The Struggle for Douaumont

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 227th installment in the series.   

March 2-4, 1916: The Struggle for Douaumont 

As March 1916 began one word was on the lips of people across Europe, on both sides of the battle lines: Verdun. The German onslaught against the fortress city was clearly the greatest offensive since the beginning of the war, fated to be one of the bloodiest battles in history. On March 2 Mildred Aldrich, an American woman living in a small village outside Paris, described the feeling in a letter to a friend: 

We are living these days in the atmosphere of the great battle of Verdun. We talk Verdun all day, dream Verdun all night--in fact, the thought of that great attack in the east absorbs every other idea. Not in the days of the Marne, nor in the trying days of Ypres or the Aisne was the tension so terrible as it is now. No one believes that Verdun can be taken, but the anxiety is dreadful, and the idea of what the defence is costing is never absent from the minds even of those who are firmly convinced of what the end must be. 

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On the other side Evelyn, Princess Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living Berlin, recorded German impressions in her diary on March 5, 1916, showing how propaganda could present the same events from diametrically opposed perspectives: 

Verdun is the chief subject of interest at present, and in Germany it is now looked upon as likely to be one of the decisive victories of the war. They say it is only a matter of a few days before the whole fortress is taken, and that the terrific losses among the French fill even them with horror. Whereas on the other hand one reads in the English papers “that the Verdun attack has been a failure.” 

In fact it was only beginning. As February drew to a close the fighting continued with shocking violence, as German infantry led by small units of elite “storm troopers” pressed forward in the face of determined French resistance, while thousands of artillery pieces fought a thundering duel overhead. On February 26 one German officer, fighting in the vicinity of the Caures Woods where two battalions of “chasseurs a pied” under Colonel Emile Driant made their last stand, painted a picture of terrible conditions, both manmade and natural, in his diary:

On the edge of the Caures Wald the first French positions. Here it was possible to see the wonders of war. Our artillery had caused craters 10m wide and 6m deep. The dead lay all around, including a young Leutnant with his whole group… It is a picture of sorrow that I will never forget. In the French 2nd line a machine gun had operated until the last moment. This murderous weapon had made the advance of our 87 (I.R.) [infantry regiment] very difficult. It was freezing in the tents tonight; I did not sleep a single minute. 

The same day, a French soldier fighting near Fort Douaumont, a key stronghold lost to the Germans the day before, described the confusion prevailing amidst hellish scenes on the battlefield, as the German infantry pressed forward despite huge losses: 

The guns are firing at 200 and 300 yards, and shrapnel is exploding with a crash, scything them down. Our men hold their ground; our machine guns keep to their work, and yet they advance… At a given moment the Boches are quite close to us. Despite the noise of the guns one can hear their oaths and their shouts as they strike… Everything is on fire – the wood near by, the village of Douaumont, Verdun, the front of Bezonvaux, and the back of Thiaumont. There is fire everywhere. The acrid smell of carbonic acid and blood catches at our throats, but the battle goes on. 

By the end of February the French Second and Tenth Armies had arrived to reinforce the exhausted defenders, and the German offensive seemed to be losing its initial momentum, as the attackers now faced the difficulty of moving the huge heavy artillery pieces (some – the 420-millimeter “Big Berthas” – weighing 47 tons) forward over primitive roads turned to expanses of mud by the melting snow. 

Aided by the turn in the weather, the new French commander at Verdun, General Philippe Petain, managed to stabilize the front temporarily, while organizing the non-stop convoy of 3,500 trucks, which in the next week alone would deliver 190,000 troops and 25,000 tons of supplies along the last open road connecting Verdun to the outside world, later known as the “Voie Sacree” or “Sacred Way” (below). By June 1916 the number of vehicles making the endless round trip between Verdun and Bar-le-Duc to the south would rise to 12,000, tended by an army of mechanics and road engineers. 

But the commander of the German Fifth Army, the German Crown Prince Wilhelm, was determined to prevail. Thus in many places German troops ended up desperately hanging on to hard-won positions even when they were exposed to French artillery fire (especially from hills on the western bank of the Meuse, still in French hands), resulting in almost as many casualties among the attackers as the defenders. 

