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

Sunday, May 8, 2016

8 May 1916: Catastrophe at Fort Douaumont

By Christina Holstein

At German-occupied Fort Douaumont enormous amounts of ammunition of all types were stored in the fort, some of it in magazines but much of it simply stacked up wherever space could be found. The troops, grown careless of the danger and glad to be inside in relative safety, smoked, read, heated food and coffee, played cards, and sat where they could, even on cases of explosive. Heavily armed with rifles, ammunition, and grenades, they moved about the corridors, brushing against one another in the crowded and ill-lit passages.

Fort Douaumont During the Battle

In such conditions an accident was bound to occur sooner or later, and it was during an offensive in early May, when the fort was especially crowded, that the inevitable happened.

The War Diary of 5th Division records that on the evening of 7 May units of the 12th Grenadiers and the 52nd Infantry Regiment involved in the sector between Thiaumont Farm and the area to the south of Douaumont village had been relieved and had withdrawn to the fort. Seriously wounded survivors of the previous day's fighting filled the fort's infirmary to overflowing. Less seriously wounded and sick troops found what rest they could in the corridors, where they were joined by fresh men from the 8th Leibgrenadiers going up to support the operation planned for the following day.

At 6:10 a.m. on 8 May, 5th Division received news of a serious explosion and fire in Fort Douaumont. Knowing how many men were in the barracks and fearing the worst, medical assistance and breathing apparatus was immediately dispatched to the fort, together with a company of pioneers. The artillery was ordered to be on the watch for an enemy attack, which, to the surprise and relief of the Germans, never came.

Immediate Aftermath of the Explosion
Throughout the morning and afternoon a thick cloud of smoke hung over the fort, veiling, in the words of Walter Beumelburg, the author of the Reichsarchiv volume on Douaumont, "the fearful things that had happened underground."

The exact cause of the terrible explosion that occurred in the early hours of 8 May has never been established. The commonest speculation is that careless heating of coffee or food may have ignited the flamethrowers, which were stored on the lower floor of the fort in the same area as a depot of hand grenades and the remaining French 155mm shells. Whatever the cause, at around 4:30 a.m. panic broke out in the fort. The fort's medical officer, Dr. Hallauer, 3rd Sanitäts-Kompanie, III Corps, who was on duty in the infirmary at that time, heard cries for help and terrified shouts of Die Schwartzen kommen ("The blacks are coming."). Before he could get help, three frightful explosions shook the fort and all the lights went out. There was a terrible roar. A mighty blast ripped through the fort, blowing the doors in and shaking the infirmary. Hallauer was thrown back against the wall and stunned. When he staggered out into the corridor again he was met by a thick cloud of sulfurous smoke through which came cries and moans. Grabbing his gas mask, Hallauer opened the oxygen canisters and got the ventilator going. Stretcher-bearers helped him to carry some of the surgical patients out of the thick yellow smoke in the operating theater and into another room where breathing was easier. Despite wearing his mask, Dr. Hallauer fainted. He was dragged away by two pioneers, who found him unconscious on the operating table. When he came round several hours later the full extent of the catastrophe met his appalled eyes.

The explosion had occurred in the southeastern sector of the fort on the lower corridor, where a large number of French 155mm shells were still stored. In this part of the corridor a hole two meters deep had been torn in the floor and had filled with water. Some meters farther on, the roof had fallen in and debris blocked the corridor. The roof of the pioneer depot had been blown out. A massive stone staircase  been ripped away by the blast and huge shell splinters were scattered in the rubble. In the main corridor relief troops from the 8th Leibgrenadiers — mostly young recruits — sat around, too stunned to move, while all around them lay other men, shocked, wounded, and driven mad.

Dr Hallauer's subsequent report to the commandant of the fort showed the terrible extent of the catastrophe. The corridors were filled with rubble and bodies, some of them terribly mutilated. Arms, legs, and torsos lay among smashed equipment. Many of the bodies were split open. In many places the dead were thrown on top of one another three or four deep. Against the end walls of some of the corridors on the lower floor smashed bodies were squashed together and heaped up, and it was clear that the force of the explosion had traveled down the narrow corridors like a bullet from a gun and hurled them against the wall at the end. The bodies were without exception black and covered in gunpowder. Smoke and fumes filled almost all the corridors and barrack rooms, particularly on the lower floor. Some of the rooms were empty, but in others the iron bedsteads had been hurled together into a heap, the bodies of their occupants catapulted out into the debris and rubble. Many of the dead were in a crouching position, some with their arms raised as if to protect themselves. In the rooms in which doors and beds were apparently little affected by the blast the dead were lying in bed as if asleep or sitting up wearing their gas masks.

Hallauer found hardly anyone who could help him with the injured. One doctor was dead and the others were either injured or too shocked to be of any use, as were nine of the stretcher-bearers and nurses. Nevertheless, he managed with the help of men of the 8th Leibgrenadiers to bring a number of survivors outside and to clear some of the main corridors of the bodies filling them. Rescue work was hampered by the fact that to get from one side of the barracks to the other, rescuers had to go outside into the ditch under fire. Later, help also came from units of the 24th Infantry in Caillette Wood and Brulé Ravine.

