its own. To form an idea of it one must turn to the record of the great sieges of history, and notably to that of Sevastopol.

The first necessity for the attacking army was to know with the utmost accuracy the exact place of every German trench, the depth of the barbed-wire defenses, and the position of the machine guns and the batteries. Thanks to our many means of information, we were fully instructed on all these points. Every feature of the German positions was marked on a map and known by its special designation. The attacking troops knew exactly what was ahead of them and where they were going.

The arrival of the troops had begun well in advance of the attack. Along the railways and on the highroads there had been for days an uninterrupted stream of trains and motor-vans. The region about Châlons was swarming with soldiers.

The landscape of mid-Champagne, the "Champagne pouilleuse," where so often in past times the destinies of France have been fought out, is monotonous, but not without beauty. It is a region of untilled fields, of scattered pine forests, heaths and ponds, traversed by beautiful straight roads which seem purposely to avoid the few and widely separated villages. In these latter the half-timbered houses are all of the same type, and mostly several centuries old. They were so much fuel for the Kaiser's bonfires, and it did not take many of his incendiary tablets to set them ablaze.

Preparations were going rapidly forward; the sense of momentous things was in the air. Day by day, as the decisive hour drew nearer, the great army massed for the attack felt its ardor and impatience grow. The generals and the commanding officers exhorted their men; but words were unnecessary. Never had the tone of the French troops been finer; never had France possessed a more magnificent army than that gathered last autumn on the plains of Champagne. It was my good fortune to assist at several of the rounds of inspection, during which our most brilliant general, gathering about him his officers and men, set forth in a few words the effort and the self-sacrifice that their country required of them; and on every sternly set face the same look of heroic abnegation, the same resolve to strike hard and conquer, made mute response to his appeal.

The artillery preparations had begun three days earlier, on the 22d of September. The fire was kept up night and day, with a predetermined rhythm and according to a carefully regulated plan. The objects to be attained were the following: the destruction of the wire entanglements, the burying of the defending line in their underground shelters, the wrecking of the trenches and the parapets, and the cutting off of the communication trenches.

The fire raked not only the first-line trenches but the support trenches and even the second-line positions. At the same time the long-range guns were bombarding the various headquarters, the encampments, and the railway stations, cutting off the railway communication and interrupting the bringing up of supplies.

From a height above Massiges I looked on for hours at this bombardment. Never have I seen one approaching it in violence. The shells burst so close to each other that the puffs of white smoke along the heights were merged in a single cloud. It was like looking at a multitude of geysers in full ebullition. The air was shaken by an uninterrupted roar, against which, now and then, a huge detonation would detach itself with a crash that seemed to shake the earth: it was the explosion of a heavy projectile from one of the big guns.

It was not the first bombardment I have followed. During the Russo-Japanese war, on the second day of the battle of Liaoyang, I saw the whole Japanese artillery concentrate its fire on the peak of Shoshan a few hours before the infantry assault. On the last day of the battle of the Marne, from the heights opposite Mondement, all the batteries of our division sent an infernal blast of shell against the summit crowned by the chateau which was held by the Prussians. But these bombardments were as nothing compared to the present attack. The dazed and distracted German troops completely lost their heads. Every few moments they sent up luminous fusees as a signal to their artillery to open a barring fire against the French. The unfinished letters found on many of the prisoners taken after the attack show the prodigious effect of this deluge of steel. A German soldier writes, on September 25: "I have received no news from home, and shall probably receive none for several days. The postal service has stopped; the whole line has been so violently bombarded that no human being could hold out. The railway is so continuously shelled that all trains have ceased running. We have been in the fighting line for three days. During these three days the French have shelled us so incessantly that our trenches are completely wiped out."

Another wrote on the 24th: "For the last two days the French have been bombarding us like madmen. To-day one of our shelters was demolished. There were sixteen men in it, and every one of them was killed. Many others were killed besides, and masses of men were wounded. The artillery fire is almost as rapid as that of the infantry. The whole front is covered by a cloud of smoke which hides everything. The men are dropping like flies. The trenches are a heap of wreckage."

