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Remembered Today:

French Colonial Corps monument at Rossignol


phil andrade
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Two threads on this forum - one of them about "France's worst day", and the other titled " The Machine Guns of Mons?" have induced me to get hold of Terence Zuber's book The Battle of the Frontiers.

The losses suffered by the French in this fighting were absolutely appalling, nothing less than catastrophic. Here is a reference Zuber makes to the casualties suffered on August 22nd in the fighting at Rossignol:

" The Colonial Corps monument, erected in 1927, is located north of Rossignol where the road enters the woods, and says that on 22 August at Rossignol - St- Vincent 4,083 soldiers from the principal units of DIC " died on the field of honour". There were also 2,379 unknowns, perhaps 75 per cent of which were from the 3 DIC. The total number of 3 DIC dead was probably 6,000. "

The 3 DIC, incidentally, is Zuber's method of designation for the Third Colonial Division of Infantry. The passage is from page 104 of his book.

Are we to understand that a single division lost six thousand dead in a single day? The monument's commemoration of 4,083 is incredible, but surely authentic. Allowing for additional casualties in wounded and prisoners, it implies the literal annihilation of the entire division - and, it would appear, the damage was inflicted almost entirely by German rifle fire. So much for the BEF's musketry being unique in effectiveness! The division's casualties that day have been estimated at 10,500 killed, wounded and taken prisoner by the French historian Grasset, and the Germans claimed to have taken 3,843 POWs in the action.

I have to ask, though, what does Zuber mean by the 2,379 unknowns ? He states that the divisional loss of 4,083 needs to be increased by adding on three quarters of these unknowns - that is not only incredible, it doesn't make sense. Surely the divisional memorial would take into account those missing who were subsequently found to have been killed. Perhaps I've misunderstood the context, or I'm just thick. Maybe Zuber made a mistake. My guess is - and I add this as an edit - that the "unknowns" refer to those buried in a mass grave, or ossuary, and that the commemorated number of 4,083 includes those. In other words, Zuber has counted them twice.

Does anyone know about this memorial ? A clarification of what it actually says would be much appreciated.

Phil.

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I know the memorial well. The losses on 22 August were truly appalling but I will have too look up the precise figures for Rossignol. There were certainly two generals killed and one wounded, as well as lots of other high ranking officers killed. The battle didn't just take place in Rossignol but in various other villages in the area, as the division stretched a long way back. That may account for the higher figure quoted by Zuber. It was local people who buried the dead and they stripped off identification in order to return personal belongings to the families - remember that we are only three weeks into the war - so that when they came to be reburied after the war there was no means of identifying them.

I don't like the use of words like 'probably' and 'perhaps'. As far as I remember, the losses were quite well known. The division was basically wiped out - and only three weeks into the way. Mons was the following day.

The 3rd Colonial Infantry Division, which was an elite formation, was strung out along miles of road, cavalry out ahead, mounted officers ahead of the infantry with sabres, white gloves, etc. They entered the wood at Rossignol and carried on for about a mile before being ambushed. French intelligence was faulty and they weren't expecting to meet the Germans even though the local people were telling them that German units were up ahead. I don't think it was just rifle fire that did the damage - machine guns were certainly involved. The French fell back into Rossignol and fighting went on for the rest of the day. The Germans shelled the bridge over the River Semois behind the French, who were unable to fall further back. Lt. Garros, who was a survivor of the day, puts the casualties like this: Two generals killed and the third wounded and taken prisoner. In the 1st Colonial Inf. Reg, the lieutenant colonel was killed along with the three battalion commanders, five captains and five lieutenants. In addition, one captain and six lieutenants were missing, seven captains and thirteen were wounded (i.e. almost every officer in the regiment). In the 2nd Col. Inf. Reg. a colonel, lieutenant-colonel and almost all the officers were killed. In the 3rd Col. Inf. Reg, the lieutenant colonel was killed. 60 officers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner in the 3rd and 7th Col. Inf Regiments. Only one officer survived from the divisional artillery. The 1st Col. Brigade ceased to exist as a unit. Killed and wounded in the 1st Col. Inf. were almost 2500, in the 2nd Col. Inf. almost 2850, in the 3rd. Col. Inf. 2085. Le 7th Col. Inf. lost 'only' 1500. The 2nd Colonial Artillery was totally destroyed and only one and a half squadrons remained of the 3rd African Mounted Chasseurs.

