rir-258-ettighoffer_webThis article is an extract from Stand To! Number 92, the journal of The Western Front Association.

In April 1918 the Germans undertook a unique action on the Western Front in the southern part of the infamous St. Mihiel salient: a raid against an entire front line village with the express intention of holding it for no more than a few hours before withdrawing. This operation, dubbed Kirschblüte - Cherry Blossom, marks the first sharp contest on a large scale during the Great War between a highly motivated, but inexperienced unit of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) against a battle-hardened adversary. By chance, Kirschblüte has been vividly described in the autobiographical accounts of a contemporary witness, namely the German writer Paul C. Ettighoffer, as well as in the records of German units involved. (1) The outcome of this very special encounter has also been described extensively from the American point of view; however, as German sources differ widely in description and valuation of the incident, this contribution intends to provide a more holistic reflection and a closer insight into the condition, tactics and morale of the German Westheer in early 1918.

Operation Kirschblüte - Battle or Raid?
On 21 April 1918 the German Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL) released its daily Heeresbericht:

‘Großes Hauptquartier, 21. April. Western Theatre:
Between the Maas and Mosel bataillons from Lower Saxony attacked the Americans in their positions near Seicheprey. They suceeded in taking the village by storm and penetrated up to 2 kilometres into the enemy's lines. Weaker hostile counter attacks have been repulsed, stronger attempts to attack defeated by suppressing troops approaching or held ready. By nightfall our Sturmtruppen withdrew to their own lines after having destroyed the enemy's constructions. The bloody losses suffered by the Americans are exceptional; 183 Americans, among them 5 officers, were captured, 25 machine guns taken away.' (2)

Two days later The New York Times appeared in print regarding the above:

3,000 Attacked Americans
Futile German Drive Was Much More Than a Trench Raid
Launched To Terrify Us
German Prisoners Say It Was Meant 'To Teach the Americans a Lesson.'
‘Have Broken Their Noses', Thus the French Describe the Experience of the Germans in First Real Battle with Us.
From a Staff Correspondent With The French Armies:

RIR 259 Seicheprey sketch I'For the first time American troops have been engaged in a real action, that of Seicheprey, and its issue warrants high hopes regarding American participation in the great struggle. The fight for Seicheprey was something more than a raid, even on an important scale, for the cardinal principle of raids is the retirement of the assaillants to their own lines as soon as possible after their purpose is achieved, and on this occasion the enemy intended to hold such ground as he could gain. In fact, it appears, according to the statement of prisoners, that the German object was 'to teach the Americans a lesson' that would discourage the men from tackling more important operations in the great western battle. If that be the case, the German expectations were singularly disappointed, for the American and French counterattack recovered every foot of the ground originally lost .... As in the western battle, the Germans aimed at a junction point of the allied lines, and the blow was delivered by special 'storm troops', after a short, but heavy bombardment with gas and high explosive shells .... The attack began in the small hours of Friday, after a deluge of shells from midnight onward. The enemy launched 3,000 men in three columns each, preceded by picked storm troops on a front of a mile and three quarters. On the left and in the centre the assault was repelled, but on the right the assailants succeeded in bursting through and in occupying Remières Wood, whose eastern edge is a short distance behind our line.

'Throughout the day the Germans pursued their usual tactics of ‘infiltration', as the French call it - that is, of gradual progress in small groups, supported by quick-firers, along the line of entry thus made in the allied line, with the object of taking our centre in the rear.

'Covered by trees and favored by the nature of the ground, the Germans were so far successful that by Friday night they reached the crest and delivered a heavy attack on Seicheprey. Before dawn on Saturday the Americans and French had countered strongly and recovered the village and forced the enemy back to the hilltop above. The Germans returned to the charge with forces estimated at three battalions, led by 130 storm troops. The Americans, supported by the French from an adjoining sector, met the attack without flinching. After two hours of desperate fighting the enemy was driven down the slope into the [Remières] wood. Throughout the morning there was bitter fighting among the trees. Then toward noon the Allies swept forward irresistibly and retook the wood completely. Fighting stubbornly, the Germans were pushed back beyond the wood's eastern fringe to their own trenches, where they endeavored to maintain themselves. But a new advance, combined with pressure from the flank, forced them to retreat, and by Saturday evening they had retired to the original starting point, and our line was completely re-established.' (3)

The above account, naturally to be seen in its contemporary context, is not consistent with German sources. It is quite amazing, that American contributions (4) even today adopt alleged facts and interpretations almost unevaluated, speaking of ‘2,798' (5) or ‘3,200 attacking Germans', between ‘400' or ‘1,500 elite Stormtroopers, followed by 1,500 regular German troops' or even ‘shock troops, 2,000 strong of the Prussian Guard' being involved. The fighting should have lasted for ‘36 hours' and ‘...the Germans being rejected following fierce counter-attacks'.

