The Loretto Battle (named after the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette chapel) near Lens and Arras , also known in Germany as the spring battle near La Bassée and Arras , referred to by the French as Deuxième bataille de l'Artois , was one of the typical ones for the First World War fruitless battles.
The first breakthrough attempts
General Joffre , Commander in Chief of the French Army Command, and the Commander in Chief of the Groupe d'armées du Nord (since October 1914) Foch were the initiators of the great spring offensive of 1915. On December 17, 1914 at 1:30 p.m., the soldiers of the French XXI. Corps under Paul Andre Maistre approached the Lorettoberg near Arras, reached the first German trenches, but remained in heavy defensive fire in front of the second trench line. The following morning the XXXIII. Corps under General Philippe Pétain against Carency . The soldiers advanced laboriously in the pouring rain, the attack got stuck in the mud, a further occurrence was out of the question. The 10th Army had lost 542 officers and 7229 men. The battle was lost in individual skirmishes around trench sections and bases. General Émile Fayolle , commander of the 70th Division, noted desperately: “Once again Carency is to be attacked, nothing can dissuade you from it. The 3rd Jäger Battalion attacked the central spur of the hill north of Ablain, was smashed and lost two trenches. But that doesn't make her think. Without a doubt, attacks mean senseless losses. So why go on? ... I think an epileptic who is walking around and constantly 'attacking! Attack!' would scream, would be a big man these days "
A new attack by the Entente was intended to move the front line, which had frozen between the Flemish mud and the mountainous High Vosges , after the German offensive in the Ypres area had been repulsed in April . Before the German side could again release strategic reserves, the French high command intended to finally achieve the strategic breakthrough.
In the opinion of the Commander-in-Chief, only a few combat areas opened up the possibility of this: Local attacks were aimed at the capture of the Hartmannsweilerkopf in Alsace and the Argonnerwald . After a close inspection of his front sections, however, General Foch believed that he had recognized the crucial weak point in the German defense line and vehemently advocated an offensive designed as a decisive battle.
The weak point identified in this way was a German frontal protrusion to the west, on the strategically important, approximately 11 km long and up to 188 m high Vimy hills north of Arras . The Vimy Heights delimit the Flemish lowlands to the south and formed a natural bulwark in the German position, which covered the vast coal basin of the Artois . If it was possible to take this ridge, not only could Douai and the Artois be ruled from there, but above all the prerequisites for a large-scale attack into the depths of the enemy area were created, which would force the right German wing to the north, smash and that German army would force a strategic retreat.
Foch was convinced that he could sweep the enemy positions empty with the strongest artillery and overrun them. Joffre shared this confidence and told President Poincaré that maybe before the summer, but at the latest in autumn, the enemy would be finally defeated.
Not all division leaders shared this optimism. Because the commanders close to the front knew about the well-developed trench system with dominant machine-gun and artillery positions, which the Germans had now installed on the Vimy Heights, as everywhere on the western front. It would take strong forces to make a breakthrough.
The main thrust of the attack was to be centered on the Vimy Heights, flanked to the right and left by attacks on Bailleul in the south and the Loretto Chapel in the north. General Victor d'Urbal was given the command of the 10th Army, which was reinforced by six corps , and Foch received two cavalry corps, which should drive the thrust down after the breakthrough, as well as other artillery and airmen.
Based on the experiences from previous breakthrough attempts, the German opponent should not be allowed time to settle again or to postpone reserves after taking the first positions. Therefore the attack was carried out in a very broad section of the front and the troops on the front line were continuously reinforced in order to maintain the force of the attack (" offensive à outrance "). In addition, the artillery should be used much more massively. 780 field guns, 293 heavy howitzers and 124 heavy mortars were put into position; around 600,000 rounds were provided for the field artillery and around 91,000 rounds for the heavy artillery.
The difficult to access Lorettohöhe, also known as Höhe 165, had been in German hands since October 1914. The German XIV. Army Corps defended there , flanked left to the south as far as the Arras area by the I. Bavarian Reserve Corps , and covered by the VII. Army Corps to the right north of the La Bassée Canal . In the enemy direction, on the south-western foothills of the ridge, were the villages of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire and Carency further upstream; then, three kilometers south of the height 16, the elongated street village of Neuville-St. Vaast. This in turn was monitored from a high plateau, which was fortified and criss-crossed with a network of trenches, machine-gun nests, tunnels and shelters: All in all, a deeply structured system of positions, reinforced with barbed wire, with reinforced houses and concrete cellars as bases; connected by trenches , which could be defended like trenches with rifle supports, behind them strong, quickly accessible reserves.