Still another, writing on the same day, says:" A rain of shell is falling on us. Our kitchen and provisions are cannonaded all night. The field-kitchens no longer arrive. Oh, if only the end were in sight! Peace! peace! is the cry on every man's lips."

An artilleryman of the 100th regiment of field-artillery writes on September 25:

"We have been through awful hours. It seemed as if the whole world were crumbling away. We have had heavy losses. Last night one company of two hundred and fifty men had sixty killed. A neighboring battery lost sixteen.

"The following instance will show you the frightful power of the French projectiles. A shelter five metres below ground, roofed with two layers of logs and two and a half metres of earth, was smashed like a match."

The captain commanding the third company of the 135th regiment of German reserves writes in his report: "Send us a supply of rations at once. We have received no provisions to-day. We are in urgent need of flares and hand-grenades. Is the sanitary column never coming to look after our wounded?" And a few hours later: "I insist on immediate reinforcements. My men are dying of fatigue and want of sleep. I have no news of the battalion."

The artillery preparation was at the highest pitch of efficiency. We had done all that it was in our power to do. There remained one important factor of success; but that, alas! was an incalculable one. No one could foresee the weather, and much depended on our having a fine day for the attack. Clear weather would give us an immense advantage by facilitating that co-ordination of action between the infantry and the supporting artillery on which success in the offensive so largely hangs. Once the attacking columns were thrown into the furnace, it was vitally necessary for the staff and the artillery to keep in constant touch with them, to know exactly how far they had advanced, and to be able at each step to support and direct them.

The assault on the second-line positions also depended for its success on a clear atmosphere; for this second position, usually placed on the reverse slopes of hilly ground, is so extremely difficult to discover that its wire defenses can be only partially destroyed by the artillery.

During the days preceding the general attack the sky, which had hitherto been radiant, began to grow cloudy. Toward nightfall on the 24th the clouds melted away before a moon that seemed to promise a return of fine weather, a promise which the next morning unhappily belied. By daybreak a fog had closed down on the lines and a thick drizzle was beginning to fall.

But no atmospheric conditions could damp the feverish impetuosity of our troops. The moment for the general attack was set for a quarter past nine. During the night all the attacking troops had taken up their positions. The soldiers lined all the parallel trenches, and the trenches of communication by which the supporting column was to be brought up. Every officer had set his watch by the hour of the general headquarters.

One must have lived through such moments to realize their tragic and passionate beauty. Hundreds and thousands of men in the vigor of their youth are massed there together awaiting the shock. Many of them—and they all know it—are inexorably marked for death. All of them feel the great shadow groping for them, invisible yet ever present in their ranks; but its nearness, far from weakening their courage, touches their resolve with a stern and manly gravity.

By seven in the morning I was at a post of command from which part of the battle-field was visible. Our artillery fire still went on, ever intenser and more furious, as though seeking, during the minutes that remained, to crush and submerge such portions of the German lines as had escaped our heavy guns. It was obvious that, after three days of such uninterrupted bombardment, the Germans must know that the decisive hour was at hand. Every few seconds flares rushed up from their lines, imploring the barring fire that was to stop our infantry.

Suddenly, at the preordained moment, the French, headed by their officers, revolver in hand, flung themselves out of the trenches along the whole of the immense line. In order to maintain the necessary discipline and self-control of the troops under the deadly fire that awaited them, each section was marshalled into line as soon as it reached open ground. Then, at double-quick so that they should not lose their wind by too impetuous a dash forward, they broke in a first immense wave against the German trenches. Hardly had one wave of infantry swept forward when another surged up behind it and flowed impetuously in the same direction. The advance was like that of a mighty sea whose irresistible breakers must undermine the rockiest coast.

