Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Delvert in action: the battle of Ethe

General Edgard de Trentinian (1851-1942)
The 101st was part of 7th Infantry Division (IV Corps, Third Army), commanded by General Edgard de Trentinian. The division contained four infantry regiments (the 101st-104th), a squadron of 14th Hussars and three groups of 75s from 25th Artillery.

On 22nd August 1914, advancing northwards, the French knew the Germans were ahead of them somewhere, but because of thick fog were unable to ascertain the enemy's exact positions. The advanced guard consisted of the three battalions of the 104th, a group of artillery and two troops of the divisional cavalry; they were ordered to advance over a wooded ridge into the village of Ethe. The main body, the rest of the division, with extra artillery and cavalry, was to follow some 2,000 metres behind. A battalion of the 103rd was given the role of guarding the left flank; the 2nd Battalion of the 101st under Major Laplace, accompanied by half a troop of hussars, was ordered to the village of Bleid, on the column's right flank, and to maintain contact with V Corps.

The fightiing around Ethe and Bleid, 22 August 1914; French in white, Germans in black

Ethe after the battle, looking northwards
In a confused struggle in the fog, the hussars were engaged with uhlans in the streets of Ethe. The uhlans were driven out, but hussars and infantry now met advancing German infantry, and got involved in a heavy fire fight. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 104th, followed by the 2nd of the 103rd, were fed into the battle, but the French were largely unaware of the forces moving towards them, partly because of the fog, partly because of poor scouting by the cavalry. Trentinian joined his advanced guard to take charge. By the time the fog started clearing, at around 0830, most of the advance guard was engaged to the east of Ethe, leaving the village itself lightly held.

Two postcards of Bleid
It was against the village that the Germans moved next, from an unexpected direction, the north. Trying to cover the movement of an infantry battalion to met the new threat, the hussars charged, and, in what would become the standard for this war, were destroyed as a regiment; their CO, Lt Col de Hautecloque (the uncle of Marsal Leclerc of Second World War fame) was killed. The artillery was brought right forward into the village, but its caissons were left in the wood behind the village to the south, where they only served to block the road for the infantry.

What about the 101st in all this? The 2nd Battalion was marching, unsupported, towards Bleid, while the other two battalions (including Delvert's platoon) had not even come under fire. Arriving at the village, the 2nd suddenly found itself under heavy, accurate, fire. In fact, they were facing a brigade of Württembergers (amongst whom was a certain Lieutenant Erwin Rommel, serving with IR124 - whatever became of him?). The French battalion was overwhelmed.

Unaware of this disaster, Trentinian ordered his remaining infantry, the 101st and 102nd, to join him at Ethe at the double. But the main road was still blocked by the artillery trains, so the two regiments had to try and advance through Jeune Bois using tracks. But when they tried to exit the northern edge, they were driven back by accurate artillery fire from the north. Delvert managed to deploy his platoon on the forward slope of the ridge, and luckily most of the shells went over his head.

The Germans crossed the river to the west of Ethe, and began to threaten the French left. And when survivors of 2nd Battalion fell back to rejoin the rest of the regiment, the brigade commander, Colonel Georges Lacotte, ordered a retreat. At this moment, General Trentinian rejoined the rest of his command, and countermanded the orders.

By 1300, Ethe was in flames, the companies of the 103rd and 104th all mixed up; to the south of the village, the 101st and 102nd were in the process of forming a firing line on the left flank to try and prevent the Germans from cutting them off entirely. But despite the perilous position of the French, the Germans did not press their advantage in a serious way during the afternoon. Advances on the left and right were driven back by French musketry and artillery. A final attempt to drive the French from Ethe around 1700 was broken up by French machine guns located in Jeune Bois. The French withdrew southwards under the cover of darkness, with Delvert commanding a scratch formation as a rear guard.

Some French commentators, including - unsurprisingly - Trentinian, tried to claim Ethe as a victory, because they had not been forced out of the village, despite all the Germans could do. But it would be a black mark on Trentinian's career; he was sacked after the battle of the Marne ('we all cheered' when the news reached Delvert) and made to retire from active duty in the following year. After the war, with the opportunity to examine German records, it was revealed that 7th Division was outnumbered by five to one; he was rehabilitated and reinstated to active duty (although never given a command). Lacotte also suffered - although he became a général de brigade, he was removed from a combat command and made military governor of Compiègne. As for the 101st, the regimental history states the regiment's casualties numbered 1,100; the unfortunate 2nd Battalion was reduced to 2 officers and 229 men (ie about one-quarter of its strength).

The war diary of the 101st is here. Trentinian's account of the battle of the Frontiers is on Gallica here. Grasset's account of Ethe, which did so much to aid Trentinian's rehabilitation appeared in five parts in the Revue Militaire Française from the July 1923 issue; all are on Gallica, the first is here. A blog on the 103rd Infantry is here. Photos of the various French memorials to the battle are on Danny Delcambre's site here, and of the French military cemetery here.

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