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

Monday, October 24, 2016

100 Years Ago: Rollback at Verdun Begins

After their attacks against Froideterre-Fleury-Ft. Souville line had ground to a halt, the new German leadership called off further offensive operations at Verdun.  The French now desired to eliminate the German threat to Verdun completely, Monsieur Poincare, President of the French Republic, on 13 September 1916, awarded the Legion of Honor to the City of Verdun. With this award began the new phase of dislodging the German threat and pushing them back. 

General Mangin
General Charles Mangin, called in June to take command of Group "D" which manned the front between the Meuse River and Fleury, planned the counterattack.  On 17 September, he sent General Robert Nivelle a report which outlined his plan to retake the "Hot Zone" of the right bank including the key Forts of Douaumont and Vaux.  

The plan outlined advances on a series of limited objectives. Using as a base to launch attacks the village of Fleury, which had been secured by the French in August, French and colonial troops would first seize the site of the destroyed Thiaumount Ouvrage, followed by an advance on Fort Douaumont, then Fort Vaux, and concluding with a push north on the Meuse Heights.

The plan was approved on 21 September.  A mock battlefield was established at Stainville, near Bar-le-Duc to train the assault teams. Exactly one month after the approval of the plan, French artillery began the counter-attack with a three day continuous shelling. On the 24th of October, the first waves of the 38th, 133rd and 74th Divisions moved forward under a creeping barrage following a precise time table and with artillery lending maximum protection. The colonial troops of the 133rd division were give Fort Douaumont as their main objective. One account of Douaumont's recapture states:

On 24 October, a dense fog overhung the entire plateau. Nevertheless, General Mangin decided to attack. At 1140 hours, marching by compass, without hurrying, in good order, and with assurance, his troops proceeded over muddy terrain. Observation points were useless. Only several planes, flying very low, followed the progress of the battle and kept the French commanders informed.

By October the Entire Verdun Battlefield Was Bare of Vegetation

The 38th Division sharpshooters captured Thiaumont Ouvrage in the first assault. While the 38th was consolidating its positions, Zouave infantrymen went through them, and attacked the village of Douaumont. The Zouave Regiment then received orders to take Fort Douaumont. There was some confusion caused by heavy fog to get to their new positions in the line of departure. Major Nicolay, in command of the battalion assigned to charge the fort and drive out the Germans, wrote in his report:

With the French planes cruising just over the fort, the battalion approached the moats in single file, rifles slung, their leaders in the front. They climbed the steep slopes of the rampart from where they saw the gaping ends of the casement of the fort behind the incredibly torn-up court. The heads of the columns stood and gazed at the great chaos which the fort, symbol of determination and power, had become. The commander of the battalion (Nicolay himself) after checking on the movements in the moat, rejoined those in the lead, and while rendering homage to this consecrated and unforgettable sight gave the order to take the machine guns which began firing from the bottom of the casemates. The third resistance was overcome, and everyone reached his objective (the operation having been fully rehearsed before the attack). Each turret was taken, one after the other.

Nicolay's men now controlled the superstructure of the fort. By morning of the 25th the entire fort was in French hands. The army and the nation celebrated.

Fort Douaumont Recaptured

General Mangin now needed to take Fort Vaux, key to the defense of his eastern flank. He made plans to assault it with an additional division on 3 November. When the French moved on the fort as planned, they found that the Germans had evacuated it the day before. The "Hot Zone," the center of action in both the opening and end game of Verdun had been secured, but Mangin was not finished. He next planned an attack along a ten-mile front on 5 December, thus hoping to regain at once the entire French section lost in the first days of the battle.

In preparation for this attack, he ordered the construction of 30, kilometers of road, including one of logs for artillery, ten kilometers of narrow gauge railway, numerous delivery and return trenches  and ammunition  and supply depots. The engineers accomplished all of this construction, much under heavy shell fire.

With four divisions in place, four more in reserve, and two lines of artillery, against five German divisions in the line and four in reserve on a six-mile front between Vacherauville and Bezonvaