Before Action

William_Noel_Hodgson_(For_Remembrance)_cropped_and_retouched

Edward Noel Hodgson was a young man, like so many of his generation, of exceptional ability who died in France during WW1. He was educated at Durham and Christ Church,Oxford. There he gained a first class degree in Classics. Though he wanted to stay on and read Greats, on the outbreak of war, he joined up. He was posted to the Devonshire Regiment. He joined the 9th Battalion at Festubert in July 1915 and took part in the Battle of Loos in September of that year. He was Mentioned in Dispatches and was awarded the MC for holding a captured trench without reinforcement for 36 hours.

February 1916 found the battalion at Fricourt and in April it moved to trenches opposite to the town of Mametz. The British offensive to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun had been scheduled for August 1916. After considerable persuasion from Gen Joffre, Gen Haig agreed to bring it forward to 29th June. The week long artillery bombardment had already began when, on 28th June, H hour was delayed until 1st July, due to bad weather.

On that 29th June, Hodgson wrote this beautiful prayer poem. It reveals that he knew the following day was likely to be his last. It serves as a fine epitaph.

By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, O Lord.

By all of all man’s hopes and fears
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.

The battalions of the Devonshires lost heavily that day, but succeeded in capturing Mametz. After the battle they collected their dead and buried them in the trench from which the attack had been launched. A wooden cross was erected on which was carved,

“The Devonshires held this trench. They hold it still.”

That inscription was transferred onto the CWGC headstone that replaced it.

A Royal Sussex Hero

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Anson Lloyd Silvester was 26 when war broke out in August 1914. Having read History at Jesus College Oxford and been a member of the Officers’ Training Corps, in 1913 he had received a commission in the Royal Sussex Regiment. He joined his Regiment in Dover. After training, he was shipped over to France with seven other officers and 124 men.

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Troyon nestles in wooded valley to left. La Sucrerie at Cerny is where road on right meets horizon.

They joined the 2nd Battalion on the 8th October in the front line just north of the River Aisne. The battalion HQ was in a tiny hamlet called Troyon just below the Chemin des Dames. He took command of 9th Platoon of C Company with Sergeant W Smethurst as his Platoon Sergeant.

This part of the line was not very active although company level attacks by the Germans and daily exchanges of artillery fire made it dangerous enough. It was a good time to get to know his men and to begin becoming accustomed to life in the field.

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The sidings at Fismes.

On the 15th October, the Brigade was relieved by French troops and was withdrawn as part of the overall repositioning of the British Expeditionary Force further north to the area of Ypres. He embarked with his battalion at Fismes after a night march for 15 miles across the steep ridges south of the River Aisne. The journey by train took over three days, and they eventually reached Cassel at 3.00am on the 19th October and marched into the town where they were billeted.

At 5.00am on 20th October, the Brigade began a route march into Belgium. As they marched they could hear heavy artillery fire, a sound that was to become a familiar accompaniment to their lives. They billeted in Elverdinghe and then Boesinghe, where they remained for four days. On 23rd October, the new Commanding Officer, Lt Col Crispin, arrived from India and took over command. Two days later, the battalion moved off again on a route march to Ypres which they reached three hours later and found billets. On the morning of 26th October, the battalion moved east of Ypres and formed a bivouac in the area of Haalte. Although fighting could be heard, the Brigade was not involved as it was being held in reserve. The next day, another tentative advance of several kilometres took them into the wood belonging to Herenthage Chateau, which became known as Chateau Wood.

On 28th October the battalion again advanced a couple of kilometres crossing the Menin Road and taking up a position in Polygon Wood. They encountered a bit of desultory shelling that killed two officers’ horses and one man. The battalion diary also records that Sgt Burgess was knocked off his horse, though not injured, bringing up supplies of ammunition and three men were wounded. The following day the Brigade withdrew to their old positions in Chateau Wood and the troops learned that a big German assault was expected the following morning on Gheluvelt. Shelling began in earnest at 10.00am and seemed to them to focus on Chateau Wood.

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The field over which the battalion marched and in which Lt Col Crispin was killed. Chateau Wood is at rear.

The battalion was ordered to move round to the south towards Zandevoorde. As they set off across fields to the west of Chateau Wood, Col Crispin was killed by an artillery shell that exploded close by. His horse was terrified and galloped off towards Hooge. The battalion continued under the command of Major Green, the second-in-command and took up a position on the eastern edge of what became known as Sanctuary Wood. Over the next two days, the battalion defended various positions around the wood during which time, unknown to them, the most brutal assault was being mounted on Gheluvelt, to their east, and Zandevoorde, to their south. During the fights on 30th and 31st October the battalion lost 5 officers killed and 394 men, killed, wounded or missing.

By the 3rd November, miraculously, Gheluvelt had been held and the sector began to quieten. The battalion was deployed in another wood and, as some of the men had not had water or food for 48 hours, the focus was on administration. With some sense of irony, the battalion received heavy shelling on the 5th November although there was no attack. On 9th November, the battalion was relieved by the London Scottish and moved off to a bivouac at Hooge. For the next nine days, there was almost constant shelling and many low level attacks which, though critical on the 9th, were all held.

