Primary Documents - Erich von Falkenhayn on the Champagne Offensive, September 1915
Reproduced below is German Army Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn's account of the resumed French Champagne Offensive in September 1915.
Regarded as the major Allied undertaking of 1915 the offensive quickly became bogged down in the face of determined German opposition. It was eventually called off for relatively little material advance.
In his account Falkenhayn acknowledged certain minor Allied gains but argued that these were minimised in the face of superior German defences, and particularly by the conduct of German troops on the ground. He was particularly dismissive of French Army Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre's optimistic plans for the battle.
German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn on the Battle of Champagne, September 1915
The failure of the long-expected attacks in France to materialize led us in August to doubt whether the attempt at relief, now that it could no longer be of use to the Russians, would be undertaken at all.
For a time we were disposed to regard the enemy's advancing preparations for attack as a feint. However, from the beginning of September onwards, more and more frequent reports went to show that we had to expect an early attack by the British, supported by the French, in the neighbourhood of Lille, with a simultaneous offensive by the French alone in Champagne.
In Flanders and Artois, on a front of over 50 miles as the crow flies, the Sixth Army of the Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria (Chief of Staff being Major-General Kuhl) held the line with sixteen divisions from south of Ypres, immediately east of Armentieres, west of Lens, east of Arras, to a point 10 miles from the latter town.
In Champagne, the Third Army, under General von Einem, with seven and a half divisions, held, on a front of fully30 miles, positions which ran from north of Rheims to Massiges. In touch on the left, as far as the Argonne, stood the right wing of the Fifth Army of the German Crown Prince, with two divisions in line.
On the 21st September drum fire began against the Sixth Army, and on the 22nd against the Third and the right wing of the Fifth, of an intensity similar to that which we had for the first time employed on a large scale at Gorlice-Tarnow.
Reinforcements from the scanty general reserve had already been sent to the threatened armies, and were now sent in greater numbers. The Third and Sixth Armies received heavy batteries and one infantry division each, the Third having a brigade of infantry in addition.
The bombardment raged with almost undiminished fury in Champagne until the 24th, and in Flanders until the 25th September. On those days the infantry attacks began on both fronts.
Although the terrible gunfire had caused hitherto unheard-of destruction both in and far behind our positions, in addition to very heavy losses in men, the French were unable to gain any vital advantages on the 24th in Champagne.
The English, on the other hand, on the first day of their attack, by the employment of gas, succeeded in occupying our foremost positions at Loos over a breadth of 7 miles. They were, however, unable to develop this success. Incessant counter-attacks of the brave defenders not only prevented this, but also recovered substantial portions of the lost positions. The French, who attacked the Sixth Army on both sides of the Scarpe in conjunction with the English, achieved no successes worthy of mention at all.
The position in Champagne on the 25th September was much more serious. Continuing their offensive, the French on this day, on and to the east of the Souain-Somme-Py road, with seventeen divisions, drove the remnants of two German divisions, on a front of 15 miles, with a depth of 2 miles, back into their rear positions, which unfortunately had also been shot to pieces.
A serious crisis arose, leading the Staff of the Third Army to consider the advisability of a further withdrawal of the whole army front. Such a step would of necessity have led to very serious consequences, firstly in the moral effect, which would inevitably have been general, secondly in the tactical results on the neighbouring fronts, and finally by giving space to the enemy masses, which were crowded helplessly together against present positions, to escape from their momentarily intolerable situation.
Fortunately the proposed withdrawal was never carried out. On the urgent advice of the Chief of Staff of the neighbouring Fifth Army, Major-General Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, the consideration of the matter was adjourned until the arrival of G.H.Q., who were on their way to the Western front, and after their arrival at noon on the 25th September, there was no further question of any voluntary withdrawal.
There were still reserves available. They at once threw into Champagne one of the last divisions of the general reserve from Alsace, and the 10th Army Corps, the Guards Corps going to the Sixth Army. Both these corps had just reached Belgium from the East.
