The Fort of Douaumont – 1885 to WWI
Fort of Douaumont is located 388m above sea level, and 2km west of the village of Douaumont.
This imposing edifice was built in 1885 par General Sere de Rivieres, and the original stone masonry structure was strengthened in 1888.
These modifications included the addition of layers of concrete to reinforce the masonry and sand layers to absorb the shocks; 5m of earth were added on the top of the sections already buried; the retaining walls were protected with a 5m high metal plate; the ditches were enlarged and deepened, and the fort completely surrounded by a 30m wide belt of barbed wire.
The defense system of the Fort of Douaumont was modernized once again between 1907 and 1909.
A 155mm gun turret, which could fire shells of 43kg at a distance of 7km, was brought in.
A second turret with two 75mm guns, two machine gun turrets, and four armored observatories were added between 1911 and 1913.
This upgrade dramatically improved the Fort’s resistance to gunfire, and turned it also into the most modern and best equipped of the defense forts of the region.
It could accommodate a garrison of 500 to 800 men.
The barracks was located in the center of the fort, and spread over a basement, a ground floor and two upper floors.
The ground floor was reserved to the command post and reserves of ammunition, as well as to the hospital, bakery, kitchen, and laundry facilities.
The water tank and the powder reserves were kept on the upper floor.
However, the Decree of August 5, 1915 ordered the disarmament of the Fort of Douaumont, and the removal of the garrison and its supplies.
This decree applied also to the 3 other forts of the region.
The reason given by the government, was that the forts’ system of defense had become obsolete, due to the new generation of weaponry used during WWI.
Furthermore, regularly shelled and destroyed by German heavy artillery, they required huge amounts of specific ammunition such as heavy shells, which had to be transported by land.
This involved too much logistics and troops for their transport and defense.
Fort of Douaumont seized by the Germans – February 25, 1916
Due to its geographical situation and its recent modernization, the imposing Fort of Douaumont was considered a safe shelter to store ammunition, enable the troops to rest and treat the wounded.
Although disarmed, it became a major target for the Germans, as it also stood in a strategic location of the battlefield.
The disarmament of the fort added to the absence of garrison, made things easier for them.
They launched the assault on the morning of February 25, 1916, and captured it easily in the afternoon, as they found no resistance from the 50 unarmed French soldiers stationed there!
In fact the French were completely taken by surprise, as the Verdun front had been stagnating several kilometers north of the fort for the previous 18 months.
The German troops’ advance had been so rapid between February 21 and 25, that the small garrison in charge of the fort had no idea of their proximity, despite the increasing intensity of the bombing the previous four days.
May 22-24 – Dramatic failure of the French offensive
Recapturing the Fort of Douaumont was imperative!
The 6-day preparation for the assault, planned for 22 May, had to be deprogrammed as the Germans had got wind of it.
They sent troops to reinforce the fort, and on May 20 started an artillery counter-attack which quickly surpassed that of the French.
However, the French generals mistakenly thought that the intensity of their own artillery shelling had severely damaged the Fort of Douaumont.
They assured General Mangin, in charge of the offensive, that the assault on the Fort of Douaumont would be straight and forward.
No reconnaissance patrol was sent to verify the accuracy of this information, and the attack of May 22 was confirmed.
The French heavy artillery began to fire at 11:40 am, and 10 minutes later the first French line rushed out of the trenches and advanced through the German shelling.
All through the day, the men desperately tried to gain terrain under continuous fire bombing and shooting of machine guns, which from the beginning, inflicted them very heavy losses.
They never reached the east side of the Fort of Douaumont, where the Germans were able to receive troop reinforcements and supply of equipment.
On the evening of the first day of fighting, the French casualties were already very high.
On the morning of May 23, the French survivors received the order to re-attack, but at 9am the Germans increased the intensity of their bombardment, causing more dead on the French side.
The French managed to hold their positions throughout the afternoon of May 23, under the continuous fire of German machine guns and infantry.
The German artillery fire resumed on the morning of May 24 and continued until the evening.
