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Revisit the Western Front 50 Years Later

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A German Artillery Soldier's Story

Fifty years is a long time but the names of towns and cities such as Noyon, Sompepy, Arras and Ciney were still familar. Eugen R. Aichele's memory in 1967 was still sharp and he found several places where the roads and terrain had not changed that much and the memories came back easily of handling the horses to pull the battery's field guns and the wagons to new positions while under artillery fire from the other side.

 

training graduation He came from a small farming town in Wuerttemberg, Germany. In 1916, at the age of 18, he entered the German Army and was trained in Ulm, Germany. Photo was at training graduation.

Life on a farm had made him fairly expert at handling horses - then also still the prime mover of armies and artillery pieces in 1916. The construction of a industrial mill and electric hydro power plant in his hometown gave him some experience with modern machinery. After training, he was assigned as a Kanonier to the Wurttembergische Feldartillerie Regiment Nr. 49 serving on the Western Front. He then spent almost three years with that regiment amid the mud, shell fire, gas, attacks, retreats, rain, snow, life and death that made up daily life of soldiers on both sides of the lines in France and Belgium.

 

And there were always recollections of those days long past.

Alarm: Under heavy enemy bombardment, bringing the horses forward in the dark at 3 AM to the battery's position then fighting the mud to pull the guns to a new position further back to be ready for action before the expected enemy infantry attack in the morning.

Foraging: Taking a team of horses and a wagon down a road under enemy artillery fire into a valley and into the remains of a town in temporary no-man's land to bring back some food for the battery and the horses. And, with a stroke of luck, finding an undamaged supply of the region's French red wine intact in barrels at a winery and bringing a small supply back to the gun battery's position.

Under Heavy Artillery Fire: Seeing a pair of horses, a wagon and its two riders on a road not far ahead completely disappear due to a direct hit by a heavy shell.

 

The First Battle of Arras

For Germans it was der Arrasschlacht." For Australians it was The Battle of Bullecourt.

April 11, 1917

pillboxarras The German Siegfried (Hindenburg) line was strongly defended including protected gun positions and defensive pillboxes. In the Bullecourt area the defenses were manned by the Wurttembergische Infantry Regiment 120, Infantry Regiment 124 and Grenadier Regiment 123. The Wurttembergische Feldartillerie Regiment Nr. 49 were in positions at Cagnicourt - Hendecourt according to Major Eduard Zimmerle with the 49th FAR.

The Arras - Bullecourt attack ordered by British Major General W. Holmes began on April 11 at 4:30 AM. The primary attacking forces were the Australian 4th Division's 4th Brigade and 13th Brigade to be supported by British tanks and artillery. The attack had been scheduled for April 10 but the supporting British tanks did not arrive so the attack was postponed until April 11.

The next day, April 11, according to www.anzacsinfrance.com: "By the start of the attack only 3 tanks had arrived to assist the Australians. Most supporting tanks failed to appear. When engaged these tanks proved unreliable and too slow so the Australian proceeded without them. The tanks failed to even reach the wire and by 7am they were all burning. With no tanks or artillery the Australians fought their way to occupy sections of the Hindenburg Line, with parts of the Australian 4th Division occupying the Hindenburg Line without artillery assistance. They sent up flares asking for artillery support on Reincourt, 1.5 kilometres from Bullecourt, a position from which they were receiving machine gun and rifle fire. However, the support failed to arrive and the Australian 4th Brigade found themselves cut off by enemy shells, machine guns and counter attacking infantry. Incorrect reports had suggested that the attacks were successful and therefore artillery support was unnecessary. They had no option but to withdraw.

On the left flank of the Australian front, closer to Bullecourt, the 12th Brigade of the Australian 4th Division was also intensely engaged. German troops on either side of the Australian 48th Battalion and a portion of the Australian 47th Battalion worked their way behind the Australians. This now meant the Australians were completely surrounded. Under Captain A.E. Leane, the men of the Australian 48th attacked and captured the trench to their rear. Now artillery from the 5th Army began to fall, but it fell on the Australians. Again, there was no option left but to withdraw."

