With both sides utterly exhausted, the Battle of Verdun, the longest struggle of the Great War, ended on 18 December 1916 after 302 days (the French like to say after 300 days and nights). The last attack of the battle's most memorable aspect was the hard-fought recapture of the tiny, but symbolic, village of Bezonvaux.
|Final Attack—Launched 15 December 1916|
Bezonvaux, with a population of 149 in February 1916, was located a mile northeast of Fort Douaumont. A redoubt bearing the same name as the village was located a quarter mile to its south. Caught between the main German attack from the north aiming at Douaumont and the French strategic withdrawal from the Woëvre Plain to the east, the village and redoubt could not be held. They were finally abandoned by retreating French forces on 25 February 1916. Afterward, shelling gradually wiped out the village completely.
The success of General Mangin's re-capture of Forts Douaumont and Vaux in October and early November left German forces still holding territory they had captured early in the battle. This led Mangin and his superior, General Nivelle, to contemplate repeating the attack on a front approximately ten kilometers long from Vacherauville near the Meuse River, east to Eix with the limited objective of capturing this area. The date chosen was 15 December 1916. On 10 December the French began a preliminary artillery barrage to soften up the German positions. At 10 a.m. on 15 December, French troops stormed the German lines. Four of the French Army's best divisions took part in the assault. Three regiments of the 37 Division d'infanterie (DI) left Fort Douaumont pushing east, advancing all day long through snow, mud, and barbed wire networks toward Bezonvaux. Many of the soldiers ended up with frostbite. The attack on the village commenced at 2 a.m. on the 16th. Despite a French artillery error and heavy German shelling, the French completely rid Bezonvaux of its occupiers. However, they could not advance any farther. The Battle of Verdun was over. The front in this sector remained stable for the next two years, when American units would liberate the Meuse Heights just to the north at the very end of the war.
|Clockwise: Prewar Bezonvaux, Memorial Marker, Stained Glass Window, Chapel|
Today, Bezonvaux is one of nine Villages Détruits (Destroyed) on the Verdun battlefield and one of the six that has never been rebuilt. These are ghost villages, communities that laid down their lives for France, moving memorials thanks to the chapels and commemorative monuments erected after the end of the war. Bezonvaux and her sisters are managed by a municipal council of three members appointed by the prefect of the Meuse department. Annual commemorative services are held at each of the villages.
The site today still shows signs of the wartime damage. Commemorating the events of 1916 are the marker and the chapel shown above. The Bezonvaux memorial chapel's stained glass window immortalizes 16 December 1916, showing troops wearing both the horizon blue uniforms of metropolitan France and the khaki worn by colonial forces.
This article is just one of a dozen features presented in the December 2016 issue of our free monthly newsletter, The St. Mihiel Trip-Wire. Click HERE to read all our articles and subscribe.
Sources: The French Ministry of Defense