This marked the emergence of a fatal dynamic that would ultimately undermine chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn’s plan for a battle of attrition, which had envisioned German troops making a series of incremental, conservative gains and then holding strong defensive positions against French counterattacks. Unfortunately, Falkenhayn apparently never conveyed this nuance to Crown Prince Wilhelm, who believed he was simply responsible for capturing Verdun, whatever the price. 

The price was steep both in terms of casualties and morale. Another German officer described seemingly interminable French shelling near the village of Vacherauville (not to be confused with the fort of the same name, on the opposite bank of the River Meuse) on the night of February 28-29, 1916: 

Had a night like never before. As I had left my coat behind when I had gone out on patrol, and my batman had not come forward with me, I had to spend the night in the trench with just a blanket. I had to squat the whole night, could not go out as we were under constant artillery fire. So, along with the uncomfortable position and the freezing cold, we had to accept the fact that each of the incoming shells could have our name on it. The mud was flung into our trench and faces; the trench itself was not deep enough as it had been hastily dug. How long this night was for us it is easy to imagine. Thank God for the dawn and keeping us alive during the night. 

However the situation hardly improved during the day on February 29, according to the same account, which illustrates how gruesome events became part of everyday life on the battlefield: 

Unfortunately we suffered losses today, a number of brave soldiers wounded and to our great dismay our Battalion Commander was critically wounded, losing both legs and having shell splinters in his throat and head. Unfortunately there was no Doctor or stretcher bearers available. A man with First Aid knowledge announced that it was no use bandaging the wounds. Hauptmann Raffloer was fully conscious and requested that he simply be carried to the rear. He was carried through the ravine and over the dangerous height in a Shelter half. We are totally cut off, by day we can not move at all, and by night just at the risk of our lives. A few hours later the Hauptmann was dead. A dapper and brave soldier. 

In the first four days of March the fiercest fighting was concentrated on the village of Douaumont, which lay at the foot of the recently captured fort of the same name (below, Fort Douaumont at the end of the war) and now became the site of a bitter contest that literally wiped the little settlement off the face of the earth, with nothing left to mark it but a stretch of pulverized stone (top, the outskirts of Douaumont in 1917). 

The struggle for Douaumont village saw the Germans mount three furious assaults over the course of a week, only to find themselves targeted by last-ditch French machine gun crews, carefully concealed in the ruins of the village and prepared to fight until they were wiped out. As the village traded hands again and again, German machine guns firing from Fort Douaumont were joined by the massive “Big Berthas,” which attempted to deal with the French suicide squads in the village by simply removing whatever remained of the village, one earthshaking blow at a time. 

Meanwhile fresh French troops hurried into Douaumont village under cover of night, under Petain’s new deployment system, which rotated units through the Verdun slaughterhouse for a few weeks at a time, in an attempt to spread the losses out as much as possible (by contrast, Falkenhayn held back reserves from the German Fifth Army, forcing German divisions to remain in the front line much longer, suffering higher proportional casualty rates as a result).

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But the overwhelming German advantage in artillery firepower left little doubt what the final outcome would be. On March 4 units from the German 5th and 25th Divisions completed the bloody mopping up of the last remaining French defenders – capturing one wounded young officer, Captain Charles de Gaulle, who would spend the next 32 months in a German prisoner of war camp, then later gain fame during the Second World War as the leader of the Free French Forces.

Elsewhere at Verdun German troops were finding ways to minimize their exposure to French artillery fire, which was also making it increasingly difficult to bring up supplies. At the same time, both sides were carrying out patrols to test the weakness of their foes’ improvised defenses. On March 4 the same anonymous German officer described the situation near Vacherauville in his diary: 

Last night heavy artillery fire… Unfortunately the Company got nothing [to eat]. The company prolonged the battalion trench, tonight as much of it as possible will be manned. A screen was set up to hide our rear area from the Frenchmen. Had shooting bays dug in the trench walls, the men standing in them would be better protected from the artillery and passage through the trench would be easier. A French patrol had managed to slip between our Schützenschleier (Forward posts) and the trench. When challenged, a Frenchman answered in broken German. An Unteroffizier called out to them in French, they should surrender or we fire. They did not respond and disappeared in the night. 

French artillery located on the western bank of the Meuse was now inflicting unacceptable casualties on the flank of the German Fifth Army, helping bring German casualties to over 25,000 by the end of February. Meeting with Falkenhayn, Crown Prince Wilhelm and his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, demanded a new offensive to clear the French from the western bank of the Meuse, in order to permit the main German offensive to go forward. Falkenhayn, mindful of Germany’s manpower limitations, nevertheless reluctantly agreed; the attack on the western bank, vastly expanding the scope of the battle, was scheduled for March 6, 1916. 

Germans Resume Unrestricted U-boat Wafare

At the end of February 1916 the German navy resumed the U-boat campaign against merchant shipping in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, in a fresh attempt to bring Britain to its knees by cutting it off from outside supplies, especially munitions manufactured in the United States. However this once again risked an open breach with the world’s largest neutral power, something Germany could scarcely afford. 

The first unrestricted U-boat campaign had lasted from February to September 1915, when Kaiser Wilhelm II canceled it in the face of intense diplomatic pressure from the U.S., following the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915. However the flood of American-made supplies to Britain and France only grew, increasingly paid for with loans from American banks. 

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In her diary Evelyn, Princess Blucher, recorded growing anxiety and anger among the Germans over this (unofficial) U.S. support for the Allies:  “‘If America keeps on,’ the Germans say (some of them, of course), ‘we’re done for. America is actually keeping things going. If America will stop providing the Allies with munitions, we can still win.’” 

Under pressure from Falkenhayn and Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the champion of the German navy, in February 1916 the Kaiser consented to the resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare, allowing German submarines to sink armed merchantmen in the war zone around the British Isles without warning. 

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Predictably, the announcement was greeted with consternation in the U.S., where President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of State Robert Lansing insisted on the right of Americans to travel on merchant ships, even if the vessels were carrying defensive weapons and therefore technically warships.

Far from bowing to American demands to withdraw the order, on March 4 the Kaiser secretly expanded the targeting criteria to include any merchant ships in the war zone, and any armed merchant ships outside the war zone. However, he still insisted that enemy passenger ships not be targeted, precipitating a final falling-out with Tirpitz, who objected that it was too difficult for U-boat commanders to distinguish the different kinds of ships, adding that passenger ships could in any event also carry weapons. On March 12, 1916 Tirpitz submitted his resignation yet again – and this time it was accepted. 

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Meanwhile ordinary soldiers and merchant sailors boarding ship for Britain or France put their faith in their captains and the Royal Navy, which deployed scores of destroyers to scour the sea lanes, and was now developing a new weapon, the depth charge, to strike at German submarines below the surface. On December 3, 1915 A Canadian lieutenant, Clifford Almon Wells, described the precautionary measures taken aboard the transport Lapland as it crossed the Atlantic: 

To-day we are fairly in the danger zone. Our company’s machine gun is mounted aft, while other guns are mounted forward. The decks are lined with men armed rifles… To-night every man must sleep on deck by the life-boat or raft to which he has been assigned. All portholes are darkened at night and every precaution is taken to render the ship invisible.

Of course submarines were just one threat posed by the crossing, which also exposed them to the fury of the elements. Another Canadian, Billy Gray, recalled sailing through a North Atlantic storm in a letter home: 

It started in Wednesday night and blew a regular gale head on, for thirty-six hours. There is no use in my trying to describe it for I can’t. Suffice it to say she was a real storm. My clothes are not dry yet, being soaked through and through. Everyone was seasick, and if I could describe the indescribable horror of men crowded together as they were in those days, I know you wouldn’t believe me. Oh! it was horrible. Sick by hundreds lying around anywhere gasping for air. Some slept on the decks in a drenched condition, spray sweeping over them… The stench below was something to remember… One man of the crew was killed, washed off the ladder leading to the crow’s nest into the forward winches. Broken neck. He was buried this a.m. 

But as elsewhere, horror could alternate with beauty in strange and unexpected ways. A few days later the changeable sea presented a very different scene to Gray: 

Just at present we are cleaving our way into a road of silver, for the moon is shining directly over our bows, and it is a wonderful sight apparently moving up a shimmering carpet… A carpet of silver and grey lace, like one of those red and black ones from the sidewalk to a church door at weddings, dancing ahead and only the lap, lap, lap of the waters as one stands on the fo’castle.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
10 Monster Facts About Pacific Rim
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Legendary Pictures took a gamble on Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 monster/robot slugfest. Since it wasn’t based on a preexisting franchise, it lacked a built-in fanbase. That can be a serious drawback in our current age of blockbuster remakes and reboots. The movie underperformed domestically; in America, it grossed just over $100 million against its $180 million budget. Yet Pacific Rim was a huge hit overseas and acquired enough fans to earn itself a sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising, which arrives in theaters this week. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the movie that started it all.


Idris Elba in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Warner Bros.

One foggy day in 2007, Beacham—who’d recently moved to California—was walking along Santa Monica Beach. As he looked out at the Ferris wheel on the city’s eponymous pier, he pictured a looming sea monster. Then he imagined an equally large robot gearing up to fight the beast. “They just sort of materialized out of the fog, these vast godlike things,” Beacham said. He decided to pursue the concept further after coming up with the idea of human co-pilots who’d need to operate their robot as a team, which added a new thematic dimension.

“I didn’t know I had something I wanted to write until I realized these robots are driven by two pilots, and what happens when one of those people dies? What happens to the leftovers? Then it became a story about loss, moving on after loss, and dealing with survivor’s guilt," Beacham said. "That made the monsters scarier because now you care about the people who are in these robots.”


Pacific Rim was picked up by Legendary Pictures and handed over to director Guillermo del Toro. A huge fan of monster cinema, del Toro enthusiastically co-wrote the final screenplay with Beacham. Sixteen concept artists were hired to sketch original robot and creature designs for the film. “We would get together every day like kids and draw all day,” del Toro told the New York Daily News. “We designed about a hundred Kaijus and about a hundred Jaegers and every week we would do an American Idol and we would vote [some of] them out.”


In “Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats,” the tenth episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's sixth season, Charlie Day’s character gives us a darkly comedic monologue about rodent extermination. Little did the actor know that the performance would open a big opportunity for him. Impressed by the rat speech, del Toro offered Day the part of Dr. Newton Geizler, Pacific Rim’s socially-inept kaiju expert. “He said to himself, ‘That’s my guy. That guy should be in my next movie because if he killed rats, he can kill the monster,’” Day recalled during an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. On the movie set, del Toro often joked about how much he enjoys It’s Always Sunny. As a way of repaying his director, Day helped get del Toro a minor role in the series.


Most of the film’s special effects were computer-generated, but not everything was digital. For the robot cockpit scenes, del Toro had his team build the interior of a full-scale Jaeger head. The finished product stood four stories tall and weighed 20 tons. And like a Tilt-A-Whirl from hell, it was designed to rock around violently on its platform via a network of hydraulics. Once inside, the actors were forced to don 40-pound suits of armor. Then the crew strapped their feet into an apparatus that Charlie Hunnam has compared to a high-resistance elliptical machine.

Certain shots also required del Toro to dump gallons of water all over his exhausted, physically-strained stars. So yeah, the experience wasn’t much fun. “We saw every one of the actors break down on that set except for the female lead actress Rinko Kikuchi," del Toro said. "She’s the only actor that didn’t snap."


Del Toro wanted Gipsy Danger, his ‘bot, to have the self-confident air of a wild west gunslinger. To that end, he and concept artist Oscar Chichoni developed a swaggering gait that was based on John Wayne’s signature hip movements. The Jaeger’s Art Deco-like design was influenced by the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.


Hailed as the “fortieth greatest guitarist of all time” by Rolling Stone, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello rocked the MTV generation with hits like “Bulls on Parade” and “Killing in the Name.” Pacific Rim bears his mark as well. The film’s lead composer was Ramin Djawadi, whose other works include the Game of Thrones theme. Wanting to add a “rock element” to the Pacific Rim soundtrack, he and del Toro reached out to Morello. The guitarist didn’t need much persuading.

“When they asked me to put some giant robot riffs and screaming underwater monster licks on the film score, I was all in,” Morello said. Djwadi was pleased with the rocker's contributions to the project. As he told the press: “Tom’s unique style and sounds really defined our robots.”


A definite highlight of this movie is Gipsy Danger’s duel with the winged kaiju Otachi in downtown Hong Kong. Both characters were computer-generated, as were the majority of the streets, cars, and towers in this epic sequence. However, there is one moment which was at least partly realized with practical effects. Gipsy punches through the wall of an office building early in the fight. We see her fist rip through a series of cubicles and gradually decelerate until it lightly taps a chair with just enough force to set off a Newton’s Cradle desktop toy. For that shot, effects artists at 32Ten Studios constructed a miniature office building interior featuring 1/4-scale desks, cubicles, and padded chairs. The level of detail here was amazing: 32Ten’s staff adorned each individual workspace with lamps, computers, wastebaskets, and teeny, tiny Post-it notes.


Rinko Kikuchi in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Audiences reacted strongly to Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori, who inspired an alternative to the famous Bechdel test. Some critics praised the culmination of her relationship with Raleigh Beckett (Hunnam). Although it’s common practice for the male and female leads in an action flick to end their movie with a smooch, Mori and Beckett share a platonic hug as Pacific Rim draws to a close. Del Toro revealed that he shot three different versions of that final scene. “We did one version where they kiss and it almost felt weird. They’re good friends, they’re pals, good colleagues,” del Toro said.


At the end of the credits, there’s a tribute that reads: “This film is dedicated to the memories of monster masters Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda.” Harryhausen passed away on May 7, 2013—two months before Pacific Rim’s release. A great stop-motion animator, he breathed life into such creatures as the towering Rhedosaurus in 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

Ishiro Honda was another giant of the kaiju genre, having directed Rodan, War of the Gargantuas, and numerous Godzilla films. Del Toro has great respect for both men. When Harryhausen died, the director said, “I lost a member of my family today, a man who was as present in my childhood as any of my relatives.” He also adores the Japanese monster classics and says he’d love to see a Pacific Rim-Godzilla crossover someday. Maybe it’ll happen.


If you’re not familiar with the practice of “Sweding,” let us fill you in: The 2008 comedy Be Kind, Rewind is about two co-workers at a VHS rental store who accidentally erase every tape in stock. Hoping to save their skins, they create ultra low-budget remakes of all the films they’ve destroyed using cardboard sets and cheap costumes. It’s a process these guys call “Sweding” as a ploy to convince everyone that their (unintentionally hilarious) knockoffs were produced in Sweden. Since Be Kind, Rewind was released, Sweding has become a legitimate art form.

When Pacific Rim’s first trailer debuted in 2013, YouTubers Brian Harley and Brodie Mash created a shot-for-shot, Sweded duplicate of the preview. Instead of state-of-the-art CG effects, their version used toy helicopters, duct-tape monster masks, and an ocean of packing peanuts—and del Toro loved it. At WonderCon 2013, he praised the video, saying that it inspired the editing used in Pacific Rim’s third trailer. Harley and Mash happened to be at the same gathering. When del Toro met the comedic duo, he exclaimed “I loved it! My daughters loved it, we watched it a bunch of times!” Then he invited the Sweding duo to attend Pacific Rim’s premiere in Hollywood.

Evening Standard/Getty Images
Pop Culture
Stanley Kubrick Photography Exhibition Opening at the Museum of the City of New York
Evening Standard/Getty Images
Evening Standard/Getty Images

Stanley Kubrick will forever be known as one of the most important film directors of the 20th century, but he started his career in the 1940s as a photojournalist for Look magazine. Now, the Museum of the City of New York will host a photographic exhibition of Kubrick’s early work, featuring 120 pictures from his time as a staff photographer at Look from 1945 to 1950.

Much of Kubrick’s work at the time revolved around daily life in New York City—the clubs, the commutes, and the sports. Some of his most notable pieces while at Look were his photo features on boxers Rocky Graziano and Walter Cartier, the latter of which became the subject of Kubrick’s first film, a 1951 documentary called Day of the Fight.

“Turning his camera on his native city, Kubrick found inspiration in New York's characters and settings, sometimes glamorous, sometimes gritty,” the museum wrote in a press release. “He produced work that was far ahead of his time and focused on themes that would inspire him through his creative life. Most importantly, his photography laid the technical and aesthetic foundations for his cinematography: he learned through the camera's lens to be an acute observer of human interactions and to tell stories through images in dynamic narrative sequences.”

Titled "Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs," the exhibition will detail the different themes that inspired Kubrick’s work, as well as guide patrons through his Look tenure, including both published and unpublished work. One of the exhibit’s goals is to provide an “examination of the direct connection between Kubrick the photographer and Kubrick the director.”

"Through a Different Lens" runs from Thursday, May 3 through October 28, 2018 at the Museum of the City of New York.


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