The last French roll of the dice for the autumn offensive goes off today, BEF or no BEF. Except it begins with rather a wet fart at Third Artois. General Foch’s subordinate General d’Urbal has (apparently) decided that the corps that is supposed to be leading his attack is exhausted and can’t possibly succeed, so he’s withdrawn it on his own initiative. Furthermore, his letter to Foch has been tragically delayed in transit so long that it’s now too late for Foch to countermand the order even if he’d been minded to do it. It’s a rather odd affair; ordinarily I’d expect a general who pulled a stunt like that to be out on his ear, but d’Urbal escapes only with a stiffly-worded letter. Perhaps this is Foch’s way of wangling it so he attacks with British support, but without taking any heat from Joffre for failing to coincide with Second Champagne? It’s an odd one.
(I’d also love to know if this explains Louis Barthas’s sudden withdrawal yesterday, but finding a decent order of battle so I know what corps the 280th Regiment is in is a massive pain in the arse. It’s certainly likely!)
Anyway. Back in Champagne, there is ever-so-briefly a shining light of hope for the future. The French 4th Army is, for the first time, using a rolling barrage on a wide scale. The basic theory of a rolling barrage is like so. It begins at zero hour, trained on the enemy’s fire trench, and forces their men to stay under cover. The men go over the top and are encouraged to move forward right to the edge of the barrage. It’s then timed so that the barrage moves forward a given distance right as the men arrive in the danger zone, at which point they’ll be close enough to the enemy trenches to (assuming the wire has been cut) enter and deal with the enemy before they can get out of their dugouts, or at the very worst fight them hand-to-hand in the trenches. The barrage is then timetabled to stay at the second distance long enough to allow the men to arrive at its back once more, suppressing enemy reinforcements all the while, rinse and repeat.
By contrast, British infantry support tactics are still based around the “lifting barrage”, which is based around firing at identified German targets; front line first, second line and communications trenches next, then the third line. It’s much less flexible and much more prone to either catching a quick-moving advance with friendly fire, or abandoning a slow-moving advance as it lifts away from the attackers too early.
The rolling barrage is an absolutely critical development. When done properly, it negates at a stroke the power of a machine-gun without needing to hit and destroy what’s a relatively tiny and movable target. Machine-guns can’t fire if there’s nobody to shoot them. And, right in the centre of 4th Army’s attack, it works almost to perfection. Men of the Colonial Corps hang onto the barrage’s heels right through the German reserve line and out the other side, capturing plenty of shell-shocked prisoners, destroying an entire artillery battery, and advancing a full mile.
Then reality catches up with them. They’re in open ground. The units to either side have been held up by the old bugbear of uncut wire. There’s no more artillery support after the rolling barrage reaches its limit. Once the German counter-attacks begin, they waste no time falling back to the trenches they’ve just broken through and clinging on. For a few hours, a shining way forward has been on display.
The rest of the battle, same-old same-old. Far too much of that barbed wire simply remains uncut. It’s the same old story; not enough guns, not enough mortars, not enough shells, soaking wet ground that swallows the shells whole instead of detonating them. There are other problems to contend with too, of which more in a moment.
And now we come to Captain Lecluse, ordered forward last night. His men are operating in Louis Barthas’s old role; to follow up the initial attack and exploit success. He’s had to lead his men forward through a horrible fog.
Finally, luck took us right to our post. It was a rather shapeless trench, already collapsed in places. Colonial soldiers were swarming in it, getting ready to attack. As one of them left, one of us took his place. It was too small to accomodate all of us. Even though we were piled on top of each other, one squadron had to lie above the trench, behind a small dirt wall barely sufficient to protect them from the wind.
Lecluse’s commandant, Delaire, also chooses to lie out of the trench to allow more of his men inside. Then it starts.
The attack had begun, and the German fire was directed right at us. It was not totally unexpected, since the enemy was very familiar with the position. The colonials had told us when they left.
“Anywhere but here, guys! Don’t you know the name of this place?”
“Sure. Le Camp de l’Aguille.”
“Sure, on the map. Here, we call it the Hole of Death!”
We stayed at this post twelve hours, twelve centuries, under a constant barrage of fire. Noticing that one area of land seemed not to be bombarded, we asked if we could move forward to escape the risk of annihlation. The reply we received was inexorable and totally unsympathetic. Furthermore, nobody ever took responsibility for issuing it.
Perhaps Captain Hudelle might have simply moved the men forward anyway, and damned the consequences; but Lecluse is trying, and that counts for a lot. It’s more than Cros-Mayrevielle has ever done, and you’d never catch Commandant Leblanc, Quinze-Grammes, letting his men into a shelter ahead of him (or, indeed, into a shelter at all). This is one of those stories too good to compress and too long for a single day. It continues tomorrow.
And here we see another major reason for these attacks failing. The Germans have now had nearly two weeks to concentrate their artillery against the points most likely to be attacked again. The terrible weather has limited recon flights to relocate them for counter-battery fire. With the French rear being pounded mercilessly, it’s proving almost impossible to support even the successful attacks.
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