Hero of Verdun (Part 3)

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The Bois des Caures

22nd February 1916

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A recreated postcard of the action at the Bois des Caures which came out after Driant’s defence of the wood

At dawn, the situation in the Bois Caures worsened. There are very few French left in the Bois des Fays and the village of Beaumont to the south. Yet no new attack was initially unleashed until, at noon, a barrage opened up on the wood again and another attack began,

Sgt Quartermaster Murat of the 59th BCP,

“Around noon, the bombardment began to subside. We are ordered ‘Everybody out!’ The Chasseurs were waiting for the order to break away with no defence to protect us. Colonel Driant was aware of our situation and we deploy men to the right and left of our shelter. To give us assurance, because we are completely in the open, he himself appears with a gun in his hand and a box of grenades at hand, in the position of a shooter kneeling. ‘They did not have life, said the Colonel, and we are committed to saving our skin.’”

A detachment of the 56th Battalion, deprived of its leader, reported to the Colonel. Second Lieutenant Debeugny, the liaison officer of the battalion for several days, begged Driant to give him command of the detachment which Driant allowed. Debeugny moved off at the head of his detachment. But, moments later, he was carried back on a stretcher, after a bullet had pierced his throat.

Murat continued,

“The bursting shrapnel still above our heads and the shooting is very strong in the front line. German soldiers appear more and more. We continue to take casualties, with each appearance our ranks begin to thin. A shell that comes from the rear broke above our heads, then another, and others. We believe it is our guns firing short. But soon we are informed two German guns are installed on the road to town, that is to say behind us and to our right, and it is this which shot at us at close range. Colonel Driant, without showing the least surprise, said, ‘My friends, it’s very simple, you put your guns in just facing the road.’ The enemy gunners are hesitant, gun against men, the success of the company they feel uncertain, but already one lieutenant leads and they will be placed some thirty meters away, facing the road to town, where they discovered the German gun. Attacking the gun is done quickly and we already hear the first bullets that crackle shortly. They reach their goal in time.”

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Another recreated postcard of the fighting for the Bois des Caures

Unfortunately the German gunners are quicker and a direct hit kills the machine-gun crew. Meanwhile, 500 yards away, Lieutenant Robin was killed. Corporal Stephane described his death,

“Our bunker was surrounded almost immediately the bombardment stopped. ‘Shoot for God’s sake shoot!’ cried Robin. ‘It’s impossible,’ shouted back a Chasseur, ‘They’re there, hundreds of them, six meters away.’ ‘Never mind fire!’ ‘It’s mad Lieutenant, they’re there, I tell you, more than a hundred have encircled the post!’

Stephane then claims that the young officer broke down in tears and asked,

‘What are we going to do then?’

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The remains of trenches in the Bois des Caures

Stephane was captured and as he is led away he witnessed follow up waves of German troops, some armed with flame-throwers, destroying the French bunkers with flame, he witnessed the time when Lt Robin was killed in one of them. The survivors of the first line tried to defend themselves with grenades. Sergeant Avet and the fifteen men he had the night before, of whom only six are armed, witnessed Trench 12 falling into enemy hands. Having decided to withdraw to Trench S6, Avet’s men were able to perform this movement but he stayed because he did not have time to retreat. With his rifle, with only eight cartridges, he shoots down four Germans, then, returned to his trench, a listening post, where he took cover.

Avet remained there until nightfall amazingly was able to cross the German lines and reached Vacherauville the next day. S6, S7 and S8 were all surrounded and attacked with flame-throwers and grenade. Lieutenant Pluntz had only four unwounded Chasseurs around him when he was shot through the chest and is killed instantly. Second Lieutenant Pagnon, fighting, too, at the top of the section, was horribly disfigured by a flame-thrower. He died blind in a German hospital a few days later. Sergeants Cosyns and Ruffin with Corporal Frating arwe still struggling to stem the tide of the German advance with grenades, Sergeant Plisson revolver in hand fought on until he too fell. The ninth company ceased to exist.