Second battle of La Bassée
North of the French 10th Army, the British began their offensive on May 9, 1915, simultaneously in the area northwest of La Bassée with a total of 9 divisions (about 90,000 men) against the German VII Army Corps . The attack of the British 1st Army under General Douglas Haig near Neuve-Chapelle and on Fromelles south of Armentières was aimed at taking the Aubers ridge by enclosing it on both sides ( Battle of Aubers Ridge ). The attack of the IV Corps under General Henry Rawlinson (7th and 8th Divisions, Reserve: 49th (West Riding) Division) from the Laventie area broke out after a few hours in front of the defensive positions of the Bavarian 6th Reserve Division due to incorrect artillery preparation. Division together. The use of the Indian Corps under General James Willcocks did not bring any further success, the assault of the 7th (Meerut) Division (Lieutenant General CA Anderson) ended for the most part in a disaster before the German positions. Meanwhile, the attack of the French IX. Corps (General Louis Amédée Curé) south of it in the area east of Sailly-Labourse . He succeeded in snatching the town of Vermelles from the German 29th Division , breaking in four kilometers deep and reaching Loos .
General Haig had his right wing attack again on May 15. In the Battle of Festubert , the I. Corps under General Charles Monro (1st, 2nd and 47th Divisions) tried to break down the front of the German 14th Division . The 7th Division (General Gough ) had been relocated to the right wing as additional reinforcement and the 1st Division (General Haking ), which had already been exhausted by attacks, was replaced by the 2nd Division (Major General Horne ); the 2nd Canadian Division, which was also brought in, formed the reserve. A mock attack on the night of 16./17. May by an Indian was discovered early and stopped. The following attack by the 2nd and 7th Divisions brought, in addition to a small gain in land, only high losses.
Battle of the Loretto Heights
The in-field attack German 6th Army under Crown Prince Rupprecht had not lost since April increasing movements on the French side, especially since the attack a five-day barrage preceded that already announced to the Germans that the enemy was planning a larger company. The surprise effect was lost.
In the area west of Lens , the artillery of the French 10th Army opened the main strike of the battle on May 9th at 6 a.m. with their fire of destruction. At 9:30 a.m., the French troops moved into the storm exit positions, at Carency pioneers had driven 17 underground tunnels against the German positions, each of which was occupied with 300 kg of explosives and was now detonated. The bayonets were set up at 9:45 a.m. , at 10 a.m. the fire roller of the artillery shifted to the rear, and the infantrymen began the assault on a width of 34 kilometers with 18 divisions . The main thrust was the XXI., XXXIII. and XX. Corps twelve kilometers wide with seven divisions. Compared to the German XIV Army Corps under Lieutenant General Karl Heinrich von Hänisch , the attack made the best progress, even if the enemy was far from being defeated. In the center succeeded the XXXIII. Corps under General Philippe Pétain to penetrate the German positions and fight their way up to the second line, even up to a hilltop with a view of the Douai plain and the important railway line. Especially on the northern flanks at XXI. Corps (General Maistre ) had kept numerous hidden machine-gun nests and inflicted heavy losses on the storm waves. The flank attacks of the XVII. Corps (General Dumas) in the south between Bailleul-Sir-Berthoult and Saint-Laurent-Blangy -Blangy also remained lying. The defense of the Loretto-Höhe was incumbent on the 28th Division (Major General Franz Trotta von Treyden). The German 55th Infantry Brigade (Major General von Olszewski ) defended the important high plateau of Notre-Dame de Lorette . To the south, the 5th Reserve Division (Major General Kress von Kressenstein ) of the Bavarian I. Reserve Corps under General Karl von Fasbender had to withstand the brunt of the French attack on the Roclincourt - La Targette - Carency line . The 70th Division under General Émile Fayolle took Carency, centrally the Moroccan Division (Divisionsgeneral Blondlat ) stormed Givenchy and pushed past the village of Le-Petit-Vimy at the height 140, to the left of it the 77th Division advanced to Souchez . South of it, the French XX. Corps under General Maurice Balfourier launched the attack in the direction of Thelus, the 39th Division (General Pierre Nourrisson) stormed La Targette and attacked again against Neuville-Saint-Vaast . This broke into the German positions four kilometers deep; The first defenders surrendered, the defensive fire became increasingly uncoordinated. At 12:30 p.m. the army reserve was to be brought into battle: But now the attack came to a standstill: The reserve, which should have been used for the push into the depths, was still in Béthonsart , twelve kilometers from the original drain line , while their own attack tips were covered by fire from their own artillery, whose fire roller had also not yet moved forward. The central plan of operations had assumed a slower advance and was now out of step; General d'Urbal missed the possibly decisive moment for the ultimate breakthrough. The south adjoining Bavarian 1st Reserve Division (Lieutenant General Alfred von Göringer) was able to defeat the attacks of the French XVII in its sector after bitter close fighting. Knock off the Corps (General Noël Jean-Baptiste Dumas ). The first German reinforcements ( 58th and 117th divisions ) were already there and began to seal off the intrusions. When he deployed the attack reserve in the evening, the force of the attack had already decreased noticeably and had instead given way to a violent trench war .