Seicheprey aerial American losses are numbered variously as ranging from ‘1,064' (6) or ‘1,000 men, among them 200 killed, 600 wounded and another 150 captured' down to ‘81 Americans dead, 401 wounded and 187 captured or remained missing'.

German losses were said to be ‘substantially higher' than those of the Americans ‘at least 165 killed and over 500 wounded, missing and captured', with some estimates going up to ‘1,200' or even as high as ‘1,851 casualties'. (7)

The incident caused a lot of excitement in the United States in its aftermath, as well as in the international press, because it confronted the US with the true ‘face of war' and the first remarkable American losses since the appearance of their soldiers on the Western Front. (8)

Internally, US General John Pershing called the American losses at the Battle of Seicheprey ‘considerable' (9) and a ‘German success' (10) So too did the Germans - broadcasting the news widely via the Wolffsch'e Telegraphenbureau, their semi-official press agency, they claimed to have ‘terribly mauled the American troops north of Beaumont'. According to ‘excellent sources' they crowed, ‘General Pershing had reported that the American losses at Seicheprey were between 200 and 300 and the German losses between 300 and 400, including killed, wounded, and prisoners.' (11)

As a result, the battle was hailed as a victory by the American press but an American website has remarked that the reality showed that ‘Stormtrooper tactics had carried the day, and that the Americans had been trounced and given a humiliating bloody nose.' (12)

Prologue
The histories of the German line infantry units involved - Reserve-Infanterie-Regimenter Nr. 258 (RIR 258, Rhenish) and 259 (RIR 259, Hanover/Oldenburg, Lower Saxony) - provide good insight into the operation, as does the albeit autobiographical and highly stylised, verbose narrative (13) by the German author P. C.Ettighoffer, who served as an Offizierstellvertreter (NCO) with RIR 258, 78. Reserve-Division (78.RD), and took part as a Stosstruppführer within a mixed Stossbataillon on the right flank of the attacking forces.

Ettighoffer wrote that ‘shortly before Christmas [1917] we .... moved into the frontline between Maas and Mosel. This last Kriegsweihnacht I have in mind quite clearly, because every member of the Regiment received, as a very special present marking the celebration of peace on earth, a razor-sharp dagger, probably as a matter of prudence for the things to come. We ‘Frontschweine' [old warhorses] regarded this nice gesture as a wonderful joke, rejoicing at the daggers all the same .... Combat activities were almost ‘relaxing'. On the night of new year's eve Maschinengewehr salvoes and Handgranaten were banging out of sheer pleasure that this year of fighting and suffering was over and we were alive, still alive. And then there was another surprise: We were told that Americans were suspected of facing us; totally inexperienced ancillary troops, who might dare to attack on this part of the front. Really, the new year started first-class!'

RIR 259 Seicheprey sketch IIIn mid-January 1918 the 78.RD was deployed to take over a front line sector with Armee-Abteilung C between the rivers Meuse and Moselle, east of St. Mihiel, in front of Essey, Lahayville and St. Baussant. At the end of that month the new ‘Freifeldkampfverfahren' (open space defence) was to be used more generally. The first line was reduced to mere observation, not designed to be fought over anymore, the main combat zone being relocated back to the Hauptwiderstandslinie (HWL), the main line of resistance, with the support of foxholes manned by rifle and machine-gun teams scattered a little in advance. Constant patrolling and raiding was ordered to reconnoitre the enemy and to take prisoners. A Stosstruppunternehmen (raiding party) on 30 January eventually led to the capture of an American soldier providing important information for the German command. The fact that during such activity no more than one or two prisoners could be taken, was due to the strange behaviour of the Americans, whom it seemed, refused to come out of their dugouts and thus the occupants had to face annihilation by geballte Ladungen, concentrated charges, usually made of bundles of stick grenades. Altogether, the Americans rendered themselves as very brave, but totally lacking experience as a strike force. Under heavy fire they felt safe within their dugouts and more often than not were totally surprised by the Germans. (14)

Brutal raid
On 21 March 1918 the Kaiser's Battle commenced between Cambrai and St. Quentin, but didn't have a bearing on the St. Mihiel salient directly. April began with torrents of rain and led to muddy, silted trenches which prevented most patrol activity. Hostile fire remained weak. In order to receive reliable information and to divert the Allies from taking action elsewhere, RIR 259 was ordered by the division to launch a broad raid during early April. During preparations RIR 258 captured an American soldier of the 102nd (Connecticut National Guard) Infantry, thus confirming the presence of the 26th (Yankee) US Division.

