The Charge of the 4e Zouaves at the Battle of Guise, 30 August 1914
The battles of August 1914 are remembered for the costly tactics of massed bayonet charges, but it is worth taking a close look at the way these attacks unfolded. The popular image of fighting in August 1914 is that of men advancing in massed ranks, shoulder to shoulder as they charged into machine guns. It is tempting to imagine that the men leading the soldiers were simply incompetent. The tactics of August 1914 had indeed been disastrous and the armies would have to learn a new way of fighting, but in the meantime they would have to do the best they could with the training they had. In this article, I am going to focus on the leadership of one French officer, Captain Giraud, of the 4e Battalion, 4e Regiment de Marche de Zouaves, at the Battle of Guise, 30 August 1914. The attack led by Captain Giraud of the 14e Company ended in disaster, but the steps he took to give his men a fighting chance were the mark of a bold and imaginative leader.
The Battle of Guise, from 29 – 30 August 1914, was part of a larger counter attack of the French Ve Armée. The intention was to delay the German advance long enough to give other French armies and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) some more separation between themselves and the pursuing Germans. In that respect it had some limited success, but on the battlefield the French attacks were poorly co-ordinated and results were mixed. There were some local successes but there were also costly failures. On the front of the 38e Division, an attack made towards the village of Ribemont to the southwest of Guise went badly and the 4e Zouaves guarding the flank of the advance were called upon to break up a German counter-attack. The war diary of the 4e Zouaves is very well kept, and summarizes the activity on 30 August:
30 August 1914
The night passed without incident.
At 0h45’, the Regiment left its bivouacs and assembled at 2km to the south of Villers le Sec, in double column widely spaced.
The assembly was finished by 7h30.
The Regiment was resupplied at that point.
The men ate and took some coffee.
At 10h20’ offensive movement was resumed.
The 4e Bataillon received the order to move to the north of Villers le Sec while prolonging the right of the 4e Tirailleurs and to entrench strongly on its position.
The 11e Bataillon received a similar mission.
It must put itself in contact with the 4e Bataillon
The 3e and 5e Bataillons are in reserve.
The trenches were only scarcely finished when towards 14h30 the General of the Division made known that, taking the offensive with the troops of the 1st line, he ordered the 4e Bataillon (Dangau), to flank his attack to the right and to keep watch in the direction to the east where a counter attack could come.
The companies of the 4e Bataillon were deployed and concealed behind the embankment bordering the road leading to Pleine-Selve in a manner to shelter them from enemy shrapnel which systematically batters the ground.
The 14e Cie (Captain Giraud) received the order from Major Dangau to move towards Pleine Selve in support of a battery position (24e Regt).
Meanwhile Colonel Pichon came to give the order to the 11e Bataillon to support Bataillon Dangau.
While the Battalion Chief moved forward to reconnoitre the road and the emplacement to occupy and while the Cies formed themselves in open column by the flank to advance across country, a counter order followed.
It was now a matter of attacking Ribemont.
The 42e Cie (Capt Jacquot) remained at Viller le Sec station serving as a pivot to the change in direction performed by the battalion while deploying. The four Cies were in line, the 44e at right, then the 43e, 41e and 42e at the pivot.
The march forward was well underway. The Zouaves met and passed elements of the Tirailleurs thrown back from Ribemont on Pleine-Selve.
At 15h15 the Commander of the 4eBon was in turn advised that the whole line was moving forward, he would also have to push an offensive movement by keeping himself in echelon to the rear and to right.
The movement of the 4e Battalion was begun by the 13e Cie which moved in a dispersed formation up to a quarry where it sheltered from enemy artillery fire.
The 15e Cie (Lieutenant Rippert) came to place himself in line deployed along a raised slope, the 16e Cie (Capt Gavory) was at left in contact with the other battalions of the Regiment.
At 15h45 the 4e Bataillon heard a lively fusillade beside Ribemont. It was the 4e Tirailleurs and our 3e Bataillon heavily engaged with German infantry.
It was the moment where the 11e Bataillon intervened.
That battalion rapidly gained a ridge which dominated Ribemont, from where it directed violent fire on German elements occupying the cemetery and the mill to the right of the cemetery. From the beginning the combat was very hot and the losses serious. Captain Jacquot was wounded by a bullet in the knee, Captain Pujade received a shell burst to the loins. Lieutenant Guidet, of the 44e was also wounded a little later.
To the right, in order to support the offensive, or if necessary, to parry a counter attack, the 4e Bataillon pushed the 13e Cie (Baronnier) further forward. That Cie deployed itself in skirmish formation in a beet field, while the 14e Cie passed across woods and along the east edge. The artillery which that company was to support had disappeared.
In front of the 13e Cie at a distance of 1200 to 1800m, numerous German infantrymen appeared, advancing, en masse, from one haystack to another towards the flank of the Tirailleurs.
It was the awaited counter attack.
The 13e Cie and the machine gun section of the Battalion opened fire against the enemy infantry. The effects of that fire appeared satisfactory and the forward movement of the Germans was suspended.
However the supports and the reserves of the enemy advanced en masse.
It was a marvelous target for our artillery, which unfortunately was not there.1
In fact the French batteries that had been supporting the attack of the 38e Division had been heavily shelled and had pulled out along with much of the attacking force. The 4e Zouaves were now facing the pursuing Germans on their own, without artillery support while other units were falling back around them. It should be said though, that they were doing a creditable job of holding the Germans off. There was no reckless bayonet charge here. The Parisian reservists of the 11e Battalion took advantage of some high ground to exchange fire with the Germans. The 4e Battalion took precautions against enemy artillery by using concealment offered by the ground. Here and at Charleroi they had dug trenches to resist attack. The 13e Company, in a skirmish formation, along with a machine gun section had successfully blunted the German pursuit. It is at this point that the war diary takes up the story of Captain Giraud and the 14e Company:
Meanwhile the 13e Cie moved forward of the 14e Cie which for its part gained the northeast edge of the woods. Its Chief, Captain Giraud, lost no time discovering an enemy company, established and already entrenched in the north edge.
