Saturday, 11 July 2009

2006 The Long NOT Winding Road - History Lesson (Part 3)

Fort Douaumont was mainly constructed between 1885 and 1891, with it being completed by 1913. It was built after the Franco-Prussian war with the intention of defending the area from future attacks.
The location of the fort meant that it had a commanding view of the surrounding area. The barracks were built to house a garrison of 635 soldiers, who could be self sufficient, having their own water tank, kitchens and bakery.

In 1914 only a single infantry company plus artillery and engineers, just under 500 men in total, occupied the fort.

The views on the usefulness of fortresses like Fort Douaumont changed after similar Belgian forts could not stop the German advance, thus the garrison was further reduced. When the German offensive began in 1916, the fort had been disarmed of nearly all its large guns and only a garrison of 57 French soldiers was in residence. The Germans were able to capture the fort without too many problems on 25th February 1916.

Upon entering the fort, we were handed a guide written in English. As our party gathered we had time to look around the reception area and to study a painting hanging on the wall.

Inside the fort itself it is damp and chilly with our footsteps echoing in the corridors. We hung back from our tour party occasionally in order for Guzzisue to take a few photos of the passageways.

And also having been shown various rooms we were the last to leave, just for one last photo, showing the dankness of the interior. Notice the stalactites forming on the ceiling of this room.

We were brought back to reality when our guide displayed how things echoed in the fort by allowing a metal sheet to drop onto the floor.

At the entrance to the first corridor there is an information board proclaiming that there are several kilometers of passageways, of which only a few are open to the public. I'm unsure as to if this is because they might be unsafe or they don't want to lock anyone in at closing time! The ceiling is 6 metres thick, and it is estimated that during the German attack of 1916 the fort was hit by between 800 and 1400 shells each day!

The French recaptured the fort on 24th October 1916, and the ground floor corridor was named the Galerie Mangin, after their commander in charge of the operation.

There are many rooms off the corridors, each with their own purpose within the fort. The one below is a dormitory for the soldiers, equipped with iron beds.

On May 8th 1916 at 06:00 an explosion occurred inside the fort. This happened when a store of grenades exploded, which in turn ignited some nearby flamethrowers. With nowhere to run or hide some 800 - 900 Germans lost their lives. Some of these men were taken and buried outside the fort while the remaining were placed together and sealed behind a wall. There is a simple cross to mark the mass grave.

I'm unsure as to when the next photo was taken, but I think it shows some German soldiers paying their respects to lost comrades from the explosion.

The tour concluded with a visit to the machine gun turret. This was built between 1907 and 1909. The operators were able to change the aim of the gun by turning large wheels by hand, the turret was retractable, enabling it to be raised for firing and then lowered afterwards. It took another three men to turn the wheels which were needed to perform this operation.
The mechanism relied on heavy counterweights, thus enabling the gun to lower by it's own weight. For the gun to be raised the necessary 60cms for firing it took the three men two minutes. The shells weighed in at 43kgs and had a range of over 7kms (approx 4 miles). In theory the gun could be fired quite rapidly, however human constraints slowed the process down. The noise in such an enclosed area would be deafening, combined with the carbon dioxide emitted from the gun's backfire hindered the operation.

Once outside again we had just a few minutes to look around before heading back to the coach and onto the next destination.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

2006 The Long NOT Winding Road - History Lesson (Part 2)

The coach tour that we booked ourselves onto commenced at 14:00 and collected us from outside the Tourist Information Centre. The cost of the tour was 25.50 euros and we were informed that it would be all in French. We tried to keep up with our limited understanding of the commentary, but failed so we followed where the rest of the party were looking.
On our journey the coach stopped at several roadside locations between the major stops. One of these was an area showing some of the trenches from the period.

Our first stop was at the Tranchee des Baionnettes, Bayonet Trench, erected to the glory of the 137th Infantry Regiment.

The event itself is mingled with truth and legend. On June 12th 1916, this area was forming a salient west of Fort Douaumont, which the Germans wanted to capture before launching their main offensive on the 23rd.
Two battalions of the 137th Infantry Regiment, deployed at the front since June 10th, were the object of appalling shelling and very soon found themselves cut off. The regiment's third company had lost 94 of its 164 men by the night of the 11th. The remainder had been placed in a row of exposed trenches directly visible to the German artillery spotters. The artillery fire on the position increased in the early morning hours and the remainder of the 137th Regiment was annihilated almost to a man.

In Tony Langley's book The Price Of Glory, author Alistair Horne wrote:

It was not until after the war that French teams exploring the battlefield provided a clue as to the fate of 3 Company. The trench it had occupied was discovered completely filled in, but from a part of it at regular intervals protruded rifles, with bayonets still fixed to their twisted and rusty muzzles. On excavation, a corpse was found beneath each rifle, From that plus the testimony of survivors from nearby units, it was deduced that 3 Company had placed its rifles on the parapet ready to repel any attack and rather than abandon their trench had been buried alive to a man there by the German bombardment. When the story the Trench des Baionnettes was told it caught the world's imagination.

The monument was opened by Alexandre Millerand, President of the Republic, in the presence of the ambassador of the United States, on the 8th of December 1920. Other theories have evolved over the years about the fate of the last men of the 3rd Company. Gas or concussion from exploding shells are alternative explanations of the mass deaths of the men. This may have been followed by the Germans overrunning the position and hurriedly filling in the mass grave which would explain their unique internment. But the exact details are beside the point. As Mr Horne points out, the legend persists because whatever happened was an epic display of gallantry and sacrifice by the Poilus and the vivid documentation of the intensity of the fighting at Verdun. The Bayonet Trench Symbolizes what makes Verdun a singular event in military history.

Whatever the truth may in reality be, 3 Company. I salute you.