Copyright © 2011-2024, Paul Scrivens-Smith

Copyright © 2011-2024, Paul Scrivens-Smith

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Sunday 9 August 2015

Verdun Road Trip - Part Two

Following on from the earlier post.

Again I awoke early, but this time James was awake too so leaving Nick to his snores we set off to explore the Vauban fortress that I had found a few minutes walk from our campsite.

This time we are having a proper explore and decide to do a circuit. Just by the works I had found yesterday was the entrance that must have been the first view our troops in 1916 had of Verdun after travelling down Voie Sacrée from Bar-le-Duc.

Just to the left of this is one of the outlying bastions or ravelins. This entrance led to a stairway up to the top. I did not fancy stumbling around in the dark so instead took the external route to this vantage point.

After coming back down to level ground James and I started out circuit of the citadel.

It is remarkably well preserved having been built between the 1670's and was still being added to in the Napoleonic wars. Verdun was the last French fortress to surrender in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, and as Alsace-Lorraine was carved up after that it was a bastion on the frontier between France and Germany.

The walls stand approximately 12m high but tower above you when you are stood in the ditch. In some places trees have taken root in the stonework and the damage they cause is quite evident.

During the 1916 Battle of Verdun many French troops were stationed here in the 4km of subterranean tunnels and the bakery produced 28,000 bread rations per day.

This gate seems to be a newer part of the fort, maybe a early 19th century addition.

Completing our circuit of the fort we headed into Verdun proper for breakfast. Say what you like about the lack of paper in their public toilets and their laissez faire attitude to customer service, but the French do have this, a pizza dispensing vending machine!

Carrying on into town James and I pick up croissants and pain au chocolat to take back to the campsite for breakfast. We then climb the  steps to the Verdun Victory Monument and enjoy the views over the town.

We then grab a coffee and some gifts at another lovely patisserie and it's back to the campsite to break camp, load the car and set out for our first sight-seeing location of the day at Fleury-devant-Douaumont.

During the battle the small town was captured and recaptured 16 times and completely destroyed in the process. Only smears of rubble from the former buildings could be seen among the hollows and depressions of former cellars and shell holes.

In the 1960s several marker posts were added to show what premises were housed at each sad location

Leaving Fleury-devant-Douaumont we drove up the hill to the sombre Douaumont Ossuary. Here, the remains of 130,000 unidentified combatants from the battlefield are interred. Over the 300 days of the Battle of Verdun over 230,000 died from a terrible 700,000 dead wounded or missing. Approaching the building from the rear you can gaze through the windows into the chambers piled with the skeletal remains of these unfortunates. Inside the building the knave is decorated with plaques commemorating some of the dead along with the departments of France.

We then climb up the 46m high bell tower and get fantastic panoramic views of the battlefield. You can also see outside the largest military cemetery in France with over 16,000 graves.

It was then back to the car for the next short hop. Having been our faithful servant for the weekend, it is only fair that my Mini gets a picture in this blog so here it is in the car park at the Ossuary looking rather like a BMW promotional photo.

We travel back along the ridge to Ouvrage de Froideterre. This is not one of the famous forts like Douaumont, Vaux or Souville but was rather a high watermark for the Germans in 1916, they got on top of the works without realising it but it remained in French hands.

We scramble on to the roof and are soon examining a very well preserved twin 75mm turret and two machine-gun turrets.

Making our way to teh western edge we find a very well preserved Bourges casemate.

Working our way back around the fort we find this. I am pretty sure I know what the sign says (OK I admit it I know exactly what the sign says) but the gate is open and it is so tempting!

Inside is the remains of some accommodation.

But further along a corridor into the bowels of the fort we locate the steps up to one of the machine-gun turrets. Given the age and the action seen it is very well preserved although I would advise that you stand on the ironwork rather than the woodwork.

This is the counter-weight for raising and lowering the turret.

I then move to the eastern edge of the fort and have a quick look around the barrack block including, as seems to be usual for this trip, a quick look at the latrines.

