French Cavalry Reconnaissance 1914
|Quoted from Chasseur of 1914 by Marcel Dupont
Dupont describes an example of reconnaissance in the chapter entitled 'The Jaulgonne Affair':
'On September 9, at about eight o'clock in the evening, our advanced scouts entered Montigny-les-Condé at the moment when the last dragoons of the Prussian Guard were leaving it at full speed. Our pursuit was stopped by the night, which was very dark. Whilst the captains were hastily posting guards all round the village, whilst
the lieutenants were erecting barricades at all the outlets and setting sentries over them, the quartermasters had all the barns and stables thrown open.
For three days we had been pursuing and fighting the German army, and we were tired out; but we had not felt it until the evening on stopping to give our poor horses a little rest.
We were particularly anxious about two fine officers that our Colonel had just sent out that night on a reconnaissance-F., of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, and my old friend O., of our squadron. We wondered anxiously whether they would be able to perform their task- to get at all costs as far as the Marne, and let us know by dawn whether the river could be crossed either at Mont Saint Père, Jaulgonne, Passy-sur-Marne, or Dormans. Nothing could have been more hazardous than these expeditions, made on a dark night across a district still occupied by the enemy.
...as soon as the first rays of morning filtered through, my squadron, which had been told off as advance guard of the brigade, rapidly descended the steep slopes which commanded the small town of Condé. A.'s troop led. My business was to reconnoitre the eastern part of the town with mine, whilst F., with his troop, was to see to the western quarters.
With sabres drawn, our Chasseurs distributed themselves briskly, by squads, through the streets of the old city. The inhabitants [were] glad indeed when they saw our light-blue uniforms; they cheered, crying: "They are gone!... they are gone!"
[A short while later] three horsemen came towards us covered with blood. I recognised F., the officer of Chasseurs d'Afrique, who had been sent out to reconnoitre the evening before.
"I haven't been able to reach the Marne," said F., with disappointment in his voice. "But, being fired upon by their outposts in the dark, we charged and got through, and then charged through two villages under a hail of bullets; and again we had to charge their outposts to get back. You see, ... I have brought back two men out of eight, and all my horses have been killed.... These horses"-pointing to his own-"are those of three Uhlans we killed so as not to have to come home on foot."
We had hardly left him when we caught sight of the reconnoitring party of my comrade O., and were overjoyed to find that he had come back unscathed with all his men. And yet he had had to face a fair number of dangers-attacks by cyclists and pursuit by cavalry. At Crézancy, where he arrived at three o'clock in the morning, he found the village occupied and strongly held. There is only one bridge over the railway there, and that is at the other end of the village. By good luck he was able to get hold of one of the inhabitants; and he forced him, by holding his revolver to his head, to guide him by all sorts of byways so as to make a circuit without attracting
attention and get to the bridge. There he set forward at a gallop, and passed, in spite of being fired on by the guard. At last he reached the Marne. The only bridge he found intact for crossing the river was the bridge at Jaulgonne, a slender, fragile suspension- bridge, but one that we should be very glad to find if there was still time to use it. He then hurried back through the woods, but not without having to run the gauntlet of rifle fire several times more. He brought back information which was to guide our advance.'
'It was seen at once that there was not a minute to lose. The Captain detached me immediately, with my troop, to act as a flank- guard along the line of wooded crests by which the road on the right was commanded, whilst F., with his troop, crossed the Surmelin and the railway which runs alongside of it, and went to carry out the same task on the other side of the valley.
Whilst I sent some troopers along the road which winds by the Surmelin to keep in touch with my Captain, I carefully inspected the right bank of the Marne with my glasses. The scene would have tempted a painter, and the labours of war do not prevent one from enjoying the charm of such delightful pictures. The sun was gradually dispersing the mist of the sullen morning, and was beginning to gild the wooded heights which look down upon the two banks of the river. Everywhere a calm was reigning, which seemed to promise a day of exquisite beauty. We might have fancied that we were bent on some peaceful rural work favoured by a radiant autumn
morning. The Marne in this region winds in graceful curves. It flows limpid and clear through a narrow valley carpeted with green meadows and bordered, right and left, by gentle hills dotted with woods. At our feet, peeping from the poplars and [Pg 116]beeches on the bank, we saw the white houses of dainty villages-Chartèves, Jaulgonne, Varennes, and Barzy.
