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The EK1

The battle for Höhe 185 was a bloody struggle that took place on a divisional level and not being part of one of the major battles of the war means that it invariably slips through the cracks when history books are written. The 51. R.D. of the 26. R.K. had already gained a name for itself during the famed "Slaughter of the innocents" in 1914, in the mud of Langemark and then at Combles on the Somme in 1916. The Height 185 is a less well known, but hardly less dramatic page in the history of the division. A good overview of the battle is presented here along with a gripping and graphic account of the fighting by a German infantryman.

1) An introduction to the Battle for Höhe 185 (Maisons de Champagne) loosely based on an account published in "Der Weltkampf um Ehre und Recht"
2) German Army H.Q. announces the first day success in daily orders.
3) Emil Pouplier of the Reserve Infanterie Regiement 234 describes the fighting on the heights as seen by an infantryman.

Höhe 185 was in the 3. Armee operational area. The heights lie between Tahure and Massiges with the “Maisons de Champagne” farm on its eastern slopes. At the beginning of 1917 it was decided, for reasons of tactical necessity, to incorporate the heights into the German line. The task was given to General Balck's 51. Reserve Division and would result in numerous local but extremely bloody actions.

On the 15th of February the Reserve Infanterie Regiment's 235, 236 and 240, supported by artillery and Minenwerfer fire, managed to take the heights and the farm, forcing their way into French territory along a length of 2.5 km. Suffering minimal losses themselves, the Germans managed to take 800 prisoners. The French retaliated by bringing up extra artillery and pounding the new German positions. On the 8th of March they attacked and a furious fight developed with wave after wave of the attackers being beaten back. In the following days however, the French artillery fire forced the Germans to abandon the farm and most of the peak.

The tactical importance of the heights was so great that the German high command immediately ordered the 51. R.D. to retake the lost ground and a counter attack was planned for the 27th of March. A feint was carried out in the neighboring sector by the Infanterie Regiment's 143 and 99. The 51. R.D. assault troops under Oberstleutnant Freiherr von Edelsheim then stormed forward taking the trenches on the heights and continuing down the south eastern slopes. They did not succeed in capturing the “Maisons de Champagne” farm which stayed in French hands. The units involved in this attack were: Two battalions of the R.I.R. 234, parts of the R.I.R. 236 and R.I.R. 240 and a group of pioneers. 4 officers and 268 French soldiers were taken prisoner.

On the 30th of March the French counter attacks resumed. The I./R.I.R. 234 although reduced to 140 men managed to hold her section of the line against a number of powerful attacks, throwing back those French soldiers who had managed to break through with series of counter attacks. In some of the other sectors however the French got a foothold in the German trenches. That evening a counter attack by the divisional assault troops and the Sturmbataillon of the 3. Armee cleared the trenches again. The battle, in churned up positions fought in howling rain and snow, added a page of glory to the 51. R.D.s history.

Höhe 185 is top left, as is the Maison de Champagne Ferme

The High Command announces

Heeresgruppe Deutscher Kronprinz:
In the Champagne, to the South of Ripont, a well planned and carried out attack by our infantry, supported by artillery and Minenwerfer has been carried out. Attacking the Champagne farm and Height 185 the reached the enemy's fourth line of defense, piercing to a depth of 800 meters on a front of 2400 meters. 21 officers, 837 other ranks, 20 machine guns and 1 Minenwerfer were captured. Our losses were minimal; the French increased theirs with a series of attacks launched in the evening and this morning.

pictured is a copy of the Kronprinz Congratulations that was printed by the Division for the participants.

Emil Pouplier of the Reserve Infanterie Regiment 234 describes the March 27th 1917 counter attack on the heights from the point of view of a German infantryman.

March the 27th 1917 We are ready for the assault; the exercises on the model of the heights in the Savigny area have been a success. Tomorrow “the dance” begins and we are all happy the training is over. We prepare our assault packs, get three days worth of rations, ammunition and grenades. Each of us gets a large spade, we have learned to appreciate these tools.

On the whole front it is very quite, strangely so. No shots are heard. “What are the Frenchies doing?” we wonder. The moon hangs like a silver disk in the clear sky.

There is much activity in the front line, Sturmtruppen, flamethrowers, pioneers with digging material, stretcher bearers... the trench in the staging area is in terrible condition, it would offer no protection in case of an artillery bombardment.