This additional strength sufficed to some extent to break the weight of the enemy's first attacks on the fighting fronts, but it was insufficient to repel the whole offensive, which lasted for many days. The heavy fighting wore down the strength even of formations freshly thrown in, all the more quickly because heavy rain had set in on the evening of the 25th September, turning the shell-torn battlefield into a marsh.
True, the difficulties thus caused were no doubt even more noticeable in attack than in defence. The enormous numerical superiority against which we had to contend is well illustrated by the fact that there were thrown in against the Third Army no less than thirty-five French divisions, with 2,000 heavy and 3,000 field guns. Behind them were numerous cavalry divisions, of which considerable portions actually took part, ready to attack.
Accordingly, in the first half of October, G.H.Q. had many worn troops replaced by fresh divisions, drawn from quiet sectors of the front, until the arrival of further forces from the East relieved them of the task. Apart from the modest initial successes above-mentioned, the enemy had no further advantages of any importance to record. The fighting did not, however, die down in Flanders until the 13th, or in Champagne until the 10th October.
"The greatest battle of all time," as the commander of an English Guards division described it in divisional orders on the eve of the battle, had been fought. But it had not achieved the success contemplated by the French C.-in-C., General Joffre, in his battle orders.
They had not driven the Germans out of France, not a single one of their countrymen had been freed from his twelve months' "slavery," and a splendid victory had not been won over the Germans. The only effect one must admit is that, not the attack, but the anticipation of it, and the preparation to meet it, had an influence on the German operations against Russia.
But this fact cannot be credited to the battle, being a simple result of waging war on many fronts. The "greatest battle of all time" became a terrible defeat for the attackers. Tremendous sacrifices in men and material were made for a result which was nothing in comparison to the objectives aimed at, and in itself amounted to but little, for it was of no importance from the general point of view whether a few narrow sectors of the German positions had to be withdrawn a few miles or not. The defensive system remained absolutely unshaken.
Nor could we have done any more with all the additional men we might have brought up by breaking off the Eastern operations earlier. The troops and material available would not even then have been sufficient for counterattacks, or attacks on other fronts, with large objectives. And to have made any sacrifice for the sake of local successes was not at that time in our interests.
Without involving any prejudice to the aims which we could, on a sober calculation of all the conditions, reasonably pursue in the East, the reinforcements arrived in the West at exactly the right moment for the task allotted to them there. Had they arrived earlier they might have ensured that the small indentations in our front should be smaller still, but that was of no importance for the general position, while their earlier recall from the Eastern front would have crippled the operations in progress there, the prospects of which were most emphatically described by the commanders on the spot as extraordinarily good.
Finally, it must not be forgotten that the German soldier on the Western front is entitled to most of the credit for the fact that the reinforcements from the East came up in time. His marvellous resistance in the pitifully shattered positions in Flanders and Champagne warded off the danger of their reaching the front line too late.
Amid death and terror he clung firm, in accordance with his battle orders, to the spot he had to defend, in countless cases even when there had long been no officer or N.C.O. left to set him an example.
Not content with that, he attacked with magnificent self-sacrifice the enemy masses surging over and around him, whenever opportunity arose. Thus were formed firm islands and islets in the sea of destruction created by the enemy artillery.
Against these, the first waves of the enemy infantry attacks were broken, but the masses following them pressed forward unceasingly. Blocks and bunches of men formed, in which the German artillery tore tremendous gaps, while it became impossible to maintain order. Enemy reinforcements failed. The more men were brought up, the worse the position became. The offensive was throttled by his own mass.
No language could be too strong to describe the achievements of the German troops in the Champagne battlefield in those days. Every great deed hitherto done in war paled beside their heroism.
This tribute to the German soldier involves no depreciation of his enemies. To be defeated in a fight against heroes is no disgrace. If the French and English cannot be placed on the same level as the defenders, they certainly did their duty nobly. Their losses are the best proof of this. The lack of success was due to no failure of theirs. It was probably mainly due to the plan of operations.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. III, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
'Bantam' was a term to describe members of battalions between 5ft 1in and 5ft 4in.
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