German shock troops training for the attack. German Stormtroopers were first used in the Verdun battle.


The Scared Way-French Supply Road to Verdun.

The Michelin Battlefield Guide, published shortly after the war under the title Verdun and the Battles for its Possession, identified four periods in the 1916 battle. The first, from 21 February onwards, it named the ‘surprise attack’; the second, when the left bank was drawn into the frame, the ‘general attack’; the third phase, which it dated from mid-April to the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July, was that of ‘attrition’; the fourth phase, which it dated from 1 July 1916 to 1917, it named the period of ‘retreat and stabilisation’ – the implication being that the retreat was by the Germans, the stabilisation by the French. From the beginning of July, the Guide’s editors were suggesting (though it might be argued the date chosen was too soon), the issue was in effect decided; all that was required was to bring the campaign to a satisfactory conclusion. However, stabilisation in French eyes did not mean sealing the line at the farthest point of the German advance; it meant winning back the ground they had lost. In other words, the French wanted their revanche: their revenge.

Before the revanche began, the French suffered their own hideous minor tragedy, to match the German horror at Douaumont in May. It happened on 4 September and its setting was the Tavannes railway tunnel on the line – nonoperational since the start of hostilities – between Verdun and Metz and close to the Fort de Tavannes. It was being used as a supplementary fort and was packed with weapons, explosives and troops. Again there was combustion of some kind that got out of hand – probably caused by a mishandling of grenades – which led to a series of explosions and an appalling fire which raged for three days and killed several hundred men. Those who tried to escape were caught by the enemy artillery, which had noted the tell-tale signs of disaster, as the French had done in May, and reacted accordingly. The tunnel was not turned into a shrine, however, as had been the case at Douaumont. Perhaps this unhappy event’s best memorial is the fact that the tunnel was returned to the function for which it was constructed as soon as conditions allowed. Trains still run through it today.

An event of a very different kind took place at Verdun just nine days later on 13 September. At a ceremony in a casemate of the Citadel, temporarily transformed into a salle de fêtes, President Poincaré formally presented the municipal authorities with a range of decorations conferred on the city by the Chiefs of Staff of the Allied countries: the St George’s Cross of Russia, the British Military Cross, the medal for military valour of Italy, the Cross of Leopold I of Belgium, the medal ‘Ohilitch’ of Montenegro, and the Croix de Guerre and Croix de la Légion d’Honneur of France. Present at the occasion were Generals Joffre, Pétain and Nivelle, the Military Governor of Verdun, General Dubois, plus the French War Minister and representatives of the Allies. Later the French Government would confer on the city a Sword of Honour. The drama of Verdun 1916 was not yet over but whatever might happen in the weeks ahead the city had clearly acquired a reputation that was considered to be unassailable.

The French were not in a mood to rush their new offensive. If the earlier attempt on Douaumont in May had been launched prematurely and under a divided command, with Pétain disapproving of the plans of his subordinates, this would not be the case in October (though, later, success would significantly shift the credit from the ever-cautious Pétain to his more thrusting colleagues). Meanwhile among some Germans, there was the feeling of modest satisfaction, a sense that for once in the Verdun sector there were better prospects ahead. There were clearly going to be no more sacrificial attacks, while previous experience suggested that if the French moved against them they could cope. So much is evident from the diary of Lieutenant W. Weingartner of the 38th Minenwerfer Company. Writing in September while out on rest, he noted:

Life is quiet at the moment and we lie in the sun and sleep.

The French cannot reach us with their guns.

We are not afraid of a French attack and we shall be able to beat them back because our Werfers are so much better than anything they have.

As it happened Weingartner would not be there to learn in person that his confidence was misplaced. On the night of 11–12 October his 38th Jaeger Division was despatched to the Somme, an indication that the Somme battle was fulfilling one of its principal functions, that of weakening the German commitment to the Verdun campaign.

There was no doubt as to the main ambition of the French as they made their preparations for the next and final phase: they wanted to reclaim Fort Douaumont.

