Following one of their most extensive preparatory artillery bombardments of the war so far, today French troops attack the eastern spur of the ridgeline lying east of the town of Les Éparges, including a wooded ravine known as the Valley of Death. Fighting outwards from the fortress-city of Verdun towards the town of St. Mihiel, which lies in the Woëvre Valley below, the assault by the 8th Infantry Regiment somewhat reshapes the bloody switchback of the Western Front between Bois-le-Prêtre (Priest’s Wood) and the Argonne Forest at a cost of hundreds of lives.
Outnumbered, the German defenders put up a stiff resistance behind their barbed wire obstacles, which the bombardment fails to fully destroy, but it is not enough to stop a determined effort. By the afternoon, French troops hold the hilltop; by the end of the second day, they are firmly in control of the height. Known to the Germans as Point X, the crest of the ridge overlooks the entire plain below, allowing French artillery spotters to disrupt all German movements in the open and giving French infantry a rolling start to attack the town.
Tomorrow, General Dubail curtails attacks on the St. Mihiel Salient for a day to reorganize his forces, then redoubles his efforts with even more extensive bombardments and even more determined infantry pushes. The Germans hit the attacking waves of men with massed artillery and machine guns. French dead begin to pile up in gruesome ramparts of flesh. Despite burial details, the corpses soon pile up faster than they can be buried, their bodies often being thrown up on the reverse side of a captured trench to form a parapet of flesh.
Dubail’s plan seems sensible enough in outline: attacking the St. Mihiel Salient from three directions, he threatens to cut off the enemy and inflict a severe defeat. But the forests of wire and the German defenses are taking an incredible toll, limiting French gains to a few hundred meters at a time at an equal cost in lives. On April 14th, Joseph Joffre withdraws two of the three corps from this sector of the front, effectively ending Dubail’s offensive.
The German counterattack comes eight days later. It is the first taste of battle for a young lieutenant named Ernst Jünger; in his memoir Storm of Steel, he recalls an appalling scene he discovered upon retaking a trench from the enemy.
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.
The ground here is turning into moonscape from constant cratering — by artillery now, and by exploding underground mines later. The churn often throws corpses back out from under the shallow dirt that covers them, turning Les Éparges into a charnel house. And despite all the fighting, the St. Mihiel Salient will remain a thorn in the French side of the front until American troops arrive in 1918.