Lieutenant Grasset:

‘No one is left of the company at Vigneron, they are attacked frontally by a battalion and to the left by a company. But these brave men had ammunition and grenades, their shelters have been less hit by the bombing and their guns were still in good condition. Late in the evening when all the wood was cut off by the enemy the fighting was still going in that direction. Position R1 is taken from behind by an entire German battalion but the Supreme resistance was focussed around R2, where the valiant Driant grouped eight sections, approximately one hundred and twenty Chasseurs along with R3 where a half-section of the Simon’s Company, commanded by Sergeant Lépine, and nearby is Captain Berveiller who took a position with a platoon of his company at R4 and R5. Here this company was joined by the 165th Regiment. The 365th was also grouped on the southern edge of the wood, near the intersection of Flabas, and ready to go where their aid might help. ‘

Another company commander of the 59th, Lieutenant Simon, refers to this hellish afternoon. He managed to gather his men at the centre of the wood:

‘All of a sudden to the left, a lieutenant of the 165th Infantry Regiment arrived with some Poilus. It is Lieutenant Yves Leroux and he has got lost in the wood and he does not know where to go so he asks if he can stay with us, I accept his offer, and I place him to the left at the end of the trench, to monitor any movement that I feel will come that way. I saw large flames on the side of GGI. They are German pioneers who, with Flammenwerfer, had set fire to the defences. Suddenly shots go up, many of our men are hit. The Germans have come behind us and they were holed up in a shell hole, and then they take out Chasseurs who cannot get into cover. I warn Colonel Driant and asked for some men to flush the Germans out of their holes. It takes a few minutes and while the Chasseurs, led by Sergeant Hacquin, advance to the other side of the fence, with Sergeant Alliaux, I take up position in the trench that the Germans and are already beginning to return to. Bayonets, rifle butts, shovels, pick axes, of all those are used as we rush on them in a furious melee. They retreat, leaving some of them in our hands.’

But the attacks resumed without interruption, not only at R2, where Driant was fighting in the front line, but everywhere! 300 meters to Driant’s left Grasset stated

‘About three o’clock in the afternoon, a tremendous rush occurs on R3. A regiment sweeping Lépine’s half-section, destroying the networks and wires. Captain Berveiller’s unit is reduced by three quarters. In the trenches around R2, everyone is together in the 56th and 59th battalions, pioneers, telegraphists, liaison officers, cooks, messengers, artillerymen, machine guns. In all, there are still seventy or eighty men whose officers are still present to command.’

Quartermaster Sergeant Murat

‘It is almost 1600 hours now, our situation is very critical, the bullets whistling in the ears of us in all directions. After conferring with the Commander and Captain Vincent Renouard, Colonel Driant decided to fall back to continue our resistance more effectively further back. We leave in three groups.’

Driant remained to oversee the withdrawal.

‘He stopped at the aid station which was where the Doctor and Father Baudru Martimprey were with many wounded. He stood there, with these brave men to talk to them, to comfort them … He saw movement. Lieutenant Simon joined with a dozen men, all that remained of the company. Time is pressing and the Germans are there. With calm determination, Lieutenant Simon, admirably seconded by Sergeant Major Savart, remained about sixty feet away with a handful of brave men.’

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The remains of the Regimental Aid Post where it is alleged Driant fell

And it was here that Emile Driant was killed. Driant saw that Chasseur Papin had been struck by a bullet. He left aid station to go to help Papin and Sergeant Hacquin witnessed what happened next,

“The sergeant who accompanied Colonel Driant dropped into the same hole as me. The sergeant, he told me later, was named Coisne, and belonged to the 56th Rifles. I saw Colonel Driant at the edge of the same shell hole try to make a move to extend his arm and then he said, ‘Oh! There, my God!’ And then he turned around and collapsed backwards. From inside our shell hole his body was not visible because of cover. Understanding that the colonel had been wounded we endeavoured to rescue him. We did not want to leave him in the shell hole. As soon as a it was possible we went to him. He gave no sign of life, blood flowed from a head injury and also out through the mouth. His complexion was that of a dead man and his eyes were half closed. At that time it was approximately 16:30hrs.” 

Almost simultaneously with Driant, Commander Renouard, who was watching nearby also fell with a bullet in the forehead. The 56th and 59th battalions had lost their commanders.

