|Battle of Rossignol|
|Part of Battle of the Frontiers of the First World War|
Rossignol and surrounding area from a 1954 map. Neufchâteau is off the north of this extract, Virton to the south-south-east and Sedan due west.
|French Third Republic||German Empire|
|Commanders and leaders|
|General Lefèvre||General Kurt von Pritzelwitz|
|Colonial Corps||VI Corps|
|Casualties and losses|
|11,388 killed, wounded or missing||3,473–3,984 killed wounded or missing|
The Battle of Rossignol was an early battle of the First World War and part of the Battle of the Frontiers. In order to counter the German invasion of Belgium French commander-in-chief General Joseph Joffre ordered an attack upon the centre of the German advance. This was to be spearheaded by the French Fourth Army comprising the Colonial Corps and II Corps. At the same time the German army broke with their Schlieffen Plan and turned the 5th Army southwards towards the French border. The French Colonial Corps advanced towards Neufchâteau expecting the nearest German forces to be several days march away.
Advance elements of the 3rd Colonial Infantry Division marching column clashed with German cavalry north of Rossignol and soon found themselves facing a strong defensive German position. After several bayonet charges through dense woods failed to make progress French troops retreated southwards to Rossignol. The German 11th and 12th Divisions pushed around both flanks and engaged that part of the Colonial Corps still on the march. With the French II Corps behind schedule and unable to offer any support, German artillery destroyed the bridge at Breuvanne, the only means of reinforcing the 3rd Colonial Division at Rossignol. Thus isolated, the German forces were able to defeat the troops remaining in the village. The remainder of the Colonial Corps was able to pull back to defensive positions.
The battle saw the destruction of the 3rd Colonial Division as a fighting force, with some 10,520 men killed, wounded or missing. The division's commander Léon Amédée François Raffenel was killed alongside one of his brigade commanders Charles Rondony (the other brigade commander, Charles Montignault, was captured). An additional 868 men were lost from the supporting 2nd Colonial Division, while German losses amounted to between 3,473 and 3,984 men. The alleged involvement of francs-tireurs at Tintigny and Rossignol resulted in reprisals in which 63 civilians were killed shortly after the battle and a further 122 executed following court-martial.
- 1 Background
- 2 Prelude
- 3 Battle
- 4 Aftermath
- 5 Orders of battle
- 6 References
- 7 Bibliography
Background[edit | edit source]
The German invasion from 4 August saw German armies advancing through Belgium, whilst holding a static defensive front south from Metz to the Swiss border in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan which prioritised the capture of Paris. The French Colonial Corps, part of the Fourth Army was situated at Stenay (North-eastern France) on the Chiers River, with the XII Corps on its left flank and the II Corps on its right. The Colonial Corps was formed of Troupes coloniales, troops raised in France for service abroad, as well as troops raised in the colonies such as parts of the Army of Africa. The corps comprised the 2nd and 3rd Colonial Infantry Divisions with supporting non-divisional assets. The 3rd Colonial Division, which would see the heaviest fighting at Rossignol, was composed entirely of regular army troops and was considered one of the elite formations of the French army. The men were all volunteers, as French law forbade the use of its metropolitan conscripts abroad, and almost all had seen action in the colonies. The only reserve elements in the formation, the 5th and 6th reserve squadrons of the 6th Dragoon Regiment which had recently joined the division as reinforcements, were comprised mainly of former Colonial Corps soldiers and so were rated highly. The division was reckoned to be of a similar standard to that of the British regular army.
General Joffre, commander-in-chief of the French armies, decided to strike against the German centre in Belgium in order to threaten the communication lines of the German right flank which would be subject to a simultaneous attack by the northern French forces. In accordance with this plan the French Grand Quartier Général (army headquarters) issued orders for the French Fourth Army to move north into Belgium at 9.30pm on 20 August. The Colonial Corps was to establish itself at Tintigny, in Belgium on 22 August whilst the II Corps was to move on Léglise via Bellefontaine to cover the right flank.
