Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Vauquois: The Four-Year Battle for a Strategic Position in the Argonne

Contributed by Jeffrey Aarnio, ABMC

Butte de Vauquois: Once Site of a Forest Village

Located roughly 20 kilometers west-northwest of Verdun, Vauquois was a village like many that found itself in the middle of intense shelling between the Germans and French beginning in August 1914. By September 1914 the German Imperial Army took this strategic hill with exceptional observation in every direction, especially overlooking the rail lines that supplied Verdun. The French counterattacked quickly, regaining the hill of Vauquois between October 1914 and February 1915.

The Village of Vauquois Before the War
The Church Stood at About the Location of the Current Monument

By mid-March 1915 opposite trench lines stabilized between the German half of the hill and the French side after the town of 168 inhabitants was evacuated. The villagers would never again see their village at the top of the hill. What followed was a stalemate so intense that it forced both sides to dig down deeper into the hill to seek shelter in tunnels and mine shafts dug by special military units. Soon both sides used pioneer and sapper troops to dig tunnels under the enemy lines in order to set off large explosive charges. This became known as the war of mines. Unlike other parts of the Western Front where mine warfare took place, Les Eparges, the Argonne Forest, and Vimy Ridge, to name a few, Vauquois unites several factors making this a truly unique site. Vauquois Hill became a veritable honeycomb of activity that included underground barracks, operating rooms, command and communication posts, electric air pump stations, and even an underground rail station. This is the site of the only village completely destroyed by underground or mine warfare.

The Barren Butte After Four Years of Mining Operations
(The Star Indicates the Site of the Former Church and Monument)

For three and a half years the Germans and French detonated over 500 charges (199 German, 320 French), the largest of which was a German charge of roughly 60 tons of explosives set off in May 1916 that killed over 100 people. The underground shafts are as long as 1,500 meters and comprise three distinct levels, totaling up to seven kilometers of tunnels as each side raced to set off an explosion underneath the opposing force. 

Restored Trenches Along the Crest

For most of 1918 the hilltop of Vauquois lost some strategic importance with the increased use of the airplane as an observation platform. However, the brutal fighting between the French and Germans continued until its liberation by the American 35th Infantry Division on 26 September 1918, the first day of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The cratered landscape that remains is marked by a French monument to the fallen soldiers at Vauquois, and one can still descend into the kilometers of galleries and tunnels that traverse the hill. 

The Monument and a View from Another Direction

Guided tours are offered every first Sunday of the month from 9:30 to 11:00 a.m. To find out more about the American overseas military cemeteries, maintained and operated by the American Battle Monuments Commission, and the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery located 40 km. northwest of Verdun, visit: 

Mining Tunnels and Living Quarters Beneath the Butte


  1. I have visitedt this place with General Doughty, former Head of the West Point History Department. It is a sobering sight and speaks to the futility of trench warfare. Because of places like this, although it may be the best example, trench warfare was not prevelent in WWII, although it did make a comeback in Korea.

  2. However, the use of tunnels was very effective in actions around Cu Chi during the Vietnam War. And tunneling was a vital aspect of the Cold War when the threat was Thermonuclear.

  3. Thanks for the article. My grandfather's cousin, Sgt. Varlourd Pearson was part of Company I, 137th Regiment, which successfully took the hill. He died of wounds several days later.