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Remembered Today:

Verdun visit


bmac

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My wife and I spent three days in Verdun last week and managed a whirlwind tour around the battlefields of both banks of the area. This included all nine of the 'destroyed villages' plus another, Forges, destroyed but rebuilt nearby, Forts Douaumont and Vaux, Froidterre, Cote 304 and le Mort Homme.

We were based at the good looking if rather expensive (especially the restaurant) Chateau des Monthairons about 10 km south of Verdun. The chateau was built in the 1850s and has large grounds running down to the left bank of the Meuse. In the first year of the war it was used as a hospital for those with contagious illnesses but in the spring of 1915 it was converted for use by battlefield casualties. There are some photos on the walls of the operating theatre and wards but, in reception, there are three large photo albums of pictures taken by a doctor who was based at the chateau. These include photos from 1914 through to 1916 including the Battle of the Marne and, later, the chateau as a hospital. Even though 10 kms behind the lines the grounds contained a large trench system with machine gun posts covering the road to the north and the Meuse river and canal. Later photos include many of some Senegalais troops billeted nearby. The chateau and nearby village of Ancemont were intermittently shelled by German 380 mm guns with its shells landing in the grounds and killing both locals and stretcher bearers in the village.

For those contemplating the chateau as a base: all the staff have at least some English with one young lady fluent. Rooms are comfortable but there was confusion about our booking a 'double' which seemed to translated into a twin when we got there. Bit irritating. Restaurant needs booking during the morning. Food is good (not fabulous) but rather too expensive for what is on offer. The wine list is pretty decent though. Grounds are extensive and good for a walk before and/or after a large dinner.

More photos will follow.

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Having driven through Verdun and onto the eastern side of the main, right bank, battlefield we first passed through the destroyed village of Bezonvaux (where I neglected to take any photos. Doh! Pic is from Wikipedia). Bezonvaux fell on 25th February to the men of the III Battalion, Reserve Infantry Regiment Nr. 98 (10. Reserve Div., III Corps). The defensive work on the steep hill to the south in the bois de Hardaumont fell the following day as the Germans consolidated their position after the occupation of Fort Douaumont.

FR-55-Bezonvaux_chapelle.JPG

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North of Bezonvauz lies the large village of Ornes, also destroyed and not rebuilt. This fell to the I/RIR 98 on 24th February. Ornes was on the extreme left of the German attack on this day as it was not until the following day that the attack was extended further to the left.

The first photo shows the chapel at Ornes built after the war. As with many of the destroyed villages, there are marker posts to indicate where buildings had previously existed. Some contain the details of the family or the type of building.

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This photo shows the ruins of the church in Ornes which was located in the centre of the village. Apart from stones scattered about this is the only ruin of any size left in the village. Note the white marker stone front left which indicates the site of the eglise.

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Our route then took us south west to the destroyed village of Louvemont on the Cote du Poivre (a ridge running SW to the Meuse). The village and ridge were taken in controversial circumstances on the 25th February with an order to withdraw from the local French commander giving over this important position. The village was taken from the French 51e Division by elements of the 116 and 117 Infantry Regiments, 25. Division, XVIII Corps. Louvemont was retaken by the 173e Regiment on 15th December 1916 during the last major offensive of the battle.

This photo shows the Louvemont memorial chapel on the site of the old church which was on the northern edge of the village.

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The photo below shows the the edge of the chapel wall and, in the near distance, white marker stones indicating some other buildings in the old village. In front is the information board for the village. All of the sites at Verdun are very well provided with these information boards which provide details about the pre-war village and the wartime and post-war experience and all are available in French, German and English. Signage generally is excellent and there is clearly a lot of work going on to make the entire battlefield as accessible and understandable as possible in anticipation of a growing influx of visitors. The main 'problem' is that the entire area, on both sides of the Meuse, is now covered with large woods of tall trees which makes understanding the importance of many positions almost impossible. Although colder, it might be an idea to visit the area in the late autumn/winter when the deciduous trees have shed their leaves.