RIR 259 finally suggested a mixed operation against the US lines between Alpha-Wäldchen and Remières Wood and a coup de main against the village of Seicheprey just behind the front.

The plan was finally accepted, both front line battalions of RIR 259 were withdrawn, their positions being taken over by parts of RIR 258 and RIR 260. The attacking forces were to construct Übungswerke (training works) reproduced from aerial photographs of the enemy's lines and to practise thoroughly.

Ettighoffer remarked that ‘a patrol had clarified that Americans were positioned in front of us, finally Americans in large numbers. Well, those chaps from the other side of the Big Pond should learn about real war. The Armeeoberleitung (sic) orders a wide ranging attack against the frontline near Seicheprey and Flirey. Among the three regiments of our division only the best and most experienced men were picked, about 600 men. (15) 60 men each were to form a Stosstrupp ....Our platoon volunteers almost completely, only a few family men are allowed to step back. We were ordered to go back to our quarters at Pannes and Essey. We go for a walk, exercising from time to time, practising the attack at a Übungswerk and get into high spirits. In the meantime the sector designated for our attack is to be reconnoitred constantly. Soon enough we know that a large American unit, the 24th (sic) US Division, lies in front of us. The attack was ordered the following day, the first storm against a new enemy we think poorly of so far.'

RIR 259 was charged with the overall command for the planning and execution of the operation. Übungswerke were erected near Pannes, Thiaucourt und Bouillonville. The Sturmkompanien were practising eagerly. On 13 April the Divisionskommandeur was visiting the last rehearsal and, being pleased with the slick, well orchestrated operation, ordered the combination of all available forces for an even larger effort: a massive, brutal raid, followed by the mopping-up and looting of an entire village just behind the American lines, without the intention of holding it permanently. 'Kirschblüte' was the romanticising codeword for this operation, which was to go in during the early hours of 20 April,

Almost the entire RIR 259, supported by one regular and two mixed companies of RIR 258, two companies of elite Sturmbataillon 14 and a Pionierkompanie with Flammenwerfer were also intended to participate.

RIR259 stormtroop

As a result four Sturmbataillone were formed: (16)
  • Bataillon Tolle: three companies RIR 259 plus two volunteer companies RIR 258;
  • Bataillon Hellmuth: three companies RIR 259 plus one company RIR 258;
  • Bataillon Seebohm: one batallion RIR 259 plus one company Sturmbataillon 14 and one platoon Pioniere with Flammenwerfer;
  • Bataillon Grumbrecht: two companies RIR 259 plus one company Sturmbataillon 14 and two platoons Pioniere with Flammenwerfer.

Artillery and Minenwerfer support was for the operation was massive:

22 Feldkanonen-Batterien (field guns), 28 leichte Feldhaubitz-Batterien (light howitzers), 13 schwere Haubitz-Batterien (heavy howitzers) in addition to 12 schwere (heavy), 36 mittlere (medium) and 60 leichte (light) minenwerfer.

The designated front of attack stretched west to east from the Alpha-Wäldchen to Remières Wood inclusive, with a 'spear-thrust' in depth right into the heart of the village of Seicheprey.

The attack
Close to 1.00 am on 20 April the Sturmbataillone began to march towards the front line. Having finished filing into assembly positions by about 3.30 am, the entire divisional artillery plus reinforcements opened up half an hour later and began to batter the American defences, showering hostile artillery positions with gas-shells. At 5.30 am. most of the German batteries and numerous Minenwerfer switched their destructive fire on the American trenches in advance of and either side of the section selected for effecting the breach. Long-range artillery held the hostile batteries near Rambucourt, Beaumont, Boisogne and Lironville under fire, showering them with Blau and Grünkreuz gas shells.