Prelude[edit | edit source]
Strategic movements[edit | edit source]
The Colonial Corps set off northwards with an advance guard of units drawn from the 3rd Division under the command of General Charles Montignault. This unit, comprising the 1st Colonial Infantry Regiment, the 4th battery of the 2nd Field Artillery Regiment, two platoons of the 3rd Chasseurs d'Afrique and the 6th Squadron of the 6th Dragoon Regiment, marched north to Virton, Belgium. The French troops brushed aside German cavalry reconnaissance units and met no resistance. Pushing on through Chauvenoy and St Vincent they captured the bridge at Breuvanne by nightfall on 21 August. The remainder of the 3rd Division followed on behind, hampered by late changes of orders, blocked roads, hot weather, a rainstorm and thick fog. The unit made the 17 mile journey in twenty hours.
The opposing German forces comprised the VI Corps (commanded by General Kurt von Pritzelwitz) which remained fairly static on 20 August except for the seizure of Neufchâteau, Belgium which was intended to house the XVIII Reserve Corps. Late on 21 August overriding German strategy was changed, instead of proceeding westwards in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan the 5th Army under Crown Prince Wilhelm was directed to turn south to capture Virton. The 11th Division was to take Tintigny and the 12th Division Rossignol with the 4th Army protecting their right flank.
The French Grand Quartier Général assumed German forces were still proceeding to the north-west at some two to three days march from the 3rd Colonial Division. This was in spite of intelligence garnered by French Fourth Army cavalry and aerial reconnaissance units showing a strong German force in the Neufchâteau area with no evidence of westward movement on 21 August.
Battle[edit | edit source]
Initial contact[edit | edit source]
At 6.40am on 22 August General Léon Amédée François Raffenel, commander of the French 3rd Division, reached St Vincent in heavy fog where he met with the Colonial Corps commander General Jules Lefèvre. Lefèvre issued his orders for the day, stating that Raffenel's division simply had to march 25 kilometres to Neufchâteau and secure billets. Lefèvre stated that he did not expect to encounter the enemy until 23 or 24 August. The German Fourth Army had spotted the advance of the Colonial Corps by aerial reconnaissance and means of their cavalry screen but did not know whether this force intended to continue north or move eastwards. The 11th and 12th divisions were warned to expect contact with strong French forces. Final confirmation of the French intentions came only on the morning of 22 August when the advance elements of the 3rd Division were encountered moving north on the road to Neufchâteau.
These troops were the 6th Dragoons, who were at the fore of the French advance, and were pushing German cavalry – first encountered some 600m south of Rossignol – from the road ahead. The remainder of the division, moving in column along a road hemmed in by thick hedgerows and wire fences, was in good spirits in anticipation of an easy march. The Dragoons soon reached the village of Rossignol, north of the Semois River and headed into the dense Ligny forest. They met with a German cavalry force some 500 metres into the forest which withdrew, but a kilometre further in met with opposing infantry, coming under rifle fire and incurring heavy casualties. Retreating to a nearby crest the commander requested orders, the time being 7.23am. Receiving instructions to recommence the advance and protesting that it was impossible to do so the infantry of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Colonial Infantry Regiment were instead sent forwards to clear the road by the bayonet. The colonel of the colonial regiment believed he was facing only a small German force, with their nearest major units believed to be some 35 kilometres to the east.
The German cavalry were from the 2nd Uhlan Regiment which had been advancing southwards from Les Fosses. Dismounting and opening fire upon the French cavalry they had soon been supported by the 157th Infantry Regiment that took up positions behind a crest from which it could enfilade any troops on the road at several kilometres range. The French made a series of frontal bayonet charges but were unable to push the Germans back owing to the strong defensive position and the narrow front available due to the dense nature of the forest, with thick undergrowth reducing visibility to around 50 metres. German troops likewise were unable to press forward due to the continual French assault and the inability of their supporting artillery to deploy within the forest.
