Fort Douaumont


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Ninety-seven years ago today, on 25 February, 1916, a company-sized patrol of the 24th Brandenbergers of the German 6th Infantry Division captured Fort Douaumont, the strongest of the Verdun forts.  Fort Douaumont sat atop the dominant high ground in the sector of the Western Front that German Chief of Staff Falkenhayn had chosen for an offensive which he rightly anticipated the French to respond to aggressively.   Just four days into the German offensive, the most important objective had been secured.  The French would endure an especially ghastly kind of hell in retaking it.

Verdun carried great national significance for the French, being the last of the fortifications to hold out in 1871, and had been reinforced throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  But with the destruction of the Belgian forts in 1914 by the German 42cm super-heavy gun-mortars, it was estimated by the French High Command that the Verdun forts were vulnerable to such bombardment.  The decision was made to strip these fortifications of most of their defensive cannon and a large number of machine guns, which were distributed in support of the French sectors elsewhere on the Western Front.

So when the Verdun offensive began on 21 February 1916, the fortifications there were skeletons of their true capabilities, and the initial German push by Kronprinz Wilhelm’s Fifth Army captured some 25 square miles, including Fort Douaumont, in the initial four days.

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Falkenhayn knew the French would fight for Verdun, and justified his offensive in these terms:

“Our precise problem is how to inflict heavy damage on the enemy at critical points at relatively small cost to ourselves.  But we must not overlook the fact that previous experience of mass attacks in this war offers little inducement to imitate them.”

He would induce the French Army into the killing fields, and “bleed them white”.

The study of the First World War, especially examination of the Western Front, is for me a most difficult task.   The quest to understand what the Great War did physically and emotionally to Western civilization has been a lifelong one.  As a student of military history (which I do fancy myself), the conduct of the war on the Western Front by the respective high commands fills me with a seething anger and revulsion.

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Especially at Verdun, one of the two great bloodbaths of that most terrible year of 1916 (the other being Picardy and the Somme madness under Haig),  those whose duty it was to provide a tactical and operational purpose to the expenditure of lives abjectly failed to do so.   Falkenhayn, with his ill-considered plan whose cost was supposed to be “relatively small”, and the criminal stupidity of Joffre, and Nivelle, who replaced the much more sensible Petain, and the arrogant and stubborn Mangin (nicknamed “the Butcher” by his men), all played their respective and reprehensible parts in the appalling losses at Verdun.

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Douaumont was not recaptured again until October, and the line not restored entirely until December 1916, by which time Falkenhayn had been replaced by Hindenburg, and Joffre by Robert Nivelle.  The latter was an exceedingly unfortunate choice.  The French High Command’s indifference to the terrible conditions and calamitous casualties at Verdun was a direct cause of the mutinies in the French Armies in May of 1917, when Nivelle’s disastrous offensives (enthusiastically supported by Mangin) spent the remainder of the flower of French youth against the teeth of German defenses.

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When the fighting in the Verdun sector petered out in late 1916, more than 300,000 French Poilus lay dead, and an equal number had been wounded.  German casualties totaled almost 450,000, of which almost 200,000 had been killed.   More than a million men, including half a million dead, for 75 square miles of shell-pocked wasteland, an area not much larger than the City of Boston.   The effects of the slaughter on the psyche of Western Democracies is still being felt.

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I have visited a small number of Great War battlefields, Vimy Ridge and the trench lines in Flanders.   Unlike the battlefields of the American Civil War, or World War II, there is little of the palpable feeling of reverence for the skill and heroism which accompanied the feats of arms there.  Rather, the overwhelming emotion is one of oppressive sadness and melancholy, much more similar to that which seems to permeate Dachau.   Though I have not been to Verdun, I strongly suspect that the young men on both sides whose lives were thrown away there would make it so, as well.  The profligate effusion of blood, especially on the part of the Allies, and the French at Verdun, is a crime for which the sentence is still being served.

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “Fort Douaumont

  1. I was able to visit Verdun five years ago and was staggered by the fact that 90-plus years after the war, the entire countryside was still dotted with craters from shells. Trees and greenery had grown up, but shellmarks were evident throughout. It was indeed a somber place.

