Verdun 1916

Posted on Wednesday 3rd February 2016

Verdun 1916: Fort Douaumont
By Christina Holstein
This article was extracted from Fort Douaumont – Verdun and is reproduced here by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.

On 13 July 1936, 15,000 veterans of the First World War gathered in front of the Douaumont Ossuary at Verdun to swear an oath of peace and to observe one minute’s silence. Among the 500 strong German delegation was former Oberleutnant Cordt von Brandis, one of two officers who had been awarded the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest decoration, following the capture of Fort Douaumont on 25 February 1916.
A visitor only has to walk up on to the shell torn top of the fort to start to see why it is different. At 395 metres above sea level, Fort Douaumont is the highest point on the battlefield of Verdun and from its summit one can easily see why it was placed there. It dominates everything. All around, it offers wide views of the sort commanders dream of and which are not found elsewhere within a radius of fifteen miles. In 1914 twenty eight major and intermediary forts formed a double ring around the city of Verdun but it was Fort Douaumont which was the cornerstone of the system. Repeatedly modernized from 1887 onwards, strengthened with a thick layer of special concrete and heavily armed, it was, in General Pétain’s words, ‘the key to the battlefield’. The Germans could hardly believe their luck when on 25 February 1916, four days into the Battle of Verdun, it fell almost undefended into their hands.

The Crown Prince of Germany wrote in his memoirs that when the fort was captured, the Germans were ‘within a stone’s throw of victory’. But he had no reserves with which to follow up the early successes and the crucial moment passed. As the months ground on without significant success on either side, Fort Douaumont became the heart of the battle. For each side, the desire to keep it or to recapture it became itself the reason to go on fighting. One French historian of the battle states that the loss of Fort Douaumont cost the French over 100,000 casualties. How many lives would have been saved on both sides if, when the battle began, it had been properly garrisoned and armed?

Aerial view of Fort Douaumont and surroundings, April 1916
During the months that followed its fall and despite a bombardment of unprecedented length and ferocity, the fort did – for the Germans, at least – what it was supposed to do; it formed a strongpoint and a centre of resistance. Its concrete carapace was laid bare by the furious bombardment but it held. Despite poor ventilation, primitive hygiene, a major explosion and several fires the fort continued to offer shelter, food, rest and basic medical facilities to thousands of men. While life inside was not comfortable, it was better than the indescribable horror in the belt of fire that surrounded it. Once recaptured on 24 October 1916, Fort Douaumont was repaired and finally used for its intended purpose: to support the French infantry in their efforts to drive the Germans back.

The role of Fort Douaumont did not come to an end with its recapture in October 1916, nor even with the Armistice in 1918. The fort taught the French two lessons: first, that forts alone could not stop the enemy but, second, that they increased the means of resistance of troops who knew how to make use of them. After the war, French military engineers studied the strengths and weaknesses of Fort Douaumont and used their findings in the design of the Maginot Line. As a result, during the 1920s and 1930s, France once again put her faith in the defensive capabilities of steel and concrete. But by the time war came again, close co-operation between aircraft and swiftly moving armoured fighting vehicles had swung the pendulum back in favour of the offensive.

The barrack room inside Fort Douaumont, where German soldiers take some rest
From most parts of the battlefield, Fort Douaumont is today hidden from view by a thick forest which largely hides the scars of battle. A visitor approaching along the road from the Ossuary passes a couple of battered infantry shelters and a trench or two but nothing in the silent landscape really prepares him for the sight of the fort itself. A quarter of a mile across, its top a mass of shell holes, its deep ditch heavily overgrown, picket posts and iron bars still protruding here and there, Fort Douaumont is a huge, defiant mass. It is not just a monument to military engineering. It is a monument to human courage and endurance under conditions of unimaginable privation, squalor and fear.

In 1925 the Douaumont volume of the German narrative history of the war, Schlachten des Weltkrieges, was published in Berlin. The final line of the flowing text says quite simply Dieser Berg ist uns Schicksal geworden: This hill became our fate. The line applies as much to the French as to the Germans. In fact, since Fort Douaumont was the inspiration for the Maginot Line, one can say that, in a sense, it became the fate of very many more people, on both sides, in a later war whose coming was as unimaginable in 1918 as the horror of Verdun is for us today.

The Battle of Verdun was characterized by an intense ten-month bombardment that turned the battlefield into a sea of mud. Trenches, shelters, batteries and communications were annihilated, yet Fort Douaumont survived. After the war was over, it was calculated that the fort had been battered by a minimum of 120,000 shells, of which at least 2000 were of a calibre greater than 270mm. Only the French 400mm and German 420mm shells succeeded in piercing the concrete carapace. Even though the stone-built façade of the barracks was demolished, the lower floor remained habitable throughout the battle. After the war, French military engineers studied the strengths and weaknesses of Fort Douaumont and used their findings in the design of a new chain of concrete-covered underground forts that was specifically designed to prevent the Germans from ever again invading France from the east. This was the Maginot Line.

