from 'the War Budget' January 25th, 1917
'France's Colonial Heros at Douaumont'


Coloured Troops That Lowered the German Flag

after the capture of Douaumont - French troops in the trenches


France's Colonial Heroes at Douaumont

If an example were needed of the utility of African manpower on the battlefields of Europe, there is one ready to hand in the amazing French victory at Verdun, of which reports in detail are now available. One of the three divisions brought up for this desperate enterprise was largely composed of Zouaves, Moroccans, and Algerians, tried troops who had already won renown in deadly conflict with the Boches. It was of this Division General Guyot wrote in his order of the day on the eve of the great surprise attack.

Their Glorious Banners

"To the —— Division, celebrated already by its brilliant exploits on the Yser, at hill 304, at Vaux-Chapitre, at Floury, falls the high honour of recapturing Douaumont fort. Zouaves, Moroccans, sharpshooters, Senegalese, will vie in valour to inscribe a fresh victory on their glorious banners."

And General Passaga issued this order : "On our left will be fighting the —— Division, already renowned; composed of Zouaves, Moroccans and Algerians, it is going to dispute the honour of capturing Douaumont fort. Comrades, let us realise that they can depend on us to assist them, to open the gate, to share their glory."

The advance was made under a new system, the three divisions going forward timed by the clock and guided by the compass, while a barrage of heavy .shell fire crept over the German lines some fifty yards in advance of the attacking columns. The plan was happily conceived, for a thick fog, which hid the movement from the enemy, also prevented the use of ordinary methods in the advance. Spite of fog and mud indescribable, clock and compass won through. It would have been a splendid achievement for picked European regiments; for the Africans it was a superb triumph of courage and discipline.

A Typical Charge

The assault up the slopes of Caillette wood is thus described :-— "It is 11.40, the hour got for the attack. The chasseurs are standing in line, bayonets fixed. Captain D — raises his .cane. The first wave is launched, speeds on, followed swiftly by the others. The sight is magnificent; covered with mud, the colour of that soil of France which they are defending and striving to wrest from the enemy. The chasseurs, calm and determined, are superb. What will they find behind that crest? How many hidden mitrailleuses will suddenly shriek and mow down the attackers? Under what deadly hail of big shells, must they soon stand? No matter. They march as if on parade.

"The ground is difficult to traverse; it is like a stormy sea. suddenly transformed into solid substance; mud, exploded shells, corpses. Men sink to their armpits, in the mud. Their comrades pull them out. The enemy's barrage fire begins. Too late. The waves press on. Shells fall and burst behind them. Bullets whistle out of some shelters or boyaux which our guns have not reached. The trench sweepers dash to the danger point. A few hand grenades deftly hurled and the Boches throw up their hands with cries of 'Kamerad !'

Behind the Barrage

"The advance goes on slowly, methodically. The barrage shells of our 76s, dropping a score of yards before us, restrain the ardour of the impatient. The smoke increases, the fog is thick, we have to guide ourselves by the compass. We reach Bezil ravine, we clear out the Berlin trench, prisoners flow In. The chasseurs cheer as each group is passed back. At 12.30 we reach the railway. At 12.38 the waves of attack are at the top of the Northern crest of the ravine. The objective is reached. The signal is sent back: 'Objective, chasseurs reached.' A wild cry of victory surges above the roar of the guns."

The sharpshooters and Zouaves of the Guyot de Salins Division had as their first objective the Dame ravine in the Nawe Wood, and the Couleuvre ravine as their second. The advance resembled peace manoeuvres. The time table was followed exactly, the programme carried out to the last detail, and at 2 o'clock the poilus were in their places organising the ground won. They swept everything before them, leaping over trenches and bursting through fortified redoubts, ready to turn back to verify the thoroughness with which they had cleared out the Germans, or deal with any of the enemy troops left behind.

Through the Enemy's Fire Curtain

The mixed regiment, Zouaves and Moroccan sharpshooters, carried at a bound the defensive organisations of .the crest stretching from Thiaumont to the village of Douaumont. Having the task of reaching two successive objectives which seemed to offer similar difficulties, the Colonel decided to confide each to a battalion, giving the first objective to the Moroccans and the second to the Zouave battalion. In spite of the difficulties presented by the wet, slaty ground, torn to pieces by the bombardment of the preceding days, these troops dashed without a stop through the enemy's barrage fire, and within a few minutes reached and passed the first German trenches.

After occupying the Thiaumont work the sharp-shooters reached Thiaumont farm. As they were organising this position they were joined by the Zouaves, who then advanced against Douanmont village and installed themselves beyond its North- western edge. It was 2.45 in the afternoon. These troops too had carried out the amazing plan without a hitch. It was an inspiring spectacle. The Colonials like a rising tide, submerged the fort inside which the struggle was going on. To the East was seen the battalion of chasseurs climbing the slopes of Caillette wood and the Fausse Cote, while an interminable grey column of prisoners was coming up the glacis from Chambitoux toward Fleury. Each soldier, moved by the sight, looked at his neighbour, scarcely believing his eyes, and when the capture of Douaumont was confirmed, it was an unforgettable moment.

The other battalion of chasseurs on the extreme right was not loss brilliant. Nothing, says one of the official reports, could stop their progress, the demonstration of a powerful and tenacious will. All these men whose combined energy was directed against the enemy .seemed to be one powerful organism which was trying out its strength and becoming conscious of its value.

Over the Top

As the Captain blew the whistle of departure the men hounded over the trench parapets, pressing at first closely around their section chiefs, then extending themselves in long lines as if at manoeuvres. They grasped the hands of their comrades in a feverish embrace. Hardly had they advanced twenty metres from our trenches when they could sea through the fog the waving arms of Germans Bearing eloquent testimony to the striking moral victory of the French soldier over his adversary.

The conquest of the fort was reserved for three battalions of the colonial regiment of Morocco, cited twice in the order of the army for its fine conduct in the battles of Dixmude and Fleury. At the outset of the attack the regiment met with an unexpected resistance. The first French line was pounded by German heavy guns, and Petain's troops had to evacuate the position. German troops under cover of the fog succeeded in penetrating the French tines. Before the advance could be undertaken these troops had to be driven out.

Gained Without a Blow

Dragging their feet out of the mud the Colonials dashed forward to take advantage of their position. Not a shell was falling on their line, no infantry was there to stop their rush. The Boche barrage was intense, but the shells were falling far behind, in the Vignes ravine.

It was close to 3 o'clock. Dorey's detachment had entered the fort without striking a blow. It was in position Southwest of the towers, neither firing nor being attacked.

It was impossible to adopt methodically the fighting formation arranged by the commanders. The Boches were certainly on the alert. It was necessary to attack them at the earliest possible moment, before they were able to recover from the first shock.

Under the low flying French aeroplane with the tricolour in full view circling over the fort, the battalion crossed the ditch in line of columns by sections, commanders at the head, and then swarmed over the ramparts. Beyond the ramparts the men were looking into the yawning mouths of the casemates of the ground floor of the fort and were gazing at the interior court torn to pieces by shells.

Through the Coal

Before this chaos which had been a great fort, a symbol of will and strength marvellously recovered, the heads of the columns stopped and the men looked! into each other's eyes. The battalion chief, who had halted at the bottom of the ditch to see his men pass, regained his position at the head of the troops and, while paying homage to the sacred and unforgettable scene before him, gave the order to attack the guns which were just beginning to play on the advancing waves.


after the capture of Douaumont - pages from 'le Miroir'


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