Escalation[edit | edit source]
General Raffenel established his initial command post at Rossignol some 400 metres south of the forest's edge. Despite meeting personally with the advance guard commander he refused to believe that a sizeable German force was in the vicinity. With the 2nd Colonial Infantry Regiment, under General Charles Rondony, arriving at Rossignol by 10am he ordered it to move in support of the 1st Colonial Infantry – by then wholly committed in the forest. Raffenel also established the divisional artillery at Rossignol where it could fire on the forest and be protected by the 3rd African Chasseurs and one detached battalion of the 2nd Colonial Infantry.
General Martin Chales de Beaulieu, commander of the German 12th Division, received news from his advance guard commander, General Vollbrecht, that the 157th Infantry Regiment was under great pressure and had suffered many casualties. Chales de Beaulieu ordered the 63rd Infantry Regiment and a battery of artillery to move around the French left flank to Termes to support Vollbrecht. This movement was completed by 11am when the German forces at Termes encountered French troops still moving along the road to Rossignol. A firefight erupted and a battery of the German artillery went into action on nearby Hill 363, supported by the machine guns of the infantry. A French artillery battery, still in column of march and unable to move off the road due to marshes and fences, deployed on the highway and within minutes had almost wiped out the German artillery, destroying three pieces and killing or wounding almost all of its officers and men. The two remaining German batteries, shocked by this setback, deployed behind the crest of Hill 363 and commenced indirect fire upon the French column. The supporting 63rd Infantry Regiment was unable to advance to the road but continued to harass the French forces.
Simultaneously the German 11th Division, under General Von Weber, moving to seize Tintigny via Ansart discovered the 3rd Division in column of march on the Rossignol-Breuvanne road. Deploying some artillery onto Hill 345, near Breuvanne bridge, to attack the French the remainder of the 11th Division advance guard continued its march southwards. Thus the French found themselves threatened on both flanks.
French withdrawal[edit | edit source]
Raffenel's attacks in the German centre in the Ligny forest were beginning to have an effect, by 10.30am the German 157th Infantry had begun to give way, almost all of their officers having been incapacitated. However the French had suffered grievously themselves particularly amongst their officers, easily distinguished by their gold braided kepis and white gloves. Three battalion commanders had been made casualties by a single burst of German machine gun fire whilst conferring in the open and the French attacks had been reduced to squad or smaller units led by junior officers or NCOs. French Lieutenant-Colonel Guerin, noting the disorganisation amongst the remaining French troops, took the initiative and ordered a fighting withdrawal towards Rossignol. A covering position was established some 300m south of the forest edge.
The French cavalry at Rossignol, receiving orders to defend a French battery to the east failed to locate the artillery and instead attempted to charge the German artillery on Hill 363. Unable to reach the gunners due to marshland, impenetrable fences and heavy defensive fire they moved south across the Breuvanne bridge and west towards Termes. Finding themselves dispersed by this movement the detachment was unable to make any effective contribution to the fight and only rejoined the 3rd Colonial Division at the day's end.
Encirclement of Rossignol[edit | edit source]
At 11am the bridge over the Semois, the only access to the village of Rossignol from the south, was destroyed by German artillery fire from the 11th Division at Ansart. This prevented two battalions of the 3rd Colonial Infantry Regiment, the entirety of the 7th Colonial Infantry Regiment and the Colonial Corps artillery from reaching Rossingol. Raffenel, already concerned by the delays in bringing up his reserves, was isolated in Rossignol with a fraction of his division. At this point De Beaulieu committed his reserve brigade to take the French covering position south of the woods.
To the south the French artillery remained confined to the road, unable to render any support to the fight at Rossignol and being whittled down by infantry and artillery attacks from the east, west and south-east. The German 11th Division, less the one battalion of artillery at Hill 345, had reached Tintigny by 10am and continued onwards to St Vincent. At Tintigny the streets had been barricaded with wagons and German artillery units moving through the town were fired upon, injuring some horses. In response German forces set fire to a number of houses to flush out their attackers and opened fire on the church with artillery, causing some French civilian deaths. The initial attacks were blamed by the Germans on armed civilian francs-tireurs but other sources suggest the attackers to be a French patrol or mobilised Belgian forestry troops.
