French Army at Verdun

Posted on Monday 22nd February 2016


No longer a role to play
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The Battle of Verdun, 21 February 1916 - 16 December 1916
On 13 September 1873, almost three years after the surrender of Verdun in the Franco-Prussian war, the last German troops of occupation in France marched out of the city. This former Roman fortress on the right bank of the Meuse, close to the border between France and the Holy Roman Empire, had been heavily fortified for centuries, and following Germany’s annexation of Lorraine in 1871 had once again become a frontier city, perilously close to the new enemy forts around Metz.

In 1874 work began on a scheme designed by General Raymond Sere de Rivieres (1815–95) as part of a barrier stretching from Dunkirk to Nice. Forts were constructed on the heights around the city, all sited to be mutually supportive and dug into the hillsides to reduce the size of the target presented to the enemy. A second phase of building in 1887–8 added reinforced concrete batteries to the existing forts, and ‘intermediate works’ (ouvrages) to cover the gaps and dead ground between them. Further work began in 1900, inserting thirty-four infantry shelters (abris) and four larger shelters (abris-cavernes) between the main forts. A number of steel gun turrets, armed with 75mm and 105mm guns, were also added in the first decade of the new century.

So on the outbreak of war in August 1914, Verdun was encircled by forty-four forts and smaller ouvrages in two concentric rings, all connected by a 60cm narrow-gauge railway line used for moving men, munitions and supplies from depots in and around the city. The most modern of the forts – Douaumont, Vaux and Moulainville – lay in the outer ring, facing north and east. The older examples, such as Saint-Michel, Souville and Belleville, were in the inner ring. Meanwhile the front line lay some kilometres in advance of the fortification line, in the wooded hills to the north – the Bois des Caures, Bois de Wavrille and Bois d’Herbebois.

Within days, Verdun found itself in the thick of the action. The French commander-in-chief General Joseph Joffre despatched his troops towards the German and Belgian frontiers to engage the enemy, only to see them driven back in a series of disastrous encounter battles. As Third Army retreated towards Verdun, its commander, General Pierre Ruffey, was sacked and replaced by General Maurice Sarrail. Ordered to attract enemy attention away from the Allied offensive on the Marne, Sarrail established his forces in positions outside the forts around the city, where he fought a series of bloody actions with the German Fifth Army. Pressed hard from east and west, the French line was bent almost double, creating a salient that penetrated deep into German-held territory. Joffre favoured relinquishing Verdun; he wanted to fight a mobile campaign, not tied down defending fortresses. Yet Sarrail refused to budge. Ever a political general, he presented himself to the press as the ‘Saviour of Verdun’, although his failure to prevent the creation of an enemy salient around Saint-Mihiel, cutting the major rail link to the south, in fact imperilled it still further. Sarrail was even touted as a potential commander-in-chief, but in July 1915 Joffre took pre-emptive action, exiling his rival to command the French forces in Salonika.

Over the spring and summer of 1915 the French attempted to force the invader from their soil in a number of bloody, failed offensives. Heavy fighting took place in the Argonne, west of Verdun, and the Woevre to the south-east, but the city and its immediate environs remained quiet. Meanwhile the vulnerability of fortresses, and the men and materiel sheltered within, had become apparent to the French high command. The Belgian citadels of Liege and Antwerp had fallen quickly to the enemy guns in August 1914, while the important Austrian fortress of Przemyśl was captured easily by the Russians in October 1914, only for its defenders to retake it within a matter of weeks; the French fortress of Maubeuge held out for eleven days; Manonviller, outside Luneville, for just fifty-two hours. In August 1915, desperately short of artillery, and in particular heavy artillery, for their renewed offensives in Champagne and Artois, the French commanders took the decision to strip the fortresses of their guns. ‘The nation’s defence is wholly dependent on its field armies,’ argued General Yvon Dubail, commander of Eastern Army Group. ‘The forts no longer have a role to play. Disarming them is the only way to obtain without delay the heavy artillery so urgently needed by the armies.’

At the fortress of Verdun, Dubail ordered the immediate redeployment of forty-three heavy batteries and eleven siege batteries. The forts lost all their movable artillery, 237 pieces, leaving just the guns installed in the turrets. A total of 647 tons of ammunition was also removed, greatly reducing the stocks available. The local commander, General Michel Coutanceau, denounced the decision – but to no avail. On 10 August Coutanceau was sacked and Verdun downgraded from ‘fortress’ to ‘fortified region’, the region Fortifiee de Verdun (RFV). Its garrison – four infantry regiments, two chasseur battalions and a handful of artillery batteries, all raised from older reservists – became an element of XXX Corps, while responsibility for the sector was transferred from Dubail’s Eastern Army Group to Central Army Group under General Fernand de Langle de Cary.