Major Zimmerle's account also reported that in the morning came the alert that the "enemy had broken though into our trenches. Our infantry then counterattacked" supported by German artillery fire.

According to www.anzacsinfrance.com: "The battle had lasted 10 hours, with shooting ceasing at about 2 pm. The 4th Brigade took 3,000 men into battle and sustained causalities of 2,339. The 12th Brigade took 2,000 into battle and lost 950. Part of these casualties included 28 officers and 1,142 men captured, by far the most prisoners taken in a single battle during the whole war. The reason for this was the fact that the attack by the Australian 4th Division had actually breached the Hindenburg line but been left isolated and unsupported by inadequate artillery fire."

April 12, 1917

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Major Zimmerlle's regimental history of the Wurttembergische Feldartillerie Regiment Nr. 49 recorded there was a pause in artillery firing (called "feuerpause"in German Army records) that began after the battle actions of April 11 around Bullecourt and the withdrawal of the attacking Austalian forces. The 49th FAR's gun positions south of Cagnicourt were as close as 3 Kilometers from Bullecourt and 1 Kilometer from Riencourt.

On April 12, the feuerpause ended suddenly. Earlier, low flying enemy airplanes had observed the gun positions of the 49th FAR's Batterie 4. Later, heavy shell fire scored direct hits on Batterie 4 that destroyed three guns and their positions. "Wachtmeister Munding, Unteroffizier Manner, Kanonier Benhl and Sanitatsoldat (medic) Gerster were killed immediately. Unteroffizier Weis died later from his wounds. Kanonier Breisch was severely wounded and two other Kanioniers were also wounded." Kanonier Aichele was one of the wounded with head injuries from shrapnel from the exploding artillery shells. Aichele was initially treated at a field hospital behind the German front line. On May 4, he arrived at a larger hospital in Ludwigsburg, Germany receiving further treatment of the wound until June 20, 1917.

wrap text around imageHe then received a leave to visit his family. He was awarded a Iron Cross medal. Following that short leave at home, he again returned to the Feldartillerie Regiment Nr. 49 on the front lines. Those later one and a half years of front line action included the long, heavy fighting at Paschendale in the Houthaulster Wald sector, the 1918 offensives at Noyan and Matzbach and the battles in the Champagne from July to November 1918. As the war neared its end, the 49th FAR suffered another 21 killed in September and 20 killed in October.

Following the Armistice on November 11, the 49th marched back to their Kaserne in Ulm in southern Germany by way of Luxemburg, then through Germany along the Mosel Valley, crossed the Rhine River near Bingen and marched southeast reaching Ulm on December 22, 1918. He always recalled the challenging logistics of the German Army's planning that accomplished the organized withdrawal of millions of troops from the old Western Front eastward across the Rhine River as required by the Armistice agreement. A major factor was the German Army's divisions had to cross each others routes since some went home to northern Germany, others to southern Germany and others to the central part of the country.

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The Wurttembergische Feldartillerie Regiment Nr. 49 marching through Ulm after the armistice, returning to their Kaserne and for the survivors going home.

Years later, Aichele spoke of those events at the Arrasschlacht, being wounded, recovering and returning to the 49th Field Artillery Regiment on the Western Front. Later in life, he would talk about that experience with a wry smile remembering a doctor at the front line hospital telling him, "That I only lived because I had such a Dicke Schädel (thick head)."

 

Remembering Those Who Served

remembrance A wild flower bouquet dried by the summer sun on a barbed wire spike at the top of Verdun's Fort Douamont's moat that was left by a visitor in memory of those that made the ultimate sacrifice in 1916.

 

During the 1920s and early 1930s, the Western Front visitors increasingly included those whose sons and husbands had made their ultimate sacrifices in bavery and endurance.

Another visitor was Webb Miller, an American journalist who had reported some of the Western Front battles for the UPI. In his book I Found No Peace, published in 1936, Miller recalled that at the time of the battles "the cataclysmic horror of the war did not strike me with its overwhelming obscenity and futility until exactly eight years after it was over. On the eighth anniversary of the 1918 Armistice, I conceived the idea of visiting the old front to describe the appearance of the battlefields at that time. During the war I had been deluded, along with millions of others, by ignorance and propaganda into believing that it really meant something..."