Lack of suitable artillery had been central to the failure of the Nivelle/Mangin attack in May. This would now be remedied. Heavy guns were to be brought into action on the French side, including two super-heavies; monster 400mm guns so formidable that they were at first kept under wraps – much as ‘tanks’ had been kept under concealment on the Somme, only a few weeks earlier. Great attention was given to preparing the infantry for the moment when they would go over the top. Near Bar-le-Duc a full-size model of the battleground was created, so that they could become familiar with their points of attack. They were also trained to advance behind a creeping barrage – a steadily advancing bombardment in the wake of which the infantry could move with some assurance of protection. There had been earlier instances of this technique (for example, on the front occupied by the British 18th Division on the first day of the Somme), but here it was to be applied on a much larger scale. Additionally, there would be a massive and sustained bombardment before the infantry attack went in – a barrage that would be ‘warmed up’ in stages so that the really big guns only struck towards the end.

Meanwhile, before that, a steady softening-up process was begun, peppering the German lines with shells so that their occupants were never allowed to relax. For once the gods of the weather played on the French side by providing a period of almost incessant rain, which combined with the effects of artillery fire to turn the German trenches into all but uninhabitable lines of mud. The softening-up process also extended to the Fort itself; bit by bit the covering of earth was blown away, making it more vulnerable to the larger French shells when the moment came for them to make their crucial contribution.

So much rain did not mean available drinking water, so the French, mindful of the fate of Fort Vaux, hired an engineer who had worked on the Panama Canal to ensure that when their troops got into the fort a reliable water supply would be installed soon after.

Ironically, when the French actually attacked Fort Douaumont on 24 October it was even emptier than it had been when the Germans seized it all those months before. The pre-battle French bombardment had worked better than the French commanders had dared hope. Pétain, writing over a decade later, following the release of information from the German side hitherto unknown, allowed himself almost a hint of contempt when he described what had happened:

Five shots from our 400 calibre mortars during the day of October 23rd caused real disasters, demolishing in turn the sick bay and four of the most important casemates of the second storey. That evening other explosions destroyed the pioneer post, set fire to a depot of fuses and ammunition for machine-guns, and made most of the galleries uninhabitable by filling them with thick, suffocating smoke. Having no water to check the conflagration, the Germans threw on the flames bottles of charged water intended for the use of the wounded, which were thus wasted to no purpose. On the 24th, between five and seven in the morning, the garrison withdrew from the fort, leaving in it only a group of about thirty men commanded by Captain Prollius. One cannot say that the garrison ‘abandoned its post’ by this act, for the command gave its approval to the manoeuvre, and yet we have the right, it seems, to contrast in our minds this attitude with that of the little group of soldiers under Major Raynal who held Fort Vaux to the end of their strength…

When the infantry attack went in on the 24th a dense autumnal mist threatened to cause confusion and delay but at the vital moment it was pierced by a ray of sunlight clearly indicating the outline of the fort on the crest ahead of the advancing troops. In a memorable description one infantry commander, a Lieutenant-Colonel Picard, described the fort as it suddenly loomed through the murk as having ‘l’effet d’une baleine échouée’ – the aspect of a beached whale. It is tempting to extrapolate from this that Douaumont had effectively become a kind of Moby Dick for the French, to be seized whatever the effort involved. Certainly the commander of one of the battalions of the Colonial Division from Morocco which took Douaumont, Major Nikolai, reported his success in the most glowing terms, hailing the recaptured fort as ‘an emblem of determination and power marvellously recovered.’ Describing the key moment when his battalion approached the actual structure of the fort, he wrote – like Mangin using the present tense and referring to himself in the third person (in a somewhat stilted guide-book translation):

The battalion commander, who has halted at the bottom of the moat to see that the movement has been correctly carried out, now rejoins the head of the column, and while paying homage to this sacred and unforgettable sight [sic], he gives orders to attack the machine-guns which start to fire from the bottom of the casemates. The first resistance is overcome, and everyone reaches his objective (the operation having been fully rehearsed before the attack). All opposition from the turrets is likewise successively dealt with…

Was it worth it? As has already been stated (see here), it has been estimated that, taking earlier efforts into consideration, Fort Douaumont was recaptured at the cost of 100,000 lives. To a later age it can seem an absurdity that so much blood was spilt to reclaim the moribund hulk that mighty Douaumont had now become. But the commitment to retake it had become fixed back in February. For the French it had to be reclaimed, more for the fact of its retaking than for any military advantage that might ensue. For the Germans too it had become a mighty token: Hindenburg wrote of it: ‘The name DOUAUMONT blazes forth like a beacon of German heroism’, and the grief at its loss would be felt across the German nation. Another commentator, a Frenchman, would admit to being more moved by Douaumont and Vaux than by the Coliseum of Rome or the Temple of Paestum. All this suggests that to dismiss the reconquest of Douaumont as an act of pointless pride is seriously to misjudge the spirit of the times. Even among the poilus who had to carry out the attack there was a feeling that it had to be done. Hence this description by an ordinary infantryman which he wrote shortly afterwards while recovering in hospital from a serious wound; his account begins at the moment of going into action:

The sublime moment has arrived. Then, with a single bound, we see the three attack divisions leaving their small trenches, yelling, ‘On les aura!’ and launching themselves in serried columns on the enemy front lines, throwing them into confusion, not giving the Boches time to get on the defensive, taking them all prisoner.

