In the summer of 2011 I cycled the length of the First World War Western Front with a companion, all the way from the English Channel to the Swiss Border. It was a moving journey, each different site visited being an emotional experience of its own, but the concrete forts and bunkers in the wooded hills above Verdun stand out in my memory. This series of articles, illustrated with my own photographs, charts the sites I visited in this most fought-over of First World War battlefields.
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Setting off one morning from the city of Verdun, heading northwards along the east bank of the River Meuse, my companion and I soon entered the tree-clad hills that loom over the city, and climbed onto the Thiaumont Ridge that slopes eastwards in the direction of Fort Douaumont, the jewel of the Verdun defences. Almost as soon as we were amongst the trees we began to see the strongpoints that were such a feature of the Battle of Verdun: corners of earthworks and blocks of battered concrete peeking out through the trees and the gloom of a drizzly July day. For as well as the 12 major forts built in the hills here, there were hundreds of bunkers, troop shelters, command posts and ammunition magazines, the remains of which still lie silent within the forest that was planted after the war.
Verdun is a name that echoes in the French psyche the way that the Somme and Passchendaele do in the British. It was here in 1916 that the Germans launched a massive attack that began ten months of continuous fighting for these hills and the fortifications on and around them. The toll of dead and wounded easily equalled that on the Somme as the French poured in more and more units to hold the hills at all costs and the Germans likewise to take them. That the French did hold out at Verdun is one of their key contributions to the eventual Allied victory, and Verdun has become a symbol of French tenacity.
The city of Verdun sits on the northwards-flowing River Meuse, where the old main road cuts across the narrow river valley on its journey eastwards from Paris to Metz. It has been a strategic location for centuries and has endured many sieges, including one by Attila the Hun in AD 450. With the loss of the French border city of Metz to the Germans in the war of 1870, Verdun became a border city again and its defences had to be modernised. Modern long range artillery meant that it was now pointless to try to hold the edge of the city itself, so the new defences were created in the hills to the north and the east.
At first these defences consisted of a handful of forts and fortlets on the hilltops and ridges: heavy masonry barrack block complexes surrounded by broad ditches and covered with earth, topped with thick earth parapets behind which wheeled artillery pieces and riflemen would stand to defend the forts. It was assumed that the gaps between the forts would be protected by units of the mobile field army, throwing up earthworks and digging trenches as needed. As artillery grew in destructive power in the last decades of the 19th century the forts were improved – masonry was replaced with concrete and guns behind open ramparts on fort tops were replaced with fewer rotating steel-armoured artillery turrets, the extra guns being dispersed into batteries between the forts. The positions infantry would occupy between the forts were bolstered with concrete command posts and concrete shelters for troops to sit out bombardments in.
And on the route we cycled, it would be one of those smaller ‘interval’ positions we would encounter first.
Continued in part two, on the artillery battery position MF3.
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This article was first posted on Socyberty, here.