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Emile Driant’s grave RIP

Grasset concluded his story,

‘Down alone, that night, stragglers from the Bois des Caures gradually gathered at Vacherauville.” All that was left of the 56th Battalion was Captain Vincent, suffering from two injuries, and who would die on another battlefield along with Captains Hamel and Herveiller, Lieutenants Raux and Grasset with sixty Chasseurs. In the 59th Battalion only Lt. Simon and 2nd Lieutenants Leroy and Malavault survived with fifty Chasseurs. This is all that remained of twelve hundred fighters.’

In his “Memories of War” the Crown Prince Frederick William wrote:

‘The XVIII Corps had been ordered to capture the Bois des Caures that day, and was in the afternoon strongly committed in clearing the forest around Vacherauville . The two neighbouring corps were ordered to support the XVIII Corps in the action.” So it took the 18th German Army Corps, ‘supported’ by two others (the 3rd and 7th) with artillery, to overcome the two battalions of Chasseurs, galvanized by Driant who had no artillery support.’

Thanks to the twenty-five hours of resistance along with other units along a 12 km front these unsung heroes managed to prevent the enemy from progressing no more than 2 km per day on average, for the first four days. This allowed reinforcements to be brought up and restore, for better or worse, the situation.

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Graves of some of the men who defended the Bois des Caures now lie with with Emile Driant

Driant’s stand has, quite rightly so, been immortalised by the French. But his actions over those two days were also recognised by the enemy he fought. The Germans gave him a full military funeral and a Baron who had fought against him asked his wife to write to Driant’s wife. This letter was sent via Switzerland, along with Driant’s personal belongings, accompanied with the Baron’s sympathy and respect at the way Driant had died and had acted in the defence of the Bois des Caures.

He and his gallant Chasseurs are true heroes of France!

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An unidentified Chasseur now laid to rest in the Bois des Caures RIP

 

Hero of Verdun (Part 2)

The Defence of the Bois des Caures

21st February 1916

Verdun Combat

French and German infantry in close combat at Verdun. A painting by the French artist Thiriat

The Battle of Verdun started on 21st February 1916 with the German barrage being so strong that it was said it could be heard 200 Km away in Black Lake, in the Vosges, and the French General Fenelon Passaga noted in his diary,

‘I see clearly through the floor of my shelter a drum roll incessant, punctuated with a quick bass drum.’

Corporal Maurice Brassard, of the 56th BCP, noted that of those waiting in his front-line trench in the Bois des Caures that,

‘Of my five Poilu, two are buried alive under their shelter crushed, two are more or less injured, and the third is waiting …’

This barrage went on throughout the morning and afternoon in snow storms where 1000s of French soldiers were killed and those that survived, often found themselves buried with earth and the blood from their comrades. This barrage burst into a narrow triangle around the Brabant Ornes-Verdun area. The infantry assault began at 16:00, in thick snow, with the force of ten German divisions supported by over 1000 artillery pieces with the advancing German columns also supported by flamethrowers.

But even in this carnage French soldiers held on dazed and exhausted. They defended with tenacity and if they did not have rifles or machine guns they began to fight off the attackers with grenades and bayonets engaging in hand to hand combat.

Emile Driant’s men were positioned on the northern edge of the Bois des Caures, which was defended by the survivors of the 56th and 59th BCP with some elements of the 165th RI.

Bois des Caures

The Bois des Caures, is a strip of about 3 km long and 800 meters wide on average, it is oriented from southwest to northeast, it stands on a small hill overlooking the village of Ville-devant-Chaumont, occupied by the Germans, and advances in the breakwater to the enemy, with the two villages of Haumont and Beaumont in the rear. Driant commanded 1300 men, assisted by the Commander Renouard (56th BCP) who remains alive when the attack goes in. They would face about 10,000 men of the 21st German division, or 4 regiments at full strength, supported by the fire from 40 heavy batteries, seven field batteries and 50 mortars.

