The Charge of the 2e Zouaves at Charleroi, 22 August 1914
The battles of August 1914 are infamous for the carnage caused by out-dated tactics such as massed infantry assaults with bayonet. Many years ago, my first foray into the history of the French army in the First World War came from one of the redoubtable Osprey books on the subject.1 “There was to be no firing in the advance” records the section on tactics in The French Army 1914-18, “the first order was to fix bayonets, the second to charge.” Charging without firing a shot was by no means a universal experience during the Battle of the Frontiers during August 1914. Other tactics, such as attacking by bounds of fire and movement were available to the infantry commander, but bayonet charges were frequently used and examples from the pages of French war diaries are easy to find. Those early battles are worth looking at from a soldiers’-eye view. The first battles of August 1914 offer a glimpse into the mentality of the time and are the starting place for the changes in tactics and organization that followed. What is more, although things invariably went terribly wrong, the actual circumstances varied considerably. In this series, I am going to look at examples of French bayonet charges and the ways that they unfolded.
During the research for my recent book, Too Many Heroes, Volume 1, I came across an example of a bayonet charge executed by the 2e Zouaves of the 37e Division during the Battle of Charleroi, on 22 August 1914. The War Diary of the 37e Division contains the following entry:
22 August 1914
Order to the 2e Zouaves to engage itself to the left of the 19e Division.
The Zouaves advanced and disappeared behind the ridge to the North East of Arsimont.
At 10H30 a movement of retreat brought them back to that ridge.
They have suffered important losses while attacking Auvelais and the bridges of the Sambre to the East.2
The entry is terse, but it is clear that a devastating tragedy had occurred. The diarist watched the Zouaves advance towards their first battle of the war and disappear over the crest of a ridge into the unknown. An hour and a half later they were in full retreat having suffered heavy losses. What happened?
For the 2e Zouaves of the 37e Division, the advance on Auvelais, near Charleroi, was the first time that years of preparation would be put to the test against a real enemy. There were four Zouave Regiments in 1914, each with 8 battalions (including both active and reserve).3 Most of the battalions of the Zouave regiments were dispersed in garrisons throughout North Africa, but the 5e and 11e Battalions of each regiment were stationed in France. Each 5e Battalion was invariably comprised of conscripts and volunteers of the active army, while the 11e Battalion of a Zouave regiment was comprised of local reservists from either Paris or Lyon, depending on their regiment. The Zouaves of the reserve battalions in France were “Zouaves” simply because this was the closest reserve battalion to their place of residence; during their period of active service they may have belonged to any of the ordinary infantry regiments. The four Zouave regiments were administrative not combat formations; on campaign, ad hoc régiments de marche were formed from available battalions to take to the field. In fact, in August 1914 nine battalions of Zouaves were already on campaign in Morocco and could not be immediately spared for the war against Germany. The régiments de marche that were initially contributed to the Western Front were improvised from battalions not already committed to the Moroccan campaign.
The Zouaves were considered to be elite regiments of the French army, but that was a reputation based largely on exploits of the 19th century. By 1914 the Zouave regiments were composed of conscripts just like the vast majority of soldiers in the French army, with perhaps a slightly higher proportion of volunteers. The 2e Régiment de marche de Zouaves of the 37e Division were comprised of the 1er Battalion stationed at Oran, Algeria, and the 5e and 11e battalions stationed at Sathonay, near Lyon in France. Although Zouave battalions on campaign in Morocco were among the few soldiers of the French army that had ever actually been under fire when the First World War broke out, few if any of the Zouaves stationed in France had ever seen action before. Yet with their elite reputation, it is likely that few French soldiers were as deeply imbued with “élan” as the Zouaves. French battle doctrine of August 1914 was dominated by the notion of the superiority of attack over defense – a notion that machine guns, trenches and indirect artillery fire would soon dispel. The 2e Zouaves at Auvelais had never been under fire before and their first attack would be a shocking initiation.
The advance on the village of Auvelais on 22 August 1914, part of the larger Battle of Charleroi, was just one small engagement in a massive struggle remembered as the Battle of the Frontiers. When the 37e Division was attached to the Ve Armée on 17 August it was with the expectation that they were part of the important French offensive.4 According to Plan XVII the French Ve Armée was originally intended to join the IIIe and IVe Armées in their thrust through the centre of the German army in the Ardennes, but by 22 August it found itself wrong-footed and desperately on the defensive. Together, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French Ve Armée found themselves facing the main assault wing of the German army which was forcing its way through Belgium. With the German 2nd Army approaching from the North, and the 3rd Army advancing from the East, Lanrezac positioned his Ve Armée to face both of them at the confluence of the Sambre and the Meuse rivers. Lanrezac did not take adequate steps to guard his position holding the banks of the Sambre and the Meuse. Two bridges over the Sambre were unguarded, and on 21 August the Prussian Guards of the German 2nd Army began crossing the Sambre between Charleroi and Namur. By the morning of 22 August, the German 2ndArmy had a solid bridgehead across the Sambre.5
Having received no orders from Lanrezac, his Corps commanders took matters into their own hands by launching a counter-attack early on 22 August. When the attack of the 19e Division faltered, its commander, General Bonnier, asked the 37e Division for help. General Comby of the 37e responded by ordering the 2e Zouaves to support the 19e Division and place itself under Bonnier’s orders. Regrettably, there is no war diary for the 2e Zouaves, but a regimental history published in 1921 fills in some of the details of what followed:
The great Battle of Charleroi, where the enemy hoped to carry off the first decisive blow, was engaged. The 2e Zouaves, who received a new chief, Lieutenant Colonel TROUSSEL, was put at the disposition of the General Commanding the 19eme Division and received, on 22 August in the morning, the order to capture the village of AUVELAIS.
The task was formidable and worthy of the 2e Zouaves. The village, solidly defended, armed with numerous machine guns and protected by powerful artillery, was held by the elite of the German army: the Imperial Guard. The ground, flat and bare, descended in a gentle slope towards the SAMBRE. Impossible to escape on that glacis in view of the enemy and the inexorable fire of machine guns.
The 5ème Battalion, Colonel in the lead, left nonetheless for the assault, heads high. The bullets and shells tore bloody gaps in the ranks. Colonel TROUSSEL fell mortally struck, but, following close behind, the Zouaves advanced even so.
At 9 hours 30, the 5ème Bataillon reached a slag heap at only 150 metres from the village and drove a wedge between the first houses of AUVELAIS and the hamlet of ALLEUX, protected by a trench. The 1er and 11ème Battalions did not delay to prolong the 5ème, facing the village.
But the machine guns raged. The Germans, hidden in the houses, suffered little. The French artillery, taken violently, in part, by large calibre guns, remained silent. The regiment exhausted itself and ammunition became scarce. Major DECHERF understood that to continue the struggle to the death was useless and towards 12 hours 30, by small units, the Zouaves regained their starting positions.6
Of course, the regimental history attempts to put a brave face on things, but the attack had been a disaster. The 2e Zouaves suffered 689 casualties, mostly from the 5e Battalion. They were pinned down in the open and by 12:30 they were in retreat. Another version of what transpired can be found in the diary of the 73e Brigade:
21 August, at 21 hours, order No 46/3 of the Don
The 37e Don goes to bring itself immediately on the front Pontaury (N. of Mettet) – St. Gerard in 2 columns:
Left Column (General Blanc OC the 73e Bde) comprising the 73e Bde, the Engineer Coy, 2 groups of Artillery, the Divisional squadron, by Mettet on Pontaury.
Right Column (Colonel Taupin of the 74e Bde) comprising the 74e Bde and 1 gr of Artillery by Rosée, Flavion, Trimeton sur Biert on Cottaprez.
Departure of the 1st element (2e Zouaves) from Florennes at 23H30
The 2eTirailleurs, delayed, only passed the I.P. at 2H.
The 6e Tirailleurs brought themselves by itinerary directly on Cottaprez.
On arriving at Pontaury, the battle was already engaged in strength on the Sambre. The Brigade was brought to the S. of Fosse, forming up covered to the N. of Fosse by 1 Bon of the 2e Zouaves.
Then towards 5H, it received the order to form up to the N of Fosse where the 6e Tirailleurs joined.
Division Bonnier of the 10e C.A. was strongly engaged on the Sambre in front of Auvelais and Ham sur Sambre. Its Chief asked General Comby of the 37e Don to give him a regiment to support Bde Rogerie. The 2e Zouaves were designated.
At 8 hours, its chief received from the General OC the 19e Don the following order: “Seize the rest of the village of Auvelais occupied by the Germans and throw them into the
Sambre. You have the Guard facing you.”
The 2e Zouaves marched on their objective. Bon Decherf was directed to the left supported on the Fosse – Arzimont road; the other Bons were echeloned at 500m to the right.
The regiment progressed rapidly, joined by remnants of the 48e, badly depleted, seized a copse of woods situated 1km S.W. of Auvelais with bayonet without firing a rifle shot, then fell under the fire of the defenders of the village, at distances from 150 to 300m. The enemy occupied strong trenches provided with machine guns. Their artillery, which was not counter-battered, held nothing back; The Zouaves were pinned down to the ground and suffered severe losses.
They struggled up to 12H30 without support of our artillery, and at that moment, had to beat a retreat.
That commenced by the right by successive echelons at the cost of enormous losses, the enemy contented himself to pursue by fire.
Certain remnants held up very close to some houses of Auvelaiscould not execute their withdrawal until night.9
The two accounts agree on all of the major points, but each offers some unique insights. It was the comment about advancing “with bayonet without firing a rifle shot” that really caught my attention. It is tempting to imagine that the charge was inevitably suicidal, yet Major Decherf was evidently able to size up the strength of the enemy in front of him, and accurately judged that he would be able to simply drive them out of their position. The first contact with the German forces near the copse of wood was only a skirmish screen, and not the main enemy line. There is no indication that the German skirmishers attempted to hold their ground against the initial bayonet charge. Bayonet charges seldom did result in contact with the enemy. Instead, one of two things would typically happen; either the defender would give way, or the charging troops would come under heavy fire and go to ground or retreat. Jean-Norton Cru, a veteran of the Great War, attempted to dispel many of the myths about the war in his writings. On bayonet charges, he cited another veteran Henry Morel-Journel, in Journal d’un Officier:
“A bayonet charge” an officer who has led several was telling me, “is a band of frightened men who rush forward closing their eyes and pressing their weapons against their chests. That goes on for a bit, until a volley makes them crouch or a shell has scattered them or they reach the enemy. The real hand to hand encounter is extremely rare; that one of the two adversaries who has the less confidence in his strength surrenders or runs away several seconds before contact.”10
The charging Zouaves gained the copse of wood, but it is likely that the German skirmishers were long gone by the time they arrived.
That is not to say that hand-to-hand fighting never occurred (later posts in this series will provide some examples), and it may be that some of the German skirmishers were run through, but the Zouaves’ real problems began once they cleared the woods and began advancing on the main German line. The advance drove the Zouaves deeper into the German positions where resistance quickly mounted. Within a short time the Zouaves came up against entrenched positions and machine guns. The initial force of the bayonet charge was now spent and the Zouaves found themselves in a kill zone, pinned down in open ground and completely unsupported by artillery.
It is equally interesting that one of the complaints about the French artillery is the lack of counter-battery against the German guns. The spearhead of the Zouaves’ advance was undertaken by the 5e Battalion of the 2e Zouaves, from Sathonay, France. Both opponents would have regarded themselves as the elite of their own forces; it was Guard against Guard. There seems to be a feeling that, man for man, the Zouaves might have been the equal of the Prussian Guards if only the German artillery had been neutralized. But counter-battery against German guns was not an easy thing to achieve during the mobile phase of the war. First the German guns had to be located, but the German use of high trajectory howitzers allowed them to place their batteries out of direct line of sight. If they had counted on being able to knock out German guns ahead of the infantry attack, it proved a difficult job in practice.
If the Zouaves had wanted artillery support, there were about three hours between the initial contact at 9:30 and the retreat at 12:30 where artillery could have turned the situation around. Colonel Troussel had died leading the attack, but any of the Battalion commanders could have asked for artillery. The war diary of the 37e Artillerie Divisional (AD 37e) records that they were indeed ready for action:
The 3 groups at 4 hours were put in column in the middle of the division on the road from Mettet to Fosse at the ridge of the hamlet of Haman. The fusillade extended towards Arsimont. The 20e Division held the knoll of Arsimont, the Germans only held Auvelais. Order was given to the 37e to engage. The artillery of the 20e Division and a part of the corps artillery were engaged. There remained few places for the AD 37e. The groups were put in battery nevertheless, and fired on the zone of ground descending from Arsimont on Auvelais. No German offensive was launched.11
The timing is unclear and one wonders what they were shooting at, but the batteries of the 37e were in action and if orders had been given they would have been in position to respond. Even without telephone communications, three hours was conceivably enough time for runners from the 2e Zouaves to reach their Brigade Headquarters and pass orders to their artillery. But there is little indication that staff from the Brigade or Divisional Headquarters were keeping in communication with the Zouaves as they advanced. It was also well within the purview of the artillery to observe the situation at the front. The last comment in the AD 37e diary, that no German offensive was launched, suggests that they were not even very well informed about the nature of the tactical situation; it was the French who were supposed to be on the offensive. French infantry and artillery regarded themselves as independent arms on the battlefield; each located and engaged the enemy on their own. An almost total lack of coordination between French infantry and artillery was one of the hallmark failures of the opening campaign of the war.
The 2e Zouaves had gone into battle believing that they were among the best troops in the French army, that the enemy in front of them was “worthy” of their fighting prowess. If they couldn’t achieve such a formidable task then who could? But the first real experience of total war had shattered those ideas. No amount of élan had been enough to drive the Prussian Guard out of Auvelais. Everything they thought they knew about fighting would have to be re-examined.
Thanks for reading! In Part 2 of this series I will examine the charge of the 7e Tirailleurs Algériens at Fosse-a-l’Eau, 28 August 1914. For the 2e Zouaves the charge at Auvelais had been their first experience under fire. The 7e Tirailleurs Algériens had been sent to France straight from the campaign in Morocco, how would that experience influence events?
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