A little French booklet that I picked up for a song earlier this year (from France, via Abe Books, no extra tax, thank you very much). Published in 1920, and entirely appropriate to our current tour, this post features some relevant extracts for your reading pleasure.
The Kemmelberg, the gateway to the German’s Holy Land, this extraordinary photograph taken at a distance of over twelve miles from the brewery in Passchendaele village. The following account of the French defense of Mont Kemmel has been, let’s say, somewhat liberally translated by yours truly at times, and should you wish to read all about our hero’s love affair with a girl from Locre, all of which I have cunningly removed from the text, then you will have to either get yourself a copy, or ask me nicely – money helps – but it is still pretty clear that this was originally in French, which was my intention. Grammatical symbols, in particular hyphens (as in Mont-Kemmel), in the original text are reproduced here, any textual intrusions by me are in italics, and as the booklet contains a small number of illustrations, those that are relevant are reproduced in the text below.
On Mont-Kemmel: The Heroic Hill
On the morning of April 17th, Jean Parnin, who, arriving the evening before in this new country, having walked all night with his comrades on ground shaken by shells, saw before his eyes, through the crenel of the trench that his company occupied, a completely unforeseen landscape for a man arriving from the Vosges. A few days before, he had been contemplating deep gorges, craggy peaks crowned with dark woods, mountains whose tops merged with the clouds.
Now he saw a vast plain, barely undulated by hills of mediocre height, where vegetation seemed sparse, and rising up here and there, heaps of ruins that had once been thriving villages. The regiment was on the summit of Mont-Kemmel, which, from this altitude of about 150 metres, dominated the whole country. In the distance, a ridge stood out, which seemed insignificant to these men accustomed to the mountains; it was Messines. Behind them, five hills, roughly as high as the one they occupied; Mont-Rouge, Mont-Noir, Mont-Vidaigne, Mont-Kokerelle and Mont-des-Cats.
The large shells which the enemy sent in a continuous stream onto Mont-Kemmel and which ploughed the flanks and the crest of it with a formidable crash, while forming terrifying holes there, did not allow the bravest to think of anything else other than ‘to the death’. At the same time, on the plain, the enemy infantry clashed with ours, Wytschaete, recaptured the day before by the British, was again lost, and the German assault waves, advancing towards Mont-Kemmel, threatened to overwhelm them. The shock battalions leading the rush were scattered in combat groups of six to ten each, and these small units offered little for our artillery to target. Jean saw them approach, in short and rapid leaps, in spite of our machine guns, which spat out thousands and thousands of bullets. Behind these combat groups, a second wave of infantry advanced, accompanied by light machine guns, which took position from place to place to spray our lines with bullets, but which our guns were trying to locate and destroy. A third wave, also accompanied by machine guns, reinforced the second, blocking the holes made by our fire, the fourth wave featured the grenade launchers, still too far away to be dangerous, but which would soon riddle our own line with explosive projectiles, the size of two fists, capable of the greatest devastation. Finally, a fifth wave brought up the rear with light minenwerfers which were going to rain terrible and particularly demoralizing shells on the defenders of our trenches. In truth, Jean could not distinguish the different groups that were coming to the assault so clearly; he saw men scattered over the plain, and he heard the whistling of projectiles, which exploded around him with a crash. But an artillery observer standing next to him, binoculars in his eyes, telephoned his battery short and precise directions for spotting, and from those directions naturally flowed the details just read.
When the enemy reached the foot of Mont-Kemmel, the German batteries, in order not to hinder the progress of their infantry, lengthened their fire and attacked the rear area, which was a great relief for the occupants of the hill. One might think that the French, subjected for several hours to a violent bombardment which had destroyed all the shelters and shattered all the trenches, would be demoralized and ready to give up when the infantry attacked. The Boches were certainly counting on this mass nervous breakdown, and their first assault groups were tasked with moving beyond the mountain, with subsequent waves immediately occupying the trenches they hoped to capture almost without striking a blow. Once again that day the German’s psychology was wrong. Undoubtedly, the French had not suffered the bombardment without losses and without depression; undoubtedly, the bravest had haggard eyes, tight lips, and trembling knees. Jean Parnin, who had spent nearly four years at the front, who had ‘made’ the Marne, Champagne and Verdun, who had suffered similar bombardments by the hundreds, had difficulty in concealing the weakness engendered in him by the instinct of conservation. You have to be drunk or unconscious not to feel any emotion when you have to stand, without fighting, in a heavily bombed trench and passively strain your back to the projectiles that distribute death at random. But the French temperament has singular resources and an unequaled resilience. The feeling that stirred our Poilus as the shells fired longer and the enemy infantry approached them was nothing but fierce anger.