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Driant’s positions in the Bois des Caures 21st February 1916

In the north-western section Lieutenant Robin, a young commander of the 9th company, remained at the head of a platoon of fighters. The destruction of the barbed wire had allowed the Germans, using cover, to arrive at the parapet in three directions at once. Lieutenant Grasset recounted this initial attack:

‘First they fight with rifles and Sergeant Cosyns, firing repeatedly at less than ten meters, shot seven Germans and then the fight continues with grenades and bayonets and rifle butts. Lt. Robin escapes death when he is slightly wounded by a burst from a grenade. Chasseur Hénin alone prevents a communication trench from falling into the hands of the enemy before his head is crushed by a rifle butt. Staff Sergeant Simon is disfigured by a grenade. Sergeant Berthe, has his jaw broken by a bullet. Chasseur Dubois has his belly opened by a bayonet. Robin and the survivors are now down to a few dozen meters but are able to cling onto their position. Several German companies are set against them, while two enemy battalions manage to slip along the edge of the woods to the south, falling on the survivors of another company, the seventh, commanded by Captain Seguin. Four successive assaults repress our men… The enemy then master the whole southern part of the wood square and the defenders of the northern edge, which held the enemy in check are taken from the rear.’

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One of the bunkers still visible in the Bois des Caures. This one is right on the front-line for 21st February 1916

Sergeant Léger, with six men who had lost all his guns bar one at Abris 17, and Sergeant Legrand, who helds Trench No 16 with six Chasseurs. These 14 men faced two German battalions.

Surrounded, Léger’s only machine gun was put out of action. But he stood up and attempted to repel the attack with grenades. His Chasseurs are all lost but he continued to fight on until he too was seriously wounded and fell unconscious. This heroic episode deeply impressed the Germans who witnessed it and Léger’s action was recounted in newspapers across the Rhine in great detail to make it an example to youth.

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Abris 17 in the Bois des Caures

Sergeant Legrand swore that he would die rather than abandon his post. His six Chasseurs had only two serviceable rifles. They could have fallen fall back but they stayed and Legrand stated,

‘I received the order to hold to the end. We only had grenades and bayonets.’

The final attack of the first day cornered Lieutenant Seguin and the last handful of his men who had concentrated the survivors of the three sections in Trenches S7 & S8 and in a communication trench. The company was attacked head on and two or three enemy companies managed to slip between S7 and S8. It was in this tidal wave that fifty of Séguin’s men were surrounded.

They exhausted all their grenades and overall they only had six rifles. Trench S8 was
destroyed and between S7 and S8 the Germans brought up a machine gun and a cannon-gun. One after the other defenders fell S8 wass overrun. Séguin was wounded in the ball of his foot and a bullet tore through his right arm severing it. A German officer wass present when Séguin was captured. He reached out to him and in excellent French he said,

‘Captain, I congratulate you for your strength and I offer you my condolences for your injuries.’ 

Night fwll in the blowing snow and at 8 pm, Lt. Robin, hoping (wrongly) that reinforcements will soon join him moved with fixed bayonets and lead his men towards Trench S7 abandoned by Captain Seguin, he cames across a group of Germans asleep so he captured them and retook point S7. Grasset stated,

“Colonel Driant is in the wood. He visits his posts. At midnight he is at the front. He congratulated Lt. Robin for his noble conduct, and explains the situation. It is not good the attack has seriously threatened the front and on both flanks. The Germans have huge numbers … Robin asks Driant, ‘What am I to do against this with my 80 men?’ The colonel stared at him as if to weigh his soul and whether he could say anything to such a young officer. He replied, ‘My poor Robin, the order is to stay where we are.”

In the last part of this blog we will look at what happened to Driant and his Chasseurs on 22nd February 1916.

Hero of Verdun (Part 1)

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Émile Augustin Cyprien Driant

(11th September 1855 – 22th February 1916) 

On the eve of the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Verdun I wanted to introduce a hero of mine. This man would sacrifice himself and his two regiments at the start of the battle and would help to buy time for the beleaguered defenders of that sector. This is not a Norfolk story but I wanted to introduce this man to others because I have visited and guided his action for many years now.