We know what lies ahead of us, we have done it all too often in the past. There is no talking or whispering within the assembled assault troops, we are all caught up in our own thoughts. The night passes slowly...

Suddenly, 5:53 a.m., a series of crashes behind us and we raise our heads... Minenwerfer bombs fly overhead. High into the air, then down they tumble... we hold our breaths. They explode in the French trenches. The mountain shivers. More crashes behind us, the Minenwerfer have fired the first shots but now behind us, from every bush from every hollow, canons begin to thunder. The air is filled with shells; the heights in front of us have become a hellish inferno. From the French trenches flares are fired, we watch the happenings in awe...

6:20 a.m., we get ready, muscles are tensed but we are calm, confident, we must be…

6:25 a.m., a white flare goes up, it is time! We clamber out, the grenade throwers and flame throwers behind us as we advance behind the rolling bombardment. There is little to meet us... suddenly a red flare goes up from the French positions, this makes us advance even faster, we have to reach their positions before their artillery starts to fire a barrage between us and them.

The Iron cross 2nd class certificate to Vizefeldwebel Karl Lüttgen (1. Komp. ) of the Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment 236

The barbed wire is in tatters and we reach the first trench line. Our hand grenades silence any resistance from the battered occupants and we continue on to the second line. Here the resistance is stronger but from the left the flamethrowers arrive. With big red tongues and black smoke they clear the trench, the occupants run casting away their equipment as they escape the terrible flames. Towards us they come with hands up and pass us on the way to the rear.

Ahead of us is another defensive nest. We call for the flamethrowers, but they do not come. We lay there and call and call again, no help arrives. We throw grenade after grenade but the defenders stay stubborn. Suddenly our 1. Kompanie arrives from the right and together we attack with grenades and we take the position. The artillery and our grenades have caused much destruction, there are many, many dead and wounded.

We have reached our goal. Right away we dig in; we must turn the collapsed trenches into a defendable position as soon as possible.

The French artillery fire is increasing… it makes us dig faster. Carrier troops come forward with material and take back the wounded that are multiplying under the artillery fire. There is no cover and they cannot take all of the wounded back, there are simply too many. We have no cover for them, the trench is to narrow to lay them in... We cannot help them.

I look towards the French lines. I cannot make out where they are but the slope is covered with their dead. They look like blue flowers on the grey earth. No one can approach them. The area is under heavy artillery fire.

We have just occupied the new position when suddenly, out of the blue, a French assault troop appears out of the artillery storm to our right and attack with hand grenades and flame throwers. We signal for a barrage and the shells arrive right away. Advancing like crazy men the French struggle forward, the fire tongues of their flame throwers falling just short of our trench line. We have fixed the parapet and now over it we hurl grenade after grenade. These along with our artillery tear through their ranks, terrible visions, smoke, flashes, fire, screams...calls.... groans... a terrible slaughter, and they come again and again.

There is no break in the artillery fire, the ears hurt, nerves are tense... the trench is too shallow... we roll around to escape it, but man after man gets it. Friend and enemy lay together, dead and wounded. All around are little lakes of blood...

The sun smiles down on us from the blue spring sky.

This afternoon the artillery fire increases again, it rolls on followed by rows of men in blue. Our artillery and machineguns rip through their ranks once more; it is unbelievable that their nerve still holds. Nowhere do they reach our lines, a new layer of blue covers the slope.

Next to us is an old French dugout. It is not safe, it has just one entrance. One shell could bury the occupants, but already the wounded have crawled in, they have nowhere else to go. A terrible odor comes from the entrance. Friend, foe, dead, lightly wounded, badly wounded, all lay mixed in there. A pioneer, all color gone from his face lays there pushing his intestines back into his stomach; they ooze out again and again. I quickly distribute my cigarettes to friend and foe alike. The poor devils are calling for the medics, but there are not enough medics to go around.

Night falls and hand grenade duels continue in all corners. The artillery is hard at work as well. The French will not give up, they want the heights again, but each attempt is met with artillery and a flurry of grenades.....

