The French province which gives its name to bubbly wine is also the place where trench warfare first emerged on the Western Front. Beginning in late December, Marshall Joseph Joffre pressed hardest here during a campaign of limited attacks along his strategic center that are collectively known as the First Battle of Champagne. It is the French Army’s first attempt to adapt to the new reality of static entrenchment. Today, future prizewinning novelist Maurice Bedel records his impression of events while posted at the aid station during an attack on a strategic hill overlooking the shattered village of Mesnil-les-Hurlus:
Nothing has changed. It’s frightening. Corpses, corpses. Wounded. Shellfire. Stench.
We eat potatoes with Italian sauce. It must be said, we have become brutes. Quite a mad parade, with haggard looks, clinging to the gun handle. A (German) 75 (millimeter gun) breaks the mind.
The stretcher-bearers are dropping like flies. In just two days we will have another. Moroccans, Algerians, the Zouaves fall, fall. The shells also on us, on them. We bury Captain Bachellerie sobbing while shells drown out the voice of the Dubourg chaplain. A hole in the ground, and the beautiful Bachellerie, pale, beautiful from taking a 600-meter trench yesterday, is lowered into the hole.
It is gray. So much noise, so much blood, so much contempt for death.
How is it that our building is almost the only one standing in the ruins?
On arrival, the wounded are talkative whether wisecracking or dying. “Oh! The bastards! Oh! Cows! Ah, pigs!” Costil said: “They are cows, pigs!” He cries because they killed his captain and lieutenant. “We should have killed them, by God! We would have nailed the rabbits to the ground if they had returned. We saw them in bunches of four, sitting in the fields off to the right.”
Our battalion attacks. A hurricane of iron. At 5 AM Roederer takes the fort on Hill 196. We want the entire ridge, we continue on the opposite slope, despite the 75s pecking at us. The first wounded arrive very excited by their success. They tell how for three hours in the afternoon they flew from trench to trench, killing, taking no prisoners. Everyone comes with a helmet or a gun, or carrying German equipment.
At nightfall the flood of wounded press the door of the first aid station. Horrific injuries, torn chins, severed limbs, chopped hands. From the back of a wounded man, Simart extracted an entire 77 millimeter rocket, from the jaw of another a piece of shrapnel shining like a snuff box…
Captain Gresser staggers in supported by one of his men, stammering, a pickaxe in hand: a shell sent me two meters in the air, he raves, “Ah! But don’t take my pick…I want my pick!” He cries. “And my company back…” He groans horribly. He is not injured.
Lieutenant Vilmure, slightly wounded in the throat, tells us defeating the earthwork fort and steel-reinforced machine guns kept us in check for many days.
The slow flow of wounded descending the conquered hill can be seen by the light of flares. They are innumerable, Moroccans, the Zouaves, infantrymen all mixed. Eyes lit, talking fast, they are still trembling with enthusiasm.
Lieutenant Charmeux is brought on a stretcher. A bullet in the chest, he groans. He will die. Oh, those faces, charming yesterday, now caked with mud and blood. I do not recognize my friends in this tragic mask.
Neumeyer has been laid low by a piece of shrapnel. Flattened on his stretcher in the crowd of wounded, he waits in the cold night for his turn to have his wound dressed.
The linen mats on the floor of the aid station and our uniforms soaked in sticky blood create an unreal odor that makes one gag. The shells fall. The night passes. Dr. Fournereaux and Simart are a marvel of fortitude. How can they do it! They live on coffee — and what coffee! — and do not sleep.
The wounded arrive until 5 AM.
Though successful, today’s operation is costly to both the 142nd and 174th Infantry Regiments attacking the hill. In keeping with French infantry doctrine, the assaults have continued for four days with contempt for the heavy casualties incurred. Overall, Joffre’s Champagne offensive has killed about 90,000 Frenchmen to claim half as many German lives, a ratio of attrition that the German high command finds quite acceptable.
Surveying the wreckage of his 4th Corps, General Langle de Cary telephones Joffre tomorrow to request reinforcements. Joffre responds by suspending offensive action, for he has no more reserves to throw into the fire at the prodigious rate he has been using them up. Just like the rest of the combatants in this conflict, France suffers from material shortages: lack of ammunition is hampering artillery support for infantry attacks; the country has under-invested in heavy guns to destroy barbed wire and fortifications; there are not enough hand grenades or trench mortars. Joffre is convinced that his offensive has been a success, and hopes to resume the campaign in May, but recovering and re-equipping will last until September.