Part 1 – The Royal Saxon Army at War
(this is the featured article from Stand To! No 96. Stand To! is the journal of The Western Front Association)
Fig 1 and 1a: These older Landwehr reservists were among the first replacements to reach IR 178 from the depots in Autumn 1914. The censor failed to spot the writer's explicit statement that his regiment is '5km from Reims' when this photo was mailed home as a postcard in October. Courtesy Andrew Lucas.
In recent years I undertook what turned out to be a quite enormous volume of research from German sources for my father's recently published book The Journey's End Battalion: The 9th East Surrey in the Great War, an article on which appeared in Stand To! prior to publication. I had been privately researching the armed forces of Imperial Germany for many years prior to this, an interest triggered by wartime photos of my German Great Grandfather as a volunteer with the Royal Saxon field artillery, and rather recklessly offered to assist with the book project by identifying the German units which faced the 9/East Surrey throughout the war, providing whatever information I could about their experiences during the relevant periods. Mainly via the extensive IWM collection of German regimental histories, and the even more extensive private collection of Jürgen Schmieschek, a good friend in Dresden, I uncovered an enormous volume of material from which I produced a critical digest of German sources in English for each chapter of the book, which my father could then use as a briefing on events on 'the other side of the hill'. While many of the earliest German unit histories provide little more than a précis of the (often subsequently lost) unit war diary, many others are exceptionally detailed – more so than their British equivalents – and contain numerous personal accounts. Though allowances must be made for the natural desire of the authors (often published by subscriptions from surviving veterans) to present their unit – and their fallen comrades – in the best possible light, these books remain important sources.
Whilst we incorporated much of this material into my father's book, there had to be limits if that work, concerning the experiences of a British battalion, was not to become unbalanced so, naturally, only a small proportion of this German material directly appeared in the final version. We believe, however, that the resulting insight into the German perspective during the writing process added significant depth to my father's analysis of the British battalion's experiences. This series of articles grew from material collected for two chapters, regarding a Saxon division which opposed the British 24th Division both at the Battle of Loos and subsequently at St Eloi in the Ypres Salient. Jürgen and I share a particular interest in the Royal Saxon Army, and we were able to provide additional insight from unpublished sources, including personal diaries and correspondence.
As a by–product of this project, there now remains a sort of 'shadow book' (describing the experiences of a variety of German units on various parts of the Western Front in considerable detail. Following the completion of The Journey's End Battalion, we are both of the opinion that some of this material is of sufficient interest for a British audience in its own right to be worth developing into a number of articles.
After some thought, it was decided that the most immediately promising subject was the Royal Saxon 123rd Infantry Division (123 Inf Div). In Autumn 1915, two of its battalions played a critical part in the Battle of Loos, where they participated in the recapture of Hill 70 and the bloody repulse of the British 24th Division's assault (during which 9/East Surrey, on the British right flank, passed directly across their frontage); subsequently 123 Inf Div was again opposite the 24th Division at St Eloi, where both units had been sent to recuperate by their respective high commands. The choice of this Saxon division was dictated partly by the considerable interest for British readers offered by a German perspective on the Battle of Loos, and partly by my own particular interest in the Royal Saxon Army (with which, as mentioned above, I have a family connection) – an interest I naturally share with my friend and co–researcher in Dresden, the Saxon capital. Between us we possess a large volume of published and unpublished accounts, personal diaries, correspondence, photos and artefacts from the numerous Saxon formations which participated in the war – and we wished to put it to good use in enhancing understanding of the Royal Saxon Army amongst British students of the Great War.
