On July 1, 1916 the Anglo-French offensive against the German army on the north and south bank of the River Somme commenced. It was the start of a horrifying battle, resulting in more than one million men wounded or killed. On November 25, 1916 the offensive came to a hold, leaving the allies with a gain of territory 10 kilometres deep and 35 kilometres wide.
The original goal of the offensive was to prevent the Germans from moving their troops around as they pleased by pinning them down. For this purpose the French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre on December 30, 1915 proposed to his British counterpart Douglas Haig an attack in Picardie, north of the River Somme. With his own plan for an offensive in Flanders in mind, and the fact that new British army of volunteers (‘Kitchener’s army’) was still inexperienced, Haig saw to it that the British were to become the junior partner in the endeavor.
However, in February 1916 the Germans launched their offensive on Verdun, forcing the allies to question the whole plan. The brutal German strategy of attrition took almost all of France’s manpower to stem the onslaught. The result was that the British were to take the lead in the upcoming Somme offensive. It would become their baptism as the main offensive force in the Great War. Haig tried to postpone the start ‘till august but the dire need the French were in caused Joffre to insist on the original date.
July first became the bloodiest day in the history of the British army, losing almost 60.000 men killed or injured that day. In comparison, the French lost 1500, and the Germans between 10.000 – 12.000 men on July first. According to French and German writing this was “little more than a footnote” compared to previous losses.
Infantry Regiment 25 arrived on the Somme battlefield on the evening of July 10 and was pulled out again on July 20. Along with two other regiments they formed an independent brigade to the Division Liebert that was deployed around Peronne. First battalion (I./25) – to which Berhard Kronauers Company belonged – went straight into the line after crossing the Somme river over a ‘war bridge’. The regimental sector ran to the southwest from Peronne, between Biaches-Le Maisonette ferme and Barleux.
According to the regimental history it must have been “an impressive sight, when the battalions marched over the slopes to the west of Cartigny, encountering a glowing setting sun”. The heavy caliber naval shells howling over the troops as they crossed the slightly hilly terrain leading to the front, and detonating with an eerie sound in the hinterland, probably impressed the men in a less poetic way. The huge fresh craters on the sides of the approaching road filled the men with dismay, so the history reveals.
In the days the regiment was deployed on the Somme they had to resist more or less strong attacks on a daily basis. French troops had pushed back the German defense lines during the first days of the offensive, being more successful than their British allies in to the north, and were determent to push through. However, “Fighting was intense and violent, and despite the French Army advancing farther than its British Ally in the first few days, the offensive soon settled into a battle of attrition” (www.somme-battlefields.com)
Bernhard Kronauers unit helped to stop the French advance. Under constant artillery and machinegun fire they took up their position on the right side of the regimental sector. During the next days French troops attacked in waves several times but were repulsed each time by artillery fire or in close combat. According to the regimental history the first wave often consisted of black troopers.
In Honnef the families of men fighting on the fronts were informed by reports in the local newspaper, the Honnefer Volkszeitung (HVZ). On July 14 it reported: “Failed advances by the French on the Somme. The French again carried out heavy attacks on Barleux and Estrées and received heavy losses once more”. The regimental history gives the following spine-chilling description: “The enemy suffered dreadful losses; despite the on-going war noise the wailing and screaming was audible for a long time”.
If his family knew where Bernhard was at the time these reports probably filled them with great concern. On July 17 the HVZ reported: “Along with the British in the north the French advanced in the south (Barleux, Estrées). Not only did these attacks fail, right to the west of Peronne (Biaches) their advanced positions were pushed back a little by our troops”.
‘Our troops’ meant Bernhards battalion also. On July 15 the brigade counterattacked aiming to straighten the German line and to move away from the Somme marshes. Biaches on the right and Flaucourt on the left were the objectives. On 8:30 PM I. and II./25 managed to advance 200 metres, taking heavy casualties. Machinegun fire from Le Maisonette ferme, which could not be taken by RIR 29 as planned, and from the centre of the regimental sector caused such casualties that the attacking force had to withdraw to its original positions. Hence ‘pushed back a little’ in the HVZ.
The regimental history writes: “The losses of the last days were considerable”.
I./25 was relieved on the night of 18/19 July and was put on standby in Le Mesnil, on the east side of the Somme. In the afternoon of July 20 they were called back to assist the regiment in repelling a fierce French attack. Artillery fire in not yet seen intensity was a prelude to a further French attack that was again broken up by the German intervention.
On July 21 the regiment was relieved and lay in reserve at Le Mesnil and was pulled out on July 22. Nine days on the Somme cost IR 25 a staggering 1038 casualties, between 193 and 335 of them dead. Bernhard Kronauer survived this ordeal, 20 comrades of his Company did not. By the time the regiment returned to the Somme in November 1916 Bernhard would have joined them in the ranks of the fallen.
- Hirschfeld, G., Krumeich, G., Renz, I., 2004, Enzyklopädie Erster Weltkrieg
- Hirschfeld, G., Krumeich, G., Renz, I., 2009, Scorched Earth, The germans on the Somme 1914 – 1918
- Honnefer Volkszeitung 14.7, 17.7, 24.7, 4.8
- Hütmann, A. (1929), Das Infanterie Regiment von Lützow (1. Rhein.) Nr. 25 im Weltkriege 1914-1918
Also see Peter Folkers’ (‘Pierre Grande Guerre’) informative site: