Wednesday 18 October 2023

The Battle of Verdun - The Left Bank (1916)

 In his post-war memoir 'General Headquarters 1914-1916 and its Critical Decisions' General Von Falkenhayn identified the flaw in the German plan for Operation Gericht (the attack on Verdun); namely that the danger that as we got forward on the east bank of the Meuse we should come under a harassing, long-range flanking fire from the enemy artillery on the west bank was recognised. Despite this concern the initial attack at Verdun went in on the east bank only, and the risk apparently identified, soon turned in to reality. Opinions differ as to why the German Army didn't attack on both sides simultaneously but the answer would seem to be a desire to concentrate the attack on one axis and a degree of complacency about the strength of the French defences.

The Mort Homme from Chattancourt (Phil Curme Collection)

Sure enough as the German assault butted up against the forts on the right bank, the French artillery on the Mort Homme, the Cote de l'Oie and Cote 295 exacted a heavy toll on the attackers. Within a couple of weeks of the initial attack, the German planners realised that in order to make progress, it would be necessary to eliminate the French artillery on their western flank. The key to the Mort Homme was Cote 304 and from late March until May both hills were repeatedly attacked. 

The southern face of the Mort Homme (Phil Curme Collection)

Using our trusty Michelin Guide 'Verdun and the battles for its possession' we left our hotel in the ideally situated town of Vacherauville and headed up towards the village of Chattancourt which sits just in front of the furthest point that the Germans advanced to during the battle - on the 24th May 1916. The top picture above shows the road up from the village to a French military cemetery (mainly containing North African troops). The French front line in May was on the edge of the tree line which can be seen just beyond the graves. A few hundred metres beyond the tree line is the high-point of the Mort Homme, now reputedly several metres lower than it was in 1916 due to the huge number of artillery strikes on the ridge. Indeed, if the nadir of the British experience during the First World War was Passchendaele in 1917 then the fight for the Mort Homme, eighteen months earlier might be considered the French equivalent. 

The Iron Harvest - Mort Homme (Phil Curme Collection)

Fuses - Mort Homme (Phil Curme Collection)

Unlike elsewhere on the old Western Front, most of the battlefield around Verdun was never returned to agriculture. Indeed, nine villages were never rebuilt and much of the surrounding land is fenced off and marked as the 'Red Zone' because of the abundance of live munitions which remain in the ground. There is the occasional ploughed field on the approaches to the ridges and the pictures above illustrate the danger that exists for the local farms who are seeking to cultivate the land. Unlike the right bank which has been developed to some extent for battlefield tourism, the left bank is quiet - sleepy villages, narrow roads and original regimental memorials scattered amongst the well-kept French military cemeteries. For the Germans, the key to taking the Mort Homme was Cote (Hill) 304 which directly abutted the main objective - divided by a shallow valley.

Cote 304 - Then & Now (Phil Curme Collection)

The comparison image above was taken on the Chattancourt to Esnes-en-Argonne road. Hill 304 is in the centre of the picture and the Mort Homme is just out of shot to the right. For those who aren't familiar with the conventions of military mapping the label '304' denotes the height in metres. Mort Homme in English, is of course, 'Dead Mans Hill' and this is an apt description given the tens of thousands of French, North African and German soldiers who died on those muddy slopes. After two months of hard slog in the face of a tenacious defence the Germans succeeded in taking both hills in May, only to be pushed off again by the French in August of the same year. 

On the highest point of Cote 304 there is a monument commemorating the twelve French Infantry Divisions which defended (and retook) this strategically important highpoint. Whilst a 360 degree view is obscured by post-war tree growth, a short walk down any of the forest rides reveals an impressively expansive view of the landscapes below and - to the east - the slightly higher 'peak' of the Mort Homme. It is very evident that French gunners on this spot would have had an excellent field of fire onto the Mort Homme which was totally devoid of vegetation from the beginning of the March attacks onwards. Hence the need for the Germans to secure it before prosecuting their final attack on the main objective.

To reach the top of the Mort Homme we took a minor road past the destroyed village of Haucourt before turning right towards the Meuse river and then right again at the village of Bethincourt. As mentioned in my blog entry 'Verdun - the Right Bank' the destoyed villages are atmospheric places, typically consisting of a chapel of remembrance, a memorial and the footprint of broken houses and outbuildings.

At the highest point on the Mort Homme, one can find the hugely impressive ILS NONT PAS PASSE memorial commemorating the dead of the French 69th Division. They Shall Not Pass! 

They Shall Not Pass (Phil Curme collection)

So, did the final successful assault on the Mort Homme unlock the deadlock on the right bank? Well, whilst the French artillery were pushed off these heights, the attack on the left bank did not facilitate a breakthrough. True, the Germans did make some inroads on the right - storming Fort Vaux and sweeping through Fleury (now home to the excellent Verdun Museum) but the German offensive effectively ended on the 12th July 1916. It is no coincidence that almost two weeks earlier the British (along with French forces) had initiated the Battle of the Somme - a threat to the German Army which required a transfer of reserves to the north and away from Verdun. The German strategy to destroy the Allies' will to fight by attacking a place that the French would need to defend at all costs, had failed. Falkenhayn lost his command and their further attempts to break the deadlock on the Western Front would wait until the launch of the Kaiserschlacht in the Spring of 1918.