French machine guns prevented German attempts to break out of the Fort
Not all those who had been involved in the battles of 1916 lived to see the construction of the Maginot Line. Hauptmann Kalau von Hofe – the only commandant of the fort to be decorated with the Pour le Mérite for his part in retaining it in German hands – was killed on the Chemin des Dames in April 1917. Sergeant Wiedenhus disappeared in Caillette Wood on 13 May 1916. Hauptmann Soltau was killed in a tank battle at Cambrai in 1917. Commandant Nicolay died of wounds received at Louvemont in the French offensive of December 1916 and General Mangin died suddenly in Paris in 1925 amid unconfirmed rumours that he was poisoned. Of those who did witness its construction, General Pétain wasfated to arrange an armistice with the Germans in June 1940. Hauptmann Prollius was killed in a bombing raid over Hanover in 1942 and Haupt died in Berlin in 1944, having risen to the rank of General major. Brandis and Radtke both lived to see the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Verdun, but only Brandis was invited to meet General de Gaulle at the official ceremonies in Paris. To the end of his life, Radtke never received general recognition for his part in the capture of Fort Douaumont.

Jump-off trench in the Douaumont sector
In August 1914, André Maginot, after whom the new fortress line was named, was a Member of Parliament for Bar-le-Duc. Immediately volunteering for service – despite parliamentary immunity – Maginot took the train to Verdun to join his regiment, the 44th Territorial Infantry, part of which formed the garrison of Fort Douaumont. A few days later the newly mobilized Territorials made camp in a clearing close to the country road from Douaumont village to Bezonvaux, little dreaming that in February 1916 the same road would be crossed by Radtke, Haupt and Brandis on their way to the fort. The Territorials were a cheerful group and Maginot’s memoir of patrols and ambushes among the villages below the fort is high-spirited and carefree. Between Maginot and his comrades going blithely to war in the blue jackets and red trousers of the French army of 1914, and the filthy and exhausted men on both sides who fought so tenaciously for Fort Douaumont throughout 1916, there were two years of a type of warfare that no one could have imagined: from its horrors there was no escape. For those men the best epitaph comes in the words of a German author of a later generation: Wieder einmal haben Männer Geschichte gemacht.

Once again, men have made history.
"Once again, men have made history"
As a result of France's defeat during the Franco-Prussian war in the nineteenth century, Germany acquired many of the eastern fortresses of France. Verdun, situated only forty kilometres from the new border, found itself a vital stronghold and the first line of defence against a German invasion. As Verdun's seventeenth century fortifications were inadequate to meet the demands of its new strategic role, a plan was drawn up for modern forts to be constructed on both sides of the River Meuse.

Fort Douaumont, an immense polygonal-shaped structure, was the first of the Verdun forts to be modernised in 1887. Measuring almost 300 metres from north to south and 400 metres from east to west, it was built of dressed limestone blocks that were one and a half metres thick and covered by three to five metres of earth. Surrounding the fort was a wide, dry ditch roughly six metres deep which was crossed by a drawbridge. The artillery was mounted on a parapet in the open air. Two barrack blocks provided accommodation on two floors for almost 900 officers and men.

During modernisation, the masonry was strengthened with pillars and concrete supports before being covered by a buffer of sand approximately one metre thick, and a thick layer of concrete was poured on top of this. All in all, between April 1887 and November 1888, the work of strengthening Fort Douaumont required approximately 28,000 cubic metres of concrete. Earth was banked up around the lower floor of the fort to protect it further, and the scarp wall was replaced by a sloping earth bank to make it less vulnerable to bombardment.

The first protected guns were installed in the fort in 1902-1903 in a new type of strong concrete bunker known as the Bourges Casemate. Between 1902 and 1913, further armament for the fort was provided and Fort Douaumont was turned into a modern, armoured fort of enormous strength.

View from a German trench with Fort Douamont in the background

Further Reading

Fort Douaumont - Verdun
(Paperback - 192 pages)
ISBN: 9781848843455

by Christina Holstein
Only £12.99

This fully revised second edition of Christina Holstein's acclaimed Battleground guide to Fort Douaumont will be essential reading for students of the Battle of Verdun, for visitors to the battlefield, and for anyone who is interested in the history of twentieth-century fortifications.

The battle, which lasted from 21 February to 15 December 1916, was a turning point in the First World War, and Fort Douaumont was at the heart of it. In 1914 the fort was the strongest and most modern of the fortifications around Verdun…
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