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

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Fort Souville, Verdun Battlefield

Ft. Souville Shelter Shown in 1920 Postcard

Contributed by Christina Holstein

One of the lesser known sites at Verdun is Fort Souville, which stands in the heart of the battlefield and less than one kilometer from the Fleury Memorial Museum. One of the first forts to be built at Verdun after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, Fort Souville was originally built of stone and protected by the traditional ditch and drawbridge, although later modernization added a number of strong underground shelters and a retractable gun turret for two 155mm guns. 

Same Location as Above, 2008

The fort stands on a high ridge, and in 1916 the views — now unfortunately blocked by forest — stretched for miles in all directions. This made Souville a vital part of the Verdun defensive system, and it became even more important once Forts Douaumont and Vaux had fallen into German hands. Throughout the battle, Souville offered command and medical facilities, shelter and rest to troops going into the French front line. 

Wartime Entrance to Barracks and Fort

Ammunition Niches

155mm Turret

Afterward, it was estimated that between April and June 1916 the fort had been hit by 38,000 shells of all calibres, and although the parts above ground were largely destroyed, the underground shelters remained habitable throughout.

Post-1916 Pamard Dual-Machine Gun Turret
Author Christina Holstein on Right, Your Editor (Decapitated in Yellow Slicker), Top

The ridge to the south of the fort was the site of a number of important batteries and observation posts, as well as a unique 155mm gun turret. These have recently been cleared, and information about the various positions has been provided in three languages. A visit to this ridge is well worthwhile but visitors should stay out of the remaining parts of Fort Souville, which are all very dangerous. To reach the ridge, follow the path sign posted Massif fortifié de Souville, which leaves the D112 between the wounded lion monument and the Maginot memorial. 

Steve Miller and Christina Holstein Photographs

1 comment:

  1. I am working on my great aunt's memoir. Marion Mitchell was an American volunteer who drove for the American Fund for the French Wounded and later the American Red Cross. Here she describes her visit to Fort Souville on April 22, 1918:

    "As we walked farther on, threading our way among shell holes, we came to what appeared to be a heap of totally demolished stone walls quite level with the ground. But though no more than a pile of ruins from the outside, having been subjected to months of terrific pounding, inside it proved to be the Fort of Souville, underground, of course, corridors upon corridors and rooms upon rooms, like the citadel, only much rougher and cruder. It was more like a mine. There were holes and stone steps going down into pits of blackness and long, dank tunnels. How the men ever find their way around in it is a mystery for the real work of the war goes on here and Souville is the fort that supports those two most famous forts, Douaumont and Vaux, not more than a quarter mile distant at the front of the front of the most famous battle-ground in history. We saw certain historic corridors where one fatal day the Boches had actually penetrated only to be thrown out again after a hand-to-hand conflict. And there were other places where the fort had been blown up and men buried alive or cut off from their comrades. We saw the most stupendous guns and vaults stacked to the ceiling with ammunition, huge shells standing as tall as I am. It was all so vast and terrible and inspiring, too, that I could hardly take it all in. In one huge room we came upon what looked to be an entire regiment of poilus seated at long tables and eating away for dear life. The lights were dim and a haze of steam from the soup and vegetables mingled with tobacco smoke, gave them all an unreal appearance. In a corner a wheezy gramophone was playing something of Harry Lauder's."

    I thought it might be nice to add an eyewitness account to this post.