Jean was furious for having been so afraid, and he wanted at all costs to avenge himself on the adversary for the fear he had had. And all his comrades, consciously or not, had the same will. Their flesh might have quivered but their souls had remained strong. That is why the German assault waves, instead of colliding, as their leaders expected, with horror-stricken, bewildered, weakened men, found before them fiery and fierce soldiers. First, French machine guns and machine gunners swept over the glacis with a tight, thick shower of bullets, which caused disarray in the first wave. Then, the following waves having reinforced the first and continuing the forward movement, the grenadiers armed with their blunderbuss rifles [!] threw their machines into the mass. At the same time our batteries of 75s established an almost impassable barrage, and the voltigeurs [skirmishers] themselves, including Jean Parnin and his squad, maintained a heavy fire, actively assisting the fire of our machine guns.
Nevertheless, the assault troops, tenacious and endlessly supported by the successive waves, dug shelters at the foot of the mountain, in order to escape our fire and breathe before resuming their advance. Their number, moreover, was constantly increasing. For a Boche that fell, ten more arrived. Already, the firstcomers, abandoning the shelters they had just established, were beginning to climb the slope. Others followed. Soon Mont-Kemmel would be invaded by legions of Germans. Would the French lose this position the very day they had occupied it? Suddenly the 75s abruptly stopped firing near our trenches, directing their shells further out into the plain. The machine guns fell silent, and a command was transmitted down the line: “Fix bayonets!” In the blink of an eye, the voltigeurs obeyed, as the grenadiers, on another command, “Prepare to go”, began to climb the parapet. They rushed forward, easily crossing our wires, which the enemy bombardment had destroyed, and, by a vigorous counter-attack, drove back the Boches who were climbing the slope. But new reinforcements arrived, and after a short oscillation, they resumed their movement, and our grenadiers retreated in their turn.
Jean Parnin, livid, was present at this spectacle, clutching his hand on the hilt of his rifle. Finally, the expected order was pronounced “Forward! With the bayonet!” And the voltigeurs rushed forward. The melee was terrible and the enemy defended fiercely. But the fury of our charge was overwhelming. After a violent fight, the Boches folded.
Jean Parnin, whose helmet was half smashed by a shard, the hood torn, his face dusty and bloody, was fighting like a lion [illustration above]. His bayonet was red with blood. He pushed forward with the point and the butt, not trying to parry the blows, but rushing straight ahead. And his comrades did the same. Thus, the Boches were forced back, bayonets to the loins [!], to the foot of the mountain, and it took all the authority of the officers to rally our men and force them to go back to their trenches, where they had the precious advantage of dominating the position. To push further would have been dangerous and unnecessary.
The whole plain was occupied by the enemy and any unit that would have ventured there would have been surrounded and captured. During the days which followed this unequal and glorious fight, a sort of truce seemed to intervene, at least as far as the infantry attacks were concerned. Only the batteries of the two adversaries were engaged in what is improperly called an artillery duel because, in such a duel, it is always the infantry who receive the shells. Nevertheless, the situation, by comparison, was bearable. The nights were spent rebuilding, under cannon fire, the barbed wire defenses, which the bombardment had destroyed during the day. New shelters were established to replace the collapsed dugouts, and they were propped up as best as possible with the remains of any planks that were found. During the day, everyone, except the lookouts, chosen in turn, rested, each occupying the time according to his tastes and his character. Some, by the light of a bad candle, at the bottom of a fragile gourbi [simple structure], played shackles, cursing when the blast of a nearby shell burst extinguished the candle. Others were asleep, wrapped in their blankets. Others were reading or writing. However, the lull continued and one would have thought that the Boches, heavily crushed, had given up on conquering Mont-Kemmel.