Fighting went on till late in the afternoon. The following day, a large number of civilians were rounded up and a couple of days later were taken to Arlon, on the Belgian-Luxembourg border, and shot. I will look up the precise number but I think it was 120. That does not include civilians taken from surrounding villages who were also shot.

There's information about the battle here:http://www.rossignol.free.fr/

The cemetery by the side of the road to the north of Rossignol is impressive but more impressive to my mind is another cemetery which is about 1 km further along the road to the north, where there are rows upon rows of men from the same regiments.

Battles took place on the same day in lots of other places in the area, notably at Virton and Ethe, where an enormous number of civilians were shot. There is information in French here: http://batmarn1.club.fr/7ediatto.htm

For photos of the monuments at Ethe and Rossignol, click here: http://www.homepages.lu/ggraf/EN/ethe_en.htm

22 August was an absolute disaster for the French - and the BEF had not even started. It makes you think.

Christina

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The following details were written up by Colonel Grasset in his book "La Guerre en Action. Surprise d'une Division. Rossignol - Saint Vincent":

1er RIC* (1st Colonial Infantry Regiment) : 2,800 men killed, wounded, missing or captured

2e RIC*: 2,850

3e RIC*: 2,025

7e RIC*: 1,380

2e RACC* (2nd Colonial Field Artillery Regiment): 1,300 of whom 32 officers and 931 gunners were captured

22e RIC: 358

24e RIC: 444

1er RACC: 68

3e RACC: 10

3e Chasseurs d'Afrique (cavalry): 250

6e Dragons (cavalry): 165

* = 3e DIC

Robert

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There is an excellent book that focuses on the diary of Captain Jean Moreau, who was the Chief of Staff of the 3rd Colonial Division. It contains a lot of detail, including plans of how Rossignol was defended and transcripts of the various orders and messages from that fateful day. The title is "Rossignol, 22 août 1914" (ISBN 2 9513423 4 9).

Robert

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Thank you, Christina and Robert. That the French casualties were outrageous is all too clear: what bothers me is the prospect that Zuber, who is now regarded as the premier authority on these battles, might have made a striking error, and assumed that "unknown" means something very different from what it actually does. I have managed to Google a few pictures of the memorial, but cannot gain suffucient magnification to read the inscription on it.

Chrisitina, I remember seeing an inscription on a memorial on Mort Homme which cites regimental casualties and classifies them all as "dead", whereas in fact the figures allude properly to dead, wounded and missing. I am not suggesting that this applies to the Rossignol memorial, where several regiments did lose thirty or more per cent of their complement actually killed outright, but I do suspect that the 2,300+ "unknowns" refer to mass grave internments rather than to additional missing on top of the four thousand or so that the memorial commemorates.

All honour to Zuber - his book is a real accomplishment: I recoil from the prospect of such a fundamental error...maybe I'm doing him an injustice...but six thousand killed from a single division in one day?!

Phil.

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The monument on the edge of the forest lists the figures for "deaths on the field of honour":

1re Colonial [infantry Regiment] 877

2e Colonial 795

3e Colonial 696

7e Colonial 669

21e Colonial 780

23e Colonial 760

2e Artillerie Coloniale 575

3e Chasseurs d'Afrique 365

6e Dragons 760

1er Genie 75

The authors of "Rossignol, 22 août 1914" caution that "these figures are probably lower than the reality". Zuber does indicate that his number is just an estimate, and he gives his rationale for the raising the number from the 4,083 derived from the monument. The 2,000 or so difference is derived from a proportion of the 'missing'. Either way, it was still a really terrible price paid by the 3rd Colonial Division.