In addition to the written material, something should be said about photographs. As recorded in the 9/East Surrey war diary for 6 September 1915
All cameras in possession of Officers & men to be returned at once to England. After 30th inst, anyone found in possession of a camera to be put into arrest & report to be made to GHQ. (1)
By late 1915 private cameras were strictly forbidden on the British front, and unofficial photographs are now relatively scarce. The German authorities were, however, both less stringent and less effective in their censorship, faced with mass ownership of cheap cameras and the totally unprecedented volume of Feldpost under static trench warfare conditions. Consequently, a rich amateur photographic record survives, from which pictures have been drawn to illustrate these articles. Several derive from an album (in Jürgen's collection) of over 200 photos by members of IR 178, covering the whole of 1915 and compiled with the approval of the regimental commander; with the exception of fifteen specifically censored pictures (depicting front–line positions, POWs, aircraft and artillery) the remainder were offered as postcards by a Dresden publisher for fifteen pfennigs each.
This article then – the first in a series of three concerning 123 Inf Div on the Western Front in 1915 – briefly introduces the Royal Saxon Army and concisely describes the experiences of the division from its formation in April 1915 until the eve of the Anglo–French offensive on 25 September.
The 123 Inf Div was a formation of the Royal Saxon Army (Königlich Sächsische Armee), the third largest of four German national armies. Since 1867, its units had been numbered within the Prussian sequence (like the Württembergers, but unlike the Bavarians) and reformed on the Prussian model. Nevertheless it retained to the end its own jealously guarded pool of manpower, separate officer corps and War Ministry; the latter closely followed the Prussian lead, but the interpretation and implementation of its regulations rested entirely in Saxon hands. There was also a separate Saxon General Staff, although (unlike Bavarians) Saxon staff officers were trained in Prussia. Saxon recruits swore their military oath of loyalty to H M King Friedrich August III, who as commander in chief (with the Prussian rank of Generalfeldmarschall) controlled the appointment of officers; imperial dominance was imposed via acknowledgement of the Kaiser as supreme commander in the military oath, and an imperial veto on Saxon appointments of corps and higher commanders. Administratively the Saxon Army, together with the Prussian Gardekorps, was supervised by the Second Army Inspectorate (2 Armeeinspektion) in Berlin. By 1914, only the most senior Saxon officers could remember genuine national sovereignty, and the romantic Pan–Germanism of younger generations was increasingly dominant. Saxon official history acknowledged the war of 1866 but emphasised that of 1870, and the upholding of Saxony's honour alongside its federal partners. Prussian military pre–eminence was acknowledged whilst the Saxons quietly prided themselves on the fact that their army was more highly cultured, more tolerant, better educated and less class–ridden than those of its peers.
Fig 2 and 2a: Part of the Ersatz-Bataillon (depot battalion) of IR 182 in Freiberg, October 1914 – mainly returning convalescents together with depot staff (seated, in pre-1910 'colourful' uniform) and a couple of older reservists. The elegant gentleman with the duelling scar seated second from left is actually a mere Unteroffizier (corporal). Courtesy Andrew Lucas.
The distinct identity of the Royal Saxon Army was most apparent in its uniforms, which (at least since the Brunswickers lost their traditional black uniforms in 1886) deviated further from the Prussian 'norm' than any other contingent. This tendency was reduced by the general adoption of Feldgrau in 1910, but uniquely Saxon differences in cut, style and insignia were still so substantial at the outbreak of war that Saxon units can usually be identified as such in photographs. It was only with the gradual introduction of wartime economy uniforms and steel helmets that the Saxon Soldat became increasingly indistinguishable from the Prussian Musketier or Bavarian Infanterist.
