Webmatters Title
Webmatters : The Battle of Bellefontaine: 22nd August 1914
Rough Map of Area

Bellefontaine

The defence of Bellefontaine

After an hour of heavy fighting the French Divisional Artillery (42e RAC) finally came into action and eased the situation for the Pantalon Rouges. It was not before time though and the two front line battalions had already suffered heavy casualties. The 2e Bataillon had lost all of its Captains (Company Commanders) and the 3e Bataillon had lost Commandant Holstein (The Commanding Officer) killed in action. Many of the other officers had been wounded.

Bellefontaine today - the Village Square

Bellefontaine today — the Village Square

The remainder of the division was supposed to be advancing but the battle had developed to the south east of Bellefontaine as the French 3e Armée clashed with the German 5th Army at Virton. This had drawn most of the 4e DI into defending the right flank around Houdrigny.

Some assistance for the 120e RI was available from the 18e BCP who had been marching almost constantly for the previous 36 hours and had moved into the Bois de Tintigny from La Hage. For the remainder of the day they would fight off numerous German attacks through the wood and thus protect the right flank of the 120e RI in Bellefontaine.

By midday German heavy artillery fire had prevented the French from taking any offensive action and was pulverising their defensive positions within the village.

The III/147e RI arrived and was split either side of the village reinforcing the II/120e along the northern and western sides where the Germans were only some 300 metres away. The other two companies reinforced the eastern side of the village along with the remnants of the III/120e and the 18e BCP. The I/120e RI was occupied with holding the edge of the village towards Tintigny.

Whilst the French losses had been high those of the German attackers had been no less significant as they ran into the French machine guns. There was a significant difference though, the Germans had more artillery pieces to hand and they also had reinforcements.

During the battle IR Nr 10 (10th Infantry Regiment) would be augmented by two units of Jäger (Light Infantry) from the 3rd Cavalry Division and IR Nr 38 who conducted most of the fighting against the northern and western edges of Bellefontaine.


The village war memorial
The village war memorial
and plaque to the 120e RI

The I/120e RI had lost two of its company commanders and Capitaine de Séré of the 1re Compagnie, who had been wounded at the start of the battle, was helped around his positions on the back of a bicycle.

At 1400 hours the German IR Nr 38 launched yet another attack against the village and whilst most of it was beaten off, the northern edge of Bellefontaine fell to the attackers and the II/120e RI were forced back into the streets.

Lt Colonel Mangin rallied all the scattered elements of soldiers and having fixed bayonets and sounded the charge they hurled themselves at the Germans pushing them back beyond the barricades. In revenge the German artillery recommenced its bombardment of Bellefontaine.

Then at 1500 hours yet another force of Germans managed to fight its way into the village and this time the French prepared to retreat to a position 600 metres to the south.

Commandant Boucheron-Séguin (Major — but a battalion commander) gathered up his own battalion (I/120e) and anyone else he could find to cover the seemingly inevitable retreat.

In the event it wouldn’t be necessary as Général Cordonnier arrived with three companies of Chasseurs from the 9e and 18e BCP as reinforcements.

The general and Lt Colonel Mangin led the three companies plus the battered remnants of Commandant Boucheron-Séguin’s force back into the village.

For the second time that afternoon the village was retaken by the French, and it appeared that this time it was definitive. The Germans seemed to have worn themselves out and were content to let the artillery do the fighting.

At 2030 hours the 120e RI were relieved and retired to billets at La Hage.

During the night the 4e DI retired from the village and German patrols on the morning of the 23rd August found it abandoned.

 

Regimental losses

The square in Bellefontaine carries the name of the regiment

The square in Bellefontaine carries the name of the regiment

From a regiment of approximately 2200 officers and men they had lost :

  • 8 Officers killed (1 Battalion commander and 4 Company commanders)
  • 12 Officers wounded (2 Company commanders)
  • 8 Officers missing (2 Company commanders)
  • 50 Soldiers killed
  • 321 Soldiers wounded
  • 502 Soldiers missing — many of whom would be dead

Total casualties : 873

 

France’s bloodiest day

The 22nd August 1914 turned out to be the worst day of the war for France’s soldiers. Approximately 27,000 would die in a series of battles from Virton via Bellefontaine and Rossignol to Charleroi. Numerous explanations were given in the immediate aftermath and Joffre sacked dozens of generals for lack of pugnacity. Amongst them was Général Lanrezac who had been trying to impress on his Commander in Chief for weeks that the real threat to France was the German force marching through Belgium and not the one facing the French in Lorraine.

To the west, the Battle of Mons would be fought on the 23rd August to allow the shattered French armies to retire. Remarkably, a fortnight later after a long hard slog to the Marne the Pantalons Rouges would pick themselves up and stop the German war machine in its tracks.

It would not be for another four years before the villagers of Bellefontaine would see the Germans leave and peace return to their valley.

The peace was short lived because in May 1940 it would be along these very same forest roads that the German Panzer Divisions would advance. The French still insisting that you couldn’t pass armour through the Ardennes and even if you could the artillery would lag behind. Of course, in the previous war the Germans hadn’t had Stuka bombers to act as artillery !

 


To the east of Bellefontaine along the road towards Etalle at the borders of the wood you will find the Franco-German Military Cemetery of Radan.

It contains the bodies of 521 Frenchmen and 502 Germans. Almost every grave is marked 22nd August 1914.