Robert

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To put this in perspective, the heaviest divisional loss suffered by the British on July 1st 1916 was in the region of 6,300, of whom about 2,200 were fatal. This French division appears to have lost about twice as many. It's hard to imagine.

Phil.

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Conceptually, not when you look at how the action at Rossignol played out. 3e DIC were jammed into a pocket with virtually no way out. The bridge and main road south of Rossignol were a complete shambles and once the Germans commanded these approaches, then it was only a matter of time. The division fought on bravely, hence the number of deaths vs PoWs, but it was a hopeless situation. It is hard to truly understand the scale of the catastrophe, as you say. Seeing all of the graves really brings it home though.

Robert

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What Zuber really drives home in his book is his dispelling of the notion of these French losses being the result of imprudent attacks in which elan was supposed to overcome firepower. This was not, apparently, a matter of French soldiers in their conspicuous uniforms being deployed in reckless attacks against German machine guns and artillery : it was a furious surprise attack by superbly trained and motivated German troops who, in Zuber's opinion, were able to press home their assault and slaughter their enemy by dint of rifle fire. It realy does overturn the standard view of those battles. Taken in conjunction with revelations regarding German casualties at Mons which Jack Sheldon has provided in the Machine Guns of Mons? thread, I find myself having to reconsider my perception of August 1914.

In regard to the graves that you mention, Robert, the message from Zuber is that the majority of the French dead were not given marked graves, but were buried en masse as "inconnus". This is what I reckon he might have got wrong when he was dealing with the "unknowns", which he implied were in addition to the thousands of recorded fatalities.

This has been a sobering experience: we think of the losses of the Somme and Passchendaele, but they were bearable in a sense. Even if severely repulsed, the British armies never had to face an actual invasion. At Rossignol, and elswhere in August 1914, Frenchmen were massacred in unimaginable numbers and were experiencing cataclysmic defeat on their own soil..have to admit, I'm not sure whether Rossignol is in France or Belgium, but you know what I mean! It stands comparison with the ordeal of the Russians in the summer of 1941.

Phil.

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  • 9 months later...
Two threads on this forum - one of them about "France's worst day", and the other titled " The Machine Guns of Mons?" have induced me to get hold of Terence Zuber's book The Battle of the Frontiers.

The losses suffered by the French in this fighting were absolutely appalling, nothing less than catastrophic. Here is a reference Zuber makes to the casualties suffered on August 22nd in the fighting at Rossignol:

" The Colonial Corps monument, erected in 1927, is located north of Rossignol where the road enters the woods, and says that on 22 August at Rossignol - St- Vincent 4,083 soldiers from the principal units of DIC " died on the field of honour". There were also 2,379 unknowns, perhaps 75 per cent of which were from the 3 DIC. The total number of 3 DIC dead was probably 6,000. "

The 3 DIC, incidentally, is Zuber's method of designation for the Third Colonial Division of Infantry. The passage is from page 104 of his book.

Are we to understand that a single division lost six thousand dead in a single day? The monument's commemoration of 4,083 is incredible, but surely authentic. Allowing for additional casualties in wounded and prisoners, it implies the literal annihilation of the entire division - and, it would appear, the damage was inflicted almost entirely by German rifle fire. So much for the BEF's musketry being unique in effectiveness! The division's casualties that day have been estimated at 10,500 killed, wounded and taken prisoner by the French historian Grasset, and the Germans claimed to have taken 3,843 POWs in the action.

I have to ask, though, what does Zuber mean by the 2,379 unknowns ? He states that the divisional loss of 4,083 needs to be increased by adding on three quarters of these unknowns - that is not only incredible, it doesn't make sense. Surely the divisional memorial would take into account those missing who were subsequently found to have been killed. Perhaps I've misunderstood the context, or I'm just thick. Maybe Zuber made a mistake. My guess is - and I add this as an edit - that the "unknowns" refer to those buried in a mass grave, or ossuary, and that the commemorated number of 4,083 includes those. In other words, Zuber has counted them twice.

Does anyone know about this memorial ? A clarification of what it actually says would be much appreciated.

Phil.

No posts on this topic for sometime so as we approach the anniversary of that fateful weekend in August (and as this year the dates fall on the right days) it is a good time to consider and remember those events 95 years ago. If all Zuber does by his book is to raise the awareness of these encounters in the minds of the English speaking members of this forum (and of course those “outside”) then he has achieved a great deal.

Christina (and others) have accurately described the battle at Rossignol and the savage losses incurred; Zuber rightly highlights that all the battles over that weekend were interlinked as the French Armies, advancing in echelon, were surprised to encounter the German Armies which had turned from their south-east to north-west axis. Thinking the Germans were further north and east, in many cases the French were still in column formation when the fighting started (Zuber’s book has some interesting statistics about how much road space units of varying size take up when in column formation).

Like it would do some 30 years later, the geography of the Ardennes played its part in both concealing troops and hindering movement. Although this part of the Ardennes isn’t as high as that where the “Bulge” was fought it is still largely forested, this coupled with a lack of effective cavalry reconnaissance allowed the Germans to turn, largely undetected, south-westerly and towards the advancing French. Whereas in 1944 the steep-sided river valleys ran largely perpendicular to the route of the German advance, thereby contributing to them falling behind schedule, in 1914 the influence of the gentle valley of the Semois and the forested valleys on the highground/watershed to the south were no less catastrophic for the French. The Semois was only crossable at bridges and as the Colonial troops advanced via Gerouville and Saint Vincent, with their chasseurs and advance-guard advancing via Valansart and Jamoigne they were expecting their right flank to be protected by the regular army advancing via Mieux-devant-Virton, Lahage and Bellefontaine (and Tintigny – which they never reached).

The main route taken by the regular army suffered in that it was a narrow wooded valley running north from which the troop column “disgorged” (literal translation from contemporary accounts) as they climbed out of the valley at Lahage. This route also came under unexpected artillery fire near Mieux from Germans to the north of Virton. Progress through the valley was slower than expected and as a result the Germans beat them to Tintigny and one of the main bridges across the Semois, helping expose the right flank of the colonial troops. Without cover/support from the regular army troops stuck at Bellefontaine and their own units held-up in Saint Vincent, they were decimated at Rossignol and in the land between there and the Semois. "Stuck" and "held-up" aren't perhaps the right descriptions as the battles at both Saint Vincent and Bellefontaine also had high casualty rates, as detailed in Bastin's “Le samedi sanglant” .

Graves at the German and French military cemeteries throughout the area all bear the same date: 22/08/1914

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Can you give some details about Bastin's book 'Le samedi sanglant', Steve? I've not heard of it before.

For the last few years the battles in the Rossignol have been commemorated again. They were always commemorated up to WWII but then the ceremonies lapsed. It's good that the new generation has taken them up again.

Christina

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Can you give some details about Bastin's book 'Le samedi sanglant', Steve? I've not heard of it before.

For the last few years the battles in the Rossignol have been commemorated again. They were always commemorated up to WWII but then the ceremonies lapsed. It's good that the new generation has taken them up again.

Christina

I read Zuber's book in the UK, noted the severals references to Bastin's work and resolved to get a copy the next time I was at the "in-laws" in Belgium (Christmas 2008). They're at Jamoigne, not 10kms from Bellefontaine. I thought it would be easy to get a copy. I tried the local bookshops and tourist info without success, hardly anyone had heard of the book, let alone had a copy for sale ! I hadn't thought of the most obvious source, Monsieur Bastin himself; having spent 2 days searching bookshops in vain my mother-in-law took great delight in picking up the phone book, looking up "Bastin" in Bellefontaine and "hey presto" within the hour I'd met the author and got a copy !!!