Although the Royal Saxon Army had fought alongside the Austrians against Prussian hegemony in 1866, it proceeded to distinguish itself as the XII Armeekorps (23 and 24 Inf Div) in the Prussian–led war of 1870–1. In the new German Empire, the necessarily moderate and pragmatic Kingdom (a constitutional monarchy with a Catholic monarch, predominantly Protestant and socialist–leaning majority population and Catholic Slav minority) enjoyed impressive economic and industrial growth. Bolstered by immigration from less prosperous German states, it was, by 1914, the most densely populated state in the Empire, with a population approaching 5,000,000. Its army had also grown dramatically, now comprising in peacetime XII (Dresden 23 and 32 Inf Div) and XIX (Leipzig 24 and 40 Inf Div) Armeekorps; the expansion of the artillery was especially spectacular, from one field artillery regiment (FAR 12) in 1870 to eight field and two foot (heavy) regiments before mobilisation in 1914. King Albert (who commanded with distinction in 1870–1 as Crown Prince) had used Saxony's share of French reparations to furnish XII Armeekorps with the (then) largest single barracks complex in Germany, at Dresden on the north bank of the Elbe. This Albertstadt was virtually untouched by the catastrophic bombing of 1945, and survives essentially intact today.
The outbreak of war in 1914 brought no direct threat to the centrally located Kingdom, but the Pan–Slavist ambition of dismembering Austria–Hungary was recognised as a serious menace, and solidarity with Saxony's traditional allies and with its federal partners was widespread and sincere; the author's great–grandfather Arno Bierast was one of thousands who volunteered in Dresden that August. Upon mobilisation, the two regular corps were immediately joined by the XII Reservekorps (23 and 24 Reserve–Division). These three corps – initially accompanied by the Prussian XI Armeekorps) – were united under a Saxon staff as 3 Armee. Titular commander was the former Saxon war minister Generaloberst Max Freiherr von Hausen, although with the Prussian Generalmajor von Hoeppner (later the first commander of the German Air Force, the Luftstreitkräfte) as Chief of Staff. The advance of 3 Armee into Belgium was to be the last occasion that the Royal Saxon Army, or rather, all of its major components, took to the field as a single body. Already, during the Battle of the Marne in September - October 1914, XII and XIX Armeekorps had been sent to reinforce 2 and 6 Armee respectively; in an especially harsh blow to Saxon military pride, the elderly Freiherr von Hausen, who had served in 1866, was relieved of his command on 12 September due to illness and replaced by the Prussian General von Einem.
Fig 3 and 3b: Fahrer (driver) Alwin Müller and fellow field artillery reservists from the town of Bertsdorf, serving with Reserve-Artillerie-Munitions-Kolonne Nr 5/XII Reserve-Korps in March 1915. By the time this photo was sent as a postcard on 23 April the column had been redesignated Artillerie-Munitions-Kolonne Nr 1/123 Infanterie-Division. All present wear the uniform of their original peacetime regiment, FAR 28 from Bautzen. Courtesy Andrew Lucas.
By the end of 1914, the dispositions of the major Saxon units had settled into a pattern which would remain largely consistent until 1916. The great majority of the Saxon Army was still on the Western Front, with only 8 Cavalry Division, some heavy artillery and assorted small Landwehr and Ersatz units in the East.
Following the Western Front from north to south, the first Saxon sector faced the Ypres Salient north of the Menin Road (Becelaere – Broodseinde), where the hastily raised XXVII Reservekorps – nicknamed 'Kinderkorps' due to its large proportion of young and under-trained volunteers – had remained after their terrible baptism of fire in October during the First Battle of Ypres. The corps staff, entire 53 Reserve-Division (northern sub–sector) and about a quarter of 54 Reserve-Division (southern sub–sector) were Saxon; the remainder were Württembergers. Immediately to their south was the Prussian XV Armeekorps (30 and 39 Inf Div), in which IR 105 served both in peace and wartime as the principal Saxon contribution to the garrison of the federally administered Reichsland Elsass–Löthringen. Across the Franco–Belgian border, XIX Armeekorps (based in Lille) held the line opposite Armentières from north of Ploegsteert Wood (40 Inf Div) to Bois Grenier (24 Inf Div); these were the Saxons who famously fraternised at Christmas 1914, and were substantially responsible for this area's British reputation as a quiet sector.