At the same time Lefèvre and his Colonial Corps headquarters was moving through St Vincent on the way to Neufchâteau. Encountering a small unit of German cavalry north of the town which was dispersed by his Dragoon escort the headquarters staff found themselves subject to artillery and rifle fire. Lefèvre ordered the 7th Colonial Infantry Regiment and some artillery to the east of St Vincent to defend the town and removed his headquarters to Jamoigne. Here he encountered the lead elements of the 2nd Colonial Division, which, comprising the 4th Army reserve, he lacked the authority from his commander to redirect. Despite this the 2nd Division commander, General Paul Leblois, acted on his own initiative to send the 22nd Colonial Infantry Regiment to Termes to support the 3rd Division. They pushed back two German battalions and retook half of the town before being ordered to withdraw, for the loss of 2 officers and 54 men killed and 14 officers and 182 men wounded. The French II Corps was unable to render any effective support on the right flank as, three hours behind schedule, it was halted to the south of Tintigny.
The 3rd Division at Rossignol, cut into two by the destruction of the bridge, hurriedly organised the defence of the village. Raffenel's forward elements were still fighting a retreat from the woods and he had no means of communication with that part of his division trapped south of the river. The 1st and 2nd battalions of the 3rd Colonial Infantry Regiment, unable to join their third battalion at Rossignol instead attacked the Germans to the west at Termes. Suffering losses from artillery and machine gun fire from Termes and in their rear from Ansart they were eventually forced to retreat to Jamoigne.
Defence of the village[edit | edit source]
At 12.30pm the German 157th Infantry Regiment and 2nd Uhlans, reached the southern limit of the forest and encountered Rondony's hastily organised defence force – which had orders from Raffenel to hold Rossignol "at all costs" – defending a small crest. This force comprised only some 900 men with 15 officers of the infantry but was supported by the machine gun companies of the 1st and 2nd Colonial Infantry Regiments, whose 12 guns stiffened the defence. The Germans managed to bring up two 77mm guns and two 105mm howitzers along the forest road which opened fire on Rondony's men and the clock tower in the village, further fire was directed upon the French from artillery across the Semois to their rear. For more than two hours Rodony, reinforced by ad-hoc units retreating from the woods, was able to hold the German forces in place. The first major German attack came at 2.30pm and was repelled by machine gun and rifle fire but French resistance was weakening, by 3pm only 500 men remained on the firing line and most of the French machine guns were out of action. A second German assault at 3.30pm managed to gain the crest, despite a desperate French counter-charge, and forced the French back to the village. The divisional HQ had been dispersed by 2pm and the commanding general, Raffenel, was last seen alive reporting to the commander of the 3rd Colonial Infantry Regiment, having crossed the Semois carrying a rifle, that all was lost.
An initial attack upon Rossignol at 4pm was repelled after half an hour's hard fighting at the village's edge. With the covering position neutralised the German artillery was able to move through the forest and come into action, setting the village ablaze. German forces eschewed a direct assault, instead encircling the village and capturing outlying French positions and the divisional command staff – some 328 men in total. The German troops then captured the remaining French artillery trapped between Rossignol and the Semois river. The French gunners fought to the last, firing off the remainder of their ammunition, disabling their guns and killing their limber horses before surrendering. It was in this action that French author, religious thinker and artillery officer Ernest Psichari was killed whilst defending his artillery pieces. The only continuing French resistance in Rossignol was at the north of the village where mutual exhaustion had led to a pause in the battle. The Germans committed the 23rd Infantry Regiment into action from reserve, these men swept into the village with little opposition at around 5.30pm. Seeing that the French appeared ready to surrender they formed into column and marched into the village square with drumns beating, taking the surrender of some 200 men, 10 officers and General Montignault.
The remnants of the French defence force – some 400–500 men of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Colonial Infantry together with elements of the engineers and chasseurs – attempted to breakout to the south-east between the German 11th and 12th Divisions. Hit by artillery and running into the German VI Corps and V Corps command posts only a fraction of this force was able to reach French lines and join the 2nd Colonial Division at Jamoigne. After a final attack the German troops were able to take possession of Rossignol itself by 6.50pm, no pursuit was made of the French south of the Semois.
