The Battle at Longlier: a case study in infantry small unit tactics.
It was only when reading the histories of the Battles of the Frontiers written by Jack Sheldon and Terence Zuber that I began to develop a real understanding of how those more open battles of the first war were actually fought. Much has been said in those anglo-centric histories on which I grew up about Geman infantry advancing in massed columns, and being mown down like wheat before the scythe. The work of Sheldon and Zuber in particular helped to clarify a great deal by going back to original German sources. The tactical doctrine of the time generally seemed to involve several stages: advance in skirmish order to contact, deploy and engage in the fire fight, win the firefight and then advance to contact to defeat the enemy. This was not a fast process. Zuber's accounts for example talk of fire fights lasting hours rather than minutes. This was not the 'paradigm' that I'd been lead to believe was the case in 1914.
Here is a translation of a part of the war diary of German infantry regiment Nr 88, provided by Robert Dunlop. It illustrates the importance of manoeuvre, of tactical bounding, and winning the firefight before continuing the advance.
Extract from the History of Infanterie=Regiment Nr. 88
The hot sun beat down from a cloudless sky onto the undulating landscape over which the marching columns of the 4th German Army were advancing in southern Belgium. Our regiment marched on August 20 towards Massul via Witry and Juseret as part of the (21st Infantry) division. The enemy was nowhere to be seen or heard. The cavalry reports suggested that the enemy outposts had been withdrawn. The march objective was reached around noon. The troops were dismissed into their cantoments. Our regiment went into quarters, with the regimental headquarters and II Battalion in Molinfaing and Laherie; I and III Battalions in Massul, along with the Machine Gun Company. II Battalion had marched at the front of the regiment. It had just passed Massul and had briefly halted for a drink of water because of the hot summer day when, suddenly, gunfire was heard from the west. It died away and then flared up again after a while. Patrols seemed to have made contact!
II Battalion formed up towards Molinfaing. When it got there, the 6th and 7th Companies halted. The 5th and 8th Companies, which had been designated to go into billets at Laherie, continued marching down the road past Laherie towards Longlier. The 5th Company / 88th Infantry Regiment was the lead company providing march security as point and was sent ahead at the double. Major Schmidt and his adjutant rode forward from Molinfaing to find out where the firing was coming from. At 1130 hours they met up near the exit to Longlier with the divisional staff, who were observing the terrain towards Respelt (north of Laherie). This was where the 87th (1st Nassauer) Infantry Regiment and the 2nd Nassauer 63rd ("Frankfurt") Fieldartillery Regiment had gone to rest (Note: Respelt itself cannot be seen from any location near Longlier). From the observation point a line of skirmishers could be seen advancing from Respelt in a south-westerly direction. Artillery also opened fire in the same direction. Immediately the divisional commander issued a direct order to the battalion commander to proceed to the woods north of the Molinfaing-Longlier road, leaving a platoon behind to protect the divisional staff. Major Schmidt passed on the order to the company commander through Leutnant Wunderlich. The lead elements of 5th Company now clearly heard small arms fire emanating from Longlier. Consequently, long-serving Leutnant Debes did not allow the company to turn left towards Laherie but, after sending a reconnaissance patrol ahead, he directed the company to the right of the road taking advantage of the terrain in readiness for an attack. Meanwhile, the battalion commander ordered 8th Company / 88th Infantry Regiment (IR) to deploy as support company on the road to Longlier and to attack on 5th Company / 88th IR's left flank. The 6th and 7th Companies immediately followed on, detaching Leutnant Herpel and his platoon from the latter to divisional headquarters.
The attack by 5th and 8th Companies developed as if on the parade ground. Their advance was then partially held up by wire fences around the paddocks. The obstacles were overcome with a variety of implements, including wire cutters, spades, bayonets, and pickaxes. The leading riflemen could hear the incessant soft chirping sound of enemy bullets but they couldn't see their opponents. Captain Zickendraht, the commander of 8th Company / 88th IR, was seriously wounded by small arms fire. His company pushed ahead undeterred, with the 5th Company / 88th IR continuing to be further forward. Suddenly the air was filled with a shrill then eerily hollow whistling noise followed by a loud, metallic cracking sound. The battalion was under hostile artillery fire but this only accelerated the attack. When Major Schmidt detected an enemy position south of Longlier, he pushed the 6th Company to the left of the 8th. Near the entrance to Longlier, a German cavalry patrol consisting of Jager zu Pferde and hussars was rescued. They had been bravely defending a farmstead against an enemy cyclist detachment after their horses had been shot down. German artillery had set Longlier on fire. The right flank platoon of 5th Company / 88th IR pushed forward as ordered to a wood that was lying half-right on a hill. There it made contact with the (left flank) Company von Hirschfeld (6th Company) from the Brigade Regiment (87th IR, the other regiment in the 41st Brigade of 21st Infantry Division). This meant that 5th Company was able to move left again, taking the two men wounded by artillery fire, and head towards Longlier to join in the battle. The enemy appeared to have machine guns because the automatic rapid rate of fire, which the German machine guns could not achieve, was clearly heard from certain directions above the din of the battle. Having deployed, the companies now commenced the firefight. The air was rent with the loud German musketry. As the enemy's fire diminished, Oberleutnant Eger strained to get his 6th Company's skirmish line forward. The men at the front refused to get up. The "Fix bayonets!" signal rang out. Then the village was stormed! The leutnants rushed ahead of their platoons with swords drawn. The assault parties cheered as they entered the village. Savage house-to-house fighting broke out wherever the enemy resisted stubbornly. Individual fanatical civilians joined in, to whom no quarter was given. The cyclist battalion, which had defended Longlier, fell back. They pressed between the burning buildings in Longlier, rushing through our men. Enfilade fire then struck our left flank. From the edge of the village, one-year volunteer Unteroffizier Otterbein spotted the dark line of firing enemy skirmishers on a small hill beyond an intervening hollow. He raced over to Oberleutnant Eger in order to gather together part of his 6th Company. The range finder enabled the new enemy to be brought under fire at 700 meters. The opposing French forces received reinforcements, however, beginning with an enemy machine gun coming into action on the flank. The thin German firing line came under heavy enemy fire. Oberleutnant Eger received an arm wound but he continued to lie next to his men throughout the tough struggle. The brave Reserve Unteroffizier Guth was shot in the head and fell dead with a hoarse cry. Immediately afterwards, the skilful and courageous one-year volunteer Unteroffizier Otterbein was shot through the eye. He lay unconscious in the firing line. The one-year volunteer Unteroffizier Bernsmuller received multiple wounds but stayed with his section. The enemy seemed to be setting up a sweeping counterattack. The valiant 6th Company attempted to thwart their intent with brisk rifle fire. A moment later the company was reinforced with some infantry sections. The battalion had rushed 7th Company into the front line.
Meanwhile our III Battalion, along with the Machine Gun Company, was put on alert in Massul by Oberstleutnant Puder at 1200 hours. It then moved forward, northwest of Laherie. Shortly after 1300 hours, the battalion was ordered to proceed south of Longlier river (which flows southwest from Laherie to Longlier and then on to Neufchateau). Major Schlegner let the 10th, 9th and 11th Companies move forward as the front line, with the 12th Company staggered to the left. The Machine Gun Company with mounted riflemen followed on behind III Battalion as far as Laherie. Hauptmann Kohl detached the guns there but continued to follow the battalion. Soon afterwards III Battalion's companies and the Machine Gun Company disappeared into Hochut Forest (south of Laherie).
Oberstleutnant Puder held I Battalion in readiness because III Battalion's advance through the dense Hochut Forest was taking time and because II Battalion was fighting against superior enemy forces. At 1300 hours the division determined that the battalion should remain in Massul [northeast of Laherie] as a backup force under Generalmajor von der Esch. Only the 2nd Company had been used to provide protection for the artillery. At the regimental commander's request, however, I Battalion was moved towards Longlier and deployed. Major Dunin von Vrznchowski immediately began pushing all three companies at his disposal into the battle. The 1st Company rushed to support 6th Company / 88 IR. Leutnant Brunn was killed there. The 3rd and 4th Companies extended the battle line to the left. Well-aimed German rifle fire now hit the enemy from a broad front, causing many to be wounded and killed. The enemy began to give way again. The red trousers of the retreating French gleamed brightly in the August sun, making easy targets for the German fire.