The remaining Saxon sectors all lay opposite the French. XII Armeekorps held the Aisne valley on the eastern end of the Chemin des Dames, from Craonne to Berry–au–Bac, with the Saxon 47 Landwehr–Brigade intermittently attached on the south-eastern flank at Loivre. East of Reims, XII Reservekorps held the front Moronvilliers - Auberive - St Souplet. Finally 19 Ersatz–Division, mobilised in August from trained reservists, but incompletely equipped and provisionally organised, held the line Lagarde - Blâmont - Cirey–sur–Vezouze in the Vosges southwest of Saarburg.
In Spring 1915, the Germans were reorganising their divisions on the basis of a single brigade of three infantry regiments (nine battalions) instead of the traditional two brigades of two regiments each (twelve battalions); establishments of battalions and companies remained initially unchanged, since many reserve divisions needed to be brought up to the 'active' standard of one machine-gun company per infantry regiment before any increase in that standard could be considered. This 'triangularisation' process produced a pool of 'surplus' regiments and brigade staffs, which were used to form the new (likewise 'triangular') divisions of the 'fifties' (50, 52, 54, 56 and 58) and 'hundreds' (101, 103, 105, 107–109, 113, 115, 117, 121 and 123) series. As far as artillery was concerned, the adoption, since December 1914, of the four–gun battery (instead of six) as standard in the field artillery provided a pool of men and materiel for the formation of one ('hundreds' series) or two ('fifties' series) new regiments (some highly heterogeneous) for each division.
In the Royal Saxon Army, this process produced 58 Infanterie–Division (from XIX Armeekorps and non–Saxon XIV Reservekorps) at the beginning of March, initially as a 'mixed' division containing Württemberg units but exclusively Saxon from January 1917. It was followed on 1 April by the purely Saxon 123 Infanterie-Division (from XII Armeekorps and XII Reservekorps). No further Saxon divisions would be formed until 1916; the under-trained 53 Reserve-Division and incomplete 19 Ersatz-Division would not be triangularised until 1917.
123 Infanterie–Division was assembled in the area around Rozoy-sur-Serre (17 miles northwest of Rethel) during the first half of April 1915. At its head was a newly-formed divisional staff under Generalmajor Karl Lucius, former commander of the elite 45 Infanterie-Brigade (Saxon Grenadiers) in 23 Infanterie–Division.
Fig 4: three NCOs and a common Soldat of RIR 106 in a rear-area billet, probably in the Champagne before the regiment was transferred to 123 Infanterie-Division in April 1915. The social gap between private soldiers and the (pre-war) NCO class is readily apparent. Courtesy Andrew Lucas.
The 'new' 245 Infanterie-Brigade was headed by Generalmajor Max Morgenstern–Döring and his staff from the dissolved 64 Infanterie–Brigade, taken from 32 Inf Div together with 3 Kgl Sächs Infanterie-Regiment Nr 178 (IR 178), formed in April 1897 and garrisoned at Kamenz in north–eastern Saxony. The elite 23 Inf Div had donated its only line regiment, 16 Kgl Sächs Infanterie-Regiment Nr 182 (IR 182), the youngest and highest-numbered in the Prussian peacetime sequence, garrisoned since October 1912 at Freiberg in southern Saxony. Both regiments had been copiously replenished after severe losses in 1914 (which had seen IR 178 reduced to five officers and 493 ORs organised as two provisional companies), and had experienced no significant action since the German capture of Hurtebise and La Creute farms west of Craonne between 25 and 27 January. The 'new' brigade was completed by Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment Nr 106 (RIR 106), raised at mobilisation in the north–western towns of Glauchau, Wurzen and Borna and originally part of 24 Reserve-Division. They too had suffered heavily; on 26 September 1914 alone their 4 Kompanie lost all of its officers, whilst on the following day the regimental commander Oberstlt Graf von Mandesloh was shot through the arm and rendered hors de combat until November. Hundreds of replacements had arrived since October, but the arrival of 400 more as late as 6 May 1915 suggests that RIR 106 was still rebuilding when it joined the new division. Consequently the original differences between the two active regiments (mainly young conscripts and full–time soldiers) and the reserve regiment (overwhelmingly reservists in their late 20s or 30s) were already increasingly blurred, and would later disappear completely.