On 15th November, 1st Division, of which 2nd Brigade and the battalion was a part, were ordered out of the line. Six days later, in a blizzard, they arrived in Hazebrouck where they received one officer and 86 men as reinforcements. The good news was that officers were permitted 96 hours leave. ALS spent the leave with his parents in Great Clacton, where his father was Rector. Returning on the 23rd, he joined the battalion on route march and rifle training. He may have been surprised two days later to receive a telegram from his mother asking whether he could get to Boulogne to meet her at the Hotel Bourgogne. History does not record whether he made it, although it is not inconceivable.

For the next two weeks the battalion remained out of the line. During this time Gen Sir John French visited to express his thanks for their efforts around Ypres at the end of October and HM The King visited and the battalion lined the streets. On 6th December three officers and 138 men joined the battalion as reinforcements. Training continued intensely until the 20th December when the battalion received orders to move south to Cambrin. Initially, the journey was made on buses, which must have been a novel experience as well as uncomfortable, as they were carrying all their tools and equipment. They continued the march on foot and between 21st and 23rd December taking part in a number of skirmishes during which one officer was killed, two wounded and 28 men killed, wounded or missing.

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The canal looking west towards Pont Fixe. Battalion was on right bank.

They reached Cambrin on 26th December and took up a position on the right of the British line. The battalion was immediately north of the La Bassée canal just south of Givenchy. The conditions for most of the battalion were appalling, living in shallow trenches half full of water. The 60th Rifles (KRRC) were slightly forward of the battalion to the south of the canal facing the Brickstacks. C Company had ceased to exist due to 90 men being hospitalised with ‘cold injuries’ and so one hundred men of the Northants had been sent to strengthen the battalion. One platoon was held in reserve. Lt Anson Silvester was commanding that platoon.

Brickstacks at Cuinchy

The Brickstacks 1917 from Robert Graves ‘Goodbye to all That’. They remained in German hands until 1918 providing excellent observation.

In the evening of 31st December, the Germans captured the observation position and machine gun post belonging to 60th Rifles forward on the south bank of the canal. A counter-attack to recapture it was planned for 10.30pm that night. B Company plus 9 Platoon (ALS) were detailed. They crossed the bridge to the south bank and patrolled east towards the position with 9 Platoon leading. The Germans had very good observation from the Brickstacks. When they were about 30m from the enemy, they came under heavy machine gun and rifle fire. Anson was hit immediately as were eleven of his twenty men. The fire was too heavy to continue and the troops withdrew. Later that night, another attack was launched by B Company reinforced by 3 companies of Scots Guards and two of Loyal North Lancs. It was successful, although the enemy subsequently mounted another successful counter-attack.

The situation remained static for several weeks and it was not until 11th January 1915, that Anson’s body was recovered. It was buried in the Communal Cemetery at Cuinchy, just behind where he fell. It is still there.

ALS

Anson Lloyd Silvester

So ended the short and gallant military career of this young man. An hour or so later, the year ended; the year in which the original British Expeditionary Force had ceased to exist and manoeuvre had become all but impossible. Armies were now locked in a struggle of attrition; of men against artillery and machine guns. Now was the turn of the civilian volunteer army. From now on, for the most part, the Germans would defend high ground, in depth. The British would have to attack.

Verdun Trenches

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The battlefields around Verdun are still criss-crossed by trenches. Communication trenches can be seen everywhere. They were essential to enable troops and supplies to be moved up to the front line. Casualties were moved back through them.

 

 

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Trench showing concrete rivetting.

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Trench showing concrete posts used to hold rivetting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the October offensive, many were improved. The ‘London Trench’ is an example. The sides were reinforced in 1917 with concrete slabs that were held in place by concrete posts. There is a stretch beside the road on the way to Fort Douaumont. However, it can be followed through the woods and seen at other places, unmaintained. It is striking that these have survived almost 100 years.

Lower picture illustrates design of following trenches.

Lower illustration shows principle of armoured shields.

Remaining firing plate showing shell damage and rifle port.

Only remaining armoured shield showing blast damage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Entrenchment showing hinges for armoured shields.

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Rifle slot in armoured shield, with bullet hole.

 

 

 

Before the war began, defensive positions had been prepared around the forts. These were of two different types. I do not know whether this reflected different philosophies or just that different companies had made them. The first example is from the defensive position south-west of Froideterre. It consists of a concrete wall with small partitions facing the enemy. On top of these were armoured steel plates that were raised into position and allowed two rifle positions behind each plate. There was no overhead protection clearly reflecting the idea that the position would be assaulted by infantry alone.

 

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Same trench showing partitions and overhead cover.

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Contemporary photo of French soldiers in trench.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second example is from Trench system X & Y.between Triaumont and Froideterre. It is facing west and so envisaging the same enemy approach. The structure is different. Gone are the armoured plates and they are replaced by 20cm of overhead protection that extends for about 70cm. Otherwise they are similar.

There is no sign of any dug-outs at either location, but they may well have existed and would have increased both protection and comfort.

Just one Final Push …..