Aftermath[edit | edit source]
At 5pm Lefèvre finally received direct control of the 2nd Colonial Division but by 6pm the 7th Colonial Infantry had come under heavy attack at St Vincent. The German 22nd Infantry Brigade, amounting to five-and-a-half battalions of infantry, with supporting artillery and machine guns pushed the ten French companies then in St Vincent back despite French superiority in artillery (48 guns to the German's 18 pieces). The French retreated by echelon to a defensive line on the road to Limes which the Germans declined to assault.
General Fernand de Langle de Cary, commanding the Fourth Army, only became aware of the extent of the defeat his troops had suffered only at the end of the day. Reporting to Joffre that he had suffered a "serious check at Tintigny; all troops engaged with unsatisfactory results" he noted that because of his losses he would be unable to carry out his orders for the 23 August. Indeed the collapse of the 3rd Colonial Division had left a 12 kilometre gap on the front that was practically undefended by French troops. Joffre refused to believe him and reported to Minister of War Adolphe Messimy that he had ensured the French armies were placed where "the enemy is most vulnerable" and that the troops had "the advantage of superiority", despite the fact that the French Third and Fourth armies were in fact outnumbered. Joffre's strike against the supposedly weak German centre had failed and the armies in the Ardennes were forced to retreat, the Third Army to Verdun and the Fourth to Stenay and Sedan.
French losses were extremely heavy, the 3rd Colonial Division having lost 10,520 men killed, wounded or missing (the 2nd Colonial Division lost 868 men), the divisional artillery wiped out and much of the transport lost. Generals Rondony and Raffenel were amongst those killed, becoming the first French generals to lose their lives during the war. The Germans took 3,843 prisoners, including two generals and captured 39 artillery pieces, 103 caissons and 6 machine guns. German losses were between 3,473 and 3,984 men in total from the 11th and 12th Divisions. The action has been described as one of the deadliest of the Battle of the Frontiers.
The 3rd Colonial Division was effectively wiped out as a fighting force. The 1st and 2nd Colonial Infantry Regiments were completely destroyed as were the 2nd Colonial Field Artillery Regiment and the 3rd Chasseurs d'Afrique. The 3rd and 7th Colonial Infantry Regiments were no longer combat-effective. The latter was able to reform from two companies that had been detached to guard the corps airfield and five companies reconstituted from the original three battalions. French losses were astonishingly high with individual units suffering up to 70% fatalities and most the prisoners taken being wounded. This reflects the quality of the division, with men dying where they stood rather than surrender.
In addition to the civilians killed by German troops on 22 August at Tintigny, a further group was taken prisoner and interrogated by a German officer who afterwards had forty of the men shot. Another group of civilians were marched towards Rossignol, where upon hearing the sound of gunfire four were executed, the remainder were taken back to Tintigny and used as human shields against French artillery fire on 23 August. In all 63 of the inhabitants of Tintigny were killed by the German forces and the hamlet itself almost completely destroyed. Subsequent to the battle the rumour spread around German troops that the French at Rossignol had been assisted by civilians. In addition to those executed by German courts-martial at nearby Arlon, 122 civilians (108 of which were from Rossignol) were accused of involvement and executed on the orders of Colonel Richard Karl von Tessmar by telephone from Luxembourg. Two francs-tireurs captured at Les Bulles by the 157th Infantry Regiment on 23 August were shot.
The battle's dead were buried near to where they fell – the Germans, who possessed the battlefield, in war cemeteries, the French in unmarked graves. The Colonial Corps monument at the boundary of the woods north of Rossignol was erected in 1927 to honour the French dead of the battle. The executed civilians were originally buried at Arlon, their place of execution, but were disinterred in 1920 in the presence of King Albert of Belgium and committed to a purpose-built mausoleum in Rossignol. Queen Elisabeth unveiled a monument at the site in 1925.