Upon arrival in the concentration area, all three regiments were dismayed to be rearmed with old 1888 commission rifles in place of the trusty 1898 Mausers they had left with their old divisions. The following week was spent in re-familiarisation and practice with the 'new' weapon; although normally serviceable, its Mannlicher–derived action would prove insufficiently robust in the appalling conditions at Souchez that autumn.
Initially the division possessed only one regiment of field artillery, Feldartillerie-Regiment Nr 245 (FAR 245), comprising one Abteilung each from Reserve-Feldartillerie-Regiment Nr 23 and 24 (XII Reservekorps); each Abteilung consisted of three, four-gun batteries, all with the standard 7.7 cm field gun. By Autumn 1915 this rather meagre force would gradually increase to a brigade of two regiments, including several 10.5 cm light field howitzer batteries. Like the rest of the 'independent' divisions of the 'fifties' and 'hundreds' series 123 Inf Div was also formed with organic heavy artillery (ordinarily a corps asset), specifically a battery of four 15 cm howitzers. This was 3 Battr/ Reserve-Fußartillerie-Bataillon Nr 19, the only divisional element taken from the Eastern Front (where its parent battalion was still engaged); in autumn 1915 it was redesignated Fußartillerie-Batterie Nr 123.
With the exception of the two squadrons of Kavallerie-Abteilung 123 (1 Eskadron/Kgl Sächs 1 Husaren–Regiment 'König Albert' Nr 18 and 5 Eskadron/Kgl Sächs 3 Husaren-Regiment Nr 20, both from XII Armeekorps), the division's remaining units all had new numbers. However the medical (Sanitäts) and supply (Train) formations were simply existing units renumbered. Engineering assets were limited, comprising a single field company (Pionier–Kompagnie Nr 245) and a searchlight platoon (Scheinwerferzug Nr 123); a second field company would be added in the Autumn.
Fig 5: Obstleutnant Theodor Pilling, commanding IR 178, in the grounds of
Schloss Rocquincourt near Courcy in April 1915.
Courtesy Jürgen Schmieschek. (IR 178 album)
Into the line
The new division first went into the line in mid-April to the left of XII Armeekorps, holding the still largely intact villages of Loivre and Courcy on the west bank of the Aisne-Marne Canal, two to three miles north of Reims. With observation from Fort de Brimont and the adjacent Batterie de Loivre, the German artillery was dominant; according to the regimental history of RIR 106, 'a couple of 21 cm howitzer rounds', fired at Reims sufficed to halt any French shelling, ensuring that this remained an extremely quiet sector. Regimental histories, photos and correspondence all depict this as an idyllic period, punctuated by bathing in the canal and inter–company football tournaments. Nevertheless, the regimental history of IR 178 lists fourteen dead for this tour, including illness and accidents; IR 182 lost three men dead, one officer and eight men wounded and one man with 'nervous shock'.
On 18-19 May 1915 this comfortable existence came to an abrupt end with designation as a 'fliegende division' and transportation to the Lille area, there to form a reserve for reinforcements and reliefs on the Flanders and Artois fronts. Here too life was still quite pleasant, with opportunities to catch up with family and friends in XIX Armeekorps. It was expected that, as part of the meagre German reserve in the West (efforts then being focused in the East), 123 Inf Div would be an object of major interest for Entente espionage. Consequently the regimental history of IR 178 – quartered in the suburb of Hellemes – describes numerous railway embarkation exercises leading to 'day trips' for training in the countryside, also intended to keep any spies guessing. For similar reasons there were frequent parades through the centre of Lille, with the regimental band playing and battalion flags flying. This was useful practice for the formal celebration of the King of Saxony's birthday on 25 May, and for an even grander exhibition of Saxon military pageantry on 12 June when the amiable monarch visited the city. In a contrastingly modern addition to the traditional pomp, the leading Saxon aviator Oberlt Max Immelmann gave an aerobatic display. At this time the future ace was still flying two-seaters, and had narrowly survived being shot down behind German lines on 3 June; by the end of 1915 he would gain fame flying the Fokker Eindecker as the 'Eagle of Lille'. Barely a year later he would be shot down and killed at Sallaumines on 18 June 1916, aged 25.