P. C. Ettighoffer again: ‘At midnight we muster in Pannes. The moon stands high in the sky, the air is thin and biting. Montsec, the steep mountain, stands like a towering monument in the open country. Over moonlit meadows and battered farms around Essey and St. Baussant we reach the reserve line near Lahayville by the banks of the narrow Rupt-de-Mad stream around 1.30 am. We receive a double - no triple ration - of half tea, half rum, all blazing hot.

'Not a single shot, nothing stirs, the front is asleep; literally the calm before the storm. No Very light disrupts the peace of this marvellous night of a full moon. Stars are hanging like thick drops in the black velvet horizon. The air in the dugouts is stifling, candles gleam with thin flames and die down finally. Our lot sits on the floor, on benches, at the tables and smokes. Once in a while a match lights up, shining on scrubby soldier's faces. Darkness again. In the corners and on the benches some begin to snore .... The well-known terrain and the sense of superiority in the face of an inexperienced enemy gives us strength. And the prospect of looting and bringing in many fine things is compelling. We are the picked troops of our division, Landsknechte, knowing their trade for many years.

'Suddenly, at 3.00 am the moon is just about to sink, an artillery salvo sweeps across, our wake-up call. Some field howitzers 'play the kettledrum', followed by the tremendous onset of our field guns right behind the reserve lines, firing straight for over 1,500 metres into the enemy's lines. Just above the ruins of Lahayville howl the projectiles and disappear in the night. Again and again, from Maizerais, from St. Baussant, from Euvezin, from Essey, from all sides the field guns roar, above them the grave rolling of our high-angle fire.

'Over there, among the hostile artillery positions near Beaumont, Flirey and Limey, the ‘drummer' walks around, pounding and tossing tree-high columns of earth... Beyond Beaumont, by the Toul road, heaps of ammunition explode. Some batteries fire gas, Blaukreuz first, followed by Grünkreuz and Gelbkreuz.

'Then sturdy defence fire hits our jump-off lines, Lahayville gets some salvoes as well. Slowly the hostile fire gets weaker and weaker, finally comes to an end. Just one single battery still fires four shells every two minutes... We report the disturbance by phone. The battery is located by very accurate accoustic devices and our batteries immediately send over the ‘drummer'.

'Anyway, the enemy's artillery attack had caught us off-guard during deployment. The moon has disappeared over the horizon ..... In the darkness and with the rising fog assembly becomes a difficult job. Disorder in the communication trenches, when suddenly the enemy again fires with some precision, wounding several men. Finally everybody destined for the attack meets in the forward trench, which is completely silted up. We climb on top of the parapet, clearing passages through the wire entanglement. Huge and steep shellholes are bridged with wooden boards painted white. White stripes of rags and straw bundles on top of the wire posts show us the way. Everything will work out all right, has to. By now it is 6.30 am. Sometimes our shelling seems to ease, but there is no waning, it is just the draw of a breath before the final blow. At exactly 6.45 am the time has come. The firing had almost come to a standstill, but now it flashes and roars from all sides, swooshing over our heads into the enemy's lines about 500 metres ahead. Last cigarettes are puffed away, the Stosstrupp are ready, they have built a unit well attuned to each other .... Slowly the day dawns, a dense, obscure mist stands in No Man's Land. To the east, beyond the Priesterwald heaven becomes pale red. The vague form of Montsec can already be seen. Our Stosstrupp has risen. Slowly we move through the wire entaglement, standing stiffly and shivering with bayonet fixed around our Unteroffizier .... Our Minethrowers lift heavy mines into the air; the air pressure almost knocks us over'.

Objective achieved

RIR258 foxholes

At 5.50 am the Sturmbataillone entered the enemy's first line without facing considerable resistance. Dull and grey, the first hint of daylight could be seen through the dense fog, and the Stosstrupps reached their destination unopposed. Only ten minutes later the first report was conveyed by telephone: ‘objective achieved according to orders, six prisoners taken, fighting continuing.' Practising at the Übungswerk worked to the attackers' advantage. Despite the fog and smoke every man knew what to do without getting lost. At 6.00 am the Stosstrupps gathered on orders. On the flanks, however, around a group of dugouts southeast of the Betawäldchen and in Remières Wood the raiders met tenacious resistance, which could be broken only in close quarter combat.