The speed of the French advance was so great that the Germans were almost everywhere taken by surprise. All their first-line trenches were submerged. All the troops who occupied them were killed or gave themselves up; and the infantry swept on to the second line. On the way it captured a large number of German cannon, machine guns, and heavy pieces; the artillerymen fell where they stood. Wherever a German defensive work was too solidly organized to be taken with a rush, it was invested by our troops; and the enemy, thus encircled, surrendered in thousands. At certain points of the front our infantry poured ahead with such impetuosity that the artillery, to support it, had to limber their guns and move them forward, exactly as in open battle. There could be no more amazing proof of the vigor and vehemence of the French attack.

Unhappily, it was not to be hoped that the forward movement should everywhere strike the same pace. Irregularity of advance is one of the inevitable conditions of siege war. The lines of least resistance are bound to be carried with relative speed; while at points where the difficulty of the ground or the greater courage of the defenders makes the advance harder, progress necessarily slackens. Therefore, a few hours after the first assault, the line attacked, instead of being straight, has been bent into a series of perilous zigzags.

Nevertheless, after two or three days of fierce fighting, the French troops had achieved important results. To form an idea of what had been gained, it is necessary to consider separately each of the sectors of the front; for in each one the struggle assumed a different form and had a different outcome.

In the region to the right of the Epine de Vedegrange the advance of our troops was very rapid. At this point there was an extremely strong German centre of resistance, composed of a triple and a quadruple line of trenches, machine-gun blockhouses, and a bit of woodland covered with one of the most intricate systems of defense along the German front and giving shelter to numerous concealed batteries. But the whole of this sector was taken by a sudden and irresistible dash. In spite of heavy losses, in spite of the fatigue of incessant fighting, the French swept on and on, leaving behind them only enough men to scour the conquered region and break down its centres of resistance. On the 27th of September, toward evening, our troops were in touch with the German second line; at two points we had even got a footing in them, making a breach of about five hundred yards. Unluckily, it was impossible to widen this breach sufficiently to reap the reward of our success. German heavy batteries concentrated their strength on the opening, and hidden machine guns swept its sides with a fierce enfilading fire. Nevertheless, the results achieved in this sector figure up as follows: the taking of fifteen square kilometres of ground riddled with trenches and fortified works, forty-four pieces, seven of 105 mm. and six of 150 mm. and more than three thousand prisoners.

In the Souain sector the enemy line swept a great curve about the village. At certain points the German trenches were over a kilometre from ours. It therefore became necessary, when the offensive was planned, to push our works far enough forward to facilitate the attack on the German front. This subterranean engineering was carried out with incomparable pluck and energy. Leaving the trenches at night, our soldiers literally bounded across the intervening space. When they reached the designated point they dug themselves in, afterward linking their new line to the trenches they had left by communicating "bowels." This exceedingly difficult exploit was actually accomplished under the eyes and under the fire of the enemy, and the parallel trenches followed the curve of the German line at a distance of less than two hundred yards.

The attack began simultaneously at three points. To the west we advanced toward the wooded ground; in the centre we followed the line of the road from Souain to Somme-Py, in the direction of the Navarin farm; to the east we bent toward the woods which are intersected by the road from Souain to Tahure, and toward the "butte" of Souain. Our advance was extremely rapid. To the left we covered two kilometres in less than an hour; in the centre, three kilometres in forty-five minutes. By ten o'clock we were abreast of the Navarin farm, and a glance at the map will show the amazing rate of our progress.

Toward the east it was harder to make headway. The Sabot wood was full of German machine guns, which greatly facilitated the enemy's resistance. But this centre of defense was surrounded and taken, enabling our troops to close up with those which were attacking to the north of Perthes. The Germans were completely encircled, and, leaving only a sufficient force to reduce the position, the main part of our troops pushed on.