Émile Augustin Cyprien Driant was born on 11th September 1855 at Neufchâtel-sur-Aisne and graduated from the Saint-Cyr military academy and became an Army officer in 1877. He was appointed to the infantry, where he joined the 4th Regiment of Zouaves in North Africa as a Captain in 1886. In 1888 Driant married the daughter of nationalist General Boulanger. He spent four as an instructer at the Saint-Cyr military academy, and between 1899–1905 he commanded the 1st Battalion of Chasseurs. He resigned his commission in 1906 and devoted his time to journalism and politics where was elected to the Chamber of Deputies as a representative for Nancy in 1910.

Soon after the beginning of World War I in 1914 Driant was recalled to the Army as a Captain but was soon promoted to lieutenant colonel and given command of two infantry battalions, the 56th and 59th Chasseurs à Pied (BCP), both of which were reservist battalions. He still kept his seat in Parliament and was, among other things, involved in the drafting of the legislation to create the Croix de Guerre. In December 1915 he criticised Joseph Joffre for removing artillery guns and infantry from fortresses around Toul and Verdun, something that would have a bearing on the Battle of Verdun, in order to strengthen other areas of the now-deadlocked Western Front and, despite the support of the Minister for War Joseph Gallieni, no troops or guns were returned.

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Emile Driant, seen 2nd from the left, outside his Command Post in the Bois des Caures

It is thought that Lieutenant Colonel Driant foresaw what would become of him and his Chasseurs in the Bois des Caures. And on the night before the opening of the battle he wrote two letters.

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Emile Driant’s CP in the present

On 20th February 1916, in a letter to his wife, Driant wrote,

‘I am writing a few lines hastily, because I go up there to encourage all in my world and to see the final preparations by the order of General Bapst. Joffre’s visit yesterday shows that the time is near, and I feel a satisfaction to see that I am not wrong by announcing a month ago what will happen. By the grace of God! You see I will do my best and I feel very calm. I have always had such luck that I still believe. Their attack will take place this night and it is certain that our wood will be taken and our fate settled in the opening minutes, as they will use flame and gas. We know this from a prisoner we captured this morning. My poor battalions have so far been spared! Finally, they too have been lucky so far … Who knows! But it feels like a small thing in these times!’

On 20th February 1916 he wrote to a friend.

‘Tonight I think about all the men and women of France to whom I send my thoughts before the assault. I’m talking about the assault from the enemy we expect from day to day and it is certain now that General Joffre came to us yesterday and he announced that he was counting on us. And the Crown Prince has announced that his four corps taking Verdun will end the war no matter what it costs to take it. I feel a certain satisfaction to have foreseen this assault. Predicting ‘tomorrow’s war’ was not difficult: it was to come. This prediction on of the storming of Verdun, was necessitated by their need to announce a successor in the Reichstag before the new vote over their debt, which was most risky. Many of the Chasseurs you know will not be around in a week or two, and this saddens me thinking about tomorrow. Having remembered the last eighteen months as I had the chance to do and see in the melting furnace where they are going to fall! Finally it’s war … As for the following months I still have a chance as hope will not abandon me and I hope you write back when we get through the hard way.’

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Emile Driant in the centre near his command post in the Bois des Caures

Note that when Driant wrote that his fighters were ‘spared so far’ this is very modest. For seven months earlier to the day he had written to his friend Richardot stating,

‘I’ve lost 1,300 fighters since the beginning in six fights, two of them were very costly in the Argonne region , where I lost 26 officers, but I still have a core that became the beginning of an admirable unit with high morale who prepare all newcomers. So when we finally go into Germany, when their depletion forces them to break, you will see if my two battalions were the last. I thank God for giving me the health that allowed me not to have one day of downtime since August 6 and seeing that realized what I had so often dreamed. At least I will have made this a war of revenge. I went to Paris a few days ago, four times to hear the Committee of Ministers of the army and these moments gave me the urge to come back here soon … I spent yesterday at a review and have distributed 75 Croix de Guerre kissing 75 Poilu in good humour. It will be a nice history of the war, you know. Ah! While yes, we have beaten them, without help, at least in the first year.’

In the 2nd part of this blog we will look at the initial assault and defence of the Bois des Caures by Driant and his men.