The attack, which continued on May 10, brought only a few hundred meters of gain in terrain. The German army report stated: “South-west of Lille, the great Franco-English attack anticipated in response to our successes in Galicia began. It was directed against our positions from the east of Fleurbaix - east of Richebourg - east of Vermelles, in Ablain, Carency, Neuville and St. Laurent near Arras. The enemy - French as well as white and colored British - led at least four new army corps into battle alongside the forces that had been used in that line for a long time. Even so, repeated attacks have been repulsed almost everywhere with very heavy losses to the enemy. This was particularly the case with the English attack attempts. About 500 prisoners were taken. Only in the area between Carency and Neuville did the enemy succeed in establishing himself in our front line. The counterattack is ongoing. "
But d'Urbal let the storm continue undeterred. Days of fighting raged just over the capture of the sugar factory in Souchez. On May 11th, smaller gains were made at the Lorettokapelle and 50 German prisoners, a German counterattack on the 12th was repulsed and on the following day the French finally managed to storm the Lorettohöhe. On May 12, the commander of the French 77th Division deployed near Mont-Saint-Éloi , Brigadier General Jean Paul Stirn, fell during the attacks on the heights of Berthonval. The German army report reported: “The trenches between Carency and Neuville (in the area north of Arras) by the French in the last few days are still in their possession. Moreover, yesterday too, all attempts at breakthrough by the enemy were in vain; His attacks were directed mainly against our positions east and south-east of Vermelles, against the Lorettohöhe, the places Ablain, Carency and against our positions north and north-east of Arras. All advances collapsed with the heaviest losses for the enemy. "
In the focal point between Carency, Ecurie and Neuville, the Bavarian 5th Reserve Division was detached from the front on May 13th and replaced by the 8th Army Corps with the 16th, 58th and 15th Divisions. The French could no longer achieve the breakthrough they longed for. Again, on June 16, 1915 at 12:15 p.m., Joffre had all his strength attacked, but in vain. Again the army report reported: “... on both sides of the Loretto ridge, and at Souchez and north of Arras near Neuville, new French attacks collapsed in our fire. The French suffered particularly heavy losses on the Lorettohöhe as well as at Souchez and Neuville. ”Fayolle noted in his diary on the 17th“ The general attack failed. ”Nevertheless, further attacks followed in the following weeks, which did not bring any further gains in terrain.
The commander of the IX. Corps General Louis Curé personally appealed to President Poincaré to stop the pointless local offensives. In his memoirs, however, Joffre only drew the conclusion that the offensive had not succeeded because the reserves were too far away and the attack would have been carried out on a front line that was too narrow - this had given the German enemy the opportunity to quickly use untied forces as reserves to throw at the break-in point. His conclusion: "We have to kill more enemies than our men can kill them." General Foch did not finally stop the attacks until six weeks after the offensive began.
Result and consequences
The offensive led to the capture of the Lorettohöhe and the completely destroyed places Ablain-St. Nazaire, Carency and the western part of Souchez by the French. But a gain in terrain of 1.9 kilometers deep on a front width of 5.4 kilometers was offset by losses of 60,000 soldiers.
The superiority of defense (well-developed positions and skilfully positioned machine guns) over attack (difficult communication between advancing infantry and rear staffs or artillery) was shown again.
The total French-British losses in the Arras-Lille area amounted to about 132,000 men. Aside from human casualties, calculations showed that a day of fighting on the Western Front was equivalent to the total cost of the war in 1870/71. Nevertheless, the offensive had brought neither strategic nor tactical advantages for the Allied side. The Allies' attempts to achieve a breakthrough to transition to war of movement had failed again.
Today the national cemetery with the new Notre Dame de Lorette chapel is located on the Lorettohöhe to commemorate the numerous fallen soldiers - only a few stones remain of the old one. 39,979 dead lie in the cemetery of honor, half of them in individual graves, the other half in ossuary. On November 11, 2014, the 96th anniversary of the 1918 armistice, French President François Hollande opened a memorial to the fallen near the cemetery .
In Vermelles (10 km northeast of Lens) is a British military cemetery with over 2000 dead from the First World War. It was created in August 1915.
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- Jean-Pierre Cartier: The First World War. Piper, Munich 1984, ISBN 3-492-02788-1 , p. 263.
- “We will overrun the enemy, cover him with blows that will destroy his positions as well as his fighting morale, inflict him so that he loses his nerve and destroy him. (...) We now have extremely powerful artillery and explosives with terrible effects. (...) You will occupy the cleared area. ” (General Foch to his soldiers, quoted from Jean-Pierre Cartier: Der First World War. Piper, Munich 1984, ISBN 3-492-02788-1 , p. 292)
- "Once again there is an attack. Despite all the lessons (...) they want to try again. The task is always the same: to bind German troops so that they are not brought to the Eastern Front. They also hope to break open the front. They have great illusions (...) It will cost 10,000 men to travel a kilometer. ” (General Fayolle's diary , quoted from Jean-Pierre Cartier: Der First World War. Piper, Munich 1984, ISBN 3-492- 02788-1 , p. 292)
- see also French Wikipedia
- Hew Strachan: The First World War. Munich, Bertelsmann 2004, p. 223.
- Christian Zentner: The First World War. Moewig Verlag, Rastatt 2000, ISBN 3-8118-1652-7 , p. 116.
- Joseph Haniman: Above the Abyss . Süddeutsche Zeitung , November 11, 2014, p. 12.
- L'Atlas des Nécropoles: Vermelles - British Cemetery , accessed March 21, 2014.