The Defence of the Bois des Caures
21st February 1916
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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 fell 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 came 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.