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Memorial to the destroyed village of Fleury erected by the Touring Club of France in 1920.

An impasse had been reached on 24th June. German forces were unable to consolidate their gains. They were clinging on, unable to be reinforced, resupplied or relieved. Particularly around Fleury, trenches had been bombarded out of existence and soldiers lived, fought and died in shell holes, the only feature of the terrain. However, they were on forward slopes and every move could be observed and drew instant artillery fire.

However, from the perspective of 5th Army HQ, the nearness of the breakthrough on the 23rd was taunting. Crown Prince William was only notionally commander. His father, the Kaiser, had given him the command with the following instruction:

“I’ve entrusted to you command of the Fifth Army.  Lt. General Schmidt von Knobelsdorf will accompany you as chief of staff…what he tells you, you must do.”

Knobelsdorf (1860-1936)Knobelsdorf was Prussian, stubborn and dogged. He was convinced that his divisions were on the brink of the breakthrough that would capture Verdun and then be able to march triumphantly on Paris. His view was not shared by the Crown Prince or, as far as one can discern, Falkenhayn, the Chief of the General Staff. The omens were not good. Phosgene had lost its terror with the issue of new gas masks to the French; some of his artillery had already been withdrawn and sent to the Somme. His troops were exhausted and depleted and there were to be no fresh reinforcements.

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Remains of High Battery. Stone shelters for ammunition built in nineteenth century.

 

However, there had been some minor successes. Early on 3rd July, German 50th Division had captured the Damloups ‘High Battery’ by clever tactics and cunning. The battery was heavily fortified with concrete shelters that held over a company of infantry. They had repeatedly fought off German assaults but the Germans had gradually crept closer. During the night, the German troops started to bomb the battery with heavy mortars. As expected the French took cover and German infantry crept closer. At the appointed time, they fired the mortars with the fuses removed. Hearing the thuds, the defenders assumed they were duds. By the time they realised their mistake, German troops had captured the battery and its troops (Horne, 1993, p.296).

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Shell holed remains of Fleury. Crest of slope is line of road by memorial on right of picture showing forward slope position of village.

Then it started to rain. For three days the surviving troops from the Bavarian Lieb Regiment around Fleury lay in their sodden clothes, in waterlogged shell holes, among the dead and dying under intense French bombardment. They watched as German heavy artillery continued to shell Fort Souville and then at mid-night on the 10th, the Green Cross shelling started. Having learnt from their mistake of the 23rd, they continued to gas the artillery batteries until the troops started to advance at dawn. The French had also learnt from their experience and, having issued the new gas-masks, showed remarkable discipline. They waited until the troops were fully in the open before delivering withering fire from their massed guns. It was devastating.

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Entrance to Fort Souville.

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Dome of C19th twin 155mm guns on Fort Souville. Used more as command post than artillery piece.

German morale was faltering. The commanding officer of an already depleted battalion, tasked with the frontal assault on Souville reported that he could not continue to accept the consequences of attack and had ordered his men to dig in. By contrast, a Jager battalion had pushed south west from the ‘High Battery’ and captured 217th Regiment of Infantry; thirty three officers and 1,300 men had been captured or killed (ibid). By day’s end, 2,400 French prisoners had been taken.

A confused battle continued on the 12th. At one point, German troops were seen from their Division HQ waving the flag from the top of Fort Souville. Great excitement was followed by an artillery barrage south of the fort to keep French forces at bay. Yet, despite there being no French troops north of the Fort, neither were there any German troops able to exploit the success. Shortly, learning that there were Germans on the fort, a courageous young officer led out a fighting patrol and quickly rounded up the invaders. It turned out that they were a leaderless group who had moved onto the fort to escape their own shelling.

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Narrative plaque marking the ‘high-water’ mark of German advance, south of Fleury.

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The Wounded Lion monument. Between Fleury and Fort Souville, it marks the furthest advance of the Germans in the attacks of 11th & 12th July 1916.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That was the high-water mark. By the 14th French counter-attacks had pushed the German troops almost back to their July 10th starting line and the last gasp had failed.

The figures are stunningly awful. Between 21st February and 15th July, the French had lost 275,000 men and 6,563 officers. The Germans had lost just under 250,000 men, almost double the number of men in the nine divisions that Falkenhayn had been willing to commit to the battle. Between 65,000 and 70,000 Frenchmen had been killed and 64,000 men and 1,400 officers had been taken prisoner. Over 120,000 French casualties had occurred since the middle of May (ibid).

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The National Cemetery and Ossuary at Thiaumont.

German artillery had fired about 22,000,000 shells; the French about 15,000,000. The French had ninety six divisions on the Western Front; seventy of these were rotated through Verdun (ibid). Two and a half million men had been transported along the Voie Sacrée to the battlefield over ten months up to October.

To both sides, the ground had become hallowed with the blood of hundreds of thousands of their comrades. It was psychologically impossible for the Germans to withdraw and equally impossible for the French to let them remain there. So the carnage continued, albeit on a smaller scale, until October when France launched a major offensive to restore the line and recapture their forts.

 

Bibliography

Holstein, C. Walking Verdun, 2009, Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley.

Horne, A., The Price of Glory, Verdun 1916, 1993, Penguin Books, London

The Final Assault

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The orientation plate at Thiaumont.

In capturing the forts of Douaumont and Vaux, the Germans had established themselves at the base of both legs of a capital H of high ground. They also controlled the important valleys between, the Fumin Ravine, which ran from the village of Vaux up to the fort and the Chambitoux Ravine that ran up towards Fleury. It now appeared to the military strategists that a major offensive up the valleys between Forts Vaux and Douaumont could capture the village of Fleury situated mid-way across the cross-bar of the H. From there, it was less than 3 miles to the centre of Verdun, and downhill all the way with little in the way of defences.

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Thiaumont in June 1916.

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All that can be seen of Thiaumont today.

However, each end of this 2km cross-bar ridge was well defended with Fort Souville at the southern end and the strongholds of Thiaumont and Froideterre at the northern. Fleury was also conveniently on the reverse slope. In order to eliminate the dominant position of Thiaumont, an assault was launched soon after Vaux fell.

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Destroyed observation cupola.

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View inside the observation cupola.

It was captured the following day, 8th June, but almost immediately re-captured by the French. Over the summer, it was to change hands fourteen more times, which shows the horrific, intense, close-quarter melee that the battle had become (Horne, 1993, p.267). There was no longer a front line; troops fought from interlocking shells holes, half full of water and foul from the putrescent bodies of their comrades, while enduring the artillery bombardment of both sides.

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The barracks at Froideterre which remained in French hands throughout.

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The Bourges Casemate with two 75mm cannon. The camouflage painting dates from the next war with Germany.

For two weeks after the fall of Vaux, it rained. Apart from reducing the conditions under which the troops had to exist to indescribable, it had an important impact on the German plan. Fifth Army had scraped together about 30,000 troops for a final assault to capture Thiaumont, Fleury and Fort Souville. There was an air of confidence about the General Staff that was in no part shared by even the elite troops gathered for the task. Large stocks of a new gas, Phosgene, known to the Germans as Green Cross gas because of the shell markings, had been assembled. Trials had shown that the French gas-masks were ineffective against Phosgene, so a rapid breakthrough was expected. But Phosgene could not be used when it was wet (ibid).

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Command Post 120 was not much damaged and provides graphic evidence of the punishment suffered by PC 118 and 119.

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PC 118 was nearest to Thiaumont and suffered worst.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 22nd June, the artillery bombardment began. It was a beautiful sunny day. That evening the bombardment stopped and was followed by a silent whooshing of shells that did not explode. Too soon it became clear that these were gas shells; it collected in the ravines where artillery batteries were concentrated. Horses broke loose and ran amok, frothing and dying; troops were spluttering. At first light the following morning, the main assault was launched and quickly over-ran Thiaumont and surrounded Froideterre. In the centre, the Bavarian Lieb Regiment captured Fleury and brought up its field guns. However, staggeringly, the French were not overcome. By about 9.00am, their batteries started to fire again, but not before the Bavarians were firing machine guns, at extreme range, into the centre of Verdun.

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The dominating skyline of Mort Homme from where observers could call fire on the Thiaumont defences.

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Entrenchment X. A forward position at Thiaumont. On a forward slope and observed from Mort Homme.

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Contemporary image of ‘Poilus’ in Entrenchment X. Concrete parapet was only 0.2m thick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Petain’s HQ in Bar-le-Duc, there seemed little to celebrate as bad news poured in. By the end of the 23rd, the position had stabilised but none of the French defenders could be confident about the next day. Again, he petitioned Joffre for the offensive on the Somme to be brought forward. Reluctantly, Joffre released four divisions that he was saving for the Somme offensive. However, despite gains and soaring morale, the German General Staff also had cause to reflect. They had no more Phosgene. French gas masks seemed to have coped with it better than they had anticipated. It had gathered in the valleys and in depressions but had not affected the batteries on high ground. Most critical of all, the Germans had not been prepared to depend on their new weapon and so continued an artillery barrage for three hours after the gas attack, before the assault. This gave defenders some time to gather themselves and prepare for the attack.

Fort Souville had not fallen and French artillery was able to harass the Bavarians in Fleury. Unable to be resupplied with either ammunition or, more critically, water, the Bavarians could not exploit their position. By the end of the 24th June, the Germans were unable to push further south. They were suffering from dehydration and exhaustion and were seriously exposed in a prominent salient. The struggle continued for a further week of fruitless attacks by both sides. Both armies suffered heavy casualties; no ground was gained by either side.

However, on the 24th June, the French Prime Minister, Briand, personally implored General Douglas Haig to launch the offensive. The bombardment began the next day and continued for a week. The Battle of the Somme had started.

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The undamaged interior of PC120. Imagine it full of command staff, wounded, stragglers and First Aid Post.

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Neglected memorial to Lt Col Charles Ridouard and his men of 317th Regiment of Infantry who were killed in a fire inside PC119 on 31st July 1916.

 

 

Bibliography

Holstein, C. Walking Verdun, 2009, Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley.

