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The EK1

Without the example of the successful offensive on the 24th-29th of October, an offensive in heavy fog, in which each soldier knew the objectives and plan of attack and ending in a great success. Without this example the attack on the 15th of December may have seemed like an impossible task.  

Right: Part of the liaison team of the 4th battalion at height 378 in front of les Chambrettes

The icy rain was falling without a break. Each morning the Zouaves stood up and looked out of the barracks window. Seeing the solid grey mass of cloud they would shake their heads and mutter "Not today, we are waiting for the sun..."  

The pale winter sun arrived on the 11th of December and the Zouaves embarked on trucks for the trip to Verdun. That night, frozen by a glacial wind from the east the 5th battalion moved into the front line. The 3rd battalion occupied the shelter (abris) Saint Vaast and the 4th battalion spent the night in the great citadel in the city.

On the 12th the rain started again. The veterans of Vaux Chapitre remarked wryly that at least this time they would not die of thirst. At that moment no one was worried about the suffering that the cold would bring, the men had "Victory!" in their minds and it was not water that would dampen their spirits.  

On the night of the 12th to 13th the battlefield had become a sea of mud. As they advanced towards the front the Zouaves recognised the trenches they had passed on the 24th of October, now all filled with mud, their sides collapsing.  

The Goal of the new assault was to add to the success of the October offensive: to take the enemy positions on the Cote du Poivre (Pfefferrücken), the cote 342, cote 378 and the "croupe d´Hardaumont". The enemy was to be pushed away from fort Douaumont, a prize that had been fought over for 10 months costing the lives of tens of thousands of men.  

The 38eme division was to clear the way stretching from Vacherauville to Louvemont, continuing on to Bezonvaux by way of the Cotes 353 and 359.  

On the morning of the 14th the 4th battalion (Jacquot) and 5th battalion (Pouzerques) of the 4eme regiment Zouaves de March were beside the 8eme Tirailleurs in the trenches to the North of the Ravin de Couleuvre looking towards the ravin du Helly. The 3rd battalion (Pruneaux) was in reserve but would follow closely on the heals of the attack. 

Above: the sector of the 4th Zouaves in the December offensive. To see the complete map click HERE

Contact with the 8eme Tirailleurs on the left flank had to be kept as well as with the 2eme Tirailleurs (of the 37eme D.I.) on the right flank. Their objectives were to reach the northern side of the road to Louvemont and take the farm "des Chambrettes".

Above: The citation for 1ere Classe Aime, messenger for the 4th Battalion of the 4e Regiment de Marche de Zouaves.  

“Agent de Liaison of the battalion. In the night of the 15th to 16th of December 1916 he crossed the battlefield ceaselessly carrying the orders of the battalion commander to the companies under a constant heavy artillery and machinegun fire”  

It is quite probably that Aime carried the messages telling the companies that they would stay in place until les Chambrettes was taken.

The Zouaves advanced to the trenches "Belgrade" and "Bertha" relieving the 104eme R.I. The men became impatient, wondering when the attack would commence. At dawn on the 15th the French artillery opened up a heavy bombardment on the positions in the ravin de Helly, it was a furious and methodical drumfire.

All night long an icy rain and howling wind had whipped across the battlefield; the moon sent sinister shadows dancing across the desolate slopes. French patrols crept out looking for gaps in the barbed wire.

The bombardment continued furiously, it seemed to be an explosion of revenge aimed at an enemy that was occupying the ruins that they themselves had made of that part of France.  

The 37mm cannons fired over open sights at the German positions ignoring the heavy casualties that they were suffering themselves. The gunners dead beside their guns added to the aggressive spirit of the Zouaves who were almost pawing the ground in their impatience to get going.  

The officers looked at their watches and just before 10:00am the first attack wave assembled in no mans land.  

At 10:00am it started.. "En Avant!" the officers gestured with their canes and the men moved forward. A determined pace but not too fast as they had to keep behind their barrage that rolled forward 100m every four minutes.

