Hawthorn Ridge Mine – The German experience, Somme, 1st of July 1916

The account below is a translated extract from the regimental history of Infanterie-Regiment No. 119, which was published in 1920 and based on the regimental war diary kept by the Reichsarchiv in Potsdam. Written and compiled by former officers of the regiment, it contains a fascinating account on the fighting that took place on the first of July 1916. The regiment itself being the one affected by the explosion of the Hawthorn Ridge Mine. 

IR119, subordinated to 26th Reserve Division, spent World War I on the Western Front. It fought in the Battle of the Frontiers and then participated in the Race to the Sea, fighting in the Somme region. It occupied the line in the Somme/Artois region into 1916, facing the British offensive in the Battle of the Somme. It was relieved from the Somme in October 1916 and spent the winter of 1916-1917 in the Artois.

In 1917, it fought in the Battle of Arras. In 1918, it fought in the German Spring Offensive and against the subsequent Allied offensives and counteroffensives. Allied intelligence rated the division as first class.

This post is dedicated to the 8355 men of the Regiment who were killed or wounded in World War 1. 

Soldiers of IR119 in May 1915.

Soldiers of IR119 in May 1915.

Hawthorn Ridge Mine – The German experience, Somme, 1st of July 1916

Hawthorn Ridge Crater (trees at the right), photographed as seen from the German lines.  ©Nick J Stone

Hawthorn Ridge Crater (trees at the right), photographed as seen from the positions of IR119. ©Nick J Stone 2012

Looking down Hawthorn Ridge Crater ©Nick Stone 2012

Looking down Hawthorn Ridge Crater ©Nick Stone 2012

“All those who fought at the side of the comrades now dead, will remember them with the same unbreakable loyalty that tied us together in the field and in the face of the enemy” – Regimental history of IR119

Our regimental positions were ready to be stormed, but everyone was in cheerful spirits even if the preliminary bombardment, which had lasted 7 days, had left its mark on the nerves of the men. Many weeks of hard labour strengthening and reinforcing our positions had paid off. 7 days of constant shelling had cost the regiment only 20 dead and 83 wounded. A couple of days earlier 10th company had taken a prisoner who had told us about an impending attack that was going to start of the 1st of July.

The men spent an uneasy night under constant shelling. In the morning the artillery fire ceased. Enemy aerial activity began to increase as did the number of observation balloons on the horizon. The enemy trenches were bustling with activity.
At 0630h the enemy artillery opened up again with a force we had not yet experienced. Within minutes everything around us was covered in hot clouds of smoke, dust, screaming explosions and seething pieces of shrapnel. Everyone knew that the attack was about to begin.

The men were ordered to prepare themselves, check their rifles and supply themselves with ammunition and hand grenades. At 0800 hours the artillery stopped and silence settled around Beaumont-South. Whistles could be heard and the English started to advance in dense waves. The men left their dugouts and shelters and prepared to greet them.

Our own artillery was called in by telephone and by firing red signal flares. The effect of our rifle and machine gun fire was lethal, cutting down the first wave of attackers and sending the others diving into cover. In section B5 the English managed to break into our trench, but a counter attack from the flank threw them out again. Two Lewis machine guns were captured and were at once set into use against their former owners. Another breakthrough down in the Ancre valley was repelled after an intense fighting with hand grenades.
The enemy had now taken cover in shell holes and a firefight had developed, during which the English sent wave after wave against our trenches. By now our artillery had increased its activity sending the enemy to take cover in the hollow that led down toward the Ancre. When this hollow was targeted by our heavy mortars the attackers finally started to retreat towards their initial positions. At 1000h the attack on 1st Batallion had been repelled.

Beaumont (North)

Beaumont-North was the scene of brutal fighting as the village had been designated to be the primary target of the English attacks. When the attack in the south started our positions in the north were still being pounded with artillery.

