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Vauquois battle overview

Because of its geography, Vauquois was an important strategic spot in the First World War in Francer. "Observers on the crête could easily spot artillery on the rail line at the Aubréville curve almost with the naked eye.....It is 6.5 kilometers from the Vauquois butte to the Aubréville curve....Steam locomotive engines were easily visible and targeted....By early 1915 the rail line basically ceased operations." (The Myth of the Great War, pp. 115, 123) Thus, the Germans on Vauquois controlled the main rail line from Châlons (in the west) to Verdun (in the east). This was the key rail supply line for Verdun since the rail and canal lines from the south to Verdun had been cut by the German control of St. Mihiel. (See map.)

The butte was about 290 meters high at its peak, and it ran in a generally east-west direction. The slope towards the north was gentler and allowed easier access to the top for the Germans. The southern slopes of the butte were steep, and it was up these slopes that the French had to attack. On top of the butte was the village of Vauquois which dated to very early medieval (and perhaps even earlier) times. The stone houses and church when destroyed by artillery provided excellent fortifications.

In September 1914, the butte changed hands several times. The Germans captured it during the battle of the frontiers, only to have the French retake it when the Germans pulled back, but the French 82nd infantry regiment was not able to hold on to the hill, despite the advantages of the position, and after recapturing the butte, the Germans fortified their position at Vauquois. The French would try numerous times in the ensuing six months to regain the hill.

Much of the French fighting at Vauquois was done by the 10th infantry division (aka the "Parisian" division) which was part of the 5th corps in the 3rd French Army. The division included four infantry regiments and supporting artillery, cavalry and engineer units. The "regulation" strength of a French infantry division was about 15,000 officers and men, 36 artillery pieces and 24 machine guns with each infantry regiment numbering between two and three thousand men. Once the war began, almost all French army units were under-strength to a greater or lesser degree.

The French attacks up the slope of the butte by companies of the 46th infantry regiment on 28 and 29 October were carried out with little or no artillery support. In any case, the French 75mm artillery guns were not going to be able to do much anyway since they fired a shell on a relatively flat trajectory which was not going to do much damage to fortification at the top of the hill. French casualties were very heavy, and the French were unable to dislodge the Germans. In December 1914, further French assaults also failed. On 17 February 1915 another French attack reached the south edge of the village at the top of the hill, but the French were pushed back by a German counterattack. At the end of February/beginning of March, the French were able to establish a line along the southern edge of the village--the Germans on the north side of the butte still had a small height elevation advantage--and the lines pretty much never budged until September 1918.

For the French, the cost was heavy. John Mosier, p. 131, estimated that Vauquois “cost the French the equivalent of an entire infantry division.” He also claimed, p. 135, that “the attempt to regain Vauquois and Les Eparges were neither the first French offensives post-Marne nor the largest. But they are of enormous significance for the course of the war. In effect, they established a curious pattern of combat for the French, one the Germans would quickly learn to turn to their advantage.”

With the stalemate above ground, the French, and then the Germans, turned to underground warfare. Extensive mining operations followed by the detonation of huge amounts of explosives under the enemy's trenches became the normal method of combat. Mosier, p. 139, figures that there were 520 underground detonations at Vauquois. The craters caused by the mines meant that no one would be able to attack across the craters and reach the enemy's lines. This meant that the Germans kept the railroad to Verdun under observation and shelling. As a result of all the mine explosions, by 1918 the top of the butte no longer existed; it had been replaced by a series of giant craters.