The Second Battle of Champagne

E9 of Collected Articles

25th September to 18th October 1915

The Prelude

In July 1915, at the two Franco-British conferences held in Calais and Chantilly, a decision was taken to launch simultaneous assaults in Artois and Champagne. Both General Joffre and Field-Marshal French were under the strategic objective to relieve the already heavy pressure on the Russian forces demoralised after their punishment in the summer battles on the Eastern Front. Without such relief,the Eastern Front might too easily collapse and Imperial Russia sue for peace. The French and the British agreed to launch three major assaults, all on the 25th of September. Whilst the British would attack the mining villages of Loos and Hulluch and the strongly fortified Hohenzollern Redoubt, the French would attack the Vimy Ridge to the south of Loos as well as the assault in Champagne. In the case of the French assaults these would be over earlier battlefields of 1915 during which heavy casualties had been sustained for small advances.

In both regions, the strategic objective would be to destroy the enemy forces opposite by attrition. Strangely, General Joffre wished to put the major French effort into the Champage assault where very limited success had been achieved between December 1914 and March 1915. The First Battle began on the 20th of December with assaults by General De Langle de Cary’s 4th Army. It continued into January 1915. After a pause, the second phase began on the 16th of February as the French infantry assaulted some twenty kilometres of the German front defence line centred on the village of Perthes-les-Hurlus. Their objective was to capture the St. Souplet to Challerange Junction railway which supplied the German lines in their sector between Soissons and Rheims. After twelve attacks and twenty German counter-attacks, the infantry had advanced about one kilometre when the battle ended on the 17th of March. This First Battle of Champagne cost the French some 240,000 casualties for the very limited gain of the German front defence line. The railway remained beyond the reach of the French.

In Artois on 9th May the French enjoyed more success when they recaptured the Notre Dame de Lorette Ridge facing Vimy Ridge across the Souchez Valley. The entire German trench system was captured as the French advanced just over three kilometres. But their reserves were placed some eight to thirteen kilometres in the rear so that when they reached the front-line the next morning the German reserves had had time to come forward to fill the gap. A series of attacks and German counter-attacks then continued into June.

Pondering upon the unsatisfactory results of these two battles, General Joffre and his chief of operations recognised that German reserves replacing worn-out front-line divisions had to be out-manoeuvred. By attacking in strength in two widely separated regions, the Germans might only be able to reinforce one at the expense of the other, thereby giving the opportunity of a French breakthrough.

Because Joffre wished to suck in German defenders from the French front in Artois and the nearby British front at Loos to help these two assaults, security was relaxed in the Champagne sector. Hence the Germans learned of the coming battle and so their reinforcements began to arrive in mid-August from the northern part of the Western Front.

The Champagne battle would take place over low rounded hills abundantly covered with pine trees. During the advance, the Dormoise and Py streams would have to be crossed. The French commander General de Castelnau would be opposed by General von Einem. General Petain would command the French assault on the Hand of Massiges.

The Second Battle of Champagne

The artillery bombardment began on the 22nd of September under clear skies with patchy clouds. The German front line was badly damaged by the bombardment which cut the wire in many places. But rain fell on the night of the 24th so the assaults began at 9.15 am on the 25th under grey skies up chalk slopes made slippery by the rain. The troops surged forward with their banners unfurled and their bands playing the Marseillaise.

The first wave was to probe weaknesses in the German front defence line and to keep the whole German trench system, some 640 kilometres of trenches, manned throughout its distance from flank to flank of twenty four kilometres. The French Staff had established that the average distance for an infantry attack was some 300 kilometres before exhaustion set in so fresh units were carefully positioned in close reserve.

After two days of fighting, the French infantry had powered their way through fourteen kilometres of the German first defence line, four places being completely broken through. Two around the Bois de Perthes (3) were made by the 10th Colonial Division and two between des Vacques and St. Hilaire-le-Grand (1) were made by the 28th Brigade. These break-ins were aided by the reserve units of the divisions being quickly brought forward to replace the assault units as they tired or were shattered.

