02 August 1915 – Crown Prince

History records an attack on Hill 213 in the Argonne sector today, an affair which continues far into the night. Another example of limited offensive actions intended to improve local German tactical advantage, it is also a prime example of applied attrition doctrine. The next week will be the most active on this battlefield since July 13th, the end of a four-week operation which opened with a tremendous chemical attack and produced thousands of casualties on both sides to alter the shape of the battlefield by a few square miles. Like that attack, which began with a three-hour bombardment, this one opens with another massive barrage of preparatory high explosives and shrapnel. At the height of the fighting at the end of the first week of July at Vienne-le-Château, 45,000 German shells were consumed in support of five regiments from XVI Corps as Hill 285, also known as La Fille Morte, fell with the loss of nearly three thousand French soldiers killed, wounded, or captured.

Underneath the blasted earth, a subterranean battlefield is taking shape. Over the next week, two German mines will detonate under French lines at Hill 213. Beneath the Butte de Vauquois, an eventual 25 miles of tunnels will be dug in the course of the conflict, with 531 mines detonated in a campaign of sap and counter-sap by September 1918. The hill under Vauquois is split by the constant cratering, and the village itself is utterly erased. At least eight thousand men will die in the labyrinth of collapsed tunnels, trenches, and galleries.

As in the Vosges, where mountaintops are the focus of constant attacks aimed at establishing artillery observation superiority within the sector, the heights of the Argonne host a relentless series of tiny, bloody victories and increasingly-desperate struggles that only seem to leave the coveted ground a no man’s land. Behind the German lines stands Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, son of the Emperor, thirty-three year old commander of the 5th Army since the war began. Seen above with Orville Wright at Tempelhof during 1909, when he became the first member of any royal family to fly in an airplane, the Crown Prince has been covered in glory for his role in the slow, steady advance here. And like other successful commanders of German armies, an army group is being formed around him, taking his name and fighting for this ground until 1918.


The Argonne sector and the St. Mihiel salient: potentially, two giant pincers around Verdun

In truth, of course, the Crown Prince has a handler: Chief of Staff Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, twenty-two years his senior in age and a competent planner. A year ago, he was instrumental in the Crown Prince’s victory at the Battle of the Ardennes, where the 4th and 5th Armies combined to crush an offensive by the French Army during the catastrophic opening battles that killed 75,000 Frenchmen in just three days. From that battlefield, 5th Army proceeded here, where it will stay and fight for virtually the whole remainder of the conflict. When the August 8th assault on Hill 213 consumes 20,000 shells in a single hour, it is largely due to Knobelsdorf’s professional understanding of logistics and supply.

But he is not a prince, and his name is much less famous for it, for he is much less-quoted. During November, the Crown Prince granted an interview to Karl von Weigand, a German-American staff correspondent for the United Press, during which he managed to both follow the official talking points and offer a striking critique of the Great War.

“I am very pleased to see you here,” he said, “and I hope that you will find plenty to interest you. I want you to feel at liberty to go wherever you like.”

“I hope your imperial highness will pardon my Americanized German,” I said, in stating to him some points in which I thought American readers would be chiefly interested.

“Then let us talk English if you feel that we can thus better express ourselves,” was his quick reply. Acting on this suggestion, the crown prince of Germany proceeded to give this interview in English.

“I am a soldier and therefore cannot discuss politics,” said the crown prince, “but it seems to me that this whole business, all of this action that you see around here, is senseless, unnecessary and uncalled for.

“But Germany was left no choice in the matter. From the lowest to the highest we all know that we are fighting for our existence. I know that soldiers of the other nations probably say and a great many of them probably think the same thing. This does not alter the fact, however, the we are actually fighting for our national life.

“Since we knew that the present war was to be forced on us, it became our highest duty to anticipate the struggle by every necessary and possible preparation for the defense of the fatherland against the iron rule which our enemies have for years beeen carefully and steadily welding about us.

“The fact that we foresaw and so far as possible forestalled the attempt to crush us within this ring, and the fact that we were prepared to defend ourselves, are now being used as an argument in an attempt to convince the world that we not only wanted this conflict, but that we are responsible for it.”

The constant flow of newspaper accounts about trenches or positions seized and held, French counterattacks setting the 5th Army back a step for every two steps they advance, and the ebb and flow of battle have fed the false narrative of progress. Forming ghastly palisades of corpses, the tens of thousands who have already died here are but a taste of what’s to come. For in 1916, the Crown Prince and his Chief of Staff will inaugurate Operation Gericht, one of the two major offensive strokes of the Verdun campaign, in an attempt to ‘bleed the French Army white’ by threatening a largely-symbolic center of national resistance. The death and destruction have barely started.


The Crown Prince’s Argonne forest bunker entrance. Note the concrete construction. Via Brian Harris