Horne, A., The Price of Glory, Verdun 1916, 1993, Penguin Books, London

 

 

Fort Vaux

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Pre-war aerial photo. Shows clear fields of view.

Could any contrast be more stark, than the stories of two neighbouring Forts, Douaumont and Vaux? The stronger, higher, more important, more heavily armed Douaumont was captured by a few without a shot being fired. Fort Vaux was defended gloriously, metre by metre, in conditions of indescribable awfulness, quite beyond our powers of fully imaging, for fully five days. Such contrasts depend in large part on individuals; leaders to whom the desperate turn and who elevate the dreadful, in the end, to the glorious.

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75mm gun in restored casemate.

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75mm quick firing cannon in a casement mount.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fort Vaux had been stripped of its four 75mm cannon in the flanking casemates leaving only one in a forward turret. Otherwise, it had only machine guns, none mounted in turrets. Situated on high ground 4km south east of Douaumont, with commanding views over the line of German approach, Vaux dominated the approaches to Douaumont through the deep valley that separated the two forts.

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The 75mm was destroyed in late February or early March, when a German one tonne shell from a 420mm ‘heavy’ detonated its magazine slicing the enormous carapace in fragments.

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On 24th March, a tough, 49 year old Colonial soldier, Major Sylvain-Eugene Raynal arrived to take command of the Fort. He had already been seriously wounded twice and was on convalescence pending being invalided out of the army. He volunteered to command a Fort, in preference, as it was thought to be less demanding.

 

 

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Remains of the north-east blockhouse. These could fire along the ditch to prevent access to the glacis.

The Fort was overcrowded. Its complement of men was 250. When Raynal arrived, there were 600, many of them wounded. He had 8 days to understand his command and his men. On the day after the capture of Douaumont, Raynal sensed their moment had arrived. All night there was a fearful bombardment and at dawn the attack began. Quickly the German assault troops were over the fence and into the moat. However, both corner garrisons were in place and were able to rake the moat with machine gun fire. The struggle to neutralise these blockhouses went on for 12 hours until by 4pm both had been captured. The blockhouses were joined to the fort by underground passages not more than 3 feet wide and 5 feet high. These now became the battlefield as troops fought through defences of rubble and sand-bags that had been hurriedly erected, fighting at point blank in pitch darkness.

By the 3rd June, the fort was surrounded and being attacked from all sides. The next day, a new tactic was deployed. Flame-throwers were modified to pour out dense black smoke and this was fed into the fort by longer hoses. The effect was devastating; candles went out, men lay on the floor to breathe, the wounded just suffered. Worse, that afternoon the NCO responsible for provisions reported to Raynal that the fort was almost out of water. The ration was immediately cut and the men had no water that day. The following day it was issued at a quarter of a pint per person. The situation was desperate. A brave, and lucky, officer cadet called Buffet managed to make his way back to Divisonal HQ with a report of how grave things were. He was told a counter-attack would be mounted next day. Somehow he managed to make it back to the fort with his news. However, the counter-attacks did not materialise.

Raynal after capture

Commandant Reynal after capture.

By the 7th, men were mad with thirst and utterly exhausted. Early that morning, the fort surrendered. In a display of chivalry as delightful as it was unexpected, the surrender was accepted with formality. The garrison had suffered about 100 casualties with 20 killed. The assaulting troops had lost 64 officers and 2,648 soldiers (Horne, 1993 p.264). Commandant Reynal was honoured with one of the highest degrees of the Legion d’Honneur and was also congratulated on their valiant struggle by none other than Crown Prince William at his HQ in Stenay (ibid).

They then spent the rest of the war in captivity in Germany.

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Central Gallery

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First Aid Post.


 

 

 

 

 

 

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Powder Room; Main magazine. Opposite toilets. Both captured on 4th June.

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Main gallery showing ‘bomb-proof’ red line. Roof collapse caused by German 420mm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Holstein, C. Walking Verdun, 2009, Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley.

Horne, A., The Price of Glory, Verdun 1916, 1993, Penguin Books, London

Fort Douaumont

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The Fort before 1914

Douaumont

The Fort late March 1916

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fort Douaumont was an extraordinary paradox. It was the highest of the series of forts around Verdun with the best fields of fire; it was the most strongly fortified. It was the most heavily gunned and had the largest garrison. Yet it was captured by one man and was subsequently attacked as fiercely by the French as it had been by the Germans.

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The rear of the Fort showing the original stone construction overlaid with concrete.

It was built after the fiasco of the defeat by Prussia in 1870, as one of a string of forts to protect the French border with Germany. As understanding of modern firepower developed, it was reinforced with huge layers of concrete in the form of a sandwich with layers of compacted sand and earth. It had a garrison of 500, part of the 66,000 men responsible for the defence of Verdun. Unlike today, the area surrounding it for some miles was clear and so it had excellent fields of fire over likely German approaches (See photos above). The Germans were aware of it and considerably daunted by the prospect of attacking it.

