Bretons at the Glory Hole

We are indebted to Sophie Carluer in helping us learn more about the French tenure of the Glory Hole or Ilôt. The following descriptions from early 1915, taken from a letter, report, citations and a poem illustrate the ferocity of fighting at La Boisselle and show why the sector became such sacred ground to the Breton troops who held it.

Taking A Trench

This translation is of a letter which appeared in the French newspaper La Croix des Côtes du Nord, written by a sergeant of the 19th Infantry Regiment to his parents.  The letter describes events following the explosion of a 2,500kg German mine on 7th February 1915 which buried eight French engineers. The letter, by an unknown sergeant of the French 19th Infantry Regiment, describes the capture and consolidation of the crater lip.  This letter is reproduced by kind permission of Sophie Carluer and can be found on her French language website on the history of the 19th Infantry Regiment.

Millencourt, 13th February 1915 Dear parents, I stopped in my last letter at the 6th February. The day had been quiet and the weather comparatively good. We had been in the front line since the previous evening and our trenches were 40 metres from the Germans. As usual, a few shots had been exchanged during the day. For nearly three weeks the French engineers have been preparing mine shafts in order to remove a German trench in front of us. On their own side, the Germans were doing the same thing. We were to act on Sunday. However, on Saturday evening at eleven p.m. a great explosion rang out. It was the Germans who had just blown up our trench held by the 8th Company. Complete panic. The platoon of the 8th who were holding the trench were blown sky high and the remainder fell back as the Germans took our position. Shots were exchanged along the whole the line. Our artillery opened up for several minutes, then silence returned. The 8th company was forced to retreat slightly. The next morning the situation became clear. The engineers who were digging the mine shaft, helped by twenty soldiers from the battalion, were buried under the debris. Those who had been blown into the air were unhurt. The explosion had thrown up three heaps of earth of around six meters high by eight to ten meters wide. It is not to be believed that such a mound could be produced by high explosives. It is terrifying. Sunday morning arrived. Beautiful weather, brilliant sunshine. Excellent meal served on an improvised table comprising a plank resting on two buckets. We had just finished dining when the Captain warned us that we were going to attack in a few hours. It was not a particularly good plan. The Divisional Commander ordered the company which had lost the trench to retake it at all costs. My company had to act as reinforcements if the 8th did not succeed. So we made ready, we separated out our important personal documents which we left in our haversacks should we return. It was not joyful. We were all present, bayonets fixed, waiting for zero hour. At four a.m., for several minutes our artillery gave it everything they had with all batteries of 75s, 105s and 120s onto La Boisselle. It was a terrifying racket. After a quarter of an hour, without making a sound, a platoon of the 8th company moved off into the trench leading to the base of the earth mound thrown up by the mine and behind which the Germans were established. On arrival at the foot of the debris embankment, the platoon shouted out, ‘Forward!’ ‘With the bayonet!’ and climbed the earth mound. Behind the bank about fifty German sappers were at work. The weapons took care of them and the platoon, having restored the status quo, dug in under fire. Helped by three other platoons they made a rough trench. During this attack, my company had remained in position ready to intervene. No need. We just endured the German artillery fire. Several big shells threw earth onto our caps. Three of my men received bullet wounds by raising their heads above the trench. At eight o’clock that evening, my company relieved the 8th in the captured trenches. It was my platoon which took over the position. All night we continued to dig ourselves in and, fearing a counter-attack, were on the alert. But those gentleman did not dare tangle with us. Close by me was a soldier killed in the attack and that Tuesday, at five a.m., I took two men with a pick and shovel and we dug a grave. I had the dead man searched: he is named R…….. from H……… When the grave is ready, we placed him in it, then gathered together six men and, on my knees, with head uncovered, I recited De profundis which my men answered. Believe me, it was a very moving sight, enough to touch even the most unemotional. We covered our unfortunate comrade with black earth, then I placed a cross which I had made at the head of his grave. I had put on it this inscription: ‘Here lies H….. R…….. of the 19th Infantry, killed in action. Pray for him.’ That morning, I buried two other soldiers killed the day before and for each one, we had the same ceremony. Such are the salutary thoughts that we give to such sights! We occupied this position all day and greatly strengthened it. The following day we left for the second line and managed to rest a little in the night. On Tuesday evening, we were relieved and are at Millencourt for six days. How wonderful to be able to rest a little! R. P. ………….. Sergeant in the 19th Infantry

Translation by Gordon Shaw and Simon Jones

A Day Like Any Other

This report gives an insight into the daily lives of the French soldiers in the trenches opposite La Boisselle. It is reproduced by kind permission of Sophie Carluer and can be found on her French language website on the history of the 19th Infantry Regiment.

19th Infantry Regiment, 18th February 1915 Report of events and work carried out during the day of 17th and night of 17th – 18th February 1915 Intense shelling of the area mostly by 77mm shrapnel shells. Over the past two days the German artillery fire has much increased. All work during the day is impossible since any freshly turned earth attracts enemy artillery fire and the night work is delayed. The front line trenches have been blown-in in several places notably in the trenches C, F and the cemetery trench. In trench F a platoon of machine gunners was blown-in, without loss of men or equipment. Regimental losses: 2 killed [1] and 6 wounded.