This parade also marked the end of the first period at Lille for IR 178. On 13 June it was transported to Loison near Lens, where RIR 106 had arrived the previous day. IR 182 and half of FAR 245 had already left the Lille area on the night of 6-7 June, but had travelled further south to Chauny as reinforcements for IX Armeekorps. The division would not be reunited until mid-July.
Facing the British
IR 178 and RIR 106 were now temporarily subordinated to the Silesian 117 Inf Div as relief for its own infantry, all 'fought out' as reinforcements in the major battle still raging on Vimy Ridge. Consequently the Saxons now held the front where the British would overrun the luckless Silesians on 25 September. IR 178 was on the left at Cité St Pierre holding the Double Crassier, and RIR 106 in the centre to the west and northwest of Loos. Following a brief rest at Lille from 23-25 June after their deployment at Chauny, which had cost them Fähnrich Jungandreas and 20 men dead, plus 65 wounded, IR 182 joined them on 26 June, to the right of RIR 106.
This experience would later prove invaluable to the Saxons during the Battle of Loos. They now faced the British for the first time, although evidently seeing very little of them. In the front line they found 'model' trenches as yet unaffected by any experience of major fighting:
The position was well excavated in chalky soil, the trench walls extensively faced with wood; this later proved to result in the blocking of all traffic through the trenches when under heavy bombardment. In every platoon sector stood a basin of lime solution, in which the protective pad worn on the left shoulder was to be dipped in the event of an enemy gas attack. (2)
This rudimentary pad mask and (chlorine–neutralising) hyposulphite solution were still in front-line use at the Battle of Loos; despite the numerous shortcomings of their PH 'smoke helmets', the British would actually enjoy superior protection for their first gas attack. Issue of the advanced Gummimaske began in September, but was not complete on the Western Front until the winter.
In June 1915 the future battlefield was still quiet. For the first few days the Second Battle of Artois was still audibly and visibly raging on the heights further south. The only direct consequence in the Loos area was a modest increase in artillery fire when the French resumed their offensive on 16 June. After the unsuccessful attack at Aubers Ridge in May, the British gunners could ill afford to be lavish with ammunition, and little damage was inflicted.
The three Saxon regiments were relieved over the successive nights of 8-11 July by the Silesians and returned to Lille; the 123 Inf Div would now be deployed at the front together for the first time in two months. In the interim, the divisional artillery had been significantly reinforced. On 31 May Hptm Faber had arrived from the Saxon training ground at Königsbrück with a new III Abteilung for FAR 245, comprising two batteries (7 and 8) of 10.5 cm howitzers. However, until 23 July, when the I Abteilung and 8 Batterie returned from Chauny, the division remained badly under-gunned.
Over the successive nights of 13-16 July, the three infantry regiments replaced fellow Saxons of 53 Reserve-Division at St Eloi, where the latter had spent the past month anxiously awaiting a British attack which never came; they now returned to their usual sectors north of the Menin Road. First to arrive was IR 178 in the centre, followed by IR 182 on the left at Wytschaete and finally RIR 106 on the right at the Ypres-Comines Canal. 123 Inf Div now formed the extreme right flank of 6 Armee, facing the British for the second time; within a week it was relieved by Bavarians. This brief tour was chiefly memorable for a German mine detonation on 17 July; it is unlikely that the divisional engineers were seriously involved. The division would return to St Eloi after the Battle of Loos, when the three regiments would occupy exactly the same sub–sectors.
