The Final Battle on the infamous "Mort Homme". The bibel on this subject is Markus Klauer's book "Die Höhe Toter Mann", unfortunately no longer in print. His book has helped immensely in the article below, it is also the source for the map.
To place this action in it's historical context please see the article HERE
Above: Artillery preperation on heights at Verdun
As in the other
sectors of the front, Ludendorff wanted to incorporate Verdun into his flexible defense system.
Perhaps more than on any other front, the men fighting in Verdun had suffered the consequences of a
constant artillery fire and infantry assault. The static defense lines had left
a maximum amount of men under fire at any one time. Ludendorffs plan called for
a thinly manned front line, scattered machine gun bunkers in a defensive zone
reaching back 2-4 km then a solid defensive line with the bulk of the defending
troops, ready for counter attack and for the most part out of the line of enemy
A major advantage
for the defenders was that the French artillery could no longer concentrate
their fire on a single densely manned trench line, but would have to cover the
whole defensive zone, even then with no guarantee of hitting concealed
pillboxes and the out of range counterattack reserves.
manning the forward zone would suffer large losses, but proportionally the
defenders would lose fewer men as the bulk would have been spared the long preparatory
bombardment. The strongly built pillboxes would absorb the initial force of the
French attack allowing the reserves to prepare for a counter attack.
As the enemy
bombardment had to cover the length of the defensive zone, the craters and
churned up mud would be in the zone the enemy had to advance over. In this way
the enemy would create a further obstacle to his own advance, it would make the
passage of the field artillery to support the next attack very difficult.
Gallwitz chose to see the negative aspects of this defense strategy, the fact that
the Germans would have to cede Hohe 304 and the Toten Mann in the case of an
attack. This would result in a huge propaganda victory for the French, and be a
blow to the moral of the German soldiers who had lost many friends on the
heights in the fighting from 1916-17.
Although he had
a full six months to implement the new defensive system, von Gallwitz did not
carry out the orders. When the French attacked in August, the Mort Homme would
claim its full ration of blood.
On the 16th
August 1917 a German raid had captured the plans for the coming French
offensive, there was still time to thin out the front line, withdraw the
infantry to positions further back and move the field artillery out of their
forward positions. Von Gallwitz took no action. The bombardment started on the
17th August, and by the 27th August one million heavy artillery shells had
fallen on a 20km front. Due to the high concentration of troops in the front
line the losses there were very heavy indeed. The Infantry were stunned, hardly
able to defend themselves.
In the front
line on the day of the assault was the 6th R.D. When the survivors came out of
their bunkers to meet the attack they found the walls of their trenches
collapsed and telephone lines to the rear no longer existed. In front of them
the fog was thickened by French smoke grenades and behind them a sea of poison gas
hung in the valleys leading up to the front line making it very difficult to
bring up reinforcements.
had caused tremendous damage and the French managed to break through in many
sectors. German commanders hastily organized counter attacks, but the reserves
were insufficient, many of the needed men having being wasted in the front
In the 6. R.D.
area the fighting had been particularly intense.
Regiments of the 48. Reserve Division were to aid the 6. R.D.
R.I.R 223, the intended
reserve unit for the sector had been used to plug gaps in the line early in the
battle and the R.I.R. 221 was sent forward to take their place for the counter
At 9.30 on the
20th August the R.I.R. 221 moved forward under orders to retake the positions
which had been overrun.
Above: An EK2 Document to a soldier of the II. Batln, R.I.R. 223, the Hauptman who signed the Document is listed as Bataillons Führer, the Führer title implies it is not a permanent command.
The III. Batln
R.I.R. 221 would attack up the slopes of the Toten Mannes, the II. Batln R.I.R.
221 on their left flank would cover the ground to the Rabenwald and the I. on the extreme left stretched to the Cumierswald. The front of the planned attack was roughly
2.5 km. The march to the assembly area was tiring and through heavily gassed
had roughly 200m of front, the regiment
itself was supported by three batteries of field artillery which moved up to
the starting point on the southern border of the Forgeswald, from here they
could engage the heights over open sights.
The regiment advanced
across the open ground towards their objectives. Initially they met no resistance,
but as they crossed the Forges river they had to bunch together at the crossing
points and this provided an enticing target for the French artillery and
Once across the
river the battalions assembled for their
The III. Batln
made for the Toten Mannes where they went through the lines held by the remains
of the R.I.R. 35. Their attack carried them forward to the original German 2nd
line of defense line where they were met with heavy defensive fire which pushed
them back to the slopes of the northern peak.
The II. Batln ran
into fire a couple of hundred meters after crossing the river. They made it
into the position of the R.I.R. 24 who, like their neighbors had suffered very heavy
losses. Seeing the exhausted state of the R.I.R. 24 the officers of the II. Batln
sent them to the rear as they were clearly unfit for further duty.
The I. Batln passed
through the village
of Forges and
followed the road in the direction of Cumiers where they came into contact with
scattered French forward posts. The forward posts withdrew to the new French
frontline with the I. Batln in pursuit.
was halted as they ran into a wall of fire and the attackers retired to
positions held by elements of the R.I.R. 24.
straightened their lines to form a solid regimental front but having attacked
on their own they were now in enemy territory with no one protecting their
corners of the battlefield small groups of stragglers and isolated soldiers found
their way into the R.I.R. 221 lines. Few were in any state to fight and as much
as the officers of the 221 would have liked to keep them, they were sent to the
Attack by a single regiment had gained a few hundred meters but had
accomplished little of any tactical advantage. There were not enough reserves
to continue the attack and the R.I.R. 221 found itself occupying a line of
hastily prepared foxholes stretching into enemy territory.
Left: A document to a Soldier of the II. Batln R.I.R. 221. After the Action on the Dead Man the Hauptmann who was Bataillons-Führer in the R.I.R. 223 (see document above) recieved a permanent command and became Bataillons-Kommandeur of the II. Batln R.I.R. 221
On the 21
August a new bombardment on their positions signaled the coming of a new French
attack. The I. Batln had left two companies in
reserve and these were now sent forward as reinforcements. Due to the confusion
on the battlefield they did not find their comrades and instead stumbled past
the German front lines and blundered into the path of the advancing French
infantry. Under fire from all sides they pulled back putting up a brief resistance
then retreating towards the village
The R.I.R. 221
along with elements of the R.I.R. 35, 222 and 223 were ordered back over the
Forges river. Notice was given that it was a strategic withdrawal not a
retreat. Pioneers destroyed non salvageable artillery and blew up the wooden
crossing pontoons over the river.
With that the
Mort Homme had claimed its last lives. The R.I.R. 221 had suffered 260 dead and
missing and 281 wounded. Amongst the dead was Major Schaumann, commander of the
I. Battalion, who was killed when a shell hit his Battalion H.Q. in Forges and Oberstleutnant
Freiherr von Gemmingen-Gutenberg, also killed by Artillery.
Of note, both
documents are signed by Hauptmann XXX. In August 1917 he was acting commander
of the III./R.I.R. 223, hence the title Bataillons-Führer. A month later he
took over the command of the II./R.I.R. 221 and was thus Bataillons-Kommandeur.
To get an idea of what the geography, please look at the Mort Homme on the left hand side of the first pictureHERE
Above: A map from Markus Klauers book on the Tote Mann, it shows the front lines after the Germans had been pushed back in late August 1917.
If you can find a copy of the book, it is a must have for anyone interested in Verdun.