The men bypassed intact stretches of barbed wire while isolated enemy machine guns entered the fray. The Zouaves reached the first trenches. The occupants greeted them with raised hands and cries of "Kamerad!". The enemy soldiers who resisted were taken care of by the grenadiers.  

The Ravin de Helly had fallen. Shells came raining down as the German artillery fired a barrage but the Zouaves had too many prisoners to take care of to be able to take cover. Battalion commanders surrenderd as did a full Colonel. One of the officers demanded a guide but he was abruptly told to "Just walk south". 

Above: Aime on the edge of one of the shell craters in front of height 378

The ravin de Helly had a considerable number of bunkers built into the slope, each bunker occupied by German reserves. The assault wave moved on leaving the mopping up of these bunkers to the grenadiers and the men of the 3rd battalion.  

The mopping up is a no nonsense affair. The Zouaves shout down the stairs "Out of there! How many of you are there?"  At the first sign of hesitation hand grenades fly down the steps the bunkers. If the enemy tries to resist the "Schild" flamethrowers belch down the stairs turning everything to cinders. All in all resistance was rare, the Germans were shedding their equipment, running towards the Zouaves, hands in the air and offering their watches, their knives, their boxes of cigars.  

The prisoners are the problem of the support troops. The assault troops clamber up the northern slope of the ravin de Helly. They stumble across a battery of 7.7cm field artillery which tries to defend itself. The crews are wiped out with hand grenades. The French sweep into the ravin de la Goulette. The trench line "de Chauffour" is taken. The march slows down as the mud begins to takes its toll. What a joy it was to be through the enemy lines. The abandoned wagons, pieces of artillery and trucks show that the Zouaves are in the enemy rear area.  

The Zouaves arrived at the road to Louvemont, this, their first objective, had been reached by 11:15. A break of two hours had been planned before the advance continued but the order came for the two battalions to advance right away. In spite of the worsening condition of the ground they reached the next line of trenches.  

To the Right the 2eme Tirailleurs were not keeping up. The Zouave machine gunners offered fire support by opening fire on the Germans in the bois de l´Hermitage allowing the 2eme Tirailleurs to speed up their advance.  

The 4th Zouaves reached the farm "Les Chambrettes"... It had been abandoned. The Zouaves searched it from top to bottom finding nothing but a few tools in the cellar. The field telephone cables were all cut. Zouave patrols crossed the road of Chambrettes and continued on until fire from the northern slopes of the ravin du Trissol stopped then.  

The regiments front had fanned out, each battalion now had 600 meters of front as opposed to 300 at the depart. It was now 15:20; the Zouaves had accomplished their mission.  

The liaison between the 4th and 5th battalions (and their respective 13th and 18th companies) failed rather badly at this stage of the battle. Each of the companies assumed the other was going to occupy the farm. As a result both left the buildings to take up positions to the side of the farm. Les Chambrettes rapidly became a weak spot in the new defensive line.

At 16:30 the Germans pushed towards the farm where they captured some wounded Zouaves including Sgt Julian who had captured 200 enemy soldiers in the ravin de Couleuvre in the October offensive.  

In the evening of the 15th it was unclear who occupied the farm. Comandant Jacquot ordered Sous Lieutenant Lemaire of the 13th Company to occupy the buildings at the break of dawn. On the right flank Commandant Pouzergues had difficulty liaising with the 2eme Tirailleurs who, facing a violent counter attack, had pulled back towards the bois de l´Hermitage. 

On the morning of the 16th it became clear that the Germans had occupied the farm and were in an aggressive mood. The Zouaves were in a terrible state. Up to their knees in water, covered in a glutinous mud, the biting cold began to take its toll. They began to stiffen, their feet began to freeze. Shivering with fever they lay stoic in their positions. In the mud, immobile, silent, statues of ice, a living agony... But these were the "Soldiers of Douaumont" and the prestige of that title was enough to ensure that their will remained strong and that they were ready to fight to keep the ground that they had gained...they would not cede the road to Louvemont. 

Above: "The Runner" by Verdun Veteran Marcel Santi

Those who had to move, the "Agents de Liaison" (messengers or "runners"), the stretcher bearers, the telephonists, the ration carriers... all needed to be sure of foot. Sometimes they fell into the shell holes in which liquid mud had collected. It was often a terrible death. Anyone who got lost was in terrible danger; if they were alone and slipped into a shell hole they were lost forever. It was almost impossible to bring forward the rations.  

The men waited anxiously for the 17th, their day of relief. It seemed impossible to suffer more than they already had. When the message came from the HQ that the relief would not take place that day even the strongest men were moved to tears of frustration.  

The reason was simple. The farm "les Chambretts" had to be taken and it had to be the Zouaves who did it. A communiqué had already been sent announcing its capture on the 15th and it was now essential that the Zouaves reoccupied the farm; they would stay in the line until this was done.

The men who were still in a fit state to fight, a meagre 30 or so per company, had to prepare themselves for battle. The officers leading by example kept up the moral of the Zouaves. Lieutenant Triballet was unable to walk and went into battle supported by two machine gunners. Lt. Collin and Lemaire were in a marginally better state.  

At 15:00 the Zouaves attacked but suffered heavy losses from the German machine gun fire. Artillery support was needed to combat the machine guns. The Zouaves needed patience, a difficult trait for those now used to a dramatic assault followed by victory.  

At noon on the 18th the attack was renewed with support from the men of the 3rd battalion. At 16:30 Captain Goujat established his command post in the farm and commandant Pouzergues sent his report to the rear praising the spirit of the men, some who had moved forward using their mud encrusted rifles as crutches shouting (ironically) "Forward the cripples!"  

Now the relief could take place but first there was another terrible night to live through. That night the temperature dropped dramatically. The ground, muddy during the day, froze solid. The Zouaves felt their wet coats stiffen, by morning they were frozen as stiff as boards. When the men moved their limbs the frozen clothing groaned and cracked like breaking glass. A number of men were so frozen and exhausted they could not move at all. The number of stretchers increased dramatically.  

On the 19th the regiment entered Verdun with less than 25% of its effectives still in the ranks. Those that marched or shuffled forward did so in great pain, as if marching on needles. They spent the night at Tronville where the villagers greeted them like heroes then continued on to Treveray then St Joine where on the 21st Lt Col Richaud paid homage to his men.  

"Officers, NCOs, Caporals and Zouaves   "Soyez fiers mes Zouaves!" (Be proud my Zouaves!) It is a double victory you have won. Not only have you beaten the Boche but also a more redoubtable enemy, suffering itself!  

Like you did on the Yser you have fought the treacherous mud and the cold which paralyses the limbs and deadens the spirit. Your hearts and spirits w re so high that the suffering could not reach them.  

In spite of the mud that reached your knees and the cold that tortured to the point of tears you threw the Boche back 3km’s catching his artillery in your rapid advance. 

After three days of fighting and suffering a handful of you, led by a valiant chief took the farm “des Chambrettes”, the last point of resistance. 1400 prisoners, 17 guns, machine guns, ammunition and a considerable amount of material were captured.  

My rogues… you are proud and rugged huntsmen. You have channelled an invincible energy into a carefully prepared offensive that was calculated to win. After the Yser, Vaux Chapitre, Douaumont, after les Chambrettes you now know how force can be used to beat the Boche. It is under these auspices that we enter the New Year, a year of triumph, one that will allow you to give a dramatic proof of your devotion to the country. At the dawn of this new year my Zouaves, my friends, I wish you victory, a victory for the forces of good, a victory that liberates our dear France, one that will send you back to your homes after having crowned your colours with glory. I know your courage will turn this wish into a radiant reality."  

For the action the division was cited at the order of the army.  

"On the days of the 15th, 16th and 17th of December 1916, under the orders of Lt. Col. Richaud in a brilliant move, it took the objectives assigned to it. It maintained its positions on the conquered ground in face of heavy losses and the rigours of the temperature in a battlefield of mud and ice. In the course of the operation it took 1300 prisoners, including 25 officers, and captured 17 artillery pieces, 10 machineguns and much important material."

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