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Premiers combats vus par les Allemands - 1914

En juillet 1915, la revue américaine de l'association de l'U.S. Cavalry publie la traduction du journal d'un officier allemand d'artillerie à cheval, relatant les premiers jours de l'invasion.
Il nous a paru peu judicieux de dénaturer par une traduction française ce texte déjà traduit de l'allemand, où l'on retrouve les allégations habituelles justifiant les atrocités allemandes par le fait que les habitants auraient tiré sur l'occupant :
To our left the Bavarians were engaged around Blamont, which was occupied by them that same evening. The inhabitants displayed great hostility even on this first day, and shortly after, their behavior led to a terrible summary punishment, which included also the neighboring villages, where, in a treacherous manner, they had fired upon our troops"

Journal of the U.S. Cavalry association
Juillet 1915


TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: The register shows that the horse artillery battalion, Fifteenth Field Artillery, was stationed at Saarburg with Headquarters and one battalion (light). The other battalion (light) was stationed at Marchingen. The Fifteenth Field Artillery was brigaded with the Eighth Field Artillery, stationed at Saarbrucken, forming the 42nd Field Artillery Brigade. This brigade belonged to 42nd Division (Organized it 1912) which with the 21st Division formed the XXI Army Corps.
The Cavalry Division mentioned in this report was probably composed of the 30th Cavalry Brigade (llth and 15th Uhlans) stationed at Saarburg, and the 16th Cavalry Brigade (17th Dragoons and 7th Uhlans) stationed at Saarbrucken. The mention of the 26th Brigade in the report is evidently a typographical error; it should be the 16th Brigade no doubt Since the Fifteenth Field Artillery is the only one of the four artillery regiments in the XXI Army Corps which has a horse artillery battalion, it is quite likely that this was the only artillery with the Cavalry Division, the other battalions (ligth) being held with the Army Corps.

A FEW days after the orders for mobilization, the Cavalry Division to which we belonged was assembled at Saarburg and awaited with impatience the order to advance in order to get in contact with the enemy. Pending the arrival and the detraining of all the troops, the battalion had been designated as the main reserve for the troops protecting the frontier between the Vosges Mts., and the neighboring corps at Metz, being required to be ready at all times to take the march in case the French should, as was generally expected, make a sudden advance with strong forces against our comparatively weak force protecting our frontier.
But the attack was not made, and the mobilization was able to be carried out to its successful completion as planned.
As early as the second day of the mobilization, the first troop trains, enthusiastically greeted by us, began to arrive from the Empire. They were Bavarians from Augsburg and Lindau, who were received with an interminable cheering by their people (2) who were rather fearful of their own safety. It was evident to all that at this point so close to the frontier, some real fighting would soon take place. The events of August 17-20, have substantiated their apprehensions only too forcibly and the houses and barracks shot up during the bloody battle of August 20th, are today eloquent evidence of this. Without any more delay enroute, the Bavarians at once marched to their positions near the frontier in order to release for other duty the troops regularly garrisoned at Saarburg, which were to be assembled in their divisional organization. Under the protection of the Bavarian lines, every one, both civilian and military, looked toward the future with confidence and calmness.
When the capture of Liege and the early glorious victories of our troops became known here, our longing also to be permitted to speak with our guns grew apace.
Mobilization was accomplished according to schedule. Every man and horse, ammunition, the readiness of the command to march, all were reported in order even before the appointed time.
On August 8th, at noon, the "alarm" was suddenly sounded and orders were given to move out. In a half-hour the battalion was ready to move and proceeded to the rende-vous fixed at Haming. On the previous days our Ulan patrols had already reported that a strong hostile force of cavalry supported by artillery and cyclists was in movement in the country south of Linneville. This was no doubt the Cavalry Division stationed at that place, supported by troops from Toul. Some prisoners were being brought to the rear. They were cavalry patrols which were simply nabbed and hustled away by our Ulans as in 1870, and then made captive. These men were cavalry from the South of France, from Lyon, who in their full peace equipment had been hurriedly forwarded by rail. At noon, in the heat of a torrid sun, the advance to the frontier was begun on the road St. George-Foulcrey the troops cheering as the boundary was crossed. A halt was made at Hill 351 near the frontier. The battalion was assembled in formation and then went into a position. The advance cavalry squadron had already advanced beyond Blamont -Domevere-Verdenal and made its reconnaissance without having found the enemy.