I directed my attention more particularly towards Jaulgonne, because it was in that direction that the attempt to cross the river would be made. The heights immediately above Jaulgonne rise steeply on the north bank, and almost stand in the river. On the other hand, to the south, on our side, the left bank of the Marne is bordered by
extensive meadows crossed by the railway and the high-road to Épernay. The position therefore would have been very strong for the Germans, if they had crossed to the other side of the river, for we should have been obliged, before we could reach the bridge, to traverse a vast open expanse which they could have kept under the fire of their artillery. My Chasseurs, prompt to grasp the reason of things, scrutinised the opposite bank no less intently than I. No movement could be seen; nothing suggested the presence of troops among the russet thickets which covered the sides of the [Pg 117] silent hill. Could they have already retired farther off? Could they have abandoned this formidable position without any attempt to defend it?
At that moment one of my Chasseurs appeared, coming by the steep path which led from the road to the wooded ridge on which we were. His horse was panting, for the declivity was stiff, and he had had to hasten. He brought me orders.
"Mon Lieutenant, the Captain has sent me to tell you to join him as quickly as possible at the other end of the bridge. The first troop has already crossed, but some of the enemy's horse have been seen on the other side of the village."
In single file we went quickly down towards the plain by the stony, slippery path. We soon reached the high-road, and then turned to the left and came upon the long causeway bordered by poplars which led to the bridge. Quite close to the bank I saw a small group of dismounted cavalrymen, and soon recognised our Colonel with his
Brigade Staff. He was giving his orders to the Lieutenant-Colonel commanding the Chasseurs d'Afrique. I went up to him to report, and learnt that the first squadron had already crossed the river and occupied the village on the other side. Some parties of German cavalry had been seen on the neighbouring heights.
We fell in and reached Jaulgonne at a trot. I stopped an orderly, who told me that the German cavalry were firing on the exit from the town. How many of them he could not say, as they were hidden in the woods. He told me, too, that the first squadron was holding all the entrances to the north and east of the village except the one on the river bank on the road to Marcilly, where my comrade F. had posted his troop. I decided then to put myself at the disposal of the party defending the chief exit from the village, the one that opened into the road to Fismes. It was the most important one, for it was in that direction that the Germans were retiring.
The enemy riflemen were invisible, and were riddling the outskirts of the village, while we were unable to reply; and some guns had been seen which were being got into position.
I looked for Captain de L., who commanded the first squadron. On my asking him if he wanted me, he explained the situation: the enemy, numbers unknown, was occupying the woods overlooking Jaulgonne to the east. It was impossible for us to debouch just yet. The essential thing was to hold the village, and consequently the
bridge, until our infantry could come up. He told me that the first troop of my squadron, led by Lieutenant d'A., had just advanced, in extended order, into the vineyards, orchards, and fields stretching between the road and the river. He was going to reconnoitre the woods and see what kind of force was holding it.
At a distance of 800 yards in front of us stretched the dark border of the wood, from which the fusillade was coming. To our right, at the edge of the water, on the road leading to Marcilly, F. must have been able to see the enemy, for we could distinctly hear the crackle of his carbines.
Acting on the advice of Major P., our Captain, who had just rejoined us with the third troop, gave orders to mount. We were only in the way here, where there were too many defenders already, so recrossed the bridge to put ourselves at the Colonel's disposal. I led with my troop, and we passed through Jaulgonne by the main street.
The Colonel had disposed the brigade in such a way that he could concentrate his fire upon the bridge and the opposite bank in case we could not maintain our position there. A squadron on our left, concealed in a sand quarry, was directing its fire upon the heights where the German artillery was posted. Both up and down stream the
Chasseurs d'Afrique lined the river banks, making use of every scrap of cover. Peeping out over trunks of fallen trees, banks, and ditches inquisitive heads could be seen wearing the khaki taconnet.
Whilst I was busy carrying out the Captain's orders I had not noticed that the situation had undergone a decided change, and that our chances of being able to complete our task thoroughly had increased considerably. The German guns were no longer aiming at the village. Their fire had become more rapid, and their shrapnel flew hissing over the brigade. We could see them bursting much further off, on the other side of the water, in the direction of the woods crowning the heights whence, in the morning, I had admired the smiling landscape. I inferred then that the advance guard of our
corps was debouching. In half an hour it would be there, and the German cavalry, we felt sure, would not hold out much longer.
...as soon as a hundred [infantry] men had got across, and the first sharpshooters had clambered up the heights that rise sheer from the river and begun to debouch upon the plateau, there was a sudden silence. The enemy's cavalry had given way, and our corps d'armée was free to pass the Marne by the bridge of Jaulgonne.'
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