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On the northern edge of the battlefield lies the bois des Caures. This wood overlooked the German front line positions and was held by the 56e and 59e Battalions, Chasseurs a Pied commanded by Lt. Col. Emile Driant. Driant and his men had been in this position since clearing it after the Battle of the Marne and he had long complained about the inadequacies of the defences of the sector. He had complained to his brigade commander about the state of the defences as early as July 1915 and, at the end of August, he wrote a letter to the President of the Chamber of Deputies pointing out the lack of men and material available and predicting a major German offensive in the area. This letter eventually reached Joffre who exploded with fury that such a junior officer should be raising such issues over the French CinC's head. Verdun continued to be ignored until the end of January 1916, when a visit from de Castelnau resulted in greater efforts to fortify the first two French lines, that attention was paid to the sector. Had the attack been launched on 12th February as planned it is possible that a complete breakthrough might have been achieved.

On 21st February, Driant and his men withstood the most intense bombardment of the war to date suffering 60%+ casualties. They still held their position until well into the 22nd before Driant was killed and the remains of the battalions were forvced to withdraw to avoid encirclement.

The photos below shows Driant's battle HQ. It was one of a serious of reinforced dugouts in the reserve line which progressively fell on either side until Driant's HQ, position R2, came under attack and was evacuated. Driant was shot and killed giving first aid to a wounded chasseur during the withdrawal.

The posts surrounding the entrance to the dugouts have the numbers and badges of the various units involved in the fighting around the bois des Caures.

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3000 metres due south of the front line in the bois des Caures lies the hilltop village of Beaumont, another of the destroyed villages. Beaumont was evacuated in September 1914 and its population removed to the south of France. Beaumont fell during the 24th February after a bitter defence by four companies of French troops against two battalions of the IR 117. Surrounded, an attempt to escape by 60 men succeeded when German troops thought themselves to be under attack by a larger number. Beaumont was partially retaken in August 1917 and the remains of the village were eventually liberated by American soldiers in November 1918.

The photo below shows the main street of the village as it runs up hill, past the chapel towards the cemetery at the top of the hill. White markers indicate the positions of the village buildings. A small stream runs down the right hand side of the road possibly fed by the aquifer which supplied the well near the cemetery.

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The next photo shows the 1931 monument erected in memory of the village's residents and the men from the area who died in the war.

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The third photo shows the village looking down from outside the cemetery towards the chapel (not visible). Again, white markers show the location of buildings. In the foreground is the well previously mentioned.

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The iconic image of the Ossuary in which lie the bones of thousands (c. 130,000) of French and German soldiers plus those of the dead disinterred from their graves by the fighting. Small windows at the base of the walls reveal the greying skulls and bones of the dead. There is a shop and an audio-visual display. The ossuary lies on the side of the hill between what was the Ferme de Thiaumont (on the right) and the ouvrage de Thiaumont on the left, a major French defensive position repeatedly won and lost in early months of the battle. In front of the Ossuary is the largest French military cemetery of WW1 containing over 16,000 graves.

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Bill, many thanks for posting these, they are very good. In all the times I've been to Verdun I don't think I've ever visited the destroyed villages because as you say, you can't see beyond the tree line. For me the Mort Homme and Cote 304 are particularly frustrating for this reason. The memorials attest to the heroism of the defenders but you can't see what the heroism was for. There are a few veiwpoints around Verdun where you can see the lie of the land; Douaumont, Vaux, the tower of the Ossuary, the American Memorial at Montfaucon and the valley between the Mort Homme and the Bois Borrus ridge near Chattancourt but they are widely scattered. I once had the good fortune to tour Verdun with a US Airforce colonel who flew B-52s. He shared the frustration and returned during the winter from his base at Wiesbaden and said his understanding was transformed. I've never managed to follow his advice to go before the trees bloom, maybe I should. Maybe Christina can advise on the logistics.

Pete.

P.S. I'm heartened to see that somebody else has doh! moments when checking through their photographs.

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1000 metres south east of the Ossuary lies the destroyed village of Fleury devant Douaumont. Lived in by 422 residents pre-war, many of them were still living in Fleury when the battle opened on 21st February. They were immediately evacuated. Fleury became a front line village after the fall of Fourt Douaumont and was to change hands sixteen times during the vicious fighting that characterised the battle. On 23rd June Fleury fell to Bavarian troops during what was to be the last major crisis of the Verdun fighting for the French. Defending it, the 121e Battalion, Chasseurs a Pied, were practically annihilated. Over the next three days the ruins of the village were regained and lost again until only a battalion of 241e Regiment clung onto the southern fringe of the village. After almost continuous fighting the village was finally retaken on 18th August by the Regiment d'Infanterie Coloniale du Maroc. The village is surrounded by various personal and other memorials.

PLEASE NOTE: just a few hundred metres further down the road is the site of the Verdun Museum. IT IS CURRENTLY CLOSED for rebuilding and, from the state of the work, completion looks a long way off.

The first photo shows what would have been the road running south down to the church (now the chapel). There are numerous white stone markers indicating buildings both alongside the path and away into the woods.

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A close-up of the front of the chapel.

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Abri 320 is a large dugout built into the side of the hill (on the 320 metre line) south east of the Ossuary/Thiaumont position. Two large shafts survive in what is still shell-cratered ground.

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The village of Douaumont lies barely 200 metres north west of Fort Douaumont as the concrete sign in the village shows below:

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The photo below shows the village as it was before being destroyed in the fighting. The photo shows the main road of the village (running E to W in the map above) with the church down the slope to the north.

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The photo below shows the village as it is now from the western end of the same road:

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Several of the markers give the names and occupations of the previous residents:

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The chapel, below, was built on the remains of the old church:

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After the fall of Fort Douaumont on the 25th February the village was subjected to repeated attacks by troops from the IR 52 and the village was finally taken on 4th March after intense fighting. It was retaken on 24th October 1916.

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Fort Douaumont is on a dominant position facing north and was the centre piece of the first line of forts defending Verdun. In spite of its position it had been more or less disarmed with most of its guns removed for use elsewhere. When taken by men of the IR 24 on 25th February it was occupied by a few elderly French Territorials. The Germans used it as an ammunition store, field hospital and as somewhere for the troops to rest in reasonable safety between the savage bouts of fighting to the south.

On the 8th May an accident occurred during which a grenade store, then a flame thrower store and finally a 155 mm shell store caught fire and blew up. Over 650 German soldiers, including the entire regimental staff of the 12 Grenadiers, were killed either by the explosion, the flames, the fumes or, in the case of the survivors their faces blackened by the smoke, by the fire of their own side who thought they were French Senegalais troops involved in an assault. The majority of the dead were interred within a part of the fort now blocked off by a brick wall covered in various memorials.

The fort was retaken on 24th October 1916 by the Regiment d;Infanterie Coloniale de Maroc after being pounded and wrecked by 400 mm French railway guns.

The photo shows the rear (southern) side of the fort with some of the adaptations made by the Germans to allow it to be defended from attack from the south. It is possible to enter the fort and walk around its dark, oppressive and damp corridors. It is a place full of dread,

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Below two positions on the northern face of the fort. The one being leant on by my (absolutely not bored rigid) wife is a rotating gun position which could also be raised and lowered as necessary. The guns had been removed, however, before the battle started.

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A view over the ground to the north with an old firing range clearly seen. The extraordinary panoramic view from the top of the fort leaves one to wonder why the French gave it up so easily.

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A view across three of the fixed gun positions facing north showing the complex nature of the original defences incorporated into Douaumont.

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The area around the overage de Froideterre lies on the south western extension of the Thiaumont position. Other than Froideterre itself there were several other dugouts, battery positions, etc., located either facing to the north and north west or on the reverse (SE) slope of the ridge. One of these was the Abri Caverne des Quatre Cheminees, the quatre cheminees being the four ventilation shafts three of which can be seen in the photo below. This position was surrounded during the attack of 23rd June when the Germans first used Green Cross gas shells (Diphosgene) in very large quantities to neutralise the French guns. Having first taken the ouvrage de Thiaumont further east along the ridge they then surrounded the Quatre cheminees then the HQ of four French units.

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Froideterre itself was a mini-fort designed to cover a gap between Thiaumont and the village of Bras on the Meuse. It was constructed in 1887-8 and expanded thereafter. Below is a map showing the various components of the position:

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Froidterre fell during these attacks but the German attack, on too narrow a front and with insufficient artillery support, rapidly ran out of steam. A second attempt to break through and take Fort Souville to the south east and threaten Verdun failed on 12th July and the German attacks, now under pressure from the Somme, effectively ceased.

The works at Froidterre can be seen below:

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The biggest mistake made by the Germans on 21st February when they launched their attack was to advance on only one side of the Meuse. On the western (left) bank of the river are a series of ridges running NE/SW on which a large number of French batteries were placed and these were able to take the advancing German troops in enfilade as they advanced on the other side of the river. On 6th March an attack was launched on the left bank with the main objectives being the hill tops of Cote 304 and le Mort Homme. Fighting on these hills continued for months during which, it is said, the height of Cote 304 was reduced by up to 4 metres by the intense shelling of both sides.

At Cote 304 there is little to see except the large memorial to the French troops involved in 1916 and 1917 and a few smaller memorials. The clearing is surrounded by a dense wood and it is only possible by wandering down one of the tracks running off the ridge to appreciate the difficulties of the terrain locally.

Cote 304 Memorial - 'To the 10,000 men whose blood impregnates this earth'.

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A view of the terrain running away to the north (German) side of the ridge:

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The village of Malancourt was attacked at the end of March. Just to the west of the village are the ruins of a blockhouse destroyed by German shelling. On it is a memorial to the six companies of the 69e RI which disappeared in their entirety in fighting around the village between 30th March and 5th April.

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Cumieres is the only one of the nine 'destroyed villages' on the left bank of the Meuse (Forges was destroyed but rebuilt nearby so doesn't count). The village was evacuated of its c. 200 inhabitants on 11th February 1916 in anticipation of German attack on both sides of Meuse but the actual attack did not take place until 6th March. Cumieres, which lies in the valley to the east of le Mort Homme, was first attacked on 14th March and was then flattened by trench mortars on 25th April. The area of the village was finally taken by the Germans on the night of the 23rd/24th May. The eastern half of the village was recaptured by the French on 26th May but lost again on 30th May. It was eventually retaken on 20th August 1917 by a unit of Foreign Legion. All that remains is a small chapel and the village war memorial.

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The appropriately named Mort Homme is a double crested hill between Cumieres to the east and Cote 304 to the west. It was the scene of bitter and constant fighting from early March 1916 onwards. The highest point is occupied by the memorial to the 69e Division. On the rear is a list of officers killed between 6th April and 31st May on the hill with the numbers of Other Ranks from each regiment involved.

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The terrain towards the summit of Mort Homme is impossibly steep and rugged as the photo below shows. Attacking towards the French on top of the hills was, as a result, slow and hugely costly for the German attackers.

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The map below shows the developing defence of the left bank from March onwards and the line on the right bank before the last major German attacks of May and June.

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The village of Forges sur Meuse was lost early in the attacks on the left bank of the Meuse and was then held by the Germans until 26th September 1918. The old village was completely destroyed but a new village was built 200 metres to the east. It does not qualify, therefore, as one of the nine 'villages detruit'. A lot of work has been done to indicate the existence of the old villages especially the old church and the separate boys' and girls' schools which are all indicated by markers as are a few of the old streets of the village. A walking tour around the old village has been created with signposts, markers and maps.

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Forges sur Meuse continued

The rue des Mazelles signpost:

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The rue des Mazelles as it is now, part of the designed route around the old village:

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In front of the Ossuary is the largest French military cemetery of WW1 containing over 16,000 graves.

A small detail, but so far as I know Notre Dame de Lorette is the largest WWI French cemetery; of course if the ossuary is included, then Verdun/Douamont is substantially larger.

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Haumont pres Samogneux was the first village to fall after the attack on 21st February 1916. It fell to troops of the 13. Reserve Division. Haumont is approached by a road which leads nowhere else but, in spite of its isolation, a lot has been done to make the village worth a visit. There are signs indicating who lived where, a destroyed French blockhouse, the obligatory chapel and a short walk around various points of interest. In addition, several life sized photographs have been erected whic can be quite disconcerting when one first sees them from a distance.

Below is the map of the village, showing the walk. I was sober when taking this photo (honest) and cannot explain the strange angle.

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The first photo you see coming up the road from Samogneux:

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The destroyed blockhouse:

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The chapel on the site of the old church:

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In front of the Ossuary is the largest French military cemetery of WW1 containing over 16,000 graves.

A small detail, but so far as I know Notre Dame de Lorette is the largest WWI French cemetery; of course if the ossuary is included, then Verdun/Douamont is substantially larger.

Ah, blame Wikiepdia however the Notre dame de Lorette entry cites 40,000 in the ossuary and cemetery whilst the Douaumont cemetery is 16000 graves plus 130,000 in the Ossuary.

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