We could have spent hours investigating l' Ouvrage de Froideterre however time is cracking on and we have a long journey back to Calais and there is still one 'must see' sight left.

We travel about 9km along the roads to the Bois Des Caures to visit the sight of one of the opening clashes of the conflict. This has quite some meaning to myself and James as our ongoing Chain of Command campaign features a series of games based on these actions.

As we enter the woods we feel quite vindicated in how we have laid out our games as these are the current hazel trees and you could imagine what they looked like after a days intense bombardment in February 1916.

Following the path we first come to Colonel Driants command post where we spend quite some time taking photos.

We then follow one of the trench lines through the woods.

There are some serious shell holes, this one is almost 100 years old and is still very deep.

You eventually arrive back at the main road next to the memorial to Colonel Driant and his Chasseurs killed defending Bois Des Caures on 21st / 22nd February 1916.

Crossing the road we follow the path some more and locate Driants original grave and the place where he fell.

It was now time to grab a picnic lunch and head back up to Calais for the shuttle home. Again, despite the reports from both the press and government there was no disruption to our journey.

I did the first leg, but after only about 100km Nick took over and drove us all the way back and took us all the way through to Nottingham.

It really is a great trip and although we saw everything we had on our hit list in the two days we had assigned I reckon we could easily have spent a couple of weeks exploring the battlefield and it's environs.

As you can see from the photos the weather remained lovely for the trip.

I hope you enjoyed my little report, although at about 3500 words between the two posts it's probably a bit much. I took oner 400 photos and James took a similar amount, if you want to see those let me know and I can share them with you via OneDrive.

Verdun Road Trip - Part One

Last November, on the way back from Crisis in Antwerp James and I decided that for this year we would work on a game based on the 1916 Battle of Verdun. We mulled over a few gaming possibilities, the initial attacks against Colonel Driants positions in Bois Des Caures, a dungeon crawl at Fort Douaumont, the heroic defence of Fort Vaux, the struggles on Mort Homme, plus lots of other options.

We decided that we would really benefit from a visit to the Verdun battlefield and speaking to Nick at Northstar he was also keen to come along with us, so we started looking at some possible dates. Originally we planned to go over the May Day bank holiday, but that never worked out so we started looking at the start of the school holidays, James is a teacher so it made most sense.

We settled on travelling over on Friday, 31st July and coming back on Sunday 2nd August as the most suitable option. As the date approached the news reports of the chaos in Kent and especially at the Eurotunnel terminal got worse and worse. We had booked a 1500 crossing, but mindful of the traffic reports we changed our pick-up times. So, it was at 0730 I was in Watnall picking up Nick ad we were over to Beeston by 0800 to pick up James.

James then took driving duties for the first leg and after avoiding the M20 due to Operation Stack we were at the Eurotunnel terminal by mid-day well in advance of our booked time with three hours to kill. We were not offered an earlier crossing so after a toilet break and a coffee set up our camping chairs and had a picnic lunch.

We boarded Le Shuttle at our allotted time and were soon in Calais, somewhat disappointed to not emerge from the tunnel to a mass of faces pressed up against the fences, is our government and the media spinning us a yarn?

I took the next stint of driving and were were soon onto the road to Verdun, after a couple of hours Nick took the helm and were were soon at the Camping Les Breuils site and erecting the tent. After sorting out our quarters it was over to the site bar for a couple of beers and some supper, I had a rather nice omelette and chips. When the bar closed it was off to bed for an early start in the morning.

My start was somewhat earlier than hoped, I was wide awake at 0500 and after killing a bit of time then having a shower went to the site cafe to grab a coffee, that was closed until 0800, bugger. I thought I would walk into town to see if I could get breakfast.

Out of the camp site gate I walked along the lane towards town and approached a large roundabout with quite a lot of statuary, looking to my left was the huge entrance to a 17th Century Vauban fortress. The original citadel of Verdun was only ten minutes walk from where we had been camping. I decided to have a bit of an exploration here.

More of this Vauban fortress in my next post.