Stosstrupp Ettighoffer, being part of a Stosskompanie within Bataillon Tolle, attacked against a group of well-manned dugouts at the eastern corner of Betawäldchen. The so-called Amerikanernest consisted of two larger galleries and three Nissen huts, from which the enemy fired with small arms, machine guns and hand grenades. One by one the occupants were killed. More shelters had to be bypassed, hand grenades being thrown from above the entrance or into ventilation pipes, leading to the final surrender of the garrison. On balance Stosstrupp Ettighoffer attained several light machine guns, lots of ammunition, papers and prisoners, altogether 2 officers - among them a captain - and 37 men. Due to the American tenacity the fight in this sector had lasted longer than expected - 40 minutes. The captured position was organised for defence quickly. The Stosskompanie listed three wounded, among them one officer.

‘Now, the red-green Very light rises' wrote Paul Ettighoffer. ‘Sturm! 7.00 am! The Stellmacher [soldier slang for NCO] raises his gun with the fixed Stosstruppdolch. ‘Los...' We move over the light planks and the soggy ground between the lines, become swallowed up by the mist. The Stosstrupps to our left and right can't be seen anymore. Our only direction indicator is the crashing of the artillery ahead of us, towards which our Stellmacher leads us. Suddenly two clumps of bushes appear from the fog: Alpha - and Beta - Wäldchen. Our course is correct.
Between both copses our Stosstrupp enters the hostile line. Final minenwerfer are exploding barely 50m ahead, followed by the rolling barrage, jumping over to the enemy's communication and reserve lines. Now we are spotted and a burst of machine-gun fire is sent over.

'Finally they become alive, commands in English are shouted, hand grenades are thrown. A stubborn resistance, which neither the exhausted French nor English would be able to put up any longer, is checking our advance. We take full cover to get a better view. Ahead lies a strong dugout, pouring out defenders constantly. It looks nasty for us, but finally the Stellmacher has fixed his plan. We are divided into three groups and attack simultaneously from three sides. Unteroffizier Roos gets a fatal shot in the head.

'The enemy gives ground at last, fighting back desperately. Nothing but dead or wounded he leaves behind, all of them big, athletic physiques in wonderful uniforms and rubber boots. A party which begins to yield during close-combat is lost and we begin to feel superiority ....The Americans withdraw to the next cluster of dugouts. We follow closely, sloshing through mud, passing by tins, woollen blankets and various booty. But there is no time to touch anything, the main resistance is yet to come.

'Shells and mines are crossing our heads frighteningly low. We believe the enemy to have escaped, when suddenly, just around a trench shoulder, we face them nose to nose. Strong, healthy men, the flat steel helmets worn obliquely over angular, beardless faces. There they stand, preparing two machine guns. ‘Hands up, you bloody fools', the Stellmacher shouts at them, bringing up his dagger to a nearby officer's throat. The officer haltingly lifts his hands, but his men turn around a machine gun and start firing. We throw our stick grenades. Fountains of mud splash around, covering both adversaries over and over, leaving us almost unrecognisable. Stones, clumps of dirt and splinters fly in all directions. Again we push forward and suddenly those big buggers start to grin merrily, offering hands, remarking, ‘This damned bloody war is now finished for us!' Real sportsmen against us landsknechte! Two of them are severely wounded by our stick grenades. In the captured trench lie about ten dead, most of them obviously killed by our artillery. We suffer one dead and four lightly wounded, the latter ordered to get the prisoners back, who also have to carry their machine guns.

'We progress against the next group of dugouts, facing fire again. Cautiously we approach, using all available cover. Liesenfeld jumps up, two stick grenades in hand and throws them into the airshaft. A dull bang indicates an explosion deep down, causing undoubted confusion amongst the defenders. The Stellmacher approaches the entrance of the gallery and requires surrender. Pistol fire is the answer. An American officer sits on the gallery stairs and coolly throws back our grenades until he gets torn apart. Our fight has attracted flanking Stosstrupps, so the gallery can be seized from two sides. One by one the Americans come out, nearing us without any signs of fear. Some carry their pistols informally in their uniform belts, others cowboy-style in long, dangling holsters. They approach, hands in the pockets, defiantly like schoolboys, waiting to be punished by their master. The Stellmacher shouts at them to raise hands and reluctantly they follow.

'We believe to have them all out, when suddenly some of the Yankees run from an unguarded minor trench beside the dugout, heading over open fields for Beaumont. Those who reach the communication trench are saved, but only a few succeed. Almost all were caught by our rifle fire. At the same time their captured comrades, not the least awed by the bizarre situation, cheer them on or even criticise our shooting'.