Since their humiliation forty years before, the French Army had made a remarkable recovery. They had resolved never to be caught again sitting and waiting for a German attack. The spirit of the offensive had been inculcated in all ranks and this had led to the development of strategy that owed nothing to the intentions of the enemy. Whatever the Germans were going to do, the French were going to mount an offensive into their flanks, at the outset. This worthy élan had permeated even the officers of the Deuxieme Bureau (Intelligence or G2) who seemed to look for evidence to support their pre-conceptions rather than understand what the enemy was doing. The result was a General Staff that was blissfully unaware.

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The 155mm turret with the smaller observation post behind and slightly left.

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Twin Hotchkiss machine gun turret with fine fields of fire.

Worse, when the Germans attacked the defensive forts in Belgium and at Mauberge they deployed siege weapons not before seen. Huge calibre 420 (17 inch) and 380mm canon had battered the forts which had crumbled under the weight of their shells. This suggested to the French General Staff that such defensive forts were no longer useful. Pressed hard further north, Joffre had authorised the removal of most of the guns and troops from the forts and their deployment to the field army. The result was that Fort Douaumont was held by the elderly Sergeant-Major Chenot and 56 Territorial gunners. There were no officers, no communications and no orders. Only the 155mm turret and the 75mm turrets remained. There were no observers and they had no idea where the enemy was. The barrage had been concussing and apart from the 155 turret which was firing on pre-registered targets, the rest were unmanned. The men were sheltering in the lower levels.

Into this contradiction, happened the adventurous Pioneer Sergeant Kunzefrom the 24th Brandenburg Regiment, who was commanding a section on the left of their line. Having entered the fort, he heard French voices in a room and promptly demanded their surrender. No shot was fired. He then locked them in the room and happened across a kitchen, from which he helped himself to a hearty meal. While he was feasting, two officers with their platoons, from the same regiment, also gained entry, via a different route. They organised the defence and sent triumphant messages back to their regiment. Still no shot had needed to be fired.

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The Rue du Rempart was walled up as final resting place for 679 officers and soldiers.

Fort Douaumont now became a German garrison, supply dump and hospital. It was to prove a mixed blessing. On 8th May, a cooking fire spread to flame-thrower fuel, ammunition and grenades and in the resulting inferno, 679 officers and soldiers were incinerated. They are interred in a tomb on part of the circular Rue du Rempart.

On 24th October General Mangin mounted an offensive to capture the fort. For two days, huge 400mm railway guns had bombarded the fort. One of these shells had penetrated and exploded in the area of the hospital killing all inside it. The Germans had abandoned the offensive against Verdun in July and, following this disaster, ordered the garrison to prepare to abandon the fort.

General Mangin ordered a Moroccan Infantry regiment, a battalion of Senegalese Tirailleurs and three companies of Somalis to recapture the fort. They did so in four hours taking 5000 prisoners but losing 23 officers and 829 soldiers. The original garrison was 500. That the Germans had ten times as many in the fort at its capture, shows how it had come to be seen as a refuge. They knew it affectionately as ‘Old Uncle Douaumont’.

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Soldiers’ wash room. Note stalagmites forming.

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Stalactites forming from roof of room.

Mort Homme and Cote 304

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Mort Homme Monument

Falkenhayn’s plan for the defeat of France at Verdun made no attempt to win the left (west) bank of the Meuse. Open, rolling and not unlike Salisbury Plain, it was in complete contrast to the more wooded and steeper right (east) bank. Late in the attack, the Germans realised that the left bank provided cover for artillery and excellent observation positions. On March 6th, in the face of driving snow, they launched their attack. They were quickly across the Meuse in two places behind the French line. Inexperienced French infantry quickly surrendered, 1,200 men from the 211th Regiment alone making up nearly half the total (Horne, 1993, p.158).

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Battle map showing progressive French and German lines. Germans are ‘blue’, French ‘red’. Shows full extent of German progress south.

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Plaque commemorating summit of southern hill. Before war it was 295m. At the end of 1916, it was 285m. Fully 10m blasted off the summit.

However, the main assault onto the hills of Mort Homme had hardly moved. It was pinned down by a veritable wall of artillery from troops that had long expected the attack and had been able to prepare for it. On March 14th, a new German assault was launched. However, the pattern was the same. An immense bombardment followed by infantry assault by the six divisions allocated to the task. The infantry were then bombarded by French artillery which was followed by a French counter-attack. Each time, the Germans inched forward. The cost was staggering and, to modern minds, inconceivable. By the end of March the Germans had lost 81,607 men, the French 89,000 (ibid).

At this stage, the German Command conceded that they would have to take the next hill west, known simply as Cote 304, from which French gunners were still savaging their flank. However, the French 29th Division defending it at Avocourt, who had been too long OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAin the front line, effectively dissolved, resulting in the capture not only of the wood, but also an entire Brigade that was surrounded and forced to surrender. This disgrace was a great spur to the remaining troops on the left bank. On 22nd, a major German attempt to capitalise on their earlier success was neutralised with the loss of 2,400 men for absolutely no gain.

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‘The Magic Bus’ parked at the memorial to the destroyed village of Cumieres below Mort Homme.

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The very imposing monument to the 10,000 fallen Frenchmen on the summit of Cote 304. General Petain was the patron as well as their commander.