"For two or three million living persons it meant something else," Miller observed but this time as a visitor to the Western Front.

Miller traveled though the battlefield areas using local trains. One trip in the Verdun area brought him together seperately with two people seeking that "something else." Miller wrote in I Found No Peace, "In one corner of the shabby railroad compartment huddles a thin, careworn old German woman, poorly dressed in obviously homemade clothing. As the train drew up the slopes she nervously brushed the moisture from the rain-swept window for a last look at the desolate hills where more than 600,000 of her countrymen had been slaughtered. Then she subsided into the corner, weeping quietly, furtively dabbing here eyes with a sodden handerchief.

In broken French, she timidly asked me where she must change trains for Reims. I asked if she had lost relatives in the Battle of Verdun. She broke into tears. 'Yes, my two sons and my husband. Nobody knows where they fell. I could only walk over the terrible fields. I have been saving eight years to make this trip. I can never do it again. Everything is gone. Oh, this horrible war!'

At the next station a stout French peasant woman in faded black entered the compartment. She took the other corner and stared silently through the window.

At the junction I helped the German with her cane suitcase. She thanked me haltingly and stood uncertainly in the rain until the train left. Then I fell into conversation with the French woman. I told her about the German woman. The French woman kept silent for a few moments, then tears filled her eyes. 'The poor old woman,' she said. 'Our countries were enemies, but I can't help pitying that poor German woman. It must be terrible to come all this way and not know where her dead lie. I come every year at this time. My husband, my son and my brother are up on those hills. We know where their bodies lie; that is some consolation."

Those Who Remember Still Visit

This veteran of the Wurttembergische Feldartillerie Regiment Nr. 49 was among the many Europeans that immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s after the Great War to build a new life in a new country.

But those experiences on the Western Front were never forgotten. Fifty years later he was able to fulfill a personal mission to visit some of those places again. This time in peacetime. And then he was also able to share the experiences with his son to carry on the mission of Remembering all the ordinary soldiers who served their countries.

A visit to old friends.

One of the first places to visit was the German Military Cemetary at Romagne, France. It was one of his many times of quiet rememberance and reflection for some soldiers he served with that did not come home after November, 1918 when the Armistice was signed.

 

 

Fort Douamont

wrap text around imageFifty Years ago before this veteran's visit, the Douamont fortress in Verdun, France was a place of strategic military and French national morale importance that millions heard about and fought to capture or defend. After heavy artilllery bombardments and repeated infantry attacks the main French fortress at Verdun was captured by German infantry and subsequently recaptured by the French after heavy fighting during the pivotal battles of 1916. This photo, taken after the battle when German troops had captured the fortress, shows the fort's entry from the moat as they found it.

 

 

wrap text around imageFifty Years later, Fort Douamont's Main Entry and the moat had been filled in to allow safe entry by visitors and parking for their vehicles.

 

 

 

 

Douamont

 

 

 

 

In the years after the war's end in 1918, many German and French veterans finally had the opportunity to visit the remains of Verdun's forts and the battlefields that had been so important to the strategies of both armies. Photos show the main gun turret and the main tunnel deep inside the fort.

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wrap text around imageVisiting the remains of the smaller forts that surrounded Fort Douamont. (Left) An entrance to Fort St. Michel. (Below) Armament at top of Fort deTavannes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The veteran studies a display map near one of the many monuments in the Verdun region and remembers a soldier's daily events of 1916 through 1918.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The poignant Trench of Bayonets Memorial to the 170 unknown French soldiers who still stand there in their collapsed trench. For this German Army veteran, it was a place of the 1914 to 1918 war where he remembered the daily bravery and humanity of the ordinary French, English, Canadian, Australian, his fellow German soldiers, and in the war's last year, the American soldiers who fought on the Western Front.

trench

 

As this veteran visited the different Great War Western Front Line battlefields that were now finally at peace,

there was much reflection of what had gone on. He frequently just quietly commented:

"Und für Was?" ----------- "And for what?"

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Website Copyright 2017. Website written by Richard O. Aichele

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