For the rest of the summer 123 Inf Div remained in OHL reserve in the Lille-Roubaix area, where the troops were kept busy with tactical exercises and working parties, resulting in a steady trickle of casualties, ten dead and thirty–nine wounded from IR 182 alone. These tasks took individual units further afield than in May, with IR 178 detached from 6-11 August to work on the defences as far south as Arras. However, there were also welcome opportunities for open-air bathing and sightseeing in the pretty Flemish towns in the rear areas. Best of all, home leave was finally granted to those who had been longest in the field – for the first time, at least in IR 178.
Fig 6: Infantrymen of IR 178 enjoying a leisurely game of Doppelkopf in a shellhole beside the Courcy-Reims railway, April or May 1915. The fortified Batterie de Loivre is in the background on the right. Courtesy Jürgen Schmieschek. (IR 178 album)
As noted earlier, the division suffered from a shortage of engineers, an endemic problem on the Western Front even before its formation. Since the onset of trench warfare the services of the Pioniere had been in unprecedented and overwhelming demand, and measures taken to address this in 123 Inf Div were typical. During the summer each infantry regiment sent a contingent (from IR 178: 3 officers and 125 ORs) to Hem for a three-week training course conducted by Pionier-Kompagnie 245. Upon their return each contingent formed a quasi–official regimental 'Infanterie Pionier Kompagnie', semi-skilled 'pioneers' (in the British sense) who worked under Pionier (engineer) direction. This stop-gap system would be phased out in the first half of 1916 – by which time such formerly specialist skills as construction of field fortifications and use of hand grenades had been promulgated throughout the infantry, whilst provision of actual Pioniere and of unarmed labour units had greatly increased.
Fig 7: unidentified German infantry parading through the Grande Place, Lille circa 1915. Courtesy Andrew Lucas.
Fig 8: H M King Friedrich August III of Saxony (in the lead) reviewing machine-gunners of IR 178 at Lille on 12 June 1915; their regimental commander Obstlt Pilling is on the King's right (with drawn sword). Courtesy Jürgen Schmieschek. (IR 178 album)
Fig 9: The front line at Cité St Pierre (south of the Lens-Béthune road),
circa Jun-Jul 1915. Marked as "not for publication" in the regimental album.
Courtesy Jürgen Schmieschek. (IR 178 album)
During the night of 11-12 August, RIR 106 temporarily held the devastated Vimy sector opposite Neuville St Vaast, where the French onslaught had ground to a bloody halt in late July; it relieved Saxon IR 134 'borrowed' from XIX Armeekorps earlier that summer. During the night of 18-19 August, RIR 106 was relieved by IR 182, in turn relieved during the night of 23-24 August, and returned to Roubaix; for two days (24-25 August) IR 178 was also attached to 11 Inf Div/VI Armeekorps near Vimy.
On 26 August, the entire division was assembled at Lens, where it was subordinated to the Prussian IV Armeekorps from 'Prussian Saxony', mostly former Saxon territory annexed after the Napoleonic Wars. At this time IV Armeekorps held the front from Souchez in the south to Hulluch in the north, with (south to north) its own 8 and 7 Inf Div and the aforementioned 117 Inf Div. Heavily engaged against the final French push in late July, 8 Inf Div was in serious need of rest and was relieved by the Saxons during the course of 26-27 August, it replaced them as OHL reserve at Douai. The resulting divisional dispositions remained unchanged until the Battle of Loos.