Further to the left, the chattering sound of German machine guns suddenly joined the continuous infantry fire. III Battalion was now totally engaged against the French. Hauptmann Kohl facilitated III Battalion's attack in an outstanding manner, skillfully selecting the infantry position that reinforced with the Machine Gun Company. Leutnant Bran led 11th Company on a wide circling movement and got around the enemy flank. The outflanking manoeuvre on the French right wing was so complete that Leutnant Bran could make out the Red Cross and Tricolor flags of the French casualty clearing station lying behind a small hill as he ordered enfilade fire to be opened on the French position.
At 1530 hours the regiment stormed the high ground south of Longlier. The French were cleared quickly by the impact of the whole of III Battalion. The Company von Hirschfeld (6th Company / 87th IR) and an attached machine gun section from the Brigade Regiment, which had strayed from their regiment, made themselves available for the assault. The machine gun section was used in the front line, while the company from 87th IR was retained as backup. When 88th IR's companies captured the high ground south of Longlier, they came under French artillery and machine gun fire. Unfortunately they were also momentarily hit by their own artillery in some places on the conquered heights.
When the retreating enemy tried to form a second front further back on the dominant Hill 480, east of Neufchateau, the regiment's 3 battalions attacked the still-shaken opponent concentrically again. The regiment was unstoppable, succesfully throwing the enemy force from its new defensive position. The fleeing enemy was then pursued by artillery fire while the infantry battalions reorganised themselves.
Oberleutnant Wilhelm Bohm was the commander of 12th Company / 88th IR at the time. He described what happened near Longlier:
"The 88th (2nd Nassauer) IR looked like a long gray ribbon as it marched along the dusty road after dawn. The regiment's advance had begun two days previously. Before that we had spent almost two weeks in the suburbs of Luxemberg city. There wasn't any news about what was happening in those earth-shattering days in August. The few scraps of information from the higher command were ravenously devoured and passed around by the other ranks. The strangest things were believed. Great battles had taken place in Alsace and Belgium. The French had been beaten and had offered billions in reparations. They were prepared to cede the fortresses of Verdun and Belfort to Germany. Everyone was miffed that our regiment would return to Mainz without having seen an enemy.
Things looked no different on the morning of August 20. Although we crossed the Belgian border earlier in the day and were thus the first to enter the enemy's country, there was still no sign that we were going to fight any battles.
By 1200 hours III Battalion / 88th IR was already bivouacing in the Belgian village of Massul. The rest, however, did not last long. Knapsacks and waist belts had barely been removed when loud bugle signals and cries of "Alarm" resounded through the village streets.
In a few minutes the company was at-the-ready by the northern exit from Massul. We heard small arms fire for the first time and could see shrapnel air-bursts in the bright blue sky about 3-4 km away.
The 9th, 10th and 11th Companies / 88th IR also joined us. The battalion commander, Major Schlegner (who was killed a few weeks later whilst leading the battalion), explained the situation in his almost smiling way that calmed the whole battalion.
II Battalion / 88th IR had been marching ahead of us during the morning and, just as it was also about to take up quarters, had made contact unexpectedly with the French at Longlier village only a few kilometers from us. The 87th IR (the sister regiment in the 41st Infantry Brigade of the German 21st Infantry Division) was also already engaged in combat there.
Our battalion was to conduct an enveloping attack on the left against the French flank, some 100 meters south of Longlier. The 9th, 10th and 11th Companies would be at the forefront of this attack. The 12th Company / 88th IR's role was to secure the left flank because our battalion was furthest left of the whole brigade's battle front and there were no German troops to the left of our company.
The three companies moved out with a sense of calmness and certainty that came from practicising this scenario dozens of times on the sand dunes near Mainz. The 88th Regiment's Machine Gun Company, which I had been with for three years until two days ago and so I knew everyone, trotted past (with horse-drawn limbers) and waved to me. Lieutenant Hoefer shook my hand.
The rest of the battalion disappeared from view ahead of us. The 12th Company / 88th IR turned sharply southeast to provide flank protection as ordered and found itself alone.
Only minutes before there had been lots of movement as the other companies formed up and then moved out along the Massul - Molinfaing - Longlier road. Everything changed abruptly. We couldn't see our own troops or the enemy. Nothing could be heard to our left; more heavy infantry fire was audible on the right along with artillery coming into action from time to time. It was possible to make out the sharp ta ta. . . . . . ta ta ta ta ta. . . . ta ta of our machine guns.
The line of our advance meant we had to pass through Hochut Forest. There was complete silence again. It took a lot of effort to keep the company together in the dense undergrowth.