According to orders the Sturmbataillone Hellmuth and Seebohm had finally taken their objectives; the former along the St. Baussant - Seicheprey road, the latter in Remières Wood with support of a company of Sturmbataillon 14. Resistance was bypassed by the first two waves leaving the mopping-up to the third. However, the Sturmkompanien did not succeed in clearing up all obstinate resistance without the help of support. The fight claimed severe losses on both sides, many of the Germans became wounded, most Americans captured or killed. The hostile positions were finally secured, connections to neighbouring units consolidated, the new line - with the help of light machine guns - prepared for defence and reports sent back, asking for support to deal with the remaining Amerikanernester. A final combined attack of two Stosskompanien and parts of Sturmbataillon 14 succeeded in taking the fiercely defended nests in the wood. Their garrisons were largely killed, only small numbers of troops tried to escape towards Jury Wood, but were finally caught in a hail of bullets.

The fight for Seicheprey

Seicheprey churchBataillon Grumbrecht, ordered to follow the first waves, passed any resistance and headed straight to Seicheprey, profiting by the almost perfect weather conditions. The fog covered all approaches, the terrain was slightly frozen and easy to negotiate. On the other hand neither the leaders nor the men could see more than a few metres and were forced to navigate only by the sound of artillery fire ahead. According to commands one Stosskompanie reached the northern edge of Seicheprey, other troops went around the west of the ruined village, entering it from the south and began moving north mopping-up as it went. The supporting elite troops of Sturmbataillon 14 came in from the northeast and met ferocious opposition around what was left of the village church.

During the fierce fighting in the village, which lasted about an hour, the German units became completely mingled. The American garrison had been taken entirely by surprise. The clusters of foxholes guarding the entrances to Seicheprey were not occupied. But resistance set in immediately. As the Americans had come out of their cellars and dugouts, they were overpowered and captured. Some Americans manned the ruined walls of the church, inflicting loss on the attackers before being shot down. However, the majority of the defenders remained in their shelters and couldn't be convinced to surrender, on the contrary throwing hand grenades and firing with rifles and small arms from the entrances. As a last resort four large dugouts had to be blown together with their garrisons. Another large dugout near the southern exit of Seicheprey - probably the village command post - could not be overwhelmed either. Finally the whole construction and its garrison was blasted to eternity by Pioniere, using two packs of explosives of 30lbs each.

Altogether about 25 large shelters, most of them in cellars under the village ruins, as well as two ammunition depots, a tunnel system and two road bridges were destroyed with explosive charges. As early as 7.40 am the German units left the village, according to orders and well before retaliatory fire could begin after the fog had lifted. Bataillon Grumbrecht took some 60 prisoners and got back safely to the HWL, dismissed the troops of Sturmbataillon 14 as well as the Pioniere on site and eventually became regimental reserve.

Pause for breath and systematic retreat

According to Paul Ettighoffer the fog took a long time to disappear but finally he noted that ‘... all hostile positions are conquered, the entire American position up to the fourth line is in our hands. Only 185 unscathed Americans have surrendered. The others fought to the last, with a tenacity we haven't expected. Whole companies of the rearward trench garrison had fled into the reserve lines far behind, partially protected from our artillery and infantry fire by dense fog and billowing gas and fumes.

Seicheprey main street'The sun rises, a fresh wind blows the mist away, allowing a clear sight at Beaumont and the whole hostile line, within our immediate reach. The enemy is nowhere to be seen. Our officers begin to regret not having pushed on further. A discussion arises as to whether to follow up on this and attack Beaumont. But our Unteroffiziere, all of them cool-headed Stosstruppführer, among them our Stellmacher, who is not known for his shyness, object sharply to such plans. Our success has been a breakneck venture, favoured only by the fog and our 'green' adversary. Finally everybody pays deference to the most respected Unteroffiziere and Stosstruppführer. At 9 am the first allied recce pilot appears over the sector, then come our planes, waving us good luck. A lively communication over open fields develops between our advanced positions and the rear lines .... In a nearby communication trench we spot an American field kitchen with a Benzinofen (oil fuel oven). Well, the Yankees are not to go into the frontline without warm food, but what shall we do with the oven, as we have no fuel .... Most welcome are the copious provisions all around. In the meantime the hostile observation posts near Beaumont have determined the new situation. Heavy fire from the forts of Toul sets in, hitting Alpha - and Beta - Wäldchen. By noon we are leaving the site with a shrug, the ground is not ours anyway'.

After the attack it became completely quiet. The rich booty, mostly groceries and clothing, was examined. Around 9.00 am the sun came out, a clear blue sky arched over the battlefield. From 10.15 am onward a heavy artillery duel opened up, concentrating at first on Remières Wood and the rearward lines. Until the afternoon nothing was to be seen of the Americans, but some Allied airplanes circled over the trenches, guiding their artillery and using machine guns on the attackers, poorly protected in open trenches. The German artillery answered sparingly, saving ammunition for the hostile counter-attack which they were certain would come.

During the afternoon French units could be detected approaching from Jury Wood. They were taken under concentrated machine-gun fire and scattered. No further hostile gathering could be observed until nightfall.

'In the early afternoon,' recorded Ettighoffer, ‘the enemy gathers for a counter-attack. Our aviators observe long trains at the ramps of Toul detraining troops to be transported further towards the front by lorry and on foot. What an effort and all because of our small band of men, who are waiting to withdraw quietly by nightfall anyway. A mighty bombardment sets in at dusk .... The whole sector quivers and we lie flat on our bellies, well dispersed to prevent losses. The main fire goes over our heads, the Americans assume reinforcements from our main position'.

At 9.30 pm the Germans began to withdraw according to plan, incinerating all captured shelters. For hours flames and smoke were to be seen; the foe remained invisible. Around 1.00 am on 21 April advanced patrols could hear machine-gun fire and hand grenades, by 3.00 am the Americans seemed to have taken back most of their old positions.

RIR258 prisonersEttighoffer: ‘By nightfall we begin with our ordered retreat. In small groups we go back through the predetermined gaps in our barrage of protective fire. Our platoon is to go back last, what follows must be the enemy. We adjust our light machine guns towards Beaumont and Seicheprey ..... Our role as guests of Uncle Sam has ended. Food and service were plentiful and good and we had to drag off copious quantities of blankets, tins, groceries, sweet-tasting cigarettes, baffling chewing gum, rare coffee beans and delicious white rice. Several hours later American and French battalions, uttering war cries, enter their deserted lines, held by nothing more than 500 dead Americans .... Over [a front of] almost five kilometres we 600 men took out a fresh, heavily armed infantry division, penetrated 1,000 metres into their lines, held out in the open until nightfall, got back to our lines with only small losses, and all of that after four years of war'.

Conclusion

Following consistent evaluations from the German Gefechtsberichte (combat reports) the outcome of the operation exceeded all expectations: 5 officers and 178 other ranks of the 26th US Division were taken prisoner and 10 heavy and 15 light machine guns captured. According to statements of prisoners, American losses were about 300 dead; two front line battalions of the 102nd US Infantry being almost completely wiped out. The Germans blamed the Americans for needless casualties, caused by almost irrational opposition which even surprised the hard-bitten German veterans who had fought for four years war on the Westfront. Actually an estimated 70 to 80 shelters, mostly dugouts and cellars, had been blasted, some still holding their sturdy garrisons.

The final combat report of RIR 259 emphasised the accuracy of their own artillery, especially the Minenwerfer. Compared to high explosive shells the effect on morale as well as the impact on the enemy's position was devastating. Great praise was given to the Pioniere, who worked most effectively in Seicheprey as well as in Remières Wood, destroying the most hostile constructions in short order and acting as infantry during the mopping-up of the trenches and dugouts which had been by-passed initially. The Sturmbegleitzug (minethrowers attached to storm troops) of Minenwerferkompanie 259 mastered its new tasks flawlessly.

Lavish praise was given to the military surgeons following hard on the heels of the Sturmkompanien, a tactical measure hitherto unthinkable. Those army doctors, the Sanitätsleute (medical orderlies) and Krankenträger (stretcher-bearers) worked selflessly under fire, provided first-aid to the severely wounded and evacuated them quickly to the Hauptverbandsplatz - central dressing-station - at Bouillonville.

RIR259 Bouillonville

The report concludes with the following judgement:

‘The American is most courageous individually and resists desperately to the last with pistol, knife and hand grenade; he is a considerable, cunning and ruthless adversary in close-quarters combat .... His extraordinarily fatal losses are a result of his defiant behaviour. Many dugout garrisons, refusing to surrender, had to be blasted by the Stosstrupps .... In several cases only Flammenwerfer could break the opposition. This enemy can only be beaten by reckless action'.