Captain Giraud, who was separated from the rest of the Battalion decided to attack that company. Leading his company himself in Indian file along a hedge where it was perfectly concealed, up to about 50 metres from the ridge occupied by the enemy. At that moment Giraud led his men with bayonet. They left with a magnificent élan and despite the deadly fusillade they ran straight to the trench.
The enemy evacuated but at that moment the German artillery opened a terrible fire on the Zouaves while the enemy infantry found shelter at the edge of a wood at 100m to the rear.
Giraud fell and with him Second Lieutenant Desbruères. Nearly all the NCOs and 150 Zouaves were strewn on the ground. The remnants of that company were brought back by Warrant Officer Richard.2
It was a costly assault, despite a stealthy approach that brought the company as close as possible before launching the attack. Yet they actually drove the Germans out of their trench and the severe casualties came from artillery fire. The experience at Guise supports the claim made in Part 1 of this series that bayonet charges rarely actually made contact with the enemy. In this case, it was the Germans who gave way, surprised by the ferocity of an attack coming from behind their position. Caught off guard, they weren’t going to prevent the Zouaves from reaching their trench and they retreated rather than wait to fight it out in close combat. The prospect of being bayoneted had a profound psychological effect.
The diary of the 4e Battalion provides the eye-witness report of Warrant Officer Richard, who had led the remnants of his company back to French lines. The regimental diary follows the battalion diary closely, so I will take it up at the point of the 14e Company advance:
4e Battalion, 4e Zouaves
While the 13e Cie executed its offensive movement, Captain Giraud, conformed to the forward movement of the 13e Cie on his part by following the N.E. edge of the woods.
He brought himself vigorously to the attack on an enemy company he discovered established about 200 m in front of him to the N of the woods.
That attack, from which the rest of the battalion was separated by a small wood, having passed out of view from the Battalion Chief, I leave to the words of Warrant Officer Richard who was with what remained of the 14e Cie after the retreat.
“The Captain, after having ordered the most absolute silence, left in front to reconnoitre the enemy position and the way to be followed; he returned after about a quarter of an hour to give his orders in view of a bayonet attack and ordered” In column by 1, behind me!” The Cie made its way concealed along the length of a hedge of brambles without having been spotted, neither by the enemy artillery nor the infantry; it continued along the edge of the woods to arrive behind the ridge occupied by the enemy concealed in trenches. Before making the assault Captain Giraud deployed the Cie in skirmish formation, climbed back up on the ridge to spot the exact position of the enemy, came back and addressed the Zouaves of the Cie in a low voice ‘the Prussians are barely 200m from us, 2e Section behind me and forward with bayonet.’ Everyone left for the assault. Arriving at the ridge, the Prussians opened fire on us at scarcely 50 metres. The Zouaves of the 14e Cie, always marching forward while firing, forced the enemy to abandon his trenches while causing considerable losses to him. The supports beat a retreat on a woods about 100m distant. At that moment we were thrown to the ground by the fire of German artillery which decimated us terribly and forced us to beat a retreat. Captain Giraud was one of the first to fall, hit by a bullet squarely in the chest while shouting ‘Forward!’”
That attack led brilliantly and with a rare energy by an elite officer who was brevet Captain Giraud cost us two officers (Captain Giraud and s/lieutenant Desbruères left for dead on the ground, a Chief Warrant Officer and the Sergeant Major were killed, two other Warrant Officers wounded, as well as 150 Zouaves killed wounded or missing. The absence of all French artillery on the ground did not permit firing to take advantage of the offensive movement of the 13e and 14e Cies, however a result was achieved, the German counter attack led on the flank of the line of attack of the 76e Brigade was clearly stopped, the fire ceased, that line was able to continue its retreat in good order.3
Giraud was a daring officer who led from the front. He scouted out the enemy position thoroughly and found a way of approaching by stealth. The attack was not made in massed ranks advancing shoulder to shoulder – they deployed in an open order skirmish formation. Unless the defenders aimed carefully, many of their shots would pass through the empty spaces between the men. Giraud seems to have achieved almost complete surprise. Richard reports that the Zouaves fired as they advanced; this was not an attack made without firing a shot. There are some strong indications here that Giraud was trying to apply the lessons of recent experience. The bayonet charge was what Giraud knew, yet even at this early stage of the war it must have been apparent from recent failures that the straight-forward charge was disastrous. Giraud did everything he could to give his men the best chance of success. Of course, it is plain that even that was not enough. The attack was somewhat foolhardy, made against a force of equal size without support. He was out of contact from the rest of his battalion, which in itself put his men in a dangerous situation. This too can be attributed to of years of indoctrination that taught the superiority of the attack over defense.
Although left for dead, that was not the end of Captain Giraud. He was captured by the Germans and recovered in hospital. Giraud would have the distinction of being captured and escaping in both world wars. Giraud would command a French battalion in 1917 after escaping through the Netherlands. He was a General in 1940, and after his capture managed to escape to North Africa.4
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4 Jean-Louis Larcade, Zouaves & Tirailleurs: les régiments de marche et les régiments mixtes (1914-1918.) (Paris : Editions des Argonautes, 2000). 206.