  2. One reason I don’t write about the First World War is that it is so depressing.

  3. Esli

    I’ve visited a lot of battlefields (just ask HH6), but none brought home the true cost of war like Verdun. The craters, mentioned above, are so prevalent that you can walk from one to the next without coming above ground as they overlap each other. The ossuary, a repository for well over 100k unidentified dead, is incredibly intense. A must-see trip for any leader, whether political or military, in my opinion.

  4. David Navarre

    The trouble is that without understanding the First World War, there is absolutely no way to forgive the collapse of the French Army in 1940. One book I read on 1940 related how whenever the author (a Brit) arrived at a French headquarters during the collapse and breakthrough that the French officers were in tears. It’s incomprehensible how professionals could react (or seem to react) that way unless seen through the lens of Verdun and other costly “victories”.

    There were many other factors involved in 1940, but that is the most striking and difficult to understand.

    • ultimaratioregis

      Dave, was that Horne’s “To Lose a Battle”?

    • David Navarre

      Julian Jackson’s “The Fall of France” is the one in my library. It only spares but two sentences for the cavalry cadets holding out against the 1st Panzer Division for two days at Saumur right before the surrender, when it was “for honour alone”.

    • Horne’s To Lose a Battle was excellent for explaining the collapse of France. A very solid read.

  5. It’s ugly to read about. And then infuriating when you dig deeper and see that there were people who started to get what was going on, only to see them marginalized or have their ideas used in ways that ensured their failure.

  6. WW1 is often called a family spat, and that’s not far wrong. Most of the crowned heads involved were related to Queen Victoria. The Austrian reaction to Sarajevo was understandable. The Brits and Frogs, though, were stupid to get involved, as was Russia. Western Civilization began it’s death throes in Sarajevo and the price still has not run its course, nor will it even in the lives of my grandkids.

    I never got to any of the WW1 battle sites. We did stop at Dachau on the way back from Chiemsee (which is now in private hands and is becoming a Sanitarium, as I understand).

    • LT Rusty

      The Russians were the ones that started the whole thing off. If they’d just kept their noses out of a purely internal Austro-Hungarian affair, WWI would not have happened. The Russians’ fit of Pan-Slavic brotherhood was what caused the problems.

  7. ultimaratioregis

    @Rusty,

    Egged on by the French, especially Poincare, who promised French support and encouraged Russian mobilization, even though he knew it meant war. Revanche, and the return of the provinces, motivated France to risk conflagration of all Europe.

    Interestingly, the last of the continental powers to order mobilization was Germany. And the only two powers who inserted forgeries of diplomatic cables and documents into their official Foreign Ministry records were France and Russia.

    • Rusty has forgotten about Germany’s active instigation of hostilities, to the point where the German foreign minister lied to his own government, as well as others.
      Germany couldn’t wait to finish off France, while the froggies had been dying for payback since 1871. Russia only mobilized early because it took them so damn long to get anything accomplished. Add to that the conventional wisdom of the day that “mobilization meant war,” and it got real ugly real fast. But that was the Russians fault. :-/ Doesn’t matter that France & Germany, Austria & Serbia were dying to go at it in any case.
      Once of the things which has struck me was the parallel between certain elements of then-conventional wisdom and certain unchallenged claims in our own time. Back then it was widely thought that the workers of the world (Socialists especially) would band together against their own states, preventing war. Another chestnut was the belief that modern industrialization would prevent war, because it would destroy the international economy. The third was the above-mentioned shibboleth about industrialization.
      So. War was impossible, then became inescapable. God forbid someone actually think about the issue.

    • David Navarre

      Spot on!

  8. I was just watching a documentary about the day the Armistice was signed. It was signed at 0500 Paris time, to go into effect at 1100 Paris time. Despite knowing that there was nothing to be gained fighting for those six hours, that the Germans would be withdrawing and that soon the Allies could safely walk onto contested ground in a matter of hours, planned ops continued or not depending on how each command interpreted those six damned hours. Men were needlessly slaughtered when the war was already over. One more effed up thing about the whole depressing conflict.

