Fort Douaumont (French Fort de Douaumont) was the largest and highest fort on the ring of 19 large defensive forts protecting the city of Verdun, France since the 1890s. However, by 1915 the French General Staff had concluded that even the best-protected forts of Verdun could not resist bombardments from the German 420 mm (16 in) Gamma guns. These newly deployed giant howitzers had easily taken several large Belgian forts out of action in August 1914. As a result, Fort Douaumont and other Verdun forts, being judged ineffective, had been partly disarmed and left virtually undefended since 1915. Consequently, on 25 February 1916, Fort Douaumont was entered and occupied without a fight by a small German raiding party comprising only 19 officers and 79 men. The easy fall of Fort Douaumont, only three days after the beginning of the Battle of Verdun, produced a deep shock in the French Army's command structure. It set the stage for the rest of a battle which lasted nine months, at enormous human costs. Douaumont was finally recaptured by three infantry divisions of the French Second Army, during the First Offensive Battle of Verdun on 24 October 1916. This event brought closure to the Battle of Verdun in 1916.
It has a total surface area of 30,000 square metres and is approximately 400 metres long, with two subterranean levels protected by a steel reinforced concrete roof 12 metres thick resting on a sand cushion. These improvements had been completed by 1903. The entrance to the fort was at the rear. Two main tunnels ran east-west, one above the other, with barracks rooms and corridors to outlying parts of the fort branched off of the main tunnels. The fort was equipped with numerous armed posts, a 155 mm rotating/retractable gun turret, a 75 mm gun rotating/retractable gun turret, four other 75 mm guns in flanking "Bourges Casemates" that swept the intervals and several machine-gun turrets. Entry into the moat which was surrounding the fort was interdicted by Hotchkiss anti-personnel revolving cannons located in wall casemates or "Coffres" present at each corner. With hindsight, Douaumont was much better prepared to withstand the heaviest bombardments than the Belgian forts that had been crushed by German 420mm howitzers in 1914.
However, the German invasion of Belgium in 1914 had forced military planners to radically rethink the utility of fortification in war. Belgium's forts were quickly destroyed by German artillery, and easily overrun. Hence, in August 1915, General Joffre approved the fateful decision to reduce the garrison at Douaumont and at other Verdun forts. So Douaumont was stripped of all its weaponry except for the two turreted guns that were too difficult to remove: one 155 mm and one 75 mm gun. Conversely, the two "Casemates de Bourges" bunkers, one on each side of the fort, were totally disarmed of their four 75's. The garrison was mostly middle-aged reservists, under the command of the city's military governor and not the field army.
On 21 February 1916, the German army launched a major offensive which started the Battle of Verdun. Douaumont was the largest and highest fort on the two concentric rings of forts protecting the city of Verdun, and thus the keystone to the city's defenses. The German offensive was already four days old and progressing rapidly from the north when, on 24 February, it came within reach of Fort Douaumont. However, in spite of this imminent danger, Fort Douaumont was still manned by a small maintenance crew of only 56 troops and a few artillerymen. The highest-ranked soldier in the fort was an NCO named Chenot. No officers were present.
On 25 February, four days after the beginning of the Battle of Verdun, elements of the German 24th Brandenburg Regiment (6 Infanterie-Division, III Armeekorps) approached Fort Douaumont from the north, as a reconnaissance or raiding party. Most of the French small garrison had already gone to the lower levels of the fort to escape the incessant German shelling with large-calibre guns. A battery of very heavy 420 mm German howitzers was intermittently pounding the fort, damaging the 75 mm gun turret.
The French occupants had been without communication with the outside world for some time. The observation cupolas were unoccupied. Only a small gunnery team was manning the 155 mm gun turret which was firing at distant targets. The dry moats which could have been swept by French machine gunfire from the wall "casemates" or "coffres" had been left undefended.
About 10 combat engineers from the Brandenburg regiment, led by Pioneer-Sergeant Kunze, managed to approach the fort unopposed. Visibility was poor due to bad weather, and French machine gunners in the village of Douaumont thought the Germans were French colonial troops returning from a patrol.
Kunze and his men reached the fort's moat and found that the wall casemates ("coffres") defending the moat were unoccupied. Kunze managed to climb inside one of them to open an access door. But his men refused to go inside the fortifications as they feared an ambush. Armed only with a bolt-action rifle, the Pioneer-Sergeant entered alone. He wandered around the empty tunnels until he found the artillery team, captured them and locked them up.
By now, another group from the Brandenburg regiment, led by reserve-officer Lieutenant Radtke, was also entering the fort through its unoccupied defences. Radtke then made contact with Kunze's troops and organised them before they spread out, capturing a few more French defenders and securing the fort. Later, more columns of German troops under Hauptman Haupt and Oberleutnant von Brandis arrived. No shots were ever fired in the capture of Fort Douaumont. The only casualty was one of Kunze's men who had scraped one of his knees.
Despite being the last officer to enter the fort, the latecomer von Brandis was the one who dispatched the report on the capture of Douaumont to the German High Command. A few days later, the Prussian officer was telling His Imperial Majesty the Crown Prince about its heroic seizure. No mention was made of the efforts of Lieutenant Radtke or Sergeant Kunze. Instead von Brandis became the hero of Douaumont and was awarded the Pour le Mérite, (Hauptman Haupt received it later, too). But Kunze, who broke in and locked up the garrison, and Radtke, who took command during the fort's capture, received no award. It was not until the 1930s after historians from the German Great War committee had time to review Fort Douaumont's capture that credit was belatedly given. Kunze, now a police officer, received a promotion and Lieutenant Radtke got an autographed portrait of the now-deposed Crown Prince.
Douaumont, the keystone of the system of forts that was to protect Verdun against a German invasion, had been given up without a fight. In the words of one French divisional commander, its loss would cost the French army 100,000 lives. Douaumont's easy fall was a terrible setback for the French armed forces and a glaring example of the lack of judgment prevailing in the General Staff at the time, under General Joffre. The French General Staff had decided in August 1915 to partially disarm all the Verdun forts, acting under the erroneous assumption that the forts could not resist the effects of modern heavy artillery. After its capture, Douaumont became an invulnerable shelter and operational base for German forces just behind their front line. The German soldiers at Verdun came to refer to the place as "Old Uncle Douaumont".
The French Second Army made a first attempt to recapture the fort in late May 1916. They occupied the western end of the fort for 36 hours but were dislodged after suffering heavy losses, mostly from German artillery and trench mortars that had been brought at proximity. The Germans stubbornly held onto the fort, as it provided shelter for troops and served as first aid station and logistics centre. Afterwards, French artillery continued to shell the fort, turning the area into a pockmarked moonscape, traces of which are still visible today.
Earlier, on 8 May 1916, a careless cooking fire had detonated grenades and flamethrower fuel. This in turn had detonated an ammunition cache. Apparently some of the soldiers tried to heat coffee using some of the fuel from flamethrowers, which proved to be too flammable and spread to shells which were without caution placed right next to such environments. A firestorm ripped through the fort, killing hundreds of soldiers instantly, including the entire 12th Grenadiers regimental staff. Worse, some survivors attempting to escape the inferno were mistaken for attacking French infantry and were fired upon by their comrades. Six hundred and seventy nine (679) German soldiers perished in this fire. Their remains were gathered inside the fort at the time and placed into a casemate which was then permanently walled off . The site is underground, inside the fort, and has long been an official German War Grave. A commemorative plaque in German and a cross stand at the foot of the grave's sealing wall. This site is visitable today.
A French offensive involving three infantry divisions began on 24 October 1916. Its goal was to recapture the fort. This took place on the same day and was carried out by the elite Regiment of Colonial Infantry of Morocco. Douaumont had been pounded for days by two super heavy 400 mm (16-inch) long-range French railway guns emplaced at Baleycourt, to the southwest of Verdun. Douaumont had become untenable under their fire and was in the process of being evacuated when it was recaptured. Up to that point, millions of lesser-caliber shells had been fired at the fort since its capture by the Germans to little avail, and tens of thousands of men had died in attempts to recapture it.
- Duchesneau, Robert E. "The Forts of Verdun". The Forts of Verdun. Retrieved 30 January 2013.
- Durschmied, Erik (2003). Unsung Heroes. London: Coronet Books. pp. 5–53. ISBN 0340825200.
- Horne, Alistair (1963). The Price of Glory. St. Martin's Press. p. 116.
- Denizot, Alain, Douaumont: Vérité et Légende, Librairie Académique Perrin, 1998, ISBN 2-262-01388-8. (in French)
- Holstein, Christina, Fort Douaumont (Revised Edition ), Pen and Sword Military, 2010, ISBN 978-1-84884-345-5 (in English).
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