In present-day Seicheprey nothing but a small American monument commemorates operation Kirschblüte in very modest words: (17)

To the Commune of Seicheprey

To commemorate the service of
the 102nd Infantry 26th Division.
A regiment of the American Army
recruited from citizens of Connecticut
defenders of Seicheprey April 20 1918.
In the firm belief that the friendship
of Frenchmen and Americans sealed
in this place in battle shall serve
the cause of peace among all nations.
This memorial is presented by the
men and women of Connecticut 1923.

 

The author is indebted to the editor [of Stand to!] for his help with the final translation of this work.

Article and images contributed by Sebastian Laudan.

You can watch a slideshow of the images accompanying this article below. Use the "expand" icon to watch full screen; press "Esc" on your keyboard to return.

References
(1) Paul Coelestin (P. C.) Ettighoffer (Born 14 April 1896 Colmar/Alsace; Died 15 October 1975 Zülpich/Rhineland) was a once popular German novelist. In 1914 he volunteered for the Kaiser's army and served on the Westfront but, as an Alsatian or, disdainfully, ‘Wackes', was always mistrusted by the Prussians and eventually became transferred to the east. Back in the west and promoted to Offizierstellvertreter, he fought in 1917/18 as Stosstruppführer at the Chemin des Dames, Verdun and in the St. Mihiel salient. In June 1918, during the Second Battle of the Marne, he eventually became, badly wounded and was taken a prisoner of war. His experiences in war and captivity became the subject of his most successful novels in the 1930s. War-critical at the beginning of his writing career he increasingly propagated the up-coming nationalism, emphasising the heroic nature of the Great War soldier. His autobiographical novel Gespenster am Toten Mann' (Ghosts at the Dead Man,1931), in which he inter alia describes the Seicheprey combat, became a bestseller and counted as the literary right-wing reaction to Remarque's All Quiet On the Western Front.
(2) Deutscher Heeresbericht 21 April 1918 (www.stahlgewitter.com)
(3) The New York Times, 22 April 1918 (query.nytimes.com)
(4) For example Harry A. Benwell, History of the Yankee Division, Boston: The Cornhill Company, 1919; Bob Montgomery in: The Bristol Press, April 15, 2008; Francis M. Coan in his thesis A Few Men in the Great War: The Experiences of the Soldiers of Company D (Bristol), 1st Connecticut National Guard Regiment, March 1917-April 1918, History 599, Central Connecticut State University, April 1990; Eric Pace in: New York and Region News, 21April, 1985; www.usaww1.com/American-Expeditionary-Force/American-Expeditionary-Force-Battle-of-Seicheprey.php4
(5) US Official Pictures of the War, Pictorial Bureau, Washington D.C., 1920, p. 105
(6) ibid.
(7) ibid.
(8) The New York Times, 23 April 1918 (query.nytimes.com)
(9) www.alctpost2.org/Seicheprey.html
(10) Eric Pace in: New York and Region News, 21 April 1985
(11) The New York Times, April 23, 1918 (query.nytimes.com)
(12) www.usaww1.com/American-Expeditionary-Force/American-Expeditionary-Force-Battle-of-Seicheprey.php4
(13) all quotations (in italics) of Paul C. Ettighoffer are from his book Gespenster am Toten Mann, Verlag C. Bertelsmann, 1937 Gütersloh, mainly from the chapter Landsknechte gegen Sportsleute', p.272 ff.
(14) Bornstedt, Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment 259, Erinnerungsblätter deutscher Regimenter, Heft 175, Verlag Stalling, Oldenburg.i.O./Berlin 1926, p. 176 ff.
(15) Ettighoffer's specification concerning the quantity of men (about 600) involved in Kirschblüte'must be regarded with some doubt.
Given the fact, that 15 companies of infantry plus two companies of Sturmbatallion 14 plus three platoons Pioniere took part and that the average manpower of a regular infantry company in early 1918, prior to the costly battles from 21 March on, numbered between 60 to 80 rifles, the total number of participants must have been, conservatively estimated, about 1,000 men.
Unfortunately the accounts of the infantry units involved do not refer to that point, in contrast to providing the exact amount of casualties.
(16) Stepkes/Menzel, Geschichte des Reserve-Infanterie-Regiments Nr. 258, Selbstverlag der Stammgruppe des Gesamtverbandes ehemaliger 258er, 1935 Köln, p.192 ff
(17) The casualties of this merciless fight, as far as they could have been buried, are resting today largely in German Kriegsgräberstätte at Bouillonville and St. Mihiel American Cemetery at Thiaucourt.

 

Back to top