It was not the case, and the awakening was brutal. On April 24th, in the evening, a general attack was pronounced against the French positions in Flanders. It was stopped dead by the roadblocks of the 75s and machine guns. But at midnight a terrible bombardment of our positions recommenced. Shells of all calibres fell continuously on Mont-Kemmel and the surrounding area. Not a second went by without the ominous whistle that announces the arrival of the ‘bus’ or the tremendous howl that indicates its burst. The sky was ablaze with red lights. Fountains of earth were raised which fell in rain on the occupants of the position. The roar of the minenwerfers accompanied the bark of the cannons. The explosions, the impacts, the ‘big blacks’, the Austrian 88s which burst without being heard arriving, the 210s which dig enormous craters, all the machines of death and desolation seemed to have come together to concentrate on this tiny hill where stood, heroic and indestructible, a single French regiment. When day broke Jean was amazed that he was still alive; his comrades around him seemed to be under the same impression. One of them innocently felt his limbs and said without irony, “That’s a bit of luck! I’m still whole!” Then he would throw himself face down to avoid, as much as possible, the burst of an incoming projectile…
At eight o’clock in the morning, a new attack by enemy infantry on Mont-Kemmel was again defeated. So the Germans seemed to abandon their plan to take the ‘Heroic Hill’ head-on and set about overflowing it [see above map – the insets show German views of Kemmel looking towards the ruins of the church – still some roofs in existence – and the Kemmelberg]. It was later learned that nine divisions, that is to say nearly one hundred thousand men, were launched on this restricted space represented by the French positions in this sector. On either side of the hill, which the enemy had been bombarding with a slightly lower intensity since morning, the battle continued. To the south-west of the mountain, in front of Locre, stands another village, Dranoutre, which was, that day, April 25th, the scene of a bitter struggle. In the afternoon, Dranoutre fell, and enemy troops operating south of Kemmel were able to join hands with those fighting to the north and east. It was five o’clock in the evening when the section officers, called to the colonel’s command post, returned, quite pale, and gathered their men around them. “We are surrounded,” said the second lieutenant in charge of Jean’s section to his soldiers. “Let anyone who has papers that might give information to the enemy burn them. After which, we will hold out as long as we can; but we must not hide from ourselves that unless we are very lucky, we will all be killed or captured.” At these words, the soldiers, in their turn, became livid. A few murmured, protesting that they had been needlessly sacrificed.
Illustration of an old French command post on Mont Kemmel, above, and original photograph (below).
But the officer explained to them, with stoic simplicity, “By delaying the advance of the enemy for only an hour, it may have saved thousands of our comrades, protecting their withdrawal.” The admirable feeling of solidarity which is the honour of the French soldier made the heroes of Mont-Kemmel touched by this argument, and each one thought only of preparing to receive the final assault. Jean, while restocking the magazine of his rifle, which he had just unloaded on an enemy patrol, thought of the atrocious alternatives open to him: to die or to be a prisoner. Since the start of the campaign, he had always had a fixed idea; ‘I don’t want to be a prisoner of the Boches’. This idea gripped him now, more powerful than ever, and he was ready to do anything to escape captivity. While he was thinking thus, a cry rang out: “Alert!” From all sides the Germans were attacking. They emerged from behind, from the sides, from the front. Our men defended themselves with fury. Machine guns crackled relentlessly; the rifles fired repeatedly; the grenades exploded in a continuous stream. But the enemy, slowly, relentlessly, continued to advance. He was determined to have Mont-Kemmel, whatever the cost. Grim news circulated in the French infantry groups; the colonel wounded , a battalion commander killed, two companies flanked and already captured. Suddenly, as the enemy arrived in force near Jean’s section, the second lieutenant in command exclaimed; “Volunteers for a gap!”, and he rushed forward, rifle in hand, bayonet high, in front of the assailants.
Everyone in the section who was still able rushed in his footsteps. These men understood that their only chance of salvation was in the success of this mad enterprise. The new French lines were less than five hundred metres away. Evening was falling. In the shadow and dismay of the unfinished battle, perhaps a few of these soldiers could find their compatriots. And at least those who fell would be killed fighting, instead of being summarily executed by the trench cleaners, or going on to suffer a thousand miseries in German prison camps. From that moment on, Jean Parnin no longer belonged to himself, he walked, in the growing shadow, as in a dream, without realizing what he was doing, passing among the grenades which exploded without touching him, hearing the bullets whistling so close to his ears that he was deafened by them, grazed by bayonet blows which he returned with wear and tear, leaping like a deer along the slope that we had to descend to regain our lines. The ‘volunteers for the gap’ who escaped the appalling dangers of this crazy outfit, when they arrived near the French trenches, experienced another no less distressing danger. They were their friends, their brothers who, not making out their uniform, were now shooting at them when they saw them running. It was by a miracle that Jean Parnin and some of his companions arrived safe and sound among their compatriots.
Amazing German photograph taken in 1915 from somewhere to the north east of Ypres, looking south west towards Mont Kemmel, some seven miles beyond the city in the background, the tree-lined road in the foreground leading to the village of Wieltje in the front left of the picture.
Jean was actually now in the village of Locre, and there he would once again face the attacking German hordes. However, as we shall also find ourselves in Loker, as it is now, later in the year, you will have to wait until then for Part Two to discover his fate. The Poilus who fell fighting on Mont Kemmel, and in the surrounding countryside, are now buried in an ossuary on the western slopes of the hill, which is where we were headed, you may remember, before this post ambushed us.