A few days later on 1st April, the Kaiser declared, “The decision of the War of 1870 took place in Paris. This was will end at Verdun” (ibid p.165). Determined to finish the task, a full scale offensive was mounted on April 9th on both banks of the Meuse. Incredibly, 17 trainloads of ammunition were used to try to break through, but with tremendous fortitude, the line held. It was at the end of this day that General Petain coined the expression that became something of a catchphrase, “Courage, on les aura”. However, for the next twelve days it rained so heavily that offensive operations on both sides were suspended. The ground on Mort Homme became a quagmire and soldiers lived in appalling conditions clinging to life in shell holes, all trace of trenches having been obliterated.

Finally, on May 3rd the Germans mounted a huge offensive. The attack on Cote 304 was to be an artillery attack; 500 heavy guns would concentrate their fire on a front of just over a mile for two days and nights! Still the French held on. It took three further days of bitter close combat before the hill was lost (ibid p.170). After the war it was estimated that 10,000 Frenchmen had died fighting for this small hill. But, perhaps for the first time, it became apparent that German losses might be greater than French.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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View from near the top of Mort Homme showing how it dominated the German approaches.

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View from near the top of Mort Homme showing how it dominated the German approaches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It had taken three months to solve the irritating problem of the left bank. Now the full force of German arms in the West could focus of Verdun.

Bibliography

Holstein, C. Walking Verdun, 2009, Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley.

Horne, A., The Price of Glory, Verdun 1916, 1993, Penguin Books, London

The Bois des Caures battle

For nearly two weeks, Chasseurs from 56th and 59th Battalions (Bn) had huddled from the bitter cold in muddy, wet strongholds sited throughout the Bois des Caures, about 14km north of Verdun, as the carrier pigeon flies. They were the front line and their orders were simple: to hold at all costs.

Emile_Driant_1Sensing that they were on the eve of trouble, on the 20th February, Col Driant, commanding both battalions, sent a dispatch that revealed he understood how difficult life was about to become.

The time has come for officers and men of both battalions to prepare for action, and for each to reflect on the role that will be his. At every level, we have to feel that we have a sacred duty and that, in a struggle as divided as that which is about to be fought, no-one remains inert on the grounds that there were no orders to the contrary.

There will be many breaks in communications, many occasions on which groups of men will be left to fend for themselves. Resistance and halting the enemy by every possible means must be the thought uppermost in everybody’s mind.

Chasseurs should remember, in particular, that in the battles that they have taken part over the past seventeen months, they left no prisoners in enemy hands other than wounded soldiers. Chasseurs do not surrender.”

Early in the morning of the 21st February, it became that difficult. German artillery preparations had been awesome. The plan was based on the premise that the artillery would blast a gap in the French line that the infantry among the 140,000 men assembled for the attack would simply occupy (Horne, 1993, p.41). Over 300 field guns and 542 heavy artillery pieces were concentrated on the 8 mile front. These were backed up by mine-throwers and finally flame-throwers. Two and a half million shells had been stockpiled for the six day plan (ibid).

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Observation post in the front line, on the edge of the wood.

 

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Communication trench

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R2. Col Driant’s command post

Col Driant had planned the defence as a series of strongholds joined by communication trenches. In the front line outposts were lightly held. In the centre of that line, the Chasseurs were in a wood-line on one side of a field, across which in a wood-line 200m away, facing them were the enemy. Further east, the lines were only 30m apart.

 

These outposts were joined to the Grandes-gardes, strongholds that were company command posts and were manned by a platoon of about 30.

 

 

 

 

Behind these was a support line and 500m further back, the R line with concrete bunkers, the final line of resistance.

 

 

 

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First Aid Post

 

 

Yet further back was the First Aid Post in another small concrete bunker, seen to the right, and the supplies.

 

 

 

 

These trenches, though neglected for 98 years, are strikingly visible in the woods that have grown up over the battlefield.

The Chasseurs survived the initial bombardment, somehow. On the German left and centre, they were hardly able to advance, so fierce was the fighting. But on their right they made better progress and reached the R line with little difficulty. However, without reinforcements, and with daylight closing in, they withdrew. Col Driant had little idea of how the day had gone as the bombardment had cut all telephone lines. In the evening he went forward to speak to the troops. He found them in good spirits and confident of the morrow, despite heavy casualties. All he could do was to encourage them.

At 7.00am the next morning, the bombardment began again. It lasted for 5 hours. It was focussed on the front line in order to prevent any thought of counter-attack. Gradually, despite deploying every spare man, the Chasseurs were beaten back. By mid-afternoon, largely out of ammunition and fighting with bombs and bayonets, they had been forced back to the area of R2, Col Driant’s command post. A German 77mm was brought up to fire over open sights at the command post’s troops. It was desperate. Driant ordered the withdrawal. After taking farewell of the troops in the First Aid Post, Driant crossed the road. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShortly further on, he stopped to tend a wounded Chasseur. Standing up from doing so, he was hit in the head by a bullet. His last words, recorded by a Chasseur who was with him, were,

“Oh, la la. Mon Dieu!”

This monument marks the place where Col Driant was killed.

