Thursday 20 July 2023

The German Crown Prince and the Butte de Vauqouis - Meuse-Argonne (1914-18)

 General Von Falkenhayn's 1919 memoir 'General Headquarters 1914-1916 - Critical Decisions' is surprisingly light on the battle that defined his leadership, and ultimately cost him his command. Indeed, Verdun features on perhaps ten of the two hundred and ninety two pages in the book. I will be talking about Verdun, and the leaders that directed the battle in a future blog entry but in the meantime I'm picking up where I left off having completed the Sergeant York Battlefield Trail at Chatel-Chéhéry. Amongst the many sites associated with the First World War in the area, I was intrigued by a map references to the Abris du Kronprinz on the slopes of an escarpment topped by the Bois de la Gruerie and the nearby hill known as the Butte de Vauquois. 

The Crown Prince - Field Accommodation

The Kronprinz referred to on the map, was of course, Wilhelm the eldest son of the German Kaiser - Hohenzollern heir and commander of the Army Group Crown Prince, and for the duration of the Battle of Verdun, and a little time afterwards, the officer commanding the German 5th Army. Falkenhayn's memoir speaks little of personalities and is strangely detached in its language. His references to the Crown Prince are invariably tied in with the name 'General Schmidt von Knobelsdorf' and this is significant. The Crown Prince had not commanded anything more than a regiment and had no real experience of war. Knobelsdorf, the 5th Army Chief of Staff, was a seasoned and experienced commander and the man who conceived and executed the German attack on Verdun. The Kaiser had asked his son to defer to Knobelsdorf's judgement. The two would have had some tense conversations, particularly after the failure of the initial German assault. With these pen portraits in mind, our small group headed off to find the Crown Prince's field headquarters.

Command Bunker - Bois de la Gruerie

The location is straight-forward to find, a couple of hundred metres up a gravelled road branching off the D.38 to the west of Varennes-en-Argonne. The site is pretty much undisturbed with not interpretation panels or access restrictions (thankfully). Our small group explored the small number of concrete structures which were pretty much as one might expect. Two or three rooms, reinforced concrete ceilings and very basic facilities. Functional and unadorned. A little way from the main concentration, we stumbled across a bunker which really stood out. The external aesthetics had been enhanced by the incorporation of a bay window. Inside there is, what was once an ornate fireplace and the finishings included architectural flourishes like ceiling roses and coving around the edges of the ceilings. We had found the Crown Prince's quarters! 

Interior of Crown Prince Bunker

At the time, I couldn't help reflecting on the fact that the Prince and his tutor, Knobelsdorf, might well have spent time in front of that fireplace arguing about the progress of the battle as German losses mounted over the summer of 1916. (Having reflected on this, I think my impressions might have been rather fanciful as these bunkers were not really a sensible forward post from the 5th Army HQ at Stenay. The more likely scenario is that the bunkers were used by the 5th Army staff during the 1918 Meuse-Argonne Offensive). A thrill to visit the site nevertheless.

French Monument - Butte de Vauqouis

Nearby is one of the most authentic First World War battlefields that I've ever come across. The Butte de Vauquois appears almost untouched since the end of hostilities, and it must surely be one of the most hotly contested pieces of ground from the Great War. Our visit was fleeting and I'm not familiar with the history so I have turned to one of my earliest website chums, Tom Morgan, who published a short history on his website 'Hellfire Corner' back in 1997. The Butte is a small hill, 290 metres high, that dominates the valley between the Argonne massif to the west, and the Mort Homme / Hill 304 massif to the east. In 1914 the small village of Vauquois sat astride the summit, though nothing remains from that period. Over the course of the war a staggering 531 mines were blown on the hotly contested hill. There is a useful map showing the main craters and there orientation in the surrounding lanscape.

Map of Craters and Viewpoints

Mine Craters - Butte de Vauquois
According to Tom, the French made four unsuccessful attacks between 28 Oct 1914 and 28 Feb 1915. They finally took the German trenches on 1 May 1915 and then fought a bloody five day battle to fend of counter-attacks. With the two sides entrenched on either side of the hill, tunnelling operations moved to an unprecedented level. It wasn't until the first day of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on 26 Sept 1918 that the American 35th Division eventually cleared the hill. Nowadays one can wonder along the trenches, and explore the underground passages and dug-outs - some French, some German. On the top of the hill stands the Memorial to the combatants and dead of Vauquois which features a sculpture of a poilu who has a grenade in one hand and a rifle in the other. If approaching the Butte from the nearby road, there is a war relic German trench mortar marking the bottom of the steps.  All-in-all a stunning battlefield to explore.

for the Sgt York Battlefield Trail click here