However the Germans had skilfully placed their second defence line on a series of reverse slopes so were sheltered from the French bombardments. Furthermore their cannons had already been pulled back behind this line which was protected to its front by almost intact wire. As the French infantry came over the crests they were clearly visible on the skyline and so were rapidly gunned down by machine-gun fire. The French cannons in close support of the attacking infantry could not drop their shells onto the enemy trenches because of the high-angles of the crest-lines. These cannons were basically designed for firing alongside advancing infantry not as howitzers able to fire shells that came down almost vertically upon the enemy.

During the next three days, French battalions slipped and slid their way over the succession of crests, to face the enemy firing at them without having to worry about themselves being exposed to shrapnel or high-explosive bombardments. Despite the capture of thousands of German prisoners and many cannons, Joffre faced mounting losses, dwindling ammunition supplies and General Petain’s decision to halt his attacks at Massiges (4). He ordered a pause to allow time to bring up heavy howitzers.

Following bombardments by these howitzers, the attacks were renewed on the 6th of October but made slow progress. Eventually two cavalry divisions were ordered to charge over the crests. It was hoped their speed would carry them to the trenches before the Germans could react in time with sufficient weight of fire. Unfortunately they could, and dead and writhing horses joined the bodies of the French infantry lying broken on the reverse slopes.

However, along this fourteen kilometre front, the French infantry had penetrated to a average depth of four kilometres, some four times deeper than in the First Battle. But this was at the cost of 144,000 casualties compared to the German’s 85,000. The objective of the First Battle had been achieved, the French artillery now dominated the railway from their observation posts on the Butte de Tahure (3).

The Aftermath

The Second Battle of Champagne battle was of the same scale of loss that Loos was for the British. The French and British armies suffered a similar casualty rate compared to the Germans; at Champagne 1.69:1, at Loos 1.75:1. But in the Champagne battle 25,000 German prisoners and 150 guns were captured.

Elsewhere the French 10th Army lead by General Foch did worse than the French forces which captured the Notre Dame de Lorette Ridge in May although then unable to make progress across the Souchez valley and on to the Vimy Ridge. The 10th Army did capture the ruins of Souchez village on the 26th of September and a Moroccan division reached the top of the Vimy Ridge but was soon driven back. These two assaults on the four-mile long whaleback-shaped Vimy Ridge cost the French some 150,000 casualties during 1915.

Overall, during 1915, the French armies suffered 1,430,000 casualties in the largely unsuccessful attacks in Artois, Champagne and the Vosges mountains.

Visiting the Battlefield

The visitor examining the battlefield and expecting it to have been returned to the growing of grapes will be sadly disappointed. Instead for that they must travel to Rheims and on to the rolling hills called the ‘Mountains of Rheims’ between the city and the town of Epernay where many of the Champagne houses are to be found (and like Moet et Chandon to be visited)

Navarin Farm (2) captured by the French Foreign Legionnaires lies on the RD77 road between Suippes and Sommepy-Tahure. To the east of the road is the Camp de Suippes, the French military training ground containing a number of ruined villages. The Michelin maps name the ruins as Tahure (3), Ripont (4), Perthes-les-Hurlus (5), Hurlus, le Mesnil-les-Hurlus (5) and Ferme de Beausejour (5). French and German military cemeteries ring the training ground.

The training ground is closed to civilians because of live firing by tanks and its military importance. But each September, close to the 22nd of the month (when the bombardment began), the site is opened on a Sunday so that the families of those who formerly lived in the villages and those who fought in the battles can visit the destroyed villages.

However the left flank of the battlefield at des Wacques (1) has the memorial where
the 28th Brigade are commemorated. And on the right flank the Hand of Massiges (4) with its Earhole quarry show why this ridge was so important in providing German observation posts.

(35mm slides held in author’s photographic library)