Orders of battle[edit | edit source]
France[edit | edit source]
Non-divisional elements[edit | edit source]
Germany[edit | edit source]
Non-divisional elements[edit | edit source]
References[edit | edit source]
- Beasley 1933, p. 3
- Beasley 1933, p. 4
- Zuber 2013, p. 111
- Beasley 1933, p. 5
- Beasley 1933, p. 6
- Beasley 1933, p. 7
- Beasley 1933, p. 9
- Beasley 1933, p. 11
- Beasley 1933, p. 12
- Beasley 1933, p. 13
- Zuber 2013, p. 113
- Beasley 1933, p. 14
- Beasley 1933, p. 15
- Beasley 1933, p. 16
- Beasley 1933, p. 18
- Beasley 1933, p. 17
- Beasley 1933, p. 20
- Beasley 1933, p. 22
- Beasley 1933, p. 21
- Beasley 1933, p. 23
- Beasley 1933, p. 19
- Hart 2013, p. 42
- Beasley 1933, p. 24
- Beasley 1933, p. 27
- Beasley 1933, p. 25
- Beasley 1933, p. 26
- Beasley 1933, p. 28
- Zuber 2013, p. 119
- Horne & Kramer 2001, p. 56
- Beasley 1933, p. 30
- Beasley 1933, p. 32
- Zuber 2013, p. 120
- Beasley 1933, p. 33
- Beasley 1933, p. 34
- Beasley 1933, p. 35
- Zuber 2013, p. 121
- Zuber 2013, p. 122
- Beasley 1933, p. 36
- Zuber 2013, p. 123
- Beasley 1933, p. 40
- Beasley 1933, p. 41
- The Church Quarterly Review 1922, p. 52
- Zuber 2013, p. 124
- Beasley 1933, p. 37
- Beasley 1933, p. 38
- Zuber 2013, p. 125
- Beasley 1933, p. 39
- Tuchman 2000, p. 264
- Doughty 2005, p. 67
- Beasley 1933, p. 42
- Gehin, pp. 81–86
- Gehin & Lucas 2008, p. 478
- Zuber 2013, p. 126
- Zuber 2013, p. 127
- Horne & Kramer 2001, p. 57
- Zuber 2013, p. 128
- Horne & Kramer 2001, p. 384
- Philippart & Labayle 2002
- Denolle 1922, pp. 61–65
Bibliography[edit | edit source]
- Beasley, Major Rex W. (1933). "Critical analysis of the operations of the French Colonial Corps in the Battle of the Ardennes, with particular attention to the operations of the 3d Colonial Division at Rossignol.". http://cgsc.cdmhost.com/cdm/singleitem/collection/p4013coll14/id/569/rec/1. Retrieved 6 April 2014.
- Denolle, M. (1922) (in French). La Grande Guerre Vécue – racontée – illustée par les combattants (Volume 1 ed.). Paris: Lirbrairie Aristide Quillet.
- Doughty, Robert A. (2005). Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-01880-8.
- Gehin, Gérard. Livre d'or des officiers superieurs mort pour le France guerre 14–18. Le Souvenir français. pp. 81–86. http://www.souvenir-francais67.fr/EXEMPLAIRE%20DEMO.pdf.
- Gehin, Gérard; Lucas, Jean-Pierre (2008) (in French). Dictionnaire des Généraux et Amiraux Francais de la Grande Guerre (Volume 2). Paris: Archives et Culture. p. 478. ISBN 978-2-35077-070-3.
- Hart, Peter (2013). The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-997627-0.
- Horne, John N.; Kramer, Alan (2001). German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 9780300089752. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Navs5TkI9oAC.
- Philippart, Jean-Louis; Labayle, Éric (2002) (in French). Journal du commandant Jean Moreau, chef d'état-major de la 3eme division coloniale. Parcay-sur-Vienne: Editions Anovi. ISBN 9782951342347.
- The Church Quarterly Review. Volumes 94–95. London: Spottiswoode & Company. 1922. p. 52. OCLC 1554673. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=cotIAAAAMAAJ.
- Tuchman, Barbara W. (2000) . The Guns of August. London: Robinson. ISBN 9781841192093.
- Zuber, Terence (2013). The Battle of the Frontiers: Ardennes 1914. The History Press. ISBN 9780752444246. OCLC 223912988.
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