Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 236th installment in the series.
May 22-25, 1916: French Fail To Retake Fort Douaumont
Following the German onslaught against Verdun in February 1916, the defense of the symbolic fortress town was organized by general Philippe Petain, commander of the French Second Army, who won fame for holding off the first waves of the attack, implementing a system of rotating deployments to keep defenders (relatively) fresh, and creating the continuous truck convoy which kept the French divisions around Verdun supplied with weapons, ammunition, and food.
Even more importantly, Petain – a dour pessimist who’d quickly realized the futility of infantry assaults again entrenched defenders – avoided falling into the trap set by German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn, who hoped to wear France out through sheer attrition. Where Falkenhayn expected the French to fling every last man into the fight to save Verdun, Petain avoided sending his troops against strong German defensive positions whenever possible, was willing to cede small amounts of ground when necessary, and relied heavily on artillery to make the enemy pay for every square foot of captured ground (thus turning the tables on Falkenhayn, who’d hoped to lure the French into counterattacks and blow them away with artillery).
Between this and German commanders’ over-eager advances, what was supposed to be a battle of attrition for the French alone ended up being equally costly for the Germans, prompting the commander of the German Fifth Army, Crown Prince Frederick Wilhelm, to privately advise Falkenhayn that the attack had failed and should be called off on April 21, 1916. In short, the French defense of Verdun appeared to be successful.
However, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre wasn’t satisfied with mere defense: given Verdun’s symbolic importance, the German gains had to be reversed through systematic counterattacks, even at great cost. In other words, he was prepared to abandon Petain’s hard-fought defensive posture, thus playing into Falkenhayn’s hands exactly as the latter hoped. And Joffre had the perfect commander to launch the glorious bloodletting: General Robert Nivelle, a cocky French artillery officer who’d made his name helping defeat the German offensive of 1914 at the Marne and Aisne. Nivelle was supported by the commander of the 5th Division, General Charles Mangin – a committed acolyte of the cult of the attack, who exuded confidence that the right combination of firepower and French bravery could dislodge the Germans from their positions north of Verdun.
Of course Joffre couldn’t just cashier a successful officer like Petain (as he had literally hundreds of other lesser lights) so instead he decided to kick him upstairs. On May 1, 1916 Joffre promoted Petain to command of Army Group Center, giving him responsibility for a large stretch of the Western Front besides Verdun, while Nivelle was promoted to command the Second Army. The stage was set for the French to switch from defense to offense.
While the Germans remained focused on the incredibly fierce struggle for the strategic hills Cote 304 and Mort Homme (the appropriately named “Dead Man”) on the west bank of the Meuse, Nivelle and Mangin planned to strike a blow at the very center of the German line by recapturing Fort Douaumont, lost with scarcely a shot fired in the first days of the attack on Verdun, now a safe haven, communications hub and clearing house for German troops on the way to the trenches. They were understandably encouraged by belated news of the disastrous explosions and fire that killed 650 German soldiers at Fort Douaumont, concluding that these had probably damaged the fort’s defenses as well.
However the Germans quickly repaired the damage with their typical efficiency, and then – alerted to the coming attack by intelligence reports – buttressed the garrison with reinforcements. Meanwhile the French artillery preparation (which lasted five days; above, the French bombardment) was frustrated by pre-war French engineering skill, making little impression on a roof composed of thirty feet of soil over eight feet of concrete, although several turrets, entrances, and a power generator were destroyed.
When the French emerged from their positions to attack, German artillery in the trenches around Douaumont opened up with ferocious accuracy, wiping out entire battalions before they reached the fort. Nonetheless one French regiment, the 129th, managed to storm the roof of the structure, and a small number of French troops actually managed to penetrate the fort through a hole left by a lucky French shot, reaching the the outer tunnels and even glimpsing the interior of the fort itself before being swiftly expelled.
The French set up a machine gun on the roof of the fort and mowed down scores of German (counter)-attackers emerging from the fort’s interior, but their own losses were astronomical, amounting to almost half the regiment by the end of the first day. One anonymous French observer at Douaumont noted the lunatic ferocity of the fighting, and its effect on the men:
Even the wounded refuse to abandon the struggle. As though possessed by devils, they fight on until they fall senseless from loss of blood. A surgeon in a front-line post told me that, in a redoubt at the south part of the fort, of 200 French dead, fully half had more than two wounds. Those he was able to treat seemed utterly insane. They kept shouting war cries and their eyes blazed, and, strangest of all, they appeared indifferent to pain. At one moment anaesthetics ran out owing to the impossibility of bringing forward fresh supplies through the bombardment. Arms, even legs, were amputated without a groan, and even afterward the men seemed not to have felt the shock. They asked for a cigarette or inquired how the battle was going.
Worse still, the French troops on the fort’s roof were cut off from reinforcements and resupplies by German artillery, meaning it was only a matter of time before they ran out of ammunition and succumbed as well. By May 24 a German trench mortar wiped out the French machine gun, and the arrival of the Bavarian 1st and 2nd Divisions as reinforcements on the German side on May 25 spelled the end of the venture.
Thus the attack by the French 5th Division against Fort Douaumont ended in total defeat. The total cost from May 22-25 was 6,400 French casualties, including dead, wounded, missing and prisoners, or almost half the strength of the 5th Division, now so battered it could barely hold its own position in the French defensive line.
Meanwhile fighting continued along the entire Verdun front (above, newsreel footage of Verdun) and especially on the west bank of the Meuse, where the French and Germans were still battling for control of Cote (Hill) 304. One eyewitness, the French soldier Louis Barthas, described the shocking scenes amid nonstop fighting at Cote 304:
As day broke, I looked out upon this famous, nameless hill. Our trench lay at the foot of it. For several months the hill had been disputed as if it had diamond mines on its slopes. Alas, all it contained now were thousands of shredded, pulverized corpses. Nothing distinguished it from neighboring hills. It seemed to have been partly wooded at one time, but no trace of vegetation remains. The convulsed, overturned earth offered nothing but a spectacle of devastation. All day long we stayed close to the ground, huddled in this covered trench, suffering from heat and lack of air.
Barthas later saw the remnants of a French regiment which had been wiped out on Cote 304 not long before in the “Rascas trench”:
There, human flesh had been shredded, torn to bits. At places where the earth was soaked with blood, swarms of flies swirled and eddied. You couldn’t really see corpses, but you knew where they were, hidden in shell holes with a layer of dirt on top of them, from the wafting smells of rotten flesh. There was all sorts of debris everywhere: broken rifles; gutted packs from which spilled out pages of tenderly written letters and other carefully guarded souvenirs from home, and which the wind scattered; crushed canteens, shredded musette bags – all labeled 125th Regiment.
An anonymous French lieutenant painted a similar picture of conditions at Verdun:
We all carried the smell of dead bodies with us. The bread we ate, the stagnant water we drank… Everything we touched smelled of decomposition due to the fact that the earth surrounding us was packed with dead bodies… you could never get rid of the horrible stench. If we were on leave and we were having a drink somewhere, it would only last a few minutes before the people at the table beside us would stand up and leave. It was impossible to endure the horrible stench of Verdun.