Those left behind sent parlementaires to demand the surrender of the Germans. They were met by rifle fire, upon which they attacked the defenders with the bayonet. Tie survivors surrendered and were sent to the rear, and a number of batteries and a large amount of material remained in our hands. By the 28th we were in contact with the second German line. Our troops had been magnificent, and they had been led by generals and officers whose courage and disregard of self may be measured by the fact that one general of division and four colonels had already been wounded, and two colonels killed.

Between Souain and Perthes lies a wooded region where violent fighting had already taken place in the previous February. We had then carried a part of the German trenches, and the enemy, aware that the point was a vital one, had provided it with powerful defenses. First came an almost triangular salient, which was very strongly held—we called it the Pocket. Beyond, the formidably organized defenses of the Trou Bricot wood presented an almost unsurmountable obstacle. This bit of country, pocketed by craters and seamed and cross-seamed with trenches and "bowels," was nearly impregnable; yet it failed to check the impetus of our troops.

The way in which the Pocket and the Trou Bricot were carried may be regarded as a model of that particular type of warfare. The plan of attack, marvellously conceived, was yet more marvellously executed. The first thing to be done was to take the Pocket. At the appointed hour our batteries progressively lengthened their range, while the infantry dashed forward. The attack was carried out in perfect order, and half an hour later, at 9.45, the two columns which had stormed the extremities of the salient were in contact. The work was surrounded and the surviving defenders surrendered. At the same time a battalion got a footing on the southern edge of the wood of the Trou Bricot. The succeeding battalions, skirting its eastern edge, executed a perfect left turning movement and formed in echelon along the communication trenches. Meanwhile, to the north of Perthes our troops had pierced the three lines of German trenches and, covered by our artillery, were sweeping on to the "York" trench. They took it almost without striking a blow. Farther to the east, along the road from Perthes to Tahure, greater difficulties were encountered. A German mitrailleuse in a shelter kept up a troublesome fire; but finally one of our infantry officers, with a sergeant, succeeded in bringing up a gun to within a little over three hundred yards of the mitrailleuse and promptly smashed it.

Toward the end of the afternoon one of our regiments had reached the road leading from Souain to Tahure. The Trou Bricot wood was thus almost completely encircled, and our soldiers dashed into the German encampment from all sides and swept it clear of its defenders. The surprise was complete. Some of the German officers were taken in bed; this fact, which is absolutely established, testifies to the amazing rapidity of the attack. It shows also the confidence of the German chiefs in the security of their position. They were certainly justified in thinking the Trou Bricot secure from attack. They had spent the whole winter and spring in perfecting its defenses, and had fitted up luxurious quarters for themselves in their impregnable fortress. The houses of the adjacent villages and all the chateaux in the neighborhood had been methodically pillaged. The German officers had transported to the subterranean apartments of the Trou Bricot chairs, sofas, beds, wardrobes, and even pianos. On one of these officers was found an extremely curious order from a German quartermaster-general, forbidding the occupants of the houses and chateaux of the neighborhood to take the furniture with them when they left. "Such things can no longer be permitted," the order gravely ran, "because, if the first occupants carry away everything they take a fancy to, nothing will be left for those who come after them."

The surrounding of the Trou Bricot was one of the most successful manoeuvres of our offensive. Throughout all this region the majority of the German batteries were surprised and taken in the height of the action, and the cannoneers and loaders killed before they knew what was happening. One of our regiments advanced four kilometres in two hours, taking on the way ten guns, three of 105 mm. and seven of 77 mm.!

Unhappily, after midday our rate of progress began to slacken. The thick weather made it impossible for our artillery to follow the advance and it became increasingly difficult to establish liaisons. From the "buttes" of Souain and Tahure the enemy poured a converging fire on our troops, who were advancing over open ground. Nevertheless, they pushed forward to the foot of the hill of Tahure, where they dug themselves in. But the wire entanglements protecting the second German position were still intact, and it would have required a fresh bombardment to carry it.

It was to the north of Mesnil that the German resistance was most dogged. Our attack made us masters of a hollow called the ravine of Cuisines; but it was impossible for us to get beyond this point.

To the north of Beauséjour, however, we scored a swift and brilliant success. The successive waves of the attacking force, flinging themselves on the first lines, completely submerged them. The onrush carried some of the troops straight to the crest of Maisons de Champagne; on the way they passed through several batteries, killing the gunners at their posts. It was in this sector that the cavalry lent an unexpected support to the infantry. Two squadrons of hussars, in spite of a violent barring fire, had swept past our trenches and were galloping toward the German batteries to the north of Maisons de Champagne. On the way they reached a trench in which the Germans had managed to maintain themselves. The German machine guns were instantly turned on the hussars and a few horses fell. The hussars immediately sprang to the ground and rushed at the trenches with drawn swords, giving the infantry time to rally under cover of this diversion. The resistance of the enemy was broken and six hundred prisoners were taken at this particular point.

The heights of Massiges had also been converted into what the Germans regarded as an impregnable fortress, from the summit of which they commanded all our principal positions. But in a quarter of an hour our infantry had scaled the height and were in possession of the German works. There followed a terrific hand-grenade fight in the communication trenches. As our grenadiers advanced the Germans surrendered in masses. An uninterrupted chain of grenadiers, like the chain of buckets at a fire, occupied the trenches and the ridges of the bill. For more than eight days the fight went on without respite, and with unexampled fury. The Germans brought up continual reinforcements. All their available troops were called up to defend the hill of Massiges; which they were resolved to hold at all costs. The German gunners dropped beside their guns, the grenadiers on their grenade boxes. And still our troops continued slowly but steadily to advance, till finally we obtained possession of the whole crest of Massiges, maintaining ourselves there in spite of the furious counter-attacks of the enemy. The German General Staff appears to have been especially affected by the loss of this position. According to the German communiqués, it was voluntarily evacuated because our artillery fire had made it untenable. But whenever the Germans lose a position they profess to have abandoned it of their own accord; after the battle of the Marne they went so far as to describe their retreat of sixty kilometres as a strategic manoeuvre. As a matter of fact, the heights of Massiges were won from the enemy bit by bit, yard by yard, by the dauntless courage of our grenadiers.

Our huge attack along a front of twenty-five kilometres was supported by two others designed to cover our flanks. The task of the troops to whom this duty was allotted, and especially of those operating on the western borders of the Argonne, between Servon and the wood of La Grurie, was peculiarly difficult. It was their duty to hold in check and to immobilize as large a force of the enemy as possible, and they fulfilled their mission brilliantly and with unwonted courage.

Our offensive in Champagne is universally acknowledged to have been a great tactical success. Along the whole front all the first line of German works, three or four lines of trenches, the strongest centres of defense, the points of support, and the field-works were all carried. At certain points our troops even succeeded in making a breach in the second line. If these breaches were not wide enough to permit our supporting troops to pour through them, it was chiefly because the persistent bad weather made it impossible to follow up our advantage.

In spite of this, the results obtained, materially as well as morally, were extremely satisfactory.

In the first place, our tactical success had an immediate strategical result of the first importance. The Germans, roused to the great risk they had run, recalled in hot haste ten or twelve of their divisions operating on the Russian front: that is to say, a body of troops large enough to have permitted them to press their advance into Russian territory and perhaps obtain a decisive advantage over our allies. The fact is indisputable, and it would be hard to exaggerate its importance. The check of the German offensive in Russia coincided exactly with our victory in Champagne, and the link between the two events is very close.

For several days the Germans were in a state of great alarm. They understood that they had very nearly had their front broken through. The hurried orders of their general staff, the agitation of their troops, revealed their anxiety and apprehension.

Our advance made us master of about forty square kilometres of ground, and left in our hands an enormous number of prisoners—twenty-five thousand men, three hundred and fifty officers, a hundred and fifty guns, besides machine guns, bomb-throwers, and a large amount of other booty. Such figures are the trophies of an important victory. To measure their significance it is only necessary to compare them with those of some of the memorable battles which French soldiers have fought and won in the past.