It was getting to the time when Nick and James should be getting up so I headed back to the tent and gathered the team. We then drove into Verdun, firstly stopping for a coffee and pastry at a bakers before finding the Tourist Information office to pick up maps and to buy a multiple entry ticket for Forts Douaumont and Vaux as well as the Ossuary at Douaumont.

We then started the short drive to the battlefields, stopping for a short while when we saw several artillery pieces outside a cemetery.

After our short break we then drove up to Fort Vaux our first scheduled site for the day. Parking on the car park we were soon admiring the well preserved eastern Bourges casemates then on to scrambling up to the top of the fort. After achieving the summit we walked over to observation turret and on to the destroyed 75mm turret.

It's still possible to get into the turret where it now lies on the slope of the counter scarp.

We then made our way to the to the north eastern ditch bunker and then climbed out of the ditch onto its roof, where, blind as a bat I managed to dent my shin on some of the concrete reinforcement wire that protrudes out of the bunker roof. We also found the hole in the back of the bunker that had become the unofficial entrance to Fort Vaux during the battle.

We then made our way to the north-western ditch bunker, this one is a 'double' firing along both the northern and western ditches. Again we were up on the roof of this and again located another unofficial entrance which the Germans had found sandbagged up in 1916 and had broken into the bunker through. We followed the western ditch back up past the western Bourges casemate, complete with wasps nest and the south western ditch bunker and into the fort itself.

The chaps manning the shop were very helpful and equipped us with an electronic guide in English and we were soon exploring the barracks along the southern edge of the fort.

After the barracks we passed the entrance to the tunnel that led to the 75mm turret, this had been collapsed during an early bombardment in March 1916 so is inaccessible. We then followed the audio tour along the tunnel towards the north-eastern ditch bunker past the latrines and as far as the ammunition store where slightly further along the gallery a gate bars the way any further. This tunnel and the one to the north-western ditch bunker were the scene of intense action during the siege of June 1916 as the Germans pushed along the narrow galleries into the fortress.

We then followed the tour back towards the barracks area where you get to see the forts rudimentary hospital, the communications centre and the commandants quarters. We then head towards the western galleries, the access tunnel to the north-western ditch bunker has much less access than the one on the eastern side, but you can gain entry into the western Bourges casemate which after the battle was re-armed with 75mm cannon, back during the battle they only had Hotchkiss machine-guns available.

On 7th June 1916, with the fierce fighting in the eastern and western galleries, Germans surrounding the fort and on the roof and a failed French counter offensive, Commandant Raynal, his officers and troops out of water and with little hope of salvation surrendered the fortress.

When you stand atop the fortress you realise how small Fort Vaux really is, but it had a pivotal part in the fighting of 1916 and its heroic defence helped shape French military thinking for a generation.

From Fort Vaux we had decided to continue on foot to explore the environs and see several more pivotal points from the action. During the battle the whole area was blasted by artillery and was not cleared afterwards and allowed to become rough woodland over the following century. You can get the idea that the ridge that Fort Vaux is on really dominated the surrounding land, but you have to look at maps or contemporary pictures to really understand the terrain.

Exiting from the west of Fort Vaux we follow track that descends through the woodland and eventually locate the path to Abri D' Infanterie DV4 that housed the troops manning the R1 concrete emplacement that ran along the Fumin Ravine. We stopped outside DV4 for a picnic lunch in the woodland, you can make out the Fumin Ravine but can tell that it was very exposed a century ago. Our guide book was only five years old, but comparing the photos in there with those today you can see a large section of roof has come away in the intervening years. Up on the roof we find where a German shell penetrated in 1916.

Back onto the main path we explore a trench line in the Fumin Ravine and find what we take to be the remains of the wheel of a 75mm gun. It does not show too well in the pictures but it is quite easy to distinguish the trench lines in the Fumin Ravine.

Climbing the other side of the Fumin Ravine we locate Abri D' Infanterie DV3 that housed troops to defend the spit of land between the Fumin and Bazil Ravines. A short walk along a communication trench we locate the remains of a searchlight shelter mentioned in our guidebook.

We continue down the Bazil Ravine to the dam which was known to the Germans in 1916 as the path of death due to it being under the French machine guns of Vaux. The dam is also the site of the memorial to the French airman Guy Dussumier Latour. From here we locate the orientation table and the memorial to the 1eme Chasseurs A Pied.

We walk along the road past the remains of the village of Vaux completely destroyed during the war and start to follow the path back up to Fort Vaux.

The path continues sharply upwards and we must have gone wrong somewhere as we seem to be passing the fort to the east. The woodland is quite dense, but we can hear voices at the fort to our right so we cut through a thicket to try to get back on the right path. I am in the lead and behind me I hear Nick let out an expletive, where I have just walked is a complete, but very rusty shell, I guess a 75mm or 77mm one. Somebody has obviously seen it before as it has been sprayed with red paint, but I had completely missed it. A salutary lesson on why you should stick to the paths around here. We trace our route back to the correct path and are soon safely back at Fort Vaux and have a cold drink on a hot day before setting off in the car to our next location.

We drive up towards Fort Douaumont stopping to explore at the Pamart Casemates outside Fort Souville that were added in 1917.

At Fort Douaumont your first impression is the huge scale of the place, Fort Vaux is tiny in comparison, everything about Douaumont is massive. Parking up we went straight for the internal tour first, picking up an English audio-guide like the one at Fort Vaux.

The barracks blocks are very similar to those at Vaux but housing much more men in the same four-man bunk beds. We also travelled to see the forts bakery and the massive mechanism of the disappearing 155mm gun turret before exploring the two levels of subterranean labyrinth below.

Where the bowels of Fort Vaux are very much on a single level with a path from end to end Fort Douaumont is maze like. You can imagine what it was like for Pioneer-Sergeant Kunze and the small number of subsequent German attackers to wander the maze of galleries while Sergeant Chenot and the sixty or so Frenchmen in the fort manned the 155mm turret. It's a surprise that given the low density of troops in the place at the time that Kunze captured anybody at all.

I think that this strange stalactited room is an abutions.

This corridor looked like a scene from Alien.

After the Germans captured Fort Douaumont it was used as a staging point for many troops. About 600 were killed during an accidental explosion on 8th May 1916. Many bodies were placed in the gallery behind this shrine and walled up.

In one of the galleries we found this wonderful photo. I wonder who did the health and safety assessment for this school trip?

After surfacing from the subterranean galleries we then went on to the top of the fort. Like Vaux the fort is surrounded by woodland that has been allowed to grow since the battle, but from the top of the huge fort you can see that some clearance as been done and some scale of the dominance of Fort Douaumont over the surrounding areas can be discerned.

We explored the top of Fort Douaumont, taking in the top of the 155mm turret we had explored earlier, plus the twin 75mm turret and both machine-gun turrets. As I mentioned earlier, this place really does dwarf Fort Vaux. Once in the ditch you can see that the counter-scarp towers above the height we saw at Vaux and the circuit of the ditch taking in all the ditch bunkers is much much greater.

Some fine examples of chevaux de frise and the original ditch railings can also be found in the ditch and these are really useful resources for the gamer planning on making any models.

Driving away from Fort Douaumont we stopped at the 'London Communication Trench' which is a fine preserved example of the original trench line the sides of which are made of steel reinforced concrete panels and posts.

It was getting quite late and time to head back to the camp site, we stopped for a short while at the Trench of the Bayonets an ugly brutalist memorial to the legend of what happened there. The reality of the site is probably quite different to the legend that arose but the ugly monument does make a good home for many bats.

With that it was back to the Camping Les Breuils site for showers before we headed into Verdun for our evening meal, stopping first at a pizza restaurant on the quay we encountered a typical display of French service mentality* before moving on to a really nice restaurant that wanted our business that evening.

We headed back to camp to catch up on our sleep and prepare for the next day.

I am quite mindful that at over 2000 words you are really quite bored now, so I'll finish off our adventure in another post.

*Along the lines of 'How could you expect us to do Pizza Margerita on a Saturday evening, we only have these four pizza on offer'