At 0815h a huge explosion occurred, the earth was shaking and it was clear that this was not a result of the shelling. A terrible rain of earth and stone was coming down on us and a gigantic cloud of dust and smoke was rising into the air, just in front of where 9th company was positioned. The English had dug a tunnel towards a protruding corner of our defences which they called the Hawthorn redoubt and had blown a huge mine below it.

More than three groups of the 1st Platoon of 9th company were killed outright. The dugouts next to them collapsed, trapping the men of four other groups inside. Only two groups could be rescued in time.  (a German platoon/Zug had a strength of 30 to 40 men. A group consisted of 10-12 men)  The explosion had left a crater with a diameter of 50 to 60 meters and a depth of 30 Meters and had set the signal for the start of the attack.

Visibility was good. The sun could be seen reflecting on English bayonets. Their columns advancing down from Auchonvillers, carrying bridges and wooden planks with them to cross our trenches with. Eight dense waves were coming towards us. Horse artillery and Cavalry could be observed around Auchonvillers ready to pursue us once the attack of the infantry had been successful. Near the sugar factory English staff officers were observing the assault.

10th and 11th company greeted the English with a withering hail of machine gun and rifle fire, effectively stalling the attack. In the section of 9th company, which had been taken out of action by the mine, brave English bomb-throwers and machine gunners managed to break into our trenches towards the left of the huge crater.
Here, 3rd platoon was still trapped inside a large dug-out whose four exits had collapsed when the mine was blown. One of these exists was just being opened up by one of the men. Behind this man were Leutnant Breitmeier and Oberleutnant Mühlbayer.

Vizefeldwebel Davidsohn described what happened next :

“The English had managed to break into our trench. We had only just opened the exit of the dug-out when they were upon us. A bayonet thrust killed the man who was holding the shovel, his body fell down the stairs of the dug-out tearing the men that were just in the process of getting out down again. I had no rifle with me but managed to fire a signal flare into the face of one of the attackers. The English answered by throwing some hand grenades which forced us to withdraw”.

In the hope of getting rescued by their comrades the men inside the dug-out ignored all calls to surrender. Unteroffizer Aicheler, of 2nd MG-company, holding his machine gun now threw himself onto the attackers. The English fought him back with hand grenades, but Aicheler did not retreat. He managed to pin the English down and to take two light machine guns, which the enemy tried to set up, out of action. For this deed Aicheler was later awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class.

The situation at the mine crater was critical as there were no reserves left inside the village. If the English would manage to break through the whole position north and south of Beaumont was about to fall, but help was on the way.
In the second trench two platoons (7th and 12th company) received the order to reinforce the endangered section. They hurried forward, took cover inside some shell craters and opened fire on the enemy. To the right of the mine crater the English attack stalled in the crossfire put up by the riflemen and machine guns of IR121 who fired across the trenches, being in a flanking position, behind the village, in an area known as the “Bergwerk” (Mine/Pit) . Their fire did not stay without effect. The attack began to stall, the English hesitated and started opened fire on the new threat in their flank. An enemy plane dropped bombs on 12th company which exploded without doing any harm.

In the meantime the English still occupied the trench section left of the mine crater. Vizefeldwebel Mögle of 7th company tried to push them out by the use of hand grenades, but was unsuccessful. An English machine gun, positioned on the lip of the crater overlooking our trench, fired on everything that moved. A number of comrades had already been killed by headshots. It was silenced when Unteroffizier Heß and Rapp managed to shoot its crew.

Having realized what was happening near the crater, Leutnant Blessing of 10th company who was watching from the second trench, assembled a handgrenade-squad (Schütze Brose, Fauser, Hermann Lutz, Gottlob Lutz and Kappelmann) and led the men against the enemy. When Vizefeldwebel Mögle saw the 6 men of 10th company advancing he also led his remaining men (of 7th and 12th company) into the attack. A short and intense close combat developed in which the English were annihilated. Their leader, a most brave Lieutenant was wounded and taken prisoner. The soldiers of 3rd Platoon, still trapped in their dug-out were finally rescued.