For 'The Battle of Verdun - The Right Bank' click here.
To see my portfolio of photographs from Verdun click here.

Thursday 12 October 2023

The Battle of Verdun - The Right Bank (1916)

 In his rather intriguing memoir 'General Headquarters 1914-1916 and its critical decisions' General Von Falkenhayn articulated the logic behind Germany's decision to attack Verdun in 1916. The strain on France had already reached breaking point ... if we succeeded in opening the eyes of her people that in a military sense they had nothing more to hope for, then breaking point would be reached and England's best sword knocked out of her hand. Falkenhayn had succeeded Helmuth Von Moltke as German Chief of Staff in September 1914 following the failure of the Schlieffen Plan and remained in command until the Battle of Verdun ground to a bloody halt in late summer 1916. 

View of the Voie Sacree (Phil Curme Collection)

Armed with an original 1920s Michelin Guide we started our exploration of the battlefields at the old 2nd French Army G.H.Q. in the town of Souilly which was midway along the only real access route for reinforcements, the Voie Sacree (Sacred Road). The villa in question is now the town hall and there is a small museum adjacent to it. The Michelin Guide helpfully included an image of Generals Joffre and Petain on the steps, and I couldn't resist the opportunity of a 'then & now' comparison. Joffre is looking towards the building (probably contemplating one of his renowned lunches!) whilst Petain is looking straight to camera. 

2nd Army GHQ, Souilly
The road up to Verdun is incredibly evocative. Original post war marker stones mark the route and modern large-scale display boards show images of the men who traversed the road and the vehicles that transported them along with the huge quantities of supplies needed to keep the French Army in the field - and effective. Straying in to a ploughed field alongside the road, I picked up  a French soldier's drinking cup (subsequently verified as an original 1916 battlefield relic). I couldn't help reflecting on whether the Poulie who originally lost it, had returned to his family after the war or whether his bones rested in the huge ossuary and military cemetery a few miles to the north east. 

Our first true battlefield walk was at the extreme top end of the battlefield on the right bank of the Meuse - a river which divided the theatre of operations and drove much of the tactical thinking throughout the siege. The Bois des Caires was the spot where two battalions of Chasseurs under the command of Colonel Emile Driant fought a heroic defensive action at the very start of the battle. Driant had been a member of the French parliament prior to the start of the war, where he had voiced concerns about the state of the French Army's defensive capabilities. Despite being above the age of enlistment, Driant had pulled strings to get himself involved when war was imminent. A walk through the woods reveals Driant's original command post, the spot where he fell (see image below), his restored gravesite and a memorial to his unit. 

The spot where Colonel Driant fell (Phil Curme Collection)

After walking up Wavrille Hill to the south of the Bois de Caures in order to explore a number of old artillery positions and French bunkers, we travelled across territory that had been totally smashed during the conflict and where the destroyed villages were never rebuilt. All that remains of places like Beaumont, Ornes, Louvemont and Bezonvaux are broken buildings and post-war memorials and remembrance chapels.

The site of Bezonvaux village (Phil Curme Collection)

The German attacks on the right bank (of which there were many) were blunted and eventually stopped amongst the hills and defences which were capped by a series of forts - now synonymous with the intensity of the fighting. Denuded of effective artillery and well below strength, the forts at Douaumont and Vaux fell to the Germans in the early stages of the battle. The capture of the former came as a particular shock to the French, as it was achieved by a mere handful of German soldiers with the defending garrison putting up very little resistance. Subsequent assaults on the forts, by both sides, were hard-fought and costly in terms of human lives. Both forts are now museums and by visiting them you can get a sense of how awful it must have been, fighting in confined spaces and being concussed as massive artillery rounds landed on the casement above. 

Casement - Fort Douaumont (Phil Curme Collection)

Reverse Elevation - Fort Douaumont (Phil Curme Collection)

If one has any doubts about the ferocity of the fighting around Verdun then a visit to the National Cemetery and Ossuary at Douaumont will serve to disperse such thoughts. the site is a sombre place centred on the ossuary building itself. The enclosed tower contains articles picked up on the battlefield but these are but a distraction when it comes to absorbing the true magnitude of what the ossuary represents. The interior has a high vaulted ceiling straddling a long hall decorated with commemorative plaques and centred on a small chapel. Underneath the hall, there is a large vault containing the bones of over 130,000 combatants which one can glimpse through viewing windows at ground level on the outside of the building. 

Exterior - Verdun Ossuary (Phil Curme Collection)

Interior - Vedun Ossuary (Phil Curme Collection)

The title of Alistair Horne's outstanding history of the battle, 'The Price of Glory' sums up the meaning of this monument perfectly. to the south of the vast cemetery which frames the ossuary building, is a moving memorial to the French colonial troops who 'died for France'.  My overall impressions? The fact that the battlefield was left as it was after the battle, gives an eerie feel to the place. The destroyed villages, the cemeteries, the smashed forts - all are gradually being reclaimed by nature. The landscape may be softening, but the impact of the structures that remain tell a different, violent story. 

For my Flickr collection of images from the Verdun battlefield click here