At Jena, for instance, we took fifteen thousand prisoners and two hundred guns. The Prussian losses on that occasion amounted to eighteen thousand men.

At Austerlitz we took twelve thousand prisoners and a hundred and eighty-six guns, while the imperial army lost twenty- five thousand men.

For the first time since the beginning of the present war the German troops in Champagne surrendered en masse. Whole regiments thus disappeared completely from the German army; and for days and days, along the great highway that runs through Châlons, an uninterrupted stream of German prisoners poured in from the front.

The letters and journals found on these prisoners and taken from the dead bear witness to the extreme discouragement of the enemy. On the 30th of September a lieutenant of reserves of the Tenth Army Corps jotted down the following lines:

"Yesterday sixteen of my men were killed by torpedoes. It is frightful. If only the rain would begin again, or the fog come back! But with this weather the aviators are sure to be on us again, and we shall be deluged with torpedoes and with shells from the trenches. Clear skies, how I hate you! Fog, fog, come back to help us!"

The German losses were extremely heavy—it is not impossible to compute them approximately. At the beginning of September the Germans had seventy battalions on the Champagne front. Before the 25th of the month, in anticipation of our attack, they brought twenty-nine more battalions to this front, forming a total of ninety-nine; and the 115,000 men composing this force were immediately thrown into action.

During the first days of the battle the wastage on the German side was so great that the general staff was obliged to renew its forces by despatching to the front ninety-three new battalions. In the greater number of regiments the losses were certainly not lower than fifty per cent. Therefore it may be safely assumed that the total of German losses in Champagne amounted to 140,000 men.

The importance which General Joffre attached to this victory is shown by the following Order of the Day, which he addressed to the army:


The commander-in- chief desires to transmit to the troops under his command the expression of his profound satisfaction regarding the results obtained by the attacks up to the present time.

Twenty-five thousand prisoners, 350 officers, 150 guns, and materiel which it has not yet been possible to count: such are the results of a victory of which the fame has rung through Europe.

None of the sacrifices entailed have been vain. All who were engaged have done their part. Our present success is the surest pledge of future victory.

The commander-in-chief is proud to have under his command the finest troops that France has ever known.

The most important result of our success in Champagne is that for the first time since the beginning of the war the Germans completely lost their initiative, and even any serious ability to react against our attack. One of their generals, Von Ditfurth, acknowledges the fact explicitly in one of his orders.

"I have the impression," he writes, "that our infantry is simply remaining on the defensive.... I cannot protest too energetically against such a system, which necessarily results in deadening in our troops all spirit of aggression, leaving to the enemy complete freedom of action, and subordinating our own attitude to his initiative."

Von Ditfurth was right. Up to the date of the Champagne offensive the Germans, whenever they lost any position, however insignificant, considered it a point of honor to retake what they had lost at any cost. Now for the first time, after this important victory, they seemed incapable of any serious counter-attack.

They merely attempted to gather together as large a force as they could muster—the rank and file of the regiments all in inextricable confusion—and to mass it on their second lines, which they felt to be gravely menaced. That was the limit of their effort. No serious attempt was made to recover any of the advantages gained by the French. It is impossible to lay too much stress on this fact.

In the course of this terrible "match" we see one of two adversaries receive a terrific blow without trying to return it. There could be no better presage for the future. It is true that the blow received has not laid the adversary low; but no one in France ever imagined that Germany, which has devoted half a century to the preparation of this war, lavishing upon the task all her wealth, her intelligence, her power of organization, and also her ruthless savagery, could be disabled by one blow. The struggle now going on is a question of patience, of energy, and of endurance. Great results, as we know, are most often obtained little by little, and as the consequence of uninterrupted effort.

What has been accomplished in Champagne by the heroism of our men and the intelligence of their chiefs is no small achievement. History will in due time record the fact. And what was not done last autumn the coming spring will see accomplished.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury