In Part 1 of this series I examined the charge of the 2e Zouaves of the 37e Division at the Battle of Charleroi. In that article I argued that the reckless bayonet charge was partly the product of inexperience. In this post, I will examine the attack of the Division Marocaine at Fosse-à-l’Eau on 28 August 1914. This was their first battle on the Western Front, but not their first time in a combat situation. The battalions of the Division Marocaine were drawn from units already on campaign in Morocco when the war began. Experience in Morocco did not result in adoption of open order tactics, but the soldiers did demonstrate some good operational proficiency. The soldiers knew how to move tactically through a battlefield and, perhaps most importantly, there was better coordination with artillery.
It should be emphasized that soldiers of the Division Marocaine were not from Morocco. The twelve battalions of the division included four battalions of Algerian Tirailleurs, one of Tunisian Tirailleurs, four battalions of French Zouaves, and a regiment with three battalions of the Colonial Infantry. In this post I will be focusing on one particular regiment of the Division Marocaine, the 1er Régiment Mixte de Zouaves et Tirailleurs (1RMZT), commanded by Colonel Cros. The 1RMZT, as the name suggests, was originally supposed to include a battalion of Zouaves, but such was the haste with which these units were formed that the regiment left for France before the Zouave battalion could be mobilized, and there actually never were any Zouaves in the Regiment. The regiment did include the 5e Battalion, 4e Tirailleurs Tunisiens, the 1er Battalion, 5e Tirailleurs Algériens, and the 4e Battalion, 7e Tirailleurs Algériens. By December 1914, the casualties suffered in the first months of the war forced a reorganization and the deeds of the regiment are recorded in the War Diary of 7e Régiment de Marche de Tirailleurs Algériens. Tirailleurs were soldiers of the French army recruited from the inhabitants of the French North African possessions. They were equipped and trained to the same standard as any other French soldier and more importantly, those of the Moroccan Division had already been deployed on an active campaign when the Great War began. As will see, that experience gave them an edge over the typical French soldier.
The Battle of the Frontiers was already playing out as elements of the Division Marocaine, commanded by General Humbert, began assembling to the northwest of Charleville, France, on 21 August 1914. The Division Marocaine had not been able to take any part in that opening battle of the war. Prior to the First World War, battalions of Zouaves and Tirailleurs of the French North African forces had been allocated to the 19e Corps d’Armée, which was intended to deploy two divisions to France in the event of a war with Germany. Those plans had to be adjusted because of an ongoing campaign in Morocco, which involved some 70,000 French soldiers. Units employed in Morocco were wanted for the campaign against Germany, but had to be replaced in the field by reserves before they could be mobilized. The delay prevented those units from joining the 37e and 38e Divisions as originally planned and, instead, a provisional division called the Division Marocaine was organized, which mobilized for France about a week behind most other forces of the French army. The week delay prevented the Division Marocaine from taking part in the catastrophic opening encounter between the massive French and German armies. The Division Marocaine was assigned to the 9e Corps d’Armée, which had been retreating along with the rest of the French IVe Armée since it’s defeat in the Battle of the Frontiers. On 28 August 1914, the IVe Armée was ordered to counter attack and the role of the 9e Corps was to protect the northwest flank of the IVe Armée. The War Diary of the Division Marocaine records the events of the day:
General Order No 25 of the General OC the 9e C.A. established the mission of the Division for the day.
It consists: 1. To cover the army in the direction of the area comprised between the wooded region of Froidemont and the forest of Signy
2. To push a Brigade and the A.C. towards Raillecourt at the disposition of the General OC the C.A.
By General Order No 18 the General OC the Division ordered the details of execution of those missions.
The movements were executed as prescribed.
The greater part of the elements of Brigade Blondat, established to the N.E. of Liberecy with Group Martin of the A.D. to protect the retreat of the advanced posts, were the target of an attack feebly pressed by the enemy.
The fusillade, very lively for about an hour, ceased towards 8h30 under the fire of our artillery. Our losses were tiny and the elements of Brigade Blondat were able to disengage easily and resumed their movement in the direction assigned.
When the elements of the 2e Brigade arrived at Launois the General OC the Division was stopped by an order from the General OC the 9e C.A. prescribing to him to move towards Perron woods to cooperate with an offensive of the 11e C.A. against the enemy crossing the Meuse at Jonchery
The movement was begun towards 11H30 when a new order from the OC of the 9e C.A. prescribed to the General OC the Division to move with the 2 regiments Cros and Fellert to the rescue of Brigade Blondat near Signy l’Abbaye, to eject the enemy from Fosse a l’Eau and to make themselves master of the highway from Rethel passing to Signy l’Abbaye.
In consequence The General OC the Division gave the following order.
The enemy is in the general direction of Thin le Moutiers – Mailly forest
The Division goes to meet and attack him.
Regiment Cros will move in the general direction of Jamoin – Fosse à l’Eau. Zone of march between that road and the Bellevue farm
Regiment Fellert: General direction of Laumois-Dommery – axis of movement by the highway passing to the environs of the bakeries, branch off towards [blank] to move.
Brigade Blondat will move in the general direction of Dommery
Corps Artillery; 1 group to the orders of Colonel Cros – 1 group to the orders of Colonel Fellert
Group Turpin will move in the direction of Dommery to put itself at the disposition of General Blondat.
Note: Conserve Signy if possible.
Those orders came to be transmitted when the General OC the Division learned that Brigade Blondat, that the General OC the 9e Corps believed was compromised, had, in fact, disengaged easily without losses and was continuing its movement, by Courcelle farm which it occupied, on Fosse à l’Eau to fulfil the mission which had been conferred to it.
The order given was nevertheless unmodified and the movement started was continued.
Towards the same time, it was reported to the General of the Division by the Colonel OC the 7e Hussards that the enemy came to occupy Dommery immediately behind Brigade Blondat.
The General OC the Division therefore gave the order to Battalion Lagrue, the rear Baton of the Brigade Blondat arrived and disembarked in the morning at Laumois, to move to attack Dommery and occupy that village.
As we can see from the entry above, the situation was changing faster than the 9e Corps headquarters could keep up. Orders given by the 9e Corps to General Humbert of the Division Marocaine were obsolete by the time they arrived. This was a recipe for disaster, but things started to come together when General Humbert acted on information from cavalry of the 7e Hussards and took the initiative to intervene. General Humbert’s allocation of his artillery is also interesting. Each of his principle units had an artillery group placed under its direct command. The 1st Brigade under General Blondat had Groupe Turpin in support. The 2nd Brigade actually had no General of its own; orders given to the 1RMZT (Colonel Cros) and 2RMZT (Colonel Fellert) were coming directly from General Humbert except whenever he delegated command to Blondat. Because of that situation, Cros and Fellert had direct command of their own artillery support.
The situation began to solidify, and the War Diary of the Division Marocaine continues:
Brigade Blondat supported by a group is charged with holding the front Dommery – Courcelle farm.
Regt Fellert has as objective Courcelle farm exclusive, Vieux – Gravier inclusive; it is supported by a group of the A.D.
Regt Cros in echelon to the right and supported by the A.C. must continue its advance toward Fosse-a-l’Eau.
The struggle engaged violently on the whole front. Units of Bde Blondat which occupied Fosse-a-l’Eau could not hold before the push of significant enemy forces. Regt Cros is charged with retaking that locality.
Until night the battle had been of great violence.
At left Dommery had been occupied by Bon Lagrue which had come to reinforce Bon Lachese, but little supported by the Divisional Arty which, given the nature of the terrain, could only put one Battery in action, two battalions had had to abandon the village under the push of enemy Infantry which was perfectly supported by the artillery established to the west of Courcelle farm. Those batons coming back with a charge succeeded in reoccupying the village, but pushed back a 2nd time they had had to establish themselves in the orchard to the E where they held until night, further to the right the colonial battalions Garelly and Coup had organized Courcelle farm defensively and even launched an energetic offensive movement, but not supported by Div Artillery and hit on the other part by enemy Arty they suffered losses reaching nearly half of their strength struggling heroically until night – still further to the right the Regiments Fellert and Cros well supported by our Div Artillery and A.C. which took the advantage little by little could advance in the directions indicated, but not without serious losses caused by German machine guns.
Colonel Cros at the head of his men which he led with remarkable energy succeeded in enveloping the woods to the North of Fosse-a-l’Eau.
Towards 17H30 a German counter-attack broke out en masse from the notch between Maisonville and Fosse-a-l’Eau came down with all speed on Bon Sauvageot of Regiment Fellert which was coming to be very depleted. That strong counter attack of approximately a Baton, caught in the sights of a group of Arty, was absolutely annihilated.
At nightfall the German Arty was silenced completely and the fusillade progressively faded away.
The passage above illustrates just how decisive artillery could be. French infantry met with little success anywhere on the battlefield where artillery was unable to provide support because of conditions on the ground. The French 75mm gun was a field gun, not a howitzer. A Howitzer is designed to fire shells on a high, arcing trajectory, so that they plunge down onto enemy positions. Howitzers do not normally shoot at positions they can see; they fire by map coordinates. Field guns fired high velocity, flat trajectory shells; they can also fire on map coordinates but any intervening terrain features can block the line of fire and French doctrine emphasized firing directly at enemy positions at fairly close ranges. The guns supporting Blondat at Dommery were only able to put one battery into action because of the confined nature of the ground they deployed on and the French battalions there were forced to pull back. An attack by the Colonial Infantry at Courcelle farm was launched without artillery support and failed. On the other hand, attacks made by Cros and Fellert did achieve some success, but not without some hard fighting.
The War Diary of the 7e Tirailleurs records the battle from the perspective of the soldiers under Colonel Cros (1RMZT)
At 5h battalion Britsch went to take a fallback position to the west of Jandun facing north and at 8h45 the baton moved on Poix-Terron; the 2e brigade including the regiment made to leave, passed into reserve of the 9e Corps d’Armée, which had to move ultimately towards the Meuse in view of cooperating in the offensive taken by General Langle de Cary – at 10h30 information made known the presence of the enemy towards Thin to the N.W., the baton suspended its march and took and articulated formation facing N.W. – the baton at 11h marched towards Dommery where Brigade Blondat (1ere Brigade of the Division), strongly engaged, fell back. The direction of march is the Road Launois – Thin les Moutiers. The enemy being reported at Fosse-a-l’Eau, the 2e Brigade advanced in that direction, Baton Britsch is echeloned to the rear and to the right – at 16h30 the 1er Cie of the battalion left its 1er platoon to support the artillery, the 2e platoon remains in reserve at the disposition of the CO of the battalion. The 2e3e and 4e Cies passed the village and took position. – at 18h10 the offensive was ordered, the Baton seized the first ridge and charged with bayonet to clear the edge of the woods in which the enemy was concealed.
Like the 2e Zouaves at Charleroi, the attack at Fosse-à-l’Eau was made by bayonet, but it met with much more success. The diary of the 7e Tirailleurs does not acknowledge it, but their success was due in large part to their supporting artillery, as the diary of the 3e Batterie Coloniale illustrates:
3e Batterie Coloniale
Departure from Librecy at 5h. Close to 5h30 position at 2k N of Signy l’Abbaye and at 500m from the Signy l’Abbaye – Rocroi road. Zone of surveillance 100 mils to right and to left of the clog factory. Cmd Post on the road, intercommunication by hand signals. No shooting. – At 9h left that position passing to Signy l’Abbaye – Dommery. Stopped in waiting position at 200m E of Plate-Pierre. At 15h the Battery put itself in position at 200 m N of Plate-Pierre on the road towards Fosse-a-l’Eau. Supported an attack in the direction NE of Dommery. – At 17h45 put in battery at the E edge of the village of Fosse-a-l’Eau under fire of enemy machineguns – Fired high explosive shell at 400m on the woods occupied by enemy infantry who had to abandon it.
The success of the 3e Battery came at the cost of deploying to fire on the enemy at point blank range. With the enemy only 400 metres away, they were well within range of rifle and machinegun fire, but it was a bold move and the combination of Artillery fire and the bayonet charge against Germans in the woods to the N of Fosse was enough to drive them back. In contrast to the disaster at Charleroi described in Part 1, the 3re Battery changed position three times in order to aggressively support the attack. It should be said though, that howitzers could have done the same job without moving, and it highlights the restrictions the dependence on field guns imposed on French operations.
In addition to the French War Diaries, there is an eye-witness account of the attack at Fosse-à-l’Eau from Lieutenant Suffren of the 1RMZT, whose recollection was recorded in the 1917 book by Paul Ginisty, La Histoire de la Guerre par les Combattants. The book was subjected to censorship, and we have to expect that the account will be as rosy as possible. Nevertheless Lieutenant Suffren provides a unique perspective. In this first excerpt, Suffren begins by describing the march from Dommery towards Fosse-à-l’Eau:
The Regiment had to form up at the east exit of the village, defiladed by a ridge. But in that formation it came up against enclosures of barbed wire; it was necessary to make open numerous passages; fortunately the tools were in their packs and we had the regulation wire cutters available. Efforts were in vain, those beautiful peace-time tools were powerless to cut the enclosures. We ended up giving the order to use hatchets, which gave more success. Our Tirailleurs were finally on their way, ready in case of alarm.
The countryside the Tirailleurs had to advance through was crisscrossed with pastures enclosed with wire so tough that the issue wire-cutter couldn’t cut it. That government-issue tools don’t always work is a scenario rarely considered in peace-time manoeuvers. The dense, undulating ground was interrupted by hamlets and copses of wood; an enemy formation could appear close by with little warning. There was every possibility that the battalion could come under fire while fumbling to get past a fence, but these soldiers had been in combat before and their officers knew how to deal with this situation, as Suffern describes below:
New order. It was necessary to march on Signy l’Abbaye. The 1er Bataillon of the 5e Tirailleurs was in the lead; we cut across woods and enclosures. In front, patrols of sappers prepared the way, hacking through bush, cutting enclosures. The battalion followed; in each company, we put sections in column by 1, long formation, but very practical on an itinerary tormented and strewn with obstacles. We thus gained a small village where we were 2 kilometres to the south-east of Fosse-a-l’Eau.
It was eleven hours; we heard a lively fusillade, but always no canon. Colonel Cros gave his orders to Major Britsch, of the 1er Bataillon, and we resumed across country, marching in diamond formation, that which Marshal Bugeaud affectionately called the “Boar’s Head”. It permits forming front rapidly in any direction.
The reference to Marshal Bugeaud, remembered as the father of the Armée d’Afrique and affectionately called “Pere Bugeaud” by the troops, is a nod to Suffren’s North African experience. Having expertly advanced across country, the Tirailleurs were directed onto Fosse-à-l’Eau. Suffren describes an attack by a neighboring unit of the Colonial Infantry and a battalion of the 2RMZT under Major Clerc. His account is overly-romantic :
It was sixteen hours 30. It was on those positions that a counter attack took place given by a colonial battalion to the left, and battalion Clerc to the right. That last having the wooded crest as its objective, put three companies in the first line and one in reserve. It came off cleanly; some men already fell behind him under the storm of bullets. Not one hundred metres were run when he staggered and collapsed, struck by several projectiles while shouting: “En avant!” Our Tirailleurs yelled and rushed, many also fell; they continued to advance intrepidly. But those cursed enclosures of barbed wire. Vainly they tried to break them, to cut them, to knock down the posts. No use. So, with a sublime élan, under those implacable machine guns, those who remained, with packs on their backs, jumped the obstacle!
By Suffren’s account the initial attack went ahead before the 3e Battery had begun firing from Fosse-à-l’Eau. Despite Suffren’s version of events, the German machine guns and the wire fences must have held up the advance for a considerable period of time. Suffren fails to mention the French battery firing from Fosse-à-l’Eau as of 17:45, but goes on to say that at 18:00 (90 minutes after the attack started), “one by one the machine guns were silenced.” The 3e Batterie Coloniale was in action. At that point the advance must have resumed and the Tirailleurs reached the German positions in the woods to the north of Fosse-à-l’Eau. Suffren recalled seeing “hand to hand fighting” through his binoculars, but the enemy continued to hold out. At that point Colonel Cros committed one of his battalions under Major Britsch to the attack. Major Britsch made some good use of the ground in front of his battalion, but again the artillery preparation must have played an important role:
Major Britsch, using the road towards the east, by the embankment that I reported, brought us close up to the enemy, nearly without losses, occupied the quarry and gave, at 250 metres, an assault which would succeed in two bounds, despite the machine guns… We charged the enemy position with bayonet. Ah! The shouts of our Tirailleurs, and the fantastic bound of their first assault, that rush on the [forest] edge that the Germans deserted, terrified! That will remain, forever, engraved in my memory.
In constrast to the attack of the 2e Zouaves at Charleroi, the casualties suffered under Major Britsch were far fewer; 7 killed, 2 missing and 21 wounded including Major Britsch himself. Casualties for Major Clerc’s battalion are not available, but the Division Marocaine did suffer some significant losses. Total losses for the division on 28 August were reported at 254 killed, 394 missing, and 1001 wounded; a high number, but not as catastrophic as many other divisions experienced in their first battle. Overall the Division had held its own, which was not a common experience for French divisions in August 1914. Ginisty wrote that the attack at Fosse-à-l’Eau “was one of the favourable episodes of the retreat.” There had been few indeed.
There is good evidence here that some lessons of operational experience in Morocco had been absorbed by those soldiers, but it needs to be said that their officers were still committed to use of the bayonet. Artillery support was better than usual but still not perfect. The experience of Major Clerc’s battalion shows that they had no qualms about launching a bayonet charge even if no support was available. Yet artillery preparation and good use of ground mitigated the cost of those tactics in many cases that day.
Thanks for reading! In Part 3 I will examine the charge of the 4e Zouaves on 30 August 1914, at the Battle of Guise.