The death of the 3rd Company at Épehy, September 1918
string of Battle honors second to none gained in the fighting from August 1914
until September 1918 the Battle for Épehy goes largely unnoticed when we
consider the combat achievements of the Leibregiment.
of Épehy was an outpost position in front of the Hindenburg/Siegfried Line. As
a run up to the major Allied offensives starting in the last week of September
1918 the British High Command decided to mount an attack on the Épehy sector.
The objective was a fortified zone 34km wide and 5 km deep, in the middle of
the action were the men of the Bavarian Infantrie Leibregiment defending the
town of Épehy. The taking of Épehy was
considered enough of a fight to be listed as a “battle” by the British high
Bavarian Leibregiment had taken up positions in the town on the 11th of
September 1918 and worked feverishly to improve the defensive positions. These
consisted mainly of Shell holes and reinforced Basements. It was decided not to
join the positions with trenches as movement behind the walls of the town were
judged to be sufficiently safe and any digging would give away the positions to
was sent to the Regimental staff complaining that the men were exhausted, their
uniforms and equipment in terrible condition. They had not been able to wash
for weeks, rations were not sufficient and many were suffering from dysentery.
The officer writing the report pointed out that the condition of the men
inhibited any real progress in improving the defensive positions.
early morning of the 17th of September the German artillery fired gas shells on
the neighboring British Artillery positions. There was no visible effect and
the British artillery kept up their routine harassing fire. German overserves
reported that they believed that the British artillery had been moved forward.
Above: The Iron
Cross document to "Leiber" Franz Thoma. Thoma was one of eight men or “Leiber”
who survived the destruction of the 3rd Company of the bayerische Infanterie
Leibregiment on the 18th of September 1918. The day after his capture he was
diagnosed with shell shock, evidently a reaction to the events he experienced
on the 18th.
evening of the 17th the British continued their harassing fire including gas
shells on Épehy and to the rear of the German front line. Until 2am on the 18th
the night sky remained clear but by 3am cloud cover caused the gas to remain on
the ground. The German artillery began to fire a counter Gas bombardment. The
German sentries could not detect any movement in the British lines. In the
advanced positions they peered anxiously across no man’s land while their
exhausted comrades tried to sleep in the crowded bunkers.
At 5am it
began to rain.
the night opened up as heavy and light artillery shells crashed into the
Leibregiment positions. Incendiary, high explosive, smoke and gas shells landed
in the village. Steel and stone splinters flew through the air and heavy mines
joined the bombardment crushing defensive positions, collapsing the entrances
to basements and dugouts and knocking over walls. Machine Guns and Minenwerfer
were covered in soil and rubble and ammunition reserves were strewn around by
the blast. All lines of communication to the Battalion HQs were cut off.
the artillery fire jumped to the rear cutting the German front line off from
their reserves with a curtain of steel and dust. The survivors climbed out of
their dugouts to take up defensive positions. German rifle and machinegun fire
sent bullets through the gas and fog towards the British positions. The
defensive fire started just in time as attackers appeared in front of the 6th
and 7th company and to the left of the 2nd company. The fire stopped the
attacking momentum and the British troops took cover. The first attack ground to
a halt. Suddenly troops wearing British helmets were spotted to the left of the
2nd Company. The enemy had broken through between the 2nd company and the
neighboring Jäger Battalion. The machine guns of the 2nd Company were still
firing as the British pushed forward against the companies left flank and then
from the rear. The men fought with rifles, bayonets and hand grenades but the
British kept on coming, replacing men as fast as they fell. With their
positions overrun and their company commander seriously wounded the pitiful
remains of the 2nd company fell into enemy hands. They had defended their
positions to the last.
Above: German Prisoners being led away after the Battle of Épehy
British bombardment had jumped to the rear the men of the 3rd Company of the
Leibregiment strained their eyes and ears waiting for the coming attack. All
along the line gas and fog hindered attempts at observation. At 7am Leutnant
der Reserve Halt received information that the enemy had pushed past on their
right flank cutting off the communication between the 3rd company and the neighboring
7th company. To the left the sound of fighting in the 2nd company positions led
him to believe that the British had made inroads into the town. A British
Patrol appeared in the fog to the North West but was driven off with rifle fire
otherwise all was calm in the 3rd company positions. Infantry Fire was heard on
the left flank, right flank and to the rear but all was quiet to the front of
their positions. A patrol sent towards the 7th Company came back with six
British prisoners. A patrol towards the 2nd Company positions reported a
British presence. Peering through the fog the 3rd Company felt they were cut
off with no contact to friend or foe.
circumstances Lt. d. Res. Halt gave the orders that the position would be held,
come what may.
Above: An iconic Photograph of a German prisoner sharing a cigarette with a British Soldier after the Battle of Épehy
At 8am a
skirmish line was seen to the east. Just after the start of the British
bombardment the commander of the 1st Company had announced he was sending
relief, at that moment the telephone lines had been cut. Halt hoped that the
skirmish line was his relief, German troops coming from the rear to reinforce
his men. To the South they observed a column of German soldiers.
moments that followed the horrible truth of their situation became apparent.
tank appeared to their rear on the Épehy North-South road and attacked the 3rd
company positions. The column of Germans turned out to be prisoners under heavy
escort. As soon as the soldiers escorting the prisonners saw the men of the 3rd
company they covered the prisoners with two machine guns and began to attack.
The men of the 3rd company were suddenly under fire from the north and from the
south. The British infantry advancing from the South called for the 3rd company
to surrender but they answered with grenades and rifle fire. Then came the last
horrible surprise… the “reinforcements” turned out to be British troops... the
3rd company was under attack from the west as well!
Above: Prisoners and wounded after the Battle
from all sides the men of the 3rd company fought from the ruins and shell
holes. One after another the men fell to the enemy fire. While throwing a
grenade Lt. d. Res Halt was hit in the thigh by a bullet. In hand to hand
fighting the company was slowly destroyed, man by man, many killed by a final
bayonet stab. Along with Lt. d. Res Halt and Lt. Freiherr von Voithenberg of
the Machine Gun section only six men of the company survived to go into
captivity. Of the six most were wounded. Only Leiber Seiler was able to return
to German lines after playing dead.
By 10am on
the 18th of September the 3rd company ceased to exist.
Above: The map shows the position of the 3rd company with the movement of the British troops on both flanks
Above: By 10:00 am the 2nd and 3rd Companies have ceased to exist
Thomas was a Postman from Willhartsberg who was drafted into the army in August
1916. He transferred to the Infanterie Leibregiment in the field on the 11th of
March 1917. Serving in the 12th Company then the Pionier Company he was
fighting alongside the 12th Company when Ferdinand Schörner won his Pour le
merite for the capture of Height 1114 in
the 12th Isonzo Battle.
transferred to the 3rd Company on the 15th of June 1918. On the 18th of
September 1918 he was one of the 8 survivors of the company when it was wiped
out in the battle for Épehy. Initially posted as missing he was then listed as
a prisoner of war. He remained in captivity until September 1919. According to
his Bavarian records He suffered from Nerve/Shell shock on the 19th of
September 1918, this would have been diagnosed one day after his capture.
Above: German prisoners after the Battle
of luck needed to be taken prisoner and not be bayoneted or shot by the enemy
is often underestimated. A fantastic paper called “The Politics of Surrender:
Canadian Soldiers and the Killing of Prisoners in the Great War” concentrates
on the Canadian Divisions but gives a good overview to the Perils of surrender
on the battlefield see Here
warfare on the Putna and Sereth
1.4.-15.5. O.H.L. Reserve at Austrian Heeresgruppe Erzherzog
Transport to western front
Positional warfare in upper Alsace
Transport to Romania
Breakthrough on the Putna and Sufita
Taking of Muncelul
Transport to South Tirol
Positioning in South Tirol
Positioning behind the Isonzo front
Positional warfare on the Isonzo front
in the Julischen Alps
Storming of Hevnik and Height 1114
Storming and taking the Luico pass
Taking of Cividale
Battle at Udine
Follow up fighting from Tagliamento to the Piave
Mountain warfare in the Venetian Alps
Transport from Italy to Lorraine
Battle at Armentiers
Battle at Kemmel
Positional warfare in Flanders
Defensive battle between the Somme and Oise
Battle at Roye and Lassigny
Battle on the north canal between Nesle and Noyon
3.-7.9. Fighting on the Siegfried front
Defensive battle between Cambrai and St. Quentin
The Photos courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, the text largely from the Regimental History