By then, the French soldiers had reached the limit of their strength, and no longer counted their losses.
Their hellish situation is perfectly summed up in these few words: “Tiredness, thirst, hunger, physical pain, desolation, impotence, that’s the hell of Verdun combatants.”
Without ammunition, without food nor water, exhausted by two days of continuous fighting and without hope of reinforcements, they surrendered at the end of the day.
As noted by historians: “Their honor is safe, they held to the limits of human strength. In two days, they lost 72.2% of their comrades.”
The assault on the Fort of Douaumont was a tragic failure, no only causing considerable losses but leaving survivors with memories of hell.
Here is how historians analyzed the fundamental reasons for the failure of the French offensive of May 1916.
Firstly, the Germans had prior knowledge of the project, so it was doomed from the beginning.
Secondly, the artillery preparation was too short.
The shelling of the German lines only began two days prior to the attack, instead of the six initially planned; it was therefore difficult to neutralize or at least weaken the German defense.
Finally, they agreed that the number of troops mobilized was insufficient to carry out an attack of this magnitude.
16 September-15 October 1916 – Capture of the Fort of Douaumont
The reasons for the tragic failure of May in memory, the French generals carefully started to prepare a new offensive on the Fort.
Thus in September a fantastic planning started.
Batteries and ammunition, including two 400mm howitzers, were brought to attack the Fort of Douaumont and the Fort of Vaux.
500,000 tons of material and projectiles were sent to Verdun by train (4 to 5 trains per day.)
The French aviation became heavily involved in this preparation.
The pilots and several units of balloonists flew for several weeks over the German positions, covering a 7km wide and 3km deep front, meticulously mapping each battery, shelter, trench, barbed wire network, machine-gun nest, observer and route of access!
This intelligence report later allowed the French artillery shelling to accurately target the strategic sectors.
Meanwhile, the French trenches were deepened, the blockhouses rebuilt, new shelters built or dug to serve as future command posts, cables were buried between these shelters and the front lines to ensure efficient telephone links.
Tracks and roads located at strategic locations were rebuilt to facilitate the flow of assault troops.
Each day the men trained on land turned into battlefields.
Those who were to launch the assault on the Fort of Douaumont, studied by heart the building’s topology using cards, to be able to advance without hesitation when the time comes.
The artillery was put in place on October 20 and 21, and immediately began intensive shelling.
The Fort of Douaumont and Fort of Vaux were obviously the main targets.
On October 23, the French shells of 400mm, launched at an interval of 15 minutes, destroyed important depots of grenades and ammunition located in the middle of the Fort of Douaumont.
The series of explosions and the toxic fumes they produced killed 800 German soldiers.
The bodies of most of these men were eventually placed in one of the galleries and walled up as they couldn’t be decently buried outside the fort.
The situation became so intolerable in the interior of the fort, that a large number of German soldiers managed to leave the fort taking with them their wounded comrades.
The success of this first offensive encouraged Marshal Petain, Gal Nivelle and Gal Mangin, to plan the final assault on the Fort of Douaumont for the next day, October 24.
On the morning of October 24, a small reconnaissance German patrol managed to re-enter the fort to inspect the extent of the damage.
Their commander believed that, despite the magnitude of the destruction, he could still defend the fort if he were sent enough men armed with machine guns.
But this was too late!
At 11.40am, thousands of French soldiers rushed from their trenches and advanced swiftly, taking advantage of the thick fog that enveloped the sector.
They captured the Fort of Douaumont in the afternoon.
The ruined Fort of Douaumont is today surrounded by woods; vegetation covers the scars of the battlefield, and it is hard to imagine the full scale of the tragic events that took place here in 1916.
Other sites of the Battle of Verdun:
Citadel of Verdun – Sacred Way – Douaumont Ossuary and National Cemetery – Abri 320 – Bayonet Trench – Fleury-devant-Douaumont “Village Détruit – Maginot Monument in Fleury-devant-Douaumont
Department of Meuse – Lorraine region – Grand Est
Coordinates: Lat 49.217423 – Long 5.438763