  9. ultimaratioregis

    @Casey,

    The German diplomats and the Kaiser himself didn’t help things. But it was France and Russia whose aims could only be achieved by war. Wilhelmine Germany did not cause the war, in fact, I would posit that Bethmann-Hollweg and the Kaiser both realized sooner than most what was unfolding, and tried somewhat desperately to head it off. Certainly, they showed more of a proclivity to do so than did Grey or Sazonov, and certainly more than Poincare, whose unrecorded machinations in July in St Petersburg were almost certainly a plan for war, rather than to prevent it.

    Plenty of guilt to go around, and Germany is not blameless. But nor is she the cause of the war. The diplomats knew it then but wished to attach culpability to the defeated, with catastrophic consequences.

    • Bethmann-Hollweg and his Kaiser may have tried to head things off, but that begs the question as to why they initiated hostilities against France, and they did so by invading neutral Belgium.
      If memory serves, Bethmann-Hollweg was -according to Tuchman’s Guns of August- one of the prime movers in starting the war, even to the extent of decieving Wilhelm.
      On the other hand, I do not claim Germany was “the” cause of the war; I thought I made it clear in the previous post several countries were eager for war, including France herself. She couldn’t wait for another shot at Germany.
      I will say that I don’t believe Tsar Nicolas II had specific war aims. Rather say he was naive enough to get Russia tangled up in France’s fight with Germany. He declared war in faith with a poorly-thought-out alliance which did his country no good.
      If I may, let me lay out my abbreviated “Cliff Notes” version of how the war got started: Austria wanted to settle Serbia’s hash. Germany supported this, while laying plans to finally finishing off Germany. France meanwhile spent forty years getting ready for “round 2″ against Germany, while recruiting allies, which included a rather distant England and a very useless Russia.
      Earl Grey was famous for spending a long time saying nothing, and he did it so well that the Germans were convinced the UK wouldn’t intervene, while the French were sure they would. That’s not to mention their distraction in Ireland.
      Along with all that, fold in the fact that 98% of Europe hadn’t seen the face of war since Napoleon. Most of the silly sods saw it as some sort of grand adventure.
      So the assassination set off a macabre fuse which started with Austrian demands that violated Serbian sovereignty, to which the Serbs replied with an unjustified stubbornness. Germany egged Austria on, while France encouraged Serbia and eyed Germany. Russia stood by their brother Slavs, and considered mobilization, since it took them forever to get anything done. B-H spent a lot of time trying to enable the war, (apparently) expecting it to be localized in Austria-Serbia. France looked eagerly to regaining Alsace-Lorraine, and England tried to get everyone to sit down around yet another conference table.
      Austria delivered an ultimatum, Serbia replied “piss off,” upon which Serbia mobilized, along with Austria. Germany began mobilization in support of Austria, and Russia started mobilization just to support France, which caused Germany to initiate full mobilization (I’ve frankly forgotten France’s role at this point without looking it up), and when the shooting started down in Serbia Germany took the opportunity to invade Belgium because it was the easiest route to France. Yet we may not hold France blameless, as they planned to invade Germany at their earliest convenience, once war started.
      The invasion of Belgium brought in England, and away went the dominoes….
      I agree with your main point that there’s more than enough blame to go around, and things were no doubt aggravated by that noxious clause in the Versailles Treaty assigning “sole and total guilt” to Germany.
      Other books to recommend: Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, along with Guns of August, is a fine introduction to the massive changes wrought in Europe of the time. One might also look for William Shirer’s The Collapse of the Third Republic, which while useful demonstrates to my mind an excessively liberal/francophone point of view.

  10. ultimaratioregis

    “The Fall of France”. Got it. I will find it someplace and get it onto my bookshelf!

  11. obsidian53

    From a French Hillside to a Fort to an abattoir, finally a memorial with it’s own Ossary which is housed inside a large building. Quite a trip.
    Has anyone seen the line of bayonets from the collapse of a French trench which buried the Poilus still standing against the trench wall.
    Only their bayonets were left sticking out of the ground, that said it all to me about World War one’s horrors.