The new commander of the RFV was General Frederic Herr. This former artilleryman immediately recognized the vulnerability of his new sector, lying as it did in a salient, surrounded by hills, in a valley liable to flooding, with poor rail and road links to the rest of France. And he was right to be concerned, for the Germans too had their eyes on Verdun. Convinced that the bloody failures of 1915 had fatally undermined French morale, the German commander-in-chief General Erich von Falkenhayn was planning to end the war on the western front with a single decisive blow. What he envisaged was not a breakthrough but a break-in, designed to capture high ground and force the French to counter-attack over a zone dominated by his guns – and the Verdun salient seemed the ideal place to implement his plans. His troops would launch a short, sharp attack on the right bank of the Meuse, seizing the ridges north-east of the city as far south as the Ouvrage de Froideterre–Fort Souville Fort Tavannes line, and forcing the French to exhaust their reserves of men, materiel and morale in a series of costly, ineffective assaults. France would be compelled to sue for peace, obliging Britain in its turn to withdraw from mainland Europe, and leaving Germany free to concentrate all its resources against Russia in the east.

Herr immediately set to work reinforcing his defences, creating extra positions behind the main front lines on the ridges north of the city. However, his work failed to impress the commander of VII Corps, General Georges de Bazelaire: ‘He handed me an artillery plan marked with innumerable concentric zones in green, yellow, violet, red and blue. It seemed fine on paper, but it was all show, just ideas. None of it actually existed on the ground.’ After the war, commanders hastened to justify their action, or inaction, prior to the German assault. In this ‘Battle of the Memoirs’, de Langle de Cary blamed his predecessor for his previous neglect of the sector: ‘how could I, over a few winter days, in rain and snow, make up for fifteen months of inaction?’ But Dubail was having none of it: ‘In the immediate aftermath of an all-out attack of the unprecedented scale and violence of that unleashed north of Verdun, the quality of the opposing defensive arrangements is irrelevant. I would even venture to say that the abris serve only to gather future prisoners in one place.’

In late 1915 French aerial reconnaissance missions began to notice an increase in railway traffic along the Meuse, as did French agents behind enemy lines. German deserters were also talking about a forthcoming offensive in the region. At General Headquarters (GQG) in Chantilly, the Intelligence Section duly recorded the information, but the operations Section remained sceptical, arguing that Artois or Champagne were also possible targets. Joffre was equally reluctant to believe the reports: he could see no strategic value in the capture of Verdun and, besides, his attention was elsewhere – focused on planning his summer offensive on the Somme. As in 1914, the commander-in-chief preferred to base his conclusions on his own strategic preconceptions rather than the evidence placed before him. GQG grudgingly alerted XX Corps (General Maurice Balfourier) to prepare to occupy a position between Bar-le-Duc and Souilly, south of Verdun, should the need arise. Then on 23 January more troops were finally despatched to defend the sector: VII Corps (General de Bazelaire), XXX Corps (General Paul Chretien) and II Corps (General Denis Duchene) would hold the front lines, supported by a Central Army Group reserve five divisions strong – I Corps (General Adolphe Guillaumat) and XX Corps (General Balfourier), each with two divisions, plus the greater part of 19th Division.

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General Joseph Joffre (1852–1931), commander-in-chief of the French army, is pictured at GeneralHeadquarters (GQG) in Chantilly, near Paris. An Engineers officer, Joffre rose to prominence after service in Indochina, West Africa and Madagascar. His unflappable temperament saw him through the worst days of the German advance into France in August 1914, and victory on the Marne that September sealed his renown. But the costly failures of 1915 soon tarnished his contemporary reputation, and his very imperturbability was later alleged to conceal a lack of real insight. The huge losses incurred at Verdun, and the subsequent failure of the Somme offensive to end the war, sealed his fate. He was sacked in December 1916 and replaced by General Robert Nivelle.

General Joseph Joffre (1852–1931), commander-in-chief of the French army, is pictured at GeneralHeadquarters (GQG) in Chantilly, near Paris. An Engineers officer, Joffre rose to prominence after service in Indochina, West Africa and Madagascar. His unflappable temperament saw him through the worst days of the German advance into France in August 1914, and victory on the Marne that September sealed his renown. But the costly failures of 1915 soon tarnished his contemporary reputation, and his very imperturbability was later alleged to conceal a lack of real insight. The huge losses incurred at Verdun, and the subsequent failure of the Somme offensive to end the war, sealed his fate. He was sacked in December 1916 and replaced by General Robert Nivelle.

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Fleury-devant-Douaumont, September 1915. General Coutanceau was not alone in opposing the decision to strip the Verdun forts of their guns. Politicians also voiced their disquiet, and in September members of the senate army committee arrived to inspect the city’s defences. Senators Charles Humbert, Jules Jeanneney and Henry Bérenger are pictured here, left to right, alongside General Yvon Dubail (1851–1934), commander of Eastern Army Group. Absent is a fourth member of the committee, future French president Paul Doumer. Joffre resented political ‘interference’ on principle and rarely allowed it to influence his conduct of the campaign.

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Fort Moulainville, January 1916. A working party sets out on a cold, damp winter morning. Situated east of the city, overlooking the plain of the Woëvre, Fort Moulainville was built in 1883, one of the second batch of forts to be constructed. Layers of reinforced concrete were added in 1905–9, and by August 1914 the fort was one of the most modern in the Verdun defences. It had room to house a garrison of 430 men, although on mobilization the actual complement was just over 300. The fort remained behind French lines throughout the battle but still within range of the German guns; it was hit by some 9,500 enemy shells.

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155mm gun turret, Fort Moulainville, January 1916. The 155mm turret was equipped with a shortened field gun with a range of 7,500m. By 1914 just five had been installed in the Verdun forts: two at Moulainville, and one each at Douaumont, Rozelier and Vacherauville. Despite temporary damage to its mechanism from a number of direct hits, this Moulainville turret fired 5,833 rounds during the battle.

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75mm gun turret, Fort Moulainville, January 1916. Fourteen of these twin-gun turrets had been installed in the Verdun forts by 1914, housing heavily modified field guns capable of firing twenty to twenty-two rounds a minute at a range exceeding 4,600m. As a result of the modifications, the 75s were no longer usable in the field and were left in the turrets when the rest of the guns were removed in 1915. To the left is the cupola of an armoured observation post; to the rear, an open command post. Although damaged by a German 420mm on 6 September 1916, the twin 75s of the Moulainville turret fired almost 11,800 rounds during the battle.

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Command post, Fort Moulainville, January 1916. Heavily camouflaged under a layer of canvas and wattle, the post is equipped with a number of powerful telescopes. Among the group pictured here is a naval officer – the Verdun defences included several heavy artillery pieces crewed by sailors.

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A visual signalling post, Côte 344, August 1915. Côte 344 lay on the right bank of the Meuse, beyond the outer line of forts north-east of the city, towards the Bois des Caures. Visual signalling worked by concentrating natural light, or the light of an acetylene lamp, into a tight beam. Many forts and posts used it as a back-up to voice and telegraph lines, often laid overground and thus liable to disruption. But in the smoke and fumes of battle visual signalling was no more reliable than fixed lines.

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A meal break in the streets of Béthincourt. On the right, a caricature of the French commander-in-chief General Joseph Joffre figures prominently among the graffitidecorating the wall. ‘I imagine some future archaeologist … will write a voluminous monograph proving that these artworks date from the Stone Age, a period when mankind was not yet civilized and barbarism reigned,’ wrote Charles Nordmann, a gunner with 5th Artillery. ‘In fact they date from the Barracks Age, although regarding his second point the archaeologist will not be completely mistaken.’

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Ornes, August 1915. The right-bank village of Ornes lay beyond the outer fortification line, north-east of Verdun. Many communities outside the defensive ring had only rudimentary defences: in Ornes, for example, these comprised little more than a loopholed wall across the main street. The wall displays a poignant advertisement for Denaiffe seed corn; the village was completely destroyed in the fighting and its fields would never safely bear crops again. In 1913 Ornes numbered 718 inhabitants; today just the walls of the church remain.

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Vaux, January 1916. Vaux also lay beyond the outer fortification line, north-east of Verdun. The village occupied a key location at the junction of several valleys leading deep into the French positions. Here, the road entering the village from the east is barred only by a fence and some chevaux-de-frise. Fort Vaux is off to the left, while Fort Douaumont lies on the summit of the hill behind. Like Ornes, Vaux was one of nine villages completely destroyed in the fighting and later declared morts pour la France (died for France). The others were Beaumont, Bezonvaux, Cumières, Douaumont, Fleury, Haumont and Louvemont. Only Vaux was subsequently rebuilt. In 1913 the village had 287 inhabitants; today its population numbers just 70.