How wonderful it is to see all these brave-hearts continue their advance with the same irresistible impetus through shells and machine gun fire. On every side we can see the Boches coming out of shell holes or out of their small trenches, their hands up, calling to you: ‘Kamarade, pardon, don’t shoot!’ We advance all the time; in a ravine we come upon a Boche battalion which has arrived as reinforcement; they’ve no time to deploy, they are made prisoner. We surround the fort of Douaumont, and nearly encircle that of Vaux. One regiment mounts the first attack, the Boches retire, and in the blink of an eye, it’s ours! We advance another 700 or 800 metres beyond the fort. We stop, the target is achieved. And that in the space of four hours. We begin to dig out a small trench in the shell holes with our entrenching-tools. But the stone is hard, and in digging we come upon the debris of tree trunks. We work like this all night to dig a hole to the depth of one metre so as to get a bit of shelter for the daytime. We wait for counter-attacks. The day of the 25th is quiet, but rain begins to fall and half fills our trench. All the same, we have to stay in the mud and the water. We’re wet through to the bone, trembling with cold, we’re suffering, too, and above all, with hunger and thirst, for we can’t be revictualled. But at the same time, a noble sentiment fills our hearts and cheers us; we have chased the enemy from his positions, we are fighting for humanity, for civilisation. We are fighting with the sentiments of bravery, faith and generosity. And it’s that which gives us new strength and courage.

This is from an unexpected but highly valuable source. As the battle drew to an end, the British staff of the Urgency Cases Hospital at Revigny decided to produce a commemorative one-off magazine to chronicle their contribution to the Verdun battle. It was finally got into print in January 1917 under the title – from the name of the château where they were based – of Le Faux Miroir. Among much that was light-hearted, there were serious accounts of aspects of the battle, including several by French soldiers wounded in the fight for Douaumont. The author of this account (known only by his initials, ‘G.D.’) also described how he was wounded and how he came to be looked after by Winifred Kenyon and her fellow nurses:

Suddenly a shell of I don’t know what calibre arrives without our hearing it, crashes down on our trench, tearing my comrade into shreds, wounding me on the left hip, and burying us both. What a stink of powder! – I thought I was poisoned! – What a din! – I was deafened by it! At that moment I felt a pain as if someone had given me a violent kick. I’d been wounded; a splinter had penetrated. I stayed like this for an hour in our trench, my legs jammed as in a vice between two tree trunks. When this violent cannonade stops, my sergeant with a volunteer rushes to get me out of my sorry plight.

For the moment my wound didn’t make me feel too bad, I could still walk after a fashion. I dragged myself along like this across the battlefield ploughed by the shells, through the curtain-fire between holes full of water and mud into which I fell at every step, for night had fallen.

The First Aid Post was six kilometres away. The major put a dressing on for me and gave me an evacuation chit. I still had to make it another two kilometres to get to the lorries which were to take us behind the lines. But it was high time to get there because, exhausted with fatigue and above all with pain, I couldn’t stand up any longer.

They laid me on a stretcher, and we were sent off to the rear in lorries. But what suffering on the way there; the lorry was bumping over the broken road so that it felt as if stilettos were being jabbed into my wound.

So we come to Dugny, where we’re put into an ambulance, given an injection of cocaine, made ready for off. At last the lorries unload us at Souilly, where they change our dressings. It’s at 8 a.m. on the 29th when we embark afresh on the train; this time everyone says, it’s the lucky break, we’re off to the Côte d’Azur, and a smile begins to light up our faces, we’re bowling along now! Suddenly the train stops: Revigny. They put us in an ambulance, someone looks at my wound, and not being able to cope with it at the centre, the major says to me: ‘You’re off, my lad, to the English hospital; you’ll be alright!’ Then the English medical orderlies carry me with great care in a stretcher to their lorries, and off I go to the Faux Miroir Hospital.

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