An enemy machine gun was now getting into position not 15 meters from the trench. Schütze Hermann (7th company), who had first noticed it, jumped out of the trench, killed its crew with 5 shots from his pistol and captured the enemy machine gun.
The platoon of 9th company, who had just escaped from the collapsed dug-out now fanned out to man the defences. Just in time to open fire on yet another wave of attacking english infantry supported by machine-guns. On a stretch of not even 100 meters in width the enemy had assembled 10 Maxim and Lewis machine guns and at least one mortar.

In the combined fire of 7th, 9th, 10th and 12th company the final enemy attack broke down. The English fell back behind the cover of the mine crater. They had just reached the safety of cover when a machine-gun of 5./IR121 opened up on them from the valley. It was then the enemy broke and started to retreat towards his lines. At 1130h everything was over…

On the first of July the regiment lost 101 dead (including 8 officers) and 191 wounded.

The officers killed were:

Oberleutnant Anton Mühlbayer, Leutnant Karl Sieber, Leutnant Otto Schrempf, Leutnant Karl Sütterlin, Leutnant Otto Frech, Leutnant Erwin Rothacker and Leutnant Hermann Moll

In the course of World War 1 the regiment lost 8355 men killed, wounded or missing.
The account now switches its attention to the fighting near Y-Sap, but I am going to stop here. Locating the regimental histories, transcribing and translating these reports eats up a massive amount of time. I have access to about 200 regimental histories like this. I have always wondered if there would be a market if I were to offer some of them in an English version, as it would give the English-speaking reader a chance to have a look across No Man’s Land. Any feedback about this would be most welcome. 

Men of IR119 in Summer 1915

Men of IR119 in Summer 1915

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13 thoughts on “Hawthorn Ridge Mine – The German experience, Somme, 1st of July 1916

  1. Just read the transcribed version of the German action report from hawthorn ridge mine. Very interesting to hear actions from the other side and note the respect the soldiers had for their counterparts even amongst desperate and vicious skirmishes after the explosion . Thank you for sharing this .

  2. Fantastic to hear about how the ‘enemy’ responded to this important battle. Yes Rob you should do more….if you have time.

    John

  3. I would love to read some WWI German regimental histories in English.
    I think there would be a market for them.
    You do great work. Keep it up.

  4. Absokutely fascinating… Yes please do more…. But please also leave out the medal pictures which obscure the text…

  5. Sir, this work is very fine, and your narrative is an artful one. I have recently completed my own WWI history manuscript (‘Stewart’s War’), where I tell the story of 3 brothers from a small Ontario town through a collection of 180 letters (believed to be the largest such work in Canada from WWI), exchanged by the brothers and their families at home. Two brothers were killed (Regina Trench (Somme), 1916, and St. Michel, France, 1918); the survivor is the protagonist of our short film (‘The Stare’), now in preproduction, where we explore soldier / battlefield PTSD, using a WWI reenactment scene as our visual focus. I shall welcome the opportunity to correspond directly with you and exchange information of mutual interest. Congratulations, and kind regards, Bryan Davies

  6. This is the first independent effort I have seen at translating into English the myriad of German WWI regimental histories. I applaud and encourage your effort. Up to this point, author Jack Sheldon is the only person who springs to mind as having done considerable translations in his various books regarding the German army on the wesern front. I certainly wish I spoke German. With a maternal great-great grandfather born in Hannover, I can only guess that I have a relative or two who served in the German military during WWI.

  7. Absolutely impressive insight into the actions and activities of opposing combatants, worthy of respect and admiration….I salute your work and look forward to more.

  8. It is important if one is to understand the Great War to access material from both sides. I have been to Hawthorn Crater and I wish I had a copy of you post when I was there – it would have enhanced my understanding of the desperate struggle that occurred there. Thanks for posting this.

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