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.


Affer said...

Fascinating, marvellous pics. I never did the Douamont tour, but what you show reminds me a lot of one of the Maginot Line forts I visited - with its similarly undignified history! I was never quite sure whether the general air of dilapidation was because the French were a bit ashamed of it all (cf the magnificence of the Verdun Ossuary) or whether being unrestored/unmaintained was a part of the design! Brilliant stuff Ted.

bikerted said...

There are many areas of the fort that are not open to the public, Affer, on several levels. Some areas may be deemed unsafe due to the hits it received during the battle, along with nearly a century of neglect.
Douamont should have been a French stronghold during the battle for Verdun, but I feel that the Maginot Line was a white elephant by the start of WWII as mans ability to bypass and fly over such defences far surpassed their usefulness.