He is a local amateur historian and the book had a limited initial print run. He'd sent most copies to purchasers in France, many to relatives of soldiers in the 120 Regiment of Cordonnier. I bought one of the last "current" copies (although he did say he was considering trying to get a second run printed). He had met "an American who said he was writing a book" once in Tintigny for 1-2 hours to discuss the fighting in Bellefontaine. He now realises this must have been Zuber although, until I showed him my copy of Zuber's book, he had never seen it. He could hardly believe the number of times his work was referred to and seemed extremely proud and pleased. He was going to buy a copy of Zuber's book on Amazon.

As an author yourself you will no doubt appreciate his sentiments.

I am in Belgium again at the weekend and maybe able to find out if there has been another print run. That's where my copy of the book is so I couldn't tell you the printers/publishers. Alternatively I could get his contact details and as a fellow historian you might like to speak to him direct - there might be sufficient demand (via the forum ?) for another print ?

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Can you give some details about Bastin's book 'Le samedi sanglant', Steve? I've not heard of it before.

For the last few years the battles in the Rossignol have been commemorated again. They were always commemorated up to WWII but then the ceremonies lapsed. It's good that the new generation has taken them up again.

Christina

I'm now in Belgium (where most of my books are !).

The full title of René Bastin's book is "22 aoùt 1914 - Un samedi sanglant - Ein schrecklicher Tag". It is 448 pages long and is the story of the Great War in Tintigny, Saint-Vincent and Bellefontaine. The first part covers the build up to 22 aoùt, the actual battles and the days immediately afterwards; the second part covers the next 4 years under German occupation. As well as drawing on military records he also uses many local sources (he is a resident of Bellefontaine) and the Belgian perspectiveis an interesting facet. It is illustrated with maps, postcards, copies of documents, contemporary photos as well as modern ones of some of the places described. It was printed in 2004, I think privately, and as I have mentioned previously I think I received one of the last current copies from M.Bastin at Christmas 2008.

Apart from Zuber's book other "recent" publications that cover these topics and that I have found useful, include:

"La batailles des Frontieres racontée par les combattants" - 272 pages, published by Weyrich Edition, Neufchateau in 2007; currently available from local bookshops. It is a collection of 18 witness accounts (mainly French soldiers) of the battle(s) with editorial and contextual notes, illustrated with contemporary photos and postcards.

"Virton et la Gaume 1914-1916 - Journal de guerre de Nestor Outer - présenté par Jean-Marie Triffaux" - 219 pages, published by La Vie Arlonais in 2007; currently available from local bookshops. Nestor Outer was a writer and painter, born in Virton in 1895; his journal briefly covers the battles of Virton and Ethe and the preceding days, before continuing with their aftermath and the first 2 years of German occupation. It is richly illustrated with contemporary photos, postcards, copies of documents and some of his paintings.

Various editions of "Les Cahiers Brunehaut" - the journal of the Cercle Brunehaut, issued irregularly and printed by Weyrich Edition, Neufchateau - contain articles relating to the Great War. The 'Cercle' is a collection of locals in the commune of Chiny, interested in the local patrimony. For example: issue 10 (December 2000) - contains several articles including one on German forestry/timber operations to equip the Verdun front and another on the "temporary buildings" constructed to house those whose houses were burnt, still used as barns today; issue 19 (2007) - French army "fugitives" hidden from the Germans in 1914; issue 20 - the German military flying school and aircraft "factory" at Habay.

A specially produced Belgian IGN map (1:25,000) and 9 accompanying leaflets, describing walks in the commune of Tintigny (which also includes Rossignol, Saint-Vincent and Bellefontaine) - available from the tourist information in Tintigny (www.tintigny.be). The sites of interest highlighted include several that relate to August 1914.

Hope this is of some use

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Thanks, Steve. That is all very interesting, especially the reference to the special map. I have a number of reproductions of Nestor Outer's paintings. I would certainly be interested in reading M. Bastin's book.

Christina

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