The villages of Hébuterne and Serre gave their names to a severe action fought by the French on the 7th-13th June 1915, in the Second Battle of Artois.
Hoping to create a diversion south of Arras where his men were fighting for Vimy Ridge, Général Joffre ordered his 2nd Army under Général de Castelnau to create an offensive in the Somme Sector.
Just south-east of the village of Hébuterne was the farm of Toutvent which had been turned into a stronghold by the occupying Germans of the 169th Infantry Regiment. The farm gave a commanding view of the valley to the west and it was vital that it was taken before the French could continue any further attacks in the area.
A French Infantry Regiment (RI) consisted of three battalions who served as a single formation. The Reserve Regiments had two battalions and are recognisable by their numbering — each had the parent unit’s number plus two hundred. Thus the 327e RI is the Reserve for the 127e RI.
To assist in highlighting the fact that the narrative refers to a French unit I have for the most part used French abbreviations — 128e RI (128th Regiment). For the sake of ease I have used I/xx RI etc to refer to the battalions.
On 7th June 1915 de Castelnau launched his opening attack on the farm from a quarry on the Hébuterne – Colincamps road known today as la Briqueterie. The German front lines were taken and held despite strong counter attacks by the Germans.
The 137e RI from the Vendée (32e Division d’Infanterie) stormed the farm at great cost but gained a citation for their valour which was matched by a visit by the French President Raymond Poincaré on 5th July 1915.
On 8th June a second attack was launched – this time slightly to the north and against another farm called La Louvière. This was beaten off by the German defenders and once again the French suffered particularly heavy losses, but de Castelnau was determined to press on.
Along with Joffre, de Castelnau had been one of the originators of the idea of attaque à outrance (attack at all costs) and was certainly sticking to his principles. A third attack against Serre would be launched but this time from further south along the road from Mailly-Maillet.
The 8th June found the 101e Brigade d’Infanterie with some 5,000 men from the 233e RI, 243e RI, and 327e RI, given the task of taking the German lines between Mailly-Maillet and Serre and then required to advance on Puisieux. The soldiers were all reservists from Arras, Lille and Valenciennes; for the most part they were aged in their late thirties.
The Brigade had been brought in from the Champagne region and after a few days rest were transported up to Bus-lès-Artois from where they marched to Colincamps.
On the morning of the attack on 10th June a thick fog made the artillery preparation difficult and failed to destroy the German barbed wire defences. The attack which should have been launched at 0500 hours was put off for twelve hours.
Realising that an attack appeared to be imminent the Germans countered with their own artillery which caused terrible casualties in the French front lines packed with men waiting for the word to advance.
Commandant Lequeux of the V/243e RI (who were leading the attack) became increasing concerned for his soldiers, realising that before his men got anywhere near the enemy’s front lines they were going to have to cross a 350 metre wide field in full view of the German machine gunners.
At 1700 hours the bugles sounded the charge and the 20th Company were the first to gain the first rows of barbed wire, but almost all of the officers of the 17th, 18th and 19th Companies were killed.
The VI/243e RI were thrown in as reinforcements and their waves of infantry managed to push on and captured the German front lines.
The following afternoon the Germans launched an artillery bombardment and a total of three counter attacks. The fighting became desperate with bayonet and grenade all the while under the shelling of the artillery and the constant threat of machine guns.
On the 13th the French re-launched their attack with the 243e RI backed up by the other regiments. The second German line was taken together with a 120 prisoners.
The losses to the French were, however, enormous :
For their heroism the V/243e RI were cited in 2nd Army Orders.
Vous avez sans doute envoyé contre nous des troupes d’élite. Je m’étais porté à la tranchée de première ligne de mon bataillon au moment de l’attaque. Jamais je n’ai vu de soldats se porter à l’assaut avec autant de bravoure et d’entrain.
You have undoubtedly sent elite troops against us. I was up in my battalion’s front line trench at the moment of the attack. I have never seen troops who launched themselves into an attack with more courage and drive.
The German Commander
The diversion completed, the line was to remain static up until the arrival of the British Army in March 1916 in preparation for the battle of the Somme in July.
Serre in fact would resist all attempts by the Allies to take it. The village only fell the once in battle when the Germans re-took it in 1918 (having given it up in 1917 during the retreat to the Hindenburg Line).