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

Friday, February 19, 2021

Trench Raiding à la Rommel, Part II

Typical No-Man's-Land in the Vosges Sector

Part I of this article appeared in yesterday's (18 February 2021) posting on Roads to the Great War.

Part II

Those were hours of strenuous work! Occasionally, a wire cracked and we stopped work and strained our ears to listen into the night. By midnight we had cut our way through the second wire belt and we were a hundred feet from the enemy trench. Unfortunately the rain and the storm abated somewhat, and it had become a bit lighter. Ahead of us lay high and continuous chevaux-de-frise [a defensive barrier, sometimes spiked].

Each separate framework was long and heavy and the innumerable wires were too heavy for our light wire cutters. We crawled a few yards to the right and tried to separate two of the chevaux-defrise. This effort merely made a lot of noise, which sounded to us like a thunderclap. If the hostile sentries, now a hundred or so feet away, failed to hear us, they were surely asleep.

The next few minutes were not pleasant, but all remained quiet on the southern front. I gave up trying to separate the chevaux-de-frise which were too firmly anchored and, after a brief search, we found a shell crater which gave us an opening. We wormed our way through and covered the few yards between us and the enemy position.

Rommel's Plan

Another shower started. The three of us were between the wire and the enemy trench where the water trickled down the trench bottom over some stone steps and on into the valley, Cautiously, the leading men of the assault detachment squeezed under the chevaux-de-frise. The remainder were farther back in the first and second wire belts. Suddenly we heard footsteps coming down the trench from our left. Several Frenchmen approached us coming downhill in the trench and their slow and even steps resounded in the night. They were unaware of our presence. I estimated their strength at three for four men. A trench patrol ? What were we to do ? Jump them or let them pass? The chances of jumping them without raising a ruckus were remote. It would be a man for man fight. Our own assault detachment could not take part for it was still out in the wire. We could have overpowered the trench patrol, but then the trench garrison would have gone into action and covered the barriers with fire. Our return would have cost us dearly and, under such conditions, we would have had little luck in bringing back a prisoner. I quickly weighed the pros and cons and decided to let the enemy pass unmolested.

My two companions, Schafferdt and Pfeiffer were informed and we took complete cover at the edge of the hostile trench for, above all, we had to hide our hands and faces. The chevaux-de-frise interfered with our crawling back. We would have been detected had the French patrol been on the job. In case they were, we got ready to jump them. With our dispositions made, we lay and waited.

Their footsteps were regular and they conversed softly. Anxious seconds crawled by. Without hesitation, the French trench patrol came abreast of us and went on. While the sound of footsteps died away, we heaved a sigh of relief and waited a few minutes to see if they would return. Then, one after the other, we dropped into the trench. The rain had stopped and only the wind whistled over the bare slope. As the wary men entered the trench, bits of earth and rock broke loose from the trench wall and tumbled noisily down onto the stone steps. Again anxious minutes passed. Finally the whole assault detachment was in the trench.

We divided and Lieutenant Schafferdt, with ten men, went down the slope while Staff Sergeant Schropp and his ten went in the opposite direction. I went with Schropp. We felt our way carefully up the steep trench. Only a few steps separated us from our objective, the sentry post on the rock ledge. We wondered if the enemy had noticed anything. We stopped and listened. Suddenly over on the left something smacked into the barrier, followed immediately by an explosion on the trench parapet on the right. Hand grenades exploded with a roar. The leading man of the assault detachment reeled back, and the whole detachment became jammed in the trench. The next hand grenade salvo struck among us. It was a question of attacking immediately or surrendering. "Let 'em have it!" We rushed the enemy and managed to pass under his hand-grenade fire. Stierle, my groom, who had come up forward for this party only, was hit on the larynx by a Frenchman, and Sergeant Nothacker dispatched the man with his pistol. A short time afterward, two other men of the sentry detachment were overpowered. One Frenchman managed to escape to the rear.

Typical Trench—Vosges Sector

With our flashlights, we made a hurried search for dugout entrances. We found one hole that was empty, but a second one was full of Frenchmen. With my pistol in my right hand and flashlight in my left, I crawled into the twenty-inch opening followed by Sergeant Quandte. Seven fully armed Frenchmen sat along the wall, but they threw down their arms after a brief argument. The safest course was to take care of these lads with a grenade or two, but this was contrary to our orders, which specified that prisoners were to be brought back.

Lieutenant Schafferdt reported two prisoners with no losses in his unit. While we were occupied with the job at hand, the wire-cutting detachments had been working like beavers and the paths through the wire were ready.

Since the coup had accomplished its purpose, I gave the order to withdraw. We had to break away before French reserves got into action. Without further annoyance from the enemy, we regained our position with a bag of eleven prisoners. Particularly pleasing was the fact that we suffered no real casualties. Lance Corporal Stierle had a slight scratch from a hand grenade fragment. Recognition by our superior officers for this fine operation was not long in coming.

Unfortunately, the next day brought retribution, for a French sniper picked off Staff Sergeant Kollman in a quiet sector of the company trench. This lamented loss dampened our joy over the successful Pinetree Knob affair.

Lt. Erwin Rommel

After this the days in the "Open Position" were numbered. The Supreme Army Command had other work for the Württemberg Mountain Battalion. Toward the end of October we moved east.

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