To our left the Bavarians were engaged around Blamont, which was occupied by them that same evening. The inhabitants displayed great hostility even on this first day, and shortly after, their behavior led to a terrible summary punishment, which included also the neighboring villages, where, in a treacherous manner, they had fired upon our troops. Bivouac was made a little further back, our first bivouac in the enemy's country and under a clear star-lit sky. The next morning camp was broken and the advance into uncertainty was resumed. A position in readiness was again taken, pending the receipt of information concerning the enemy. We reconnoitered and searched the terrain with our splendid scissors observing telescope. In the far distance, fully over six km. away heavy clouds of dust gradually became visible near Gondrexen-Reillon-Chazelles, beyond the extensive Bois de Grand Seille. The range was too great to warrant opening fire at the target which by its movement was gradually identified as cavalry. In keeping with the principle not to open fire at such a great range, I refused permission to my battery commanders to disclose our presence so early in the fight.
Finally at 3:00 P. M., the order came to move up closer and to advance under the support of a force composed of Bavarian cyclists and Jagers, via Autrepierre to Gondrexen. In the latter place strong hostile cavalry detachments and a lively commotion were again disclosed. I caused the battalion to go into position very near to and above Autrepierre, in order to support the Jagers with our fire from this commanding position. The battalion went into position as if engaged in peace maneuvers; suitable observing stations were reconnoitered and selected; telephone communications were established and sectors assigned. Nothing could be seen of the hostile artillery, and later this was the general rule. Suddenly there appeared at a distance still over 5000 m. an escadron trotting along near Reillon enveloped in a thick cloud of dust. I ordered one battery to open up suddenly with a surprise fire, and the first shots, breaking our terrible suspense, reverberated over the sunny fields. The effect of these first shots though a little short, was startling. The enemy was plainly seen to hesitate being very much surprised by these first shots from German guns. He then suddenly turned about in order to get back behind the crest by constantly increasing the gallop, being followed by our fire of incresing rapidity which was undoubtedly producing losses as was plainly to be seen, so that he soon disappeared in an extended gallop. No other target worth while was to be seen. Through the neighboring village of Autrepierre which was already in the possession of our Jagers, the march was continued to Gondrexon, with the cavalry in front. Our patrols had reported the hostile cavalry as marching away toward the South, so the advance was continued without interruptions to Chazelles where a halt was made pending further information. This second advance made at a rapid gait in the excessive heat of the afternoon had put a considerable strain on our horses and they perspired quite freely. At Chazelles our patrols came rushing back in a headlong gallop calling out: "Strong force of hostile cavalry with cyclists and artillery along the road on the low ground between Fremenil and Ogeviller." I at once rode over to the Division Commander and requested permission to take up a position southwest of Chazelles on Ridge 297 about 1500 m. to our front in order to take under fire as quickly as possible the target, which according to the map, could be done very advantageously.
Before leaving, I saw for the first time, plainly visible to our right front, the outline of the Forts at Manonviller, about eight km. distant. My attention was thus called to the fact that it was not impossible that we might come under the fire of the heavy guns located there, a circumstance which became of increasing importance, on account of the French network of telephone communications which was surely in existence and remained undamaged as further events also proved. After a rapid estimate of the situation and a short discussion with the general staff officer, who believed that the range to the French Artillery was not over 6000 m. with which estimate I however disagreed, the advance to the ridge was made at a gallop, the batteries having been ordered to do their utmost to get into position quickly. In front of us our cavalry was deployed, being previously dismounted to fight on foot, and were firing upon hostile cavalry at St. Martin, who replied with desultory fire at about 1500 m. range. Very soon after, our skirmishers withdrew, in order to make room for our batteries which were advancing at a gallop in double section column. Upon reaching the top of the hill, I saw before me a panorama most alluring for a field artilleryman, a picture such as is seldom seen either in maneuvers or during firing practice. At about 3800 m.a great highway (Fremenil-Ogeviller) and on it cysclists in columns of twos moving along leisurely; beyond the road some artillery halted in a meadow by the road side; farther up the slope near the village, a strong force of cavalry in assembling formation. The neighboring village of St. Martin was occupied by hostile skirmishers, who now were delivering a livelier fire as my battalion headquarters showed itself and our cavalry skirmishers began to withdraw. In sizing up the situation I had immediately decided to move rapidly into an open position in order not to lose a single second. Riding along at a gallop, I roughly designated the positions of the batteries, two batteries to the right and one battery to the left of a sheeppen, batteries to go in in the order of march, move by the flank and execute action to the flank. As the Battery Commanders, not very far distant from their batteries, came up to me, the hostile (small arms) fire became stronger but caused no losses. After galloping for 1000 m. and straining all efforts to the utmost the batteries came through a high field of corn up to Hill 297. Having first oriented every one, I quickly gave only the following orders: "Haste is urgent. Here's a chance to get a few Iron Crosses. Fire upon everything that is standing or moving down there. Right battery--Cyclists; Center battery-Artillery; Left battery-Cavalry." The excitement and the tension of all the men had reached its highest limit, and every one realized that in this particular case the effect produced came before any consideration of cover. The battalion went into position as if it were on the drill ground where we had so frequently practiced this same maneuver. Shortly after unlimbering the first shots were fired, which although a little short, acted like fire heaped on a pile of ants. The cyclists energetically increased their pace, one could see how vehemently they were putting all possible power into the pedals, in order to get forward. The next shots followed quickly and already produced visible effect, empty bicycles, dead and wounded, a part dismounted and in proper manner sought cover in the ditch along the road; the other part was less wise and sought safety in flight, but by increasing their pace merely hastened to their destruction.
In the mean time the center battery had unlimbered and fired on the artillery which was halted alongside the road. They at once mounted up in order to get away. But the shrapnel reached them easily, because the trees lining the road gave little protection while the ground beyond the road was very open and in plain view. The enemy's guns separated moving away to both sides at a gallop. In a very short time two guns were put out by our fire and left standing unable to move. The others under the protection of the trees, attempted to escape on the road to Ogeviller whereby it was very plain to see the drivers cutting and slashing their horses with their whips and endeavoring to urge their horses to exert their greatest efforts. The cavalry, at a halt near a small stretch of woods, disappeared quickest of all. No sooner had the first shots fallen in their midst than all hurriedly mounted and rushed madly away, and as was plainly seen, without either order or command, every one being obsessed with the mad desire to get to safety in any old way.
The rapid fire of my batteries, had up to this time, called forth no reply from the French artillery. We were all intent on inflicting as much damage as possible upon our careless opponent down below, and all our attention was concentrated on this objective. It was like a scene taken from our firing practice. The few small arms bullets which occasionally struck the ground were scarcely noticed. In this infernal noise of the gun fire, I directed the fire of the batteries as near as was possible under the circumstances. I passed along the different batteries making corrections in such cases where I thought the shots were not properly placed or adjusted. Then suddenly, the first hostile artillery shot from some concealed position came whizzing toward us, followed immediately by a second, third and fourth, all four being fired with the same range and height of burst, and about 150 m. in front of my battalion. The burst of the shrapnel were rather high and therefore in-effective. "So that's it, at last!" said I to myself "Things are really first beginning, " and I became curious over the probable outcome of the duel. For many years we had witnessed the firing of many rounds at our firing practice and at the School of Fire, had also observed the effect as seen from the firing point and from the range party near the targets and had obtained a distinct impression of the moral and actual effect produced by our German projectiles and. the extent of the zone swept by their fire. But what I saw here did not come up to my expectations and this first impression remained unchanged during the whole course of the fight. My curiosity increased appreciably as I, after having taken cover with my staff behind our observation wagon, followed the fire for adjustment of our opponents. Being in an almost open position on the crest we presented an admirable target, something which we never again did in the future. The second French salvo burst in the prescribed manner about 100 m. in rear of the battalion, the fragments and bullets whizzing down the reverse slope behind us and almost reaching the position of the limbers in the hollow, but at present without doing any damage. I had a very distinct impression, that the pattern of the French shrapnel, as was previously known to me, had a smaller density of hits than our German shrapnel, and that many bullets spent themselves in the air, not reaching the ground until too far distant from the point of burst. This impression also remained unchanged during the whole campaign. It seemed to me that the "shower of bullets" common to our German shrapnel was lacking. After about two minutes of ineffective firing with shrapnel, a change was made and the first shell came rushing along, and we saw instead of the shrapnel white smoke balls, the black smoke produced by impact shell bursts accompanied by a violent and deafening detonation. Our opponent was constantly coming closer with his projectiles and the moment was not far distant when the shots would be striking right in the midst of the batteries. Again we felt a curiosity of what would come next. There seemed to be very little nervousness among the cannoneers. At last the expected rafale came right in the center of the battalion, in fact right in the center of the battery. I looked in that direction and saw the projectiles bursting in front and in rear of the battery, and heard the clink of the fragments as they struck the shields. One shell struck about 5 m. from a trail, detonated and completely covered with earth a cannoneer who was engaged in bringing forward some ammunition baskets. He stopped for a moment, shook off the clumps of dirt, and then continued to carry his ammunition to the gun just as if nothing had happened. It was very noticeable how the men at the caissons got in closer and sought more cover of the shield, and that they then at once began to dig, in order to fill up the intervals with earth.
A part of the enemy's force below had disappeared, or was behind the cover offered by the road, seeking protection from our overwhelming fire. Of the cyclists we could see only the tail end as they entered the village, the entrance to which I had immediately taken under fire with shell in order to compel them to halt and thus cut them off. Later on it was seen that the greatest effect was produced here, not only against the cyclists but also against the fleeing cavalrymen who tried to escape. Our advanced cavalry patrols, who had gotten a point of vantage very close to the village confirmed our observations of the effect and the panic which our fire had produced. These became still greater when the buildings at the entrance of the village began to burn as the result of our shell fire. In the meantime the hail of hostile shell around my battalion became also more dense, but the relatively small effect produced raised the assurance and self-confidence of our cannoneers; they were leading, laying and firing more calmly. After our batteries had now been firing for about fifteen minutes, it was still impossible for us to locate the hostile batteries (there must have been several). We searched the whole terrain with our scissors observing telescope, examining all the crests, woods and edges of villages. I thought that I could see something moving in a church steeple and some indications of smoke behind a certain roof which showed up brightly. The fire of the nearest battery was at once directed upon this target. The instrument sergeant - a young aspirant for ensign - had quickly measured the offset in deflection and the angle of site, going about his duties just as calmly as if he were on the drill ground. Almost immediately the first shots were falling in the village, where the barns which were full with the harvested crops were soon bursting into flames due to the intense heat of the summer. After this the hostile fire seemed to diminish somewhat.
It was now necessary to again pick up any target which might still be visible and to make a re-assignment of these targets. At this moment a new and very strange sound was heard like the buzzing sound made by a heavy gun projectile. This was immediately followed by a second, third and fourth and they all struck in the immediate vicinity of our right or exposed flank. Shortly after this there came a terrific detonation with the burst directly in front of our guns. Enormous clouds of dust were produced and fragments were projected in all directions. A glance to our right and the riddle was solved. There was no doubt about it, we had gotten within the range of the guns of the Forts of Manonviller, which were subjecting us to an enfilading fire. There we were, a beautiful target for the enemy, caught in the nicest cross fire. In a low voice, I communicated my fears and estimate of the situation to the Battalion Commander, of the battery nearest to me, a preceding which under critical circumstances is always advisable. I then counseled with him. Under the circumstances, there was just one thing to do, to get out of this cross fire and to withdraw behind the crest. I gave the order to withdraw the guns by hand, no mean job in the heavy plowed ground and the considerable distance over which the guns had to be moved. To our good luck, all the hostile heavy gun projectiles struck in front of the batteries. They were not quite conect for deflection. A hit would have done great damage. I do not believe that I am far wrong in making the assumption that the position of my battalion was communicated to Fort Manonviller by telephone from one of the neighboring villages, perhaps from Chazelles, being probably sent in by one of their patrols or by the inhabitants, a fact which we later observed quite frequently.
"On Hill 297, northwest of St. Martin, hostile artillery." The artillerymen in the Fort which fourteen days later was blow to pieces by our 42 cm. howitzers, needed only to set off the proper azimuth in their revolving turrets, and fire could at once be opened at a range which had been previously accurately determined. And this is no doubt the way it also happened. The enemy was completely successful in his attempt to lure us by his voluntary withdrawal, within the range of his fortifications, but his guns which no doubt were 15.5 cm. guns, should have done better shooting.
Two of our batteries had already withdrawn their guns to a position behind the crest and had relaid them. Some time later, one of the battery commanders assured me that his men had never in time of peace moved the guns quite so quickly, nor the ammunition wagons which were almost full. Due to the hurried withdrawal, a considerable number of ammunition baskets were left in front, nearly all of which were later carried back. The third battery which was not within sight of the Fort held its position for the present and continued to fire alone on its opposite target.
In the mean time the fire of the hostile artillery from the Fort had reached the position of the limbers some appreciable distance in our rear, whereupon the limbers moved away at a slow walk, going obliquely to the rear, not however without suffering some losses in men and horses. The French - inkeeping with their methods of fire - had also shifted their fire laterally and now systematically searched the whole terrain. In doing so, a few shrapnel burst among our cavalry which had moved out of the fire swept zone by going to the right rear. Here also some damage was done and, as was to be expected, disorder was also created because the horses of their own accord immediately turned about in this shower of bullets. The regiment was however shortly afterwards again assembled in good order. It was still impossible to fix definitely the position of the French light batteries. I continued to have constant observations made, and especially had the terrain searched in the direction of the furrows made by the projectiles which clearly gave us two different directions of hostile fire. I also had some French shrapnel fuses picked up in order to determine the ranges therefrom. But since these were graduated in seconds and not in meters and a range table was not at hand (later on they were furnished to us) a determination of the range was not possible.
From Fort Manonviller about twenty shots in all were fired, of which number a few struck among the machine guns to the left of our line without doing any damage.
About this time, after the firing had been going on for about a half-hour, the Division Adjutant came riding up and called to me from a distance: "The Division will withdraw in the direction of Chazelles. Your battalion will follow under the protection of the 26th Brigade." I transmitted the order through the batteries and had the limbers brought forward in order to limber up under cover. This took considerable time on account of the losses in horses and men which had just been suffered and also on account of the long way which they had to travel. It took even longer to bring up the horses of battalion headquarters which were hidden in a fold in the terrain. Finally everything was ready for marching and the battalion left the position at a walk. All individual attempts to take up the trot without command and before the proper time, were suppressed by the battery commanders and thus two of the batteries got out of the fire swept zone well closed up and in good order. The hostile fire had already died down considerably when the guns were withdrawn behind the crest. In the hollow in rear there lay an ammunition wagon of the 3d horse battery with the lead horses killed, also a limber, the team of which had also to be changed. Just as the batteries in their retirement had passed through the village, I heard behind me a lively fire coming from the direction of our former position, a circumstance which I was unable to explain. Not until we had reached a point about three km. from the former position, an agent from the second battery came toward us at a gallop and requested that ammunition from the light ammunition column (combat train) be sent forward because there was some danger of the ammunition running short. To my surprised inquiry whether the battery had not limbered and followed the others I received the reply that it had not and that the battery had received no order to withdraw.
In spite of the fact that the batteries were emplaced quite close to each other and that the limbering up of an adjacent battery would immediately have been noticed in time of peace, the battery on the left flank of the battalion was still so busily engaged with the enemy, that no one had observed the departure of the others thus leaving this battery all alone under the fire of the enemy, where under the circumstances it might have suffered capture by a more energetic opponent. The order simply did not sift through. Visual communication was impossible due to the nature of the terrain in the position. In the haste made in this fight, where everything depended upon rapidity since the duration of the fight promised to be short, the telephone was not laid, notwithstanding that the regulations prescribe that telephone communications shall be established also when in open positions. The fight was a combat of surprise or pursuit from which later I immediately drew the proper warning and lesson. I felt great anxiety about get-ting the battery back again and at once sent back for it. Beyond the village, a halt was made. In passing along the two batteries which had now dismounted, I received the reports of the losses. In this connection the junior officer of the third battery reported that the captain and the first lieutenant of his battery were missing and were probably left behind wounded, a report, which as later information proved, was incorrect. As a matter of fact both had remained behind in order to rescue a caisson which had been abandoned and which they did not wish to leave in the territory of the enemy under any circumstances. At this moment, His Excellency, the Division Commander came back and enquired concerning our casualties, which I was able to report as being very slight. At the same time I informed him of the reported wounding of the two aforementioned officers which report immediately spread throughout the entire division.
The second battery which was engaged with the enemy for a half-hour longer at last also rejoined the battalion. I was glad to have it again and, as it turned out, without having suffered hardly any losses. This first day of our baptism of fire did not impress upon us a very high opinion of the firing of the hostile artillery and this opinion remained the same concerning the firing of the heavy artillery. Where real success is not attained, the moral effect will also soon vanish. Every one in the battalion took courage in the feeling: "Well, if this is the worst we may expect, and if the French do not shoot any better than this, especially when they have us in an open position, then we can look forward to the coming battles with full confidence." Later on there were days when the French did shoot better, and made a greater impression upon us in their methods of fire and in the rapidity of their adjustment, than in that day at St. Martin.
On the way back to the place where we were to be quartered I receive a message from our regimental commander who from the heights at Igney had observed our fight through his glasses and who, basing his judgment upon the heavy fire of our opponents, was more or less resigned to an expectation of heavy losses in the horse artillery battalion and therefore wished to express his appreciation and thanks for our brave resistance. The concluding sentence of his message pleased us most: "The hostile cavalry division fled in a mad rush on the. road to Luneville, showing unmistakable signs of panic and noticeable losses."
In addition to this very pleasing message, it was also gratifying to hear the thanks and the ungrudging appreciation of our friends of the cavalry with whom we later on fought shoulder to shoulder for several weeks.
This then was our baptism of fire. Only on rare occasions did we later gain a success which was any way near so pretty or so distinctly fruitful in results.

(1) Translated from the “Artilleristisch Monatshefte” by First Lieutenant E. L. Gruber, Fifth Field Artillery, for the War College Division, General Staff.
(2) The inhabitants of Saarburg are Bavarians, being in the Bavarian Palitinate - Translator's Note.



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