Work done Construction of traverses in trench C which we have started to cover with logs and hurdles to protect against enfilade fire coming from the V shaped wood. Construction of 10 meters of communication trench leading to G trench at the Ilôt. Placing of 10 loopholes in the trench south of the crater as well as C and F trenches. Installation of a network of concertina wire in front of the trenches E, F and G. Repairs to trenches A and B in areas wrecked by shells and bombs and those fallen in due to rain. Clearing communication trenches 23 and 24 for a length of 150 meters. Colonel commanding the 19th Infantry Regiment Marc Albert

[1] Through research on the Mémoire des Hommes website Sophie Carluer located two soldier of the 19th Infantry Regiment killed on 17th February 1915: Jean Guillaume Gourvez & Pierre Jestin.

Translation by Gordon Shaw and Simon Jones

Army Citations

Following the events of 7th February 1915 many citations were awarded to soldiers and officers of the 19th Infantry Regiment. Some are reproduced here by kind permission of Sophie Carluer. The originals can be found on her French language website on the history of the 19th Infantry Regiment.

Battalion commander VIOTTE In all circumstances has proved having the best military qualities, notably on the 7th February, whilst leading a counter attack on the mine crater lip occupied by the Germans and giving a single company from his battalion such energy that they alone managed to force back the enemy, killing 120 to 130 of them.

The 8th Company of the 19th Infantry Regiment Ordered to attack German mine craters, it resolutely carried forward and after rapid fire, dealing with the enemy with the bayonet, forced them to abandon their position, leaving behind about 200 dead on the ground.

Captain MAILHOL Having received orders to be ready with his Company to support the advance of the 8th Company on the lips of the German mine craters, he personally placed himself beside the commander of the attacking company, who he accompanied during the entire operation in order that he might know when reinforcements were needed and be able to deploy them rapidly. Has been slightly wounded in the head by a shell splinter.

2nd Lieutenant GOASDOUE On the 7th February, ordered to lead an attack on the mine craters occupied by the Germans, led his company with remarkable dash, and, in spite of losses experienced in the previous night by mine explosions, was able to hold the position for two hours under violent infantry fire giving to everyone the highest example of courage.

2nd Lieutenant QUEMAR Fell gloriously leading his platoon on 7th February as he was occupying a position which he had just taken at bayonet point.

Adjutant CAUDAL On the night of 6th – 7th February, was in charge of an advanced post. After the explosion of three German mines buryed half of the men in his platoon, he advanced without hesitation, with the survivors, to occupy the lip of one of the craters and prevented the enemy advance. He held out at this position with the utmost energy.

Adjutant SEVERE After the explosion of German mines in an outpost in the night of the 6th to 7th February, he went to the front alone through damaged communication trenches to obtain precise information on the situation in our advanced trench.

Corporal GUIZOUARN On 7th February he showed great bravery in rushing to the front of his section in the crater formed beyond the front line by the explosion of a German mine and was badly wounded.

Private BELLEC Buried by the debris of a mine explosion in the night of 6th – 7th February and extricated by two German soldiers, he succeeded in escaping from them and regaining our lines.

Privates RAYMOND et LE GOFF Have, in spite of the greatest danger, brought back the body of their officer who was killed during a bayonet attack on 7th February. [1] [1] Sophie Carluer notes that this officer was without doubt 2nd Lieutenant Quémar.

Translation by Gordon Shaw and Simon Jones

Théodore Botrel – A Cross in the Trench

Théodore Botrel wrote many songs and poems including the famous ‘Rosalie’.  A well-known Breton songwriter, Botrel was appointed ‘Army Songwriter’ by the Minister of War. He spent the war visiting different parts of the front and giving patriotic performances.  Botrel uses two Breton words, ‘brezounek’ which means Breton, and ‘kenavos’, which means goodbye. This poem, written in May 1915 and dedicated to ‘My compatriots in the 19th’, was found by Jean Bannier in some old family papers, who sent it to Sophie Carluer.  The original can be found on Sophie’s French language website on the history of the 19th Infantry Regiment.

To my compatriots of the 19th

A Cross in the Trench

We follow the trench until twenty metres from the Bosch,
In silence, back bent, foot slipping,
And the guns “tapping” there, so close,
Only the gusts from the shells whip us in passing.
Through the loopholes we see La Boisselle,
Its small cemetery and its mist-shrouded ‘ilôt’,
Countryside as natural as a brush from your wing
Made sublime, Oh glory, and for forevermore.
We hail the Breton lads from the 19th
At their listening posts along the long communication trenches
Where exchanging two words sometimes even ‘‘brezounek’,
‘Stick it out’ combines with ‘kenavos’.
When, all of a sudden, I see at the bottom of a trench
A small cross made from two reeds
Cross without date or name, shyly hidden
As do children on the graves of birds.
Who then was this who died, when did he fall? A mystery
He was one of those returned as ‘missing’
And who, under the eyes of the earth diggers,
Under the stroke of their picks, one evening, reappear.
We do not disturb the comrade’s body
We salute, we cross ourselves and the work continues
So better that he stays there still, under fire
A soldier just beyond the grave, in the ranks.
And in front of the humble cross, seized by a strange confusion,
I feel jealous of this radiant corpse
Who, in face of the enemy, in his shroud of mud,
Sleeps the great sleep of heroes and gods.
Théodore Botrel – La Boisselle 13 May 1915
Thanks to Jean Bannier.

Translation by Gordon Shaw and Simon Jones

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