Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, May 29, 2016

100 Years Ago - a Pyrrhic Victory: German Forces Secure the Crest of Mort Homme

On 21 February 1916 the German Fifth Army, commanded by Crown Prince Wilhelm, sent eight divisions against the French army around Verdun, concentrated on the right (east) bank of the River Meuse. The operational concept was to pound  the French defenders with stupendous concentrations of artillery fire. Early successes for the attackers included the annihilation of the frontline defenses at the Bois des Caures and the capture of the world's most formidable fort, Douaumont.

There was, however, a great flaw in the German scheme. After earlier war games, the German General Staff concluded an assault to capture Verdun required an attack on both sides of the Meuse. But the intent in 1916 of supreme commander Erich von Falkenhayn was not to take Verdun, but to force the French to defend it. So, a somewhat deluded "doing it on the cheap" frame of mind had infected German planning for the operation and its opening phase. By the end of February they had discovered their mistake. As they advanced on the right bank, their flank became exposed to enfilade artillery fire from the left bank. Under intense shell fire, German blood began flowing as freely as French. 

Depiction of Fighting at Mort Homme

A major assault needed to be mounted on the left (west bank) to eliminate the French artillery positions. What happened next, when for three months a dual-crested hill with the evocative traditional name of Mort Homme (Dead Man's Hill) would capture the world's attention. During 1916 the German Army would mount 15 major attacks to capture and recapture Mort Homme against determined French defenders, turning its gentle slopes into one of the Great War's most notorious abattoirs. A major attack in April, attempting to flank another hill to the west, Cote 304 was the biggest  failure.

On 20 and 21 May three fresh German divisions were hurled against Mort Homme. They finally took the crest on the 23rd, but they could go no farther. The 23rd and 24th were terrible days; the Germans stormed the village of Cumières and their advance guard penetrated as far as Chattancourt. On the 26th, however, the French were again in possession of Cumières and the slopes of Mort Homme, and if the Germans, by means of violent counterattacks, were able to get a fresh foothold in theruins of Cumières, they made no attempt to progress farther. The battles of the left riverbank were now over; on this side of the Meuse there were to be only unimportant local engagements and the usual artillery fire.

On 29 May the Crown Prince's army finally gained control of the Mort Homme ridge, but only after turning it into a slaughterhouse. The Germans were still under fire from the French guns on the next line of hills to the south and would make no further advance against them. On 1 July the Battle of the Somme began and soon drew German reserves away. The focal point of Verdun would once again become the "hot zone" on the right bank with the recapture of Forts Douaumont and Vaux becoming a fixation for the French command. After their recapture (Douaumont in October and Vaux in November) the longest battle of the Great War would peter out in December — approximately 300 days after its start.

Mort Homme Monument Today

Like several other locations around Verdun, Mort Homme saw further fighting in 1917 when the Germans attacked several times between January and March, again taking both hills. They heavily fortified the position and added many tunnels. Mort Homme stayed in German hands until 20 August 1917, when a large French offensive led by the 31st Division and soldiers from the French Foreign Legion retook the hill. The area just north of Morte Homme and Hill 304 would be retaken by American forces in the opening of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, 26 September 1918.

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