Because they look down on the provinces lost to Germany after the disastrous war of 1871, France has coveted the Vosges mountain peaks along the eastern end of the Western Front since the beginning of the war, and 1915 has seen the French Army make several bloody efforts to win them. The most successful of these offensives took place in June at the Braunkopf overlooking the Fecht Valley; operations the following month at Le Linge fell short of expectations, turning the contested peak into a no man’s land rather than a bastion for either side. Yesterday, French soldiers began their last fight for the 3,100-foot peak of Hartmannsweilerkopf, also known as Le Vieil Armand, which has changed hands more than once already during the year, becoming one of its deadliest battlefields.
As at Le Linge, each side has dug in on opposite slopes with the Germans holding the mountain peak in the middle. Because reverse-slopes are extremely difficult to target with accurate artillery fire, neither side has been able to secure a firepower advantage. With typical German thoroughness, an entire infrastructure has been built to defend the mountaintop, with concrete bunkers (see above), roads, communications, and even a cable car erected to lift supplies to the defenders.
At about 9 AM yesterday, an intense five hour bombardment began to fall on German positions, with overwhelming volume somewhat compensating for the usual imprecision of indirect fire in mountainous terrain. France had brought three hundred mortars and heavy guns to bear, with the necessary road-building and preparation for deployment going completely undetected by the Germans. The surprise attack destroyed the mountain garrison’s communications with their headquarters and forced them into their bunkers, rolling eastward like a storm as two brigades of elite Chasseurs Alpins from the 66th Infantry Division began an uphill charge into the teeth of German defenses. Emerging from their shelters, the reservists manning the front line put up a ferocious defense, but they were overwhelmed; eight hundred were killed and more than 1,300 captured. Despite this quick, if bloody defeat, the Germans quickly brought up reserves and put every available man into the second line, halting the French advance within a rifle shot of their headquarters below the mountain. A storm of fog and snow then curtailed fighting for several hours.
With typical German promptness, the inevitable counterattack took only a day to arrange. Tonight, a terrific artillery barrage makes the French duck for cover in their captured positions, and when it stops the Germans who fall upon the French with blinding speed are elite new troops. Known as storm troopers, they are equipped with flamethrowers, ‘light’ machine guns, lots of grenades, and the new steel helmet (stahlhelm) that will become standard issue during 1916. Forming a spearhead for three reserve battalions, the Rohr Assault Battalion uses weapons and tactics that the French have never seen in this sector of the Western Front. The counterattack claims more than 1,500 prisoners; the 152nd Infantry Regiment is surrounded and destroyed, returning the mountaintop to German control.
Undeterred, the French Army attacks again tomorrow. They will keep up the struggle until January 8th, expending a small mountain of artillery shelsl in the process, only to find themselves at yesterday’s starting line with the Germans still in possession of the Hartmannsweilerkopf. Overseeing the battle in person, General Marcel Serret is wounded in the knee on the afternoon of the 28th during a German barrage, then dies of gangrene on January 6th despite evacuation and amputation. Known for wearing out boot-leather to meet every man in his command, Serret’s mortal injury is another example of a counterintuitive truth: the Great War is in fact very, very dangerous for generals, most of whom do not command the deaths of their men from a remote location. Thirty thousand men have died this year for this mountain, two-thirds of them French, and their commander has died with them. Convinced at last of the futility of attacks in the Vosges, and bereft of the General who has managed the battle here all year, the French high command decides to let this sector become a relatively quiet one, prioritizing easier objectives along more than four hundred miles of front.