The next day:

At 6:30 the enemy artillery increases once again. It seems as if no living thing will survive, we have no shelter and the men try to squeeze into the French dugout which is already filled with the dead and wounded. The wounded are screaming and groaning, but there is no one to help. The heights become a hellish inferno, the ground is moving as the explosions throw up earth and mud… and then the heavens open up. Lighting strikes through the biting blue grey smoke of the explosions. Thunder joins the explosions and hail, snow and sleet pours down on the dead, wounded and dying. Through the roars and explosions we can hear the screams of the wounded out in no mans land, we listen, but we cannot help.

In the dugout we wait until we sense the enemy artillery has begun to roll backwards. We clamber out, grenades ready. As we exit the first enemy grenades explode. We kneel in shell holes and throw for all we are worth, grenade after grenade explodes in the darkness in front of us. A red and a green flare burst above us and right away and our artillery rains down. It seems as if the devil himself is coming from the barrels of our guns, there is a terrible slaughter in the enemy ranks and our grenades add to the losses.

We fear we will be overrun... our machine guns open up, eating their way through the blue ranks: They fall, many try to crawl back the way they came but many lay in no mans land where our grenades explode amongst them. The French artillery opens up again, furiously shelling our positions; nothing can be heard above the explosions and wailing of the incoming shells. Fountains of earth and iron scatter over the ground... and again they come. Our red and green flares go up and once again our artillery scythes through the French ranks, the machine guns chattering... once again the attack fails....

Slowly the fire dies down and darkness cloaks the terrible sights on the mountain, ahead of us lays a long cold night.

In the shell holes we lie in groups of 2 or 3. No one can be alone, we need each other, the nerves are weak, the body is weak.

Around us is a sea of mud, we are covered in it from head to foot, we are soaked through. The night cold creeps through our limbs. Out in no mans land we hear the screams, the French have not collected their dead and wounded. We doze off, awaken suddenly, the night is icy cold.

At dawn the French artillery thunders, they are firing on the positions we have left a few days ago. Our reserve position and supply lines, all are under heavy fire. No one can move to the front or the rear, it is impossible to move in this mud with the artillery fire. At 9:30 a.m. the heights are cloaked in smoke and clouds, only dull red explosions can be seen. The center of the storm is to our right, suddenly above the smoke red and green flares burst. Instantly our artillery is firing onto the southern slope, into the ranks of advancing enemy. The mountain is roaring and rumbling, we can no longer stand it, our eyes ache our eardrums threaten to explode. In front of us there is a grey wall punctuated with flashes and explosions. It covers the terrible scenes that are taking place.

Hand grenades explode! We hold our collective breath. A few look over the lip of the trench, the wind blows rain and smoke in their eyes... again the red and green flares, our shells come roaring in... Suddenly, between the smoke, flames and explosions we see people moving, coming towards us like ghosts. In this hell? People moving? We stare and wipe our eyes with muddy hands. They are ours, we can tell by the helmets. As they move backwards to our position they are throwing grenades... it seems impossible, the whole slope in front of us is a hell of fire, mud, explosions, yet through it these men are moving. We cannot help them, cannot shoot our rifles as they are filled with mud. We have no idea what is going on in front of us.

The French artillery fire moves back over the heights to our reserve positions and the wind begins to blow away the smoke around us. Ahead we see their blue helmets; they are laying in a position where there is no cover, not even a hand high shell scraping. No one can survive there, they will not last long. Our artillery sees them and releases its full weight upon them. Into the fury of the barrage we see our Sturmtrupps rush in with a whirr of grenades, spades and rifle butts... then the smoke gets thicker and we see no more...

This mountain! This mountain! The devil rides over it...

Once again night falls on the mountain... we look to the rear... our relief must arrive!!! Then at last, they are there....

"There is the enemy!" we point into the darkness with one hand while with the other we gather our muddy rifles and wet possessions... and then we run...and run... and run... stumbling, falling, running...nothing can hold us back, through the ravine, through water, through mud… as if the devil was chasing us.

We assemble the next morning... "Were is ...? Dead! And ... ? Dead! But...? Dead!" I ask no more. Behind my back my hands are clasped tightly, white, and I think "Thank you God!"...

Behind us, in the clouds, lays the mountain...

Above: The Militärpass of Willi Menzel who was in the same Battalion as the man describing the action above. Menzel took part in heavy fighting on the Somme and in the Champagne, but was only awarded his Iron Cross (below) in late 1918