 

 

 

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He was subsequently buried by the Germans in this field grave with one of his battalion commanders.

 

 

 

 

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After the war his body was moved and this simple grave marks where he used to be buried.

This picture is taken from the same spot as the one above. It is striking how different is the terrain.

 

 

 

 

 

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He was reinterred here, under this memorial to him and his Chasseurs. He is buried with 13 unknown Chasseurs, each of whom have a cross round the edge of the monument.

 

 

 

Very few Chasseurs survived but they had delayed the German advance by 48 hours. This was crucial. They had done all that had been asked of them.

 

Bibliography

Holstein, C. Walking Verdun, 2009, Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley.

Horne, A., The Price of Glory, Verdun 1916, 1993,Penguin Books, London

Verdun? Why?

So, why Verdun? I consider that the defence of Verdun between February and July 1916 by the French army was one of the crucial battles of World War 1. Its importance completely eclipses other battles of 1916 and without it, there would probably have been no hundred days to final victory in 1918, the glorious series of victories that were the zenith of British arms.

The German plan was to bypass the border defences that had been established after the defeat of France by Prussia in 1870. It planned to hit France with a right hook passing through Belgium, swinging west of Paris and wrapping the French Army up by enveloping them from behind. The plan was brilliant, but made insufficient allowance for the distance that would have to be marched opposed, nor the logistic difficulty of supplying the huge number of troops and horses with food, ammunition and fodder. By September 1914 the German army had pulled the hook, swung to the east of Paris and been held by the French, with little help from Sir John French’s BEF, on the Marne. Realising that the much vaunted 1906 ‘Schlieffen Plan’, subsequently modified by more a timorous General Staff, had failed and having beaten the Russians soundly at Tannenburg in East Prussia, von Falkenhayn, the War Minister and Chief of Staff, sought a new plan for the west.

The Germans had a low opinion of French military capabilities, having humiliated them in 1870. The French revered Verdun as it had made a heroic stand against the Germans and was the lynchpin of their frontier defence. Falkenhayn considered that the French would throw everything at the defence of Verdun and this would allow him ‘to bleed them white’. This was perhaps the Germany’s first articulation of the understanding that the nature of war had changed and that it would now be won by ‘attrition’; the terrifying logic of killing and maiming so many of the enemy that they could not continue fighting.

France has remarkable powers of recovery. Out of the humiliation of 1870, the nation of Napoleon had rebuilt the army, introduced conscription for three years to ensure sufficient trained population to match more populous Germany, and recreated a spirit of elan. A major programme of fortification had built, and then improved, strong defensive forts along the new frontier with Germany. Their strategic thinking was not passive, not hiding behind their fortresses; the offensive spirit was dominant. In the decade before 1914, France had developed a plan to attack into Alsace at the first sign of war. They were not going to allow the German army to march into France again and would mount huge pre-emptive attacks into their flanks as they assembled. However, over a similar period, the German General Staff, realising that the route west into France was now substantially blocked, decided to outflank it to the north, through neutral Belgium.

In the autumn of 1914 the German army retreated from the Marne where it had been held both by inspired French manoeuvre and by coming to the end of their logistic leash. They withdrew to a line of defensive positions on high ground where they could remain and establish strongholds. For the next three and a half years, they fought a defensive, positional war. If they were to be defeated, the Allies would have to dislodge them. In many senses, the Germans had the initiative. They were on French soil, they could not be outflanked and the longer they remained in position, the stronger they would make their line. All that remained was for the French and British to continue attacking and incurring such heavy losses that soon they would run out of men, lose heart and sue for peace.

The single major exception to this philosophy was Verdun, which became the longest battle of the war. The attack was scheduled to start on 12th February but fog, sleet and snow prevented the artillery observers from seeing their targets. For nine long, cold days the troops prepared for the attack and then had to stand down. German preparation had been excellent. Their pioneers had built underground concrete shelters about 300m behind their front line, called Stollen, that could hold about a company. These kept them out of sight and out of danger from French artillery, had there been any. However, they could not sleep in them nor was there any drainage. The result was that they filled with icy cold water and much of the day was spent standing in it, bailing them out. Worse, their billets were up to 7km behind the line and morning and evening they had to march back to them (Horne, 1993).

The French front-line was held by a combination of regulars and reservists. The German build-up had not been detected and the General Staff had no plan to reinforce Verdun. Worse, during 1915 as the nature of the conflict had become clearer, forts were thought to have lost their utility. As a result, most of the artillery pieces that had given the forts ‘teeth’ had been withdrawn and issued to the field army. Of the 66,000 that were supposed to garrison Verdun, only a few thousand remained. Fort Duaumont, when captured on day 5, was garrisoned by an elderly Sergeant-Major and 56 Territorial gunners, the original garrison having been destroyed in the fighting in the Bois des Caures on the first two days of the assault (ibid).

Finally, on 21st February, the weather cleared and, for the French soldiers shivering in their trenches, Armageddon began.

 

Bibliography

Holstein, C. Walking Verdun, 2009, Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley.

Horne, A., The Price of Glory, Verdun 1916, 1993,Penguin Books, London