123 Inf Div had seen virtually no action since its formation, and many of the men had never fought in an actual battle; the regimental history of IR 178 lists a total of 'only' twenty dead for the entire period between 1 April and 26 August 1915. Now their luck had run out, for the new sector would have been one of the worst on the Western Front even without the threat of an impending offensive. The loss of Ablain and Carency to the French in the previous battle meant that the front line around Souchez now constituted a precarious salient on dangerously low ground, under clear observation from multiple sides – most acutely, from the commanding heights of the Lorettohöhe, better known perhaps as Notre Dame de Lorette. This tenuous position was anchored by German possession of the Giesslerhöhe, a long wooded hill between Souchez and Givenchy which constituted the only remaining high ground between the front and the vital communications hub of Lens, where corps and divisional headquarters were located. Thus there was no question of voluntarily ceding any ground here, even though traffic between front and rear was suicidal by day and fraught with peril by night; the approach routes for all regimental sectors ran along the valley of the Souchez stream from Angres, clearly overlooked from the heights to the southwest. This ran diagonal or roughly parallel to the front, so that IR 178 (in the centre) and IR 182 (on the left) had to pass uncomfortably close behind their neighbour's front line – often over open ground – to reach their own. The trenches had been hastily constructed in battle and maintained with extreme difficulty under constant artillery harassment, so that there was no proper system of successive defensive lines and not even one continuous line along the entire divisional frontage. Only a proportion of the wretched dug-outs were proof against the lightest artillery fire, and many trenches lacked even the basic protection of traverses; effective wire obstacles were largely absent.
The divisional front was narrow, with each regimental sector held by a single battalion; regiments operated a three-day cycle of battalion reliefs between the front line, support and rest in the Lens area. RIR 106 on the right was in the least invidious position; as well as the safest approach route to their rear, they had the widest stretch of no man's land to their front and the 'luxury' of telephone cables that ran as far as the front line. In the centre IR 178, holding the Hexenkessel ('witches' cauldron', the name of several dangerous spots on the Western Front) and the Torgauer Graben, was mostly 80-150 metres from the enemy, dwindling to as little as 30 metres at two places marked by incessant hand grenade exchanges. By far the worst off was IR 182 on the western edge of the ruins of Souchez; the opposing lines were uncomfortably close and the ground especially wet, tending towards outright swamp in the south. A front-line tour here was a scarcely imaginable 72-hour ordeal, standing in waist–high water or crouching on sandbag islands, constantly tormented by the merciless attentions of bombing parties, snipers and artillery observers.
The Saxons knew that a major offensive was imminent, and that the armies in the west would have to withstand it with minimal reserves. From mid-September the French bombardment steadily increased, while aircraft roamed largely unmolested over the German hinterland directing artillery and dropping bombs. Consequently the division worked feverishly to improve inadequate defences with vast numbers of sandbags brought up nightly from the Pionierpark at the Angres crossroads. A major construction effort was required every night merely to rectify the damage inflicted during the day; somehow, however, a continuous front line was established, except in the swamp on the far left.
The main Allied bombardment began on 20 September, increasing to overwhelming 'drum fire' on 24 September. By this time the date of the offensive had been discovered from a deserter and, in accordance with contemporary doctrine, the front line packed with troops; probing attacks on 24 September were easily repelled. Little did the Saxons suspect that the following day would bring not only the anticipated frontal assault, but also a breakthrough further north which would threaten their rear in Lens – and pit them simultaneously against the British and French Armies.
Article and images supplied by Andrew Lucas.
(1) War Diary 9th Battalion East Surrey Regiment – The National Archives WO95/2215
(2) Anon. Kgl Sächs Infanterie–Regiment Nr 178 Dresden/Kamenz 1935 p 47
The National Archives–London
War Diary 9th Battalion East Surrey Regiment WO95/2215
Anon (collaborative work), Kgl Sächs Infanterie–Regiment Nr 178 (Dresden/Kamenz 1935)
Bamberg, G, Das Reserve–Infanterie–Regiment Nr 106 (kgl sächs) im Weltkrieg (Dresden 1925)
Baumgarten–Crusius, A, Sachsen in Grosser Zeit (Vol. II), (Leipzig 1919)
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