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Côte 304, January 1916. Côte 304 was a hill on the left bank of the Meuse, beyond the outer fortification line and west of the prominent Côte d’Oïe–Mort Homme ridge. While Joffre regarded the potential loss of Verdun with equanimity, General Herr was anxious to strengthen his defences wherever possible. Here men dig a last-minute shelter trench in front of an existing dug-out already well reinforced with turf and logs.

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RFV Headquarters, Dugny, 31 December 1915. A German-speaking officer with the olive-branch badge of an interpreter on his collar interrogates a prisoner of Polish extraction. (Interpreters attached to the British and American forces wore a different badge, that of a sphinx). The intelligence provided by German prisoners was largely discounted by the French high command. The bearded man (standing, centre) is Lieutenant Louis Madelin (1871–1956). Madelin, a member of 44th Territorials, seconded to the staff, later became one of the first historians of the battle.

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Fort Belleville, 4 January 1916. Hampered by dreadful winter weather, French reconnaissance squadrons failed to spot conclusive evidence of the German build-up. Captain Maxime Delafond (1879–1956), the CO of C18, is pictured (right) with his observer, Lieutenant Boinvillers, beside their Caudron G3 at the landing ground at Fort Belleville. During the battle, C18 was among the squadrons attached to XXX Corps. It flew a mixture of Caudron machines: the G3, by then fit only for use as a trainer, and the G4.

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The weather also grounded the French observation balloons. Here a Type H balloon, a French copy of the German Drachen, ascends at Jouy-en-Argonne during the summer of 1915. Launching a captive balloon was a complicated affair. Each balloon had to be inflated, then ‘walked’ to its launch point by the ground crew: ‘Supported 3 or 4 metres off the ground by teams of territorials, the big yellow cylinder – 26m x 7m – makes slow progress, crumpled, bloated, restrained by its ten tow ropes. Below hangs the rudder, limp and ridiculous. At the captain’s chosen launch point, a long armoured vehicle, heavy, low slung and full of machinery, waits to unwind the tough, thin cable attached to the balloon.’

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Lieutenant Marie Ferdinand Gabriel Le Ber (sitting, left) of 74th Infantry was born in Rouen, 1880. he studied law before the war. By the time war broke out, he was a lawyer in Paris, specialising in criminal cases. He passed from the regulars, to the reserves and to the territorials.

On the outbreak of war, he rejoined his regiment, but was immediately detached to serve as an interpreter with 4th Division of the British Expeditionary Force. On 23 November 1914, he was promoted to the equivalent of a warrant officer, and made interpreter on the staff of 11th Brigade of 4th Division. He was commissioned in November 1915 and returned to duty with the French Army. He rejoined 74th Infantry (his home town regiment) on 14 March 1916. He was killed on 22 May in the attempt to retake Fort Douaumont. He has no known grave and was described as 'an officer of great bravery, who always set the best example to his men.'

This photo was taken just weeks before he was killed.

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Fort Belleville, January 1916. An officer ‘observes’ the fall of shot through a trench periscope while training on a 240mm trench mortar. Although the 1915-pattern 240CT was the only French weapon capable of approaching the performance of the German minenwerfer, its size made it awkward to manoeuvre in a trench, leading to its replacement in 1917 by a longer-range version that could be sited further from the front lines. Belleville was one of the first forts to be constructed and lay behind French lines throughout the battle. When the Germans attacked in February 1916, it had been stripped of its armament and functioned only as a local command post.

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Béthincourt, July 1915. A soldier grabs a quiet moment to write home. He is wearing a képi instead of the new Adrian helmet and is not wearing puttees, reflecting the relative calm of the sector over that summer, as front-line units had priority for both items of uniform. Letters were vital to maintaining morale among the troops: ‘I’ll be happy with a line, a word, an envelope with nothing inside, but write often,’ begged one soldier. Béthincourt lay on the left bank of the Meuse, beyond the outer fortifications but just inside the front line. Already badly damaged in 1915, it was captured by the Germans on 8 April 1916 and completely destroyed in the subsequent fighting. By 1921 its pre-war population of 384 had fallen to just 51, and the modern village is just a scattering of houses.

Further Reading


French Army at Verdun
(Paperback - 121 pages)
ISBN: 9781473856158

by Ian Sumner
Only £14.99

In four and a half years of fighting on the Western Front during the First World War a few battles stand out from the rest. They had a decisive impact on the course of the conflict, and they still define the war for us today. For the French, the Battle of Verdun, fought between February and December 1916, was one of the greatest of these.
That is why the selection of contemporary photographs Ian Sumner has brought together for this volume in the Images of War series is…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Of further interest...