We came out from the southwest edge of the forest and spotted our troops. They were enaged in combat on our right towards Longlier village and about 100 meters in front of us. We couldn't see anything of the enemy. We could see our Battalion Staff on the hill about 100 meters ahead. The Battalion Adjutant, Lieutenant Anspach, ran over to me with the order for the company to advance behind the hill towards the Battalion Staff.
The company moved over to the hill in column of platoons without any interference from the enemy. Some shells then landed near us. Rifle bullets hummed just above us.
It was 1400 hours.
From the hill it was possible to see Longlier village lying to right, northwest of us. There was a single line of German skirmishers formed up on the southern and southwestern sides of the village. Just 300 meters ahead of us was 10th Company / 88th IR. It was involved in a firefight with an opponent who was still invisible.
Through the binoculars I saw the company commander, Captain Duncker. He was struck down by a French bullet when his company made its assault 30-45 minutes later.
The enemy's rifle bullets buzzed continuously over our heads. Even the artillery fire increased somewhat from both sides. More German infantry elements could be seen to the left of 10th Company / 88th IR. These belonged to the 11th Company / 88th IR.
Major Schlegner had explained that III Battalion / 88th IR had been ordered to attack the exposed French right flank identified south of Longlier. As the battle had unfolded, however, it was clear that the enemy's southern flank reached to a hill about 1000 meters in front of us, further left than had been realised previously. The 11th Company / 88th IR, which had been pushed out as the left flank company in the forward line, seemed to have encountered the enemy lying in front of it. The 12th Company / 88th IR had to go even further left to intervene in the battle.
In order to achieve this, the company had to run obliquely - almost parallel - to the hill occupied by the enemy only 800 meters away, to get into a defilade position. It seemed as if it would be possible to push forward from there into the enemy's flank.
Leutnant der Reserve Benecke jumped off first with his platoon.
The move was so sudden and surprising to the enemy that few losses occured, whereupon the other two company platoons followed suit. I saw the first men killed from my company, lying in a potato field that I was bounding through.
From the new position we opened fire at a range of 700 m on the top of the hill ahead, where there seemed to be movement from time to time. It still wasn't possible to make out the enemy. The company came under heavier enemy fire after our advance. We started taking casualties.
Almost with a sigh of relief, we suddenly realised where the fire was coming from. It was possible to make out individual French soliders breaking cover from behind haystacks and from a large wheat field on the hill about 700 yards ahead then running down the slope. They ran towards and then took cover behind the railway embankment halfway down the hill. At the same moment they were blanketed by our rifle fire.
The enemy ran across dry stubble in a field. This was perfect as we could see the small puffs of dust thrown up by the impact our bullets. Our beaten zone was excellent. Every Frenchman who got up and tried to push on through the cloud of dust was struck down immediately.
We were under heavy enemy fire though. The company didn't have any cover and its losses were increasing. I spotted that the railway line also ran through cuttings as well as on an embankment. These were likely to provide excellent cover. We had to get forward quickly!
I gave the order to advance. The company bounded forward by platoons and sections. The process was repeated over and over, in between the bursts of enemy fire. The distance came down. Four hundred meters from the railway line. Then 200 meters away. Suddenly we were there, just at the point where the railway ran through a cutting. The first dead Frenchmen were lying about. We were in a defilade position, hidden from the enemy and from our own troops. My men started to pick up French kepis. One took a French bugle. The situation could have become uncomfortable if the French, who were only a few meters above us, had pushed forward. They would have been able to shoot down on us from above.
The company rushed up the edge of the depression and we then found ourselves in the midst of the French position. Very few Frenchmen were left, maybe 10 or 20, in the railway cutting at this point. They stood up, raised their hands and ran towards us. We could see that our regiment was still in a firefight off to our right but, in several places, some sections were also getting up and bounding forwards.
Lots of French dead and wounded lay all around us. Many had been killed in the position that we previously taken under fire so well. This included the edge of the embankment, the stubble behind it and the unharvested wheat crop still further back. Several of the French wounded had crawled there in an effort to seek cover and to hide themselves. Loud moans and cries for help could be heard from this wheat field. We recognised the French 87th IR from the unit numbers on the uniforms of the prisoners and the dead. Specifically we had broken into the position of the 1st and 2nd Companies.
The battle ended at 1600 hours.
Again, I am grateful to Robert Dunlop for the translation.