French Fail To Retake Fort Douaumont

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. 

Click to enlarge

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.

See the previous installment or all entries.

13 Great Rockumentaries Every Music (and Movie) Fan Should See

The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection

More people are watching documentaries these days, which likely means that more people are rocking their faces off with nonfiction. Far from Ken Burns’s soothing tones, these music-filled films demand amplification and an unseemly amount of perspiration.

Rock documentaries are tricky beasts. Though they often have the built-in advantage of following around famous people, they aren’t immune to boredom and eye-rolling faux depth. Keeping it simple by showcasing the music can be good, but it’s no way to be great. The best of the best manage to deliver a stellar soundscape, offer a backstage pass to the real humans who make it, and hold our ears even if we aren’t already devoted fans. If a little history gets made in the process, even better.

Grab a seat next to Penny Lane on the bus. Here are 13 of the best documentaries that every music—and film—fan should add to their Must Watch list.

1. WHAT’S HAPPENING! THE BEATLES IN THE U.S.A. (1964)

A singular piece of filmmaking where nonfiction talent met transcendent musical genius on the threshold of gargantuan stardom, this is the best Beatles documentary ever produced. Directed by legendary documentarians Albert and David Maysles, the film captures the band’s first frivolous jaunt through America, where they raised the screaming decibel level in The Ed Sullivan Show theater and goofed off in hotel rooms. It’s an explosion of youth before they changed music forever.

2. DON’T LOOK BACK (1967)

Another marriage of style, skill, and subject, Don't Look Back helped shape how the rockumentary genre could provide insights into the people who shape our popular culture. That so many iconic moments emerged from D.A. Pennebaker’s watershed work, which strolled with Bob Dylan through England in 1965, is a testament to the legendary musician's infinite magnetism. The cue cards, singing with Joan Baez in a hotel room on the edge of breaking up, the Mississippi voter registration rally, and on and on. Since it portrayed fame’s effect on the artist, the art, and the audience, most every other rock doc has been chasing its brilliance.

3. GIMME SHELTER (1970)

The rockumentary has evolved to be as diverse as the sonic landscape itself, which is why Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping can send up the current scene just like This Is Spinal Tap! did in the 1980s. Still, 1970 feels like the year that defined the rockumentary. Another Maysles joint, this profound doc captured The Rolling Stones touring at a time when they were one of the biggest bands in the world and only getting bigger. The music is powerful and immediate, and the film closes with their appearance at the Altamont Free Concert, which turned deadly when—after a day of skirmishes between concertgoers and the Hell’s Angels acting as security—a fan with a gun was stabbed to death when he tried to get on stage during “Under My Thumb.”

4. WOODSTOCK (1970)

The other 1970 film that helped define the genre allowed thousands to claim they’d been to the biggest concert event of the generation without actually going. If rock ‘n’ roll emerged from unruly teenage years into conflicted young adulthood in the 1960s, nothing stamped that image in henna ink better than Woodstock and the documentary that accompanied it. The bands that appear are legendary: Crosby, Stills & Nash; The Who; Joe Cocker singing The Beatles; Janis Joplin; Jimi Hendrix; and many more. It’s a fly-by of the three days of peace and music that you could play on repeat with summery ease.

5. ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (1973)

Rock doc royalty D.A. Pennebaker captured David Bowie’s final performance in his red-domed sci-fi persona at London's Hammersmith Odeon with a flair that captures the frenetic energy of the room. The crowd is as much a part of the moment as the band is, as the camera places you in the middle of a transitional moment in music history. To see Bowie that close up now is a wonder. And, naturally, the music is out of this world.

6. THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (1981)

Instead of following the famous, Penelope Spheeris’s debut dug its nails deep into the Los Angeles punk scene at the turn of the decade. Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, and other bands your parents have never heard of perform mosh pit-sparking anthems and show off their living conditions like a grungy proto-version of MTV Cribs. There’s a purity here missing from most music docs—a chronicle of people whose passion far, far outweighs their paychecks, and a screening that led the LAPD to request that the movie never be shown in LA again.

7. SIGN "☮" THE TIMES (1987)

Having Prince at the center of your concert doc is a shortcut to ensuring it’s one of the best of all time. There’s the music, of course. Hits like “Little Red Corvette” and “U Got the Look,” and Sheila E. beating the hell out of her drum kit. There’s also The Purple One's inexhaustible energy and stage presence. As a bonus, the film jumps between concert footage and (instead of candid hotel conversations) a sci-fi narrative where we get to go to Prince Planet. It’s a rocky, disorienting experience that could have only been held so tightly together by a master showman.

8. MADONNA: TRUTH OR DARE (1991)

It might be hard to explain to a younger audience just how dominant Madonna was as an artist coming out of the 1980s or the kind of landmark event this film represented because of her status. The travelogue of her Blonde Ambition Tour was like peeking into the insane world of the ultra-famous—not least because Madonna was dating Warren Beatty at the time and part of the film involves her hanging out with Al Pacino, Lionel Richie, and more. There are threats that the Canadian police will arrest her for simulating masturbation in her show, the Pope trying to get the tour canceled in Italy, and a slightly awkward return home to see family. All par for the course for someone whose personal life was carved up for public consumption.

9. RHYME & REASON (1997)

An unparalleled look into the lyricism and lifestyle of rap musicians from the genre’s rise through its global domination of the 1990s, the concert and party footage is fantastic, and the number of interviews is staggering. Peter Spirer spoke with more than 80 rap and hip-hop artists to craft a snapshot of what life was like for a group of musicians who discovered their voices could echo across the world as well as those who followed after to even greater success. Instead of going deep on one person behind the music, it’s a historical document of the culture itself as seen through the eyes of those at its very center.

10. THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (2005)

For those who don’t know Daniel Johnston’s music, this doc is a crash course not only in its stripped-down, anti-folk vibes but the head it all comes spilling out of. Instead of romanticizing or ignoring his bipolar disorder, Jeff Feuerzeig’s movie engages with it directly, drawing beautiful gems from a troubled mind. An absolute masterpiece, it’s less a vision of a musician giving glimpses into his real life than it is a vision of a human being who makes music.

11. AWESOME; I F*CKIN’ SHOT THAT! (2006)

Rockumentaries follow two major formats: the raw concert doc that’s like a ticket to a show you couldn’t attend, and the profile where artists drop quotables in between performances. They’re safe and familiar, which is probably why the Beastie Boys gave both styles the middle finger in favor of a grand experiment. A year before YouTube launched, the rap trio gave 50 fans in their Madison Square Garden audience camcorders to capture the concert. The result is a genuine, fans’-eye-view of the experience, and a chaotic mashup of perspectives.

12. THE PUNK SINGER (2013)

It’s astonishing how much time and ground Sini Anderson’s portrait of Bikini Kill leader Kathleen Hanna covers. It’s so much that labeling her Bikini Kill’s leader is woefully reductive. Artist, pioneer, feminist, activist, and a dozen other titles swirl around Hanna’s sweat-covered brow as we get to know her both as an artist and as a person. It’s also a punk fever dream of riot grrrl greatness, featuring incendiary archival footage and excellent talks with members of Le Tigre, Bikini Kill, and Julie Ruin, as well as Carrie Brownstein and the Beastie Boys’s Adam Horovitz (who is also Hanna’s husband).

13. JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE (2015)

A fairly recent addition to the pantheon, Amy J. Berg’s doc is a stirring tour of archival footage of the gravel-throated songstress. Narrated by musician Cat Power, instead of losing perspective to the fog of history, a blend of modern conversations and ghosts from the past offer fresh eyes and ears to create a heartsick celebration of one of music history's most beloved artists, whose career was cut woefully short.

20 Memorable Elvis Presley Quotes

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More than 40 years after his death, Elvis Presley remains a rock ‘n' roll icon and has yet to be ousted from his position as “The King.” Yet the Tupelo, Mississippi-born, Memphis, Tennessee-raised superstar never took his fame for granted, nor did he forget his roots. Here are 20 memorable quotes about Elvis’s life and legacy.

ON AMBITION

“Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.”

ON MAINTAINING YOUR VALUES

“It's not how much you have that makes people look up to you, it's who you are.”

“Values are like fingerprints. Nobody's are the same, but you leave 'em all over everything you do.”

ON THE MUSIC INDUSTRY

“I happened to come along in the music business when there was no trend.”

“I've never written a song in my life. It's all a big hoax.”

“I don't know anything about music. In my line you don't have to.”

ON THE ARMY

“After a hard day of basic training, you could eat a rattlesnake.”

“The army teaches boys to think like men.”

ON TRUTH

“Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain't goin' away.”

ON THOSE LEGENDARY DANCE MOVES

“Rock and roll music, if you like it, if you feel it, you can't help but move to it. That's what happens to me. I can't help it.”

“Some people tap their feet, some people snap their fingers, and some people sway back and forth. I just sorta do 'em all together, I guess.”

ON KEEPING POSITIVE

“When things go wrong, don't go with them.”

ON STARDOM

“If you let your head get too big, it'll break your neck.”

“I have no use for bodyguards, but I have very specific use for two highly trained certified public accountants.”

“The image is one thing and the human being is another. It's very hard to live up to an image, put it that way.”

“The Lord can give, and the Lord can take away. I might be herding sheep next year.”

ON LOVE

“Sad thing is, you can still love someone and be wrong for them.”

ON THE PITFALLS OF HOLLYWOOD

“I sure lost my musical direction in Hollywood. My songs were the same conveyer belt mass production, just like most of my movies were.”

ON GETTING OLDER

“Every time I think that I'm getting old, and gradually going to the grave, something else happens.”

ON LEAVING A LEGACY

“Do something worth remembering.”

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