Some survivors did manage to totter out of the fort. In Hassoule Ravine to the northeast of the fort, Lieutenant Klingenberg saw men staggering toward him wearing German uniforms but without helmets or weapons. With faces and hands black with powder, singed hair and eyebrows, and torn uniforms all they could do was stammer "Douaumont. . .terrible." Clouds of thick black smoke were rising from the fort. Fearing a successful assault by the French, Klingenberg ran toward the fort, noticing as he did so an entrance completely blocked by the bodies of men who had obviously fought with one another to get out into the fresh air. With other officers, he pulled away the sandbags protecting the barrack rooms on the gorge side of the fort and let fresh air flood in. As many men as possible were dragged outside, but the lack of gas masks meant that it was a long time before all the rooms could be checked for injured and the blocked corridors cleared of wreckage and rubble.

Injured Men Receiving Care

The fact that the fort was so crowded meant that losses were exceptionally high. In the corridors and rooms near the center of the explosion men were killed by the blast, suffocated by clouds of smoke, died under the rubble or were burned to death in the scorching heat. Several days after the explosion, the death toll was put at 679 identified officers and men and 1800 injured. Hallauer himself put the death toll at between 700 and 800 but admitted that the bodies were so mutilated as to make any proper identification impossible.

The frightfulness of it all left the survivors stunned. In the following days Hallauer noted (among other conditions) shock, confusion, agitation, loss of speech, convulsions, and cases of raving madness. The fearful image of mass annihilation underground, the piles of mutilated corpses, the screams and groans of the wounded, and the ravings of the insane had all raised the level of terror to unbearable heights. As Beumelburg wrote "Es bleibt uns nur der hoffende Glaube, dass em schnelles Vergehen die Furchbarheit milderte" ("We can only hope that death came quickly to lessen the horror.").

Fortunately for the rescuers, the French artillery, as if unaware of the magnitude of the explosion inside the fort and despite the thick clouds of smoke rising over it, remained fairly quiet, so the grim work of rescue and repair could go on undisturbed. The physical destruction inside the fort and the clouds of gas and smoke which filled the corridors and barrack rooms meant that it was some days before the 23rd Pioneers could get on with the awful work of dealing with the dead. Some of them were buried outside in an enormous crater left by the explosion of a 420mm shell, but the task of taking all the hundreds of bodies outside was simply too much for the exhausted garrison. In addition, French shelling while the work was being carried out caused further losses. It was therefore decided to bury the dead in Artillery Shelters I and II on the Rue du Rempart and to wall up the entrances. Heavy shelling soon blocked access to the bunkers, leaving the vast majority of the victims of the explosion under tons of stones and rubble, where they still lie.

Dr. Hallauer's official report of 10 May attempted to reconstruct the events leading up to the explosion. Recalling a strong smell of flamethrower fuel in the fort on the previous day, he surmised, first, that an accident had ignited the inflammable oil and, second, that the resulting fire had given off thick clouds of smoke and soot. Some troops were burned and many others, their faces blackened with soot, ran in panic for the stairs and ladders to the upper floor. Seeing the black apparitions, German troops on the upper floor mistook them for black French soldiers and, fearing an attack, threw grenades at them. It was that, Hallauer believed, which may have caused the explosion of the French 155mm shells which, in turn, ignited a large store of hand grenades and detonators in the pioneer depot.

The Memorial Inside the Fort Today
Terrible though it was, the explosion had no effect on the course of the battle. Within hours, specialist officers examined the fort to see whether it would continue to resist the French bombardment or whether it should be evacuated and blown up. Despite the magnitude of the blast, they found that Fort Douaumont was still worth holding. In fact, the physical damage suffered by the fort was far less serious than its effect on German morale. Until the explosion occurred, Fort Douaumont had been regarded as a safe haven for troops in the sector, but news of the disaster on 8 May spread swiftly far and wide. From that moment on, in the minds of the German troops in the sector, the reassuring presence they affectionately referred to as "the hill" really did become "the coffin lid."

Believing that a success in the field would lift morale, the commander of 5th Division, General Wichura, ordered the unsuccessful operation of 7 May in the area to the south of Douaumont village to be attempted again by the same regiments, even though they were worn out by the previous fighting and the explosion. The operation was fixed for 12 May. Despite vigorous artillery preparation and the use of gas, it was once again unsuccessful. A third attack using the same troops but without any artillery preparation was then ordered for the early hours of 13 May, but it was called off before the exhausted German troops had time to show whether or not they could have carried it out.

The explosion of 8 May caused major disruption to German operations in the sector. It also brought about a belated realization that the loss of the fort would have serious consequences. Fort Douaumont's importance as an observatory, command post, supply depot, and reserve position were so overwhelming that its possession was indispensable to control of the sector north of Verdun. 

From: Fort Douaumont by Christina Holstein; reprinted by permission of the author and publisher. Available at Pen and Sword Books, Ltd.


  1. This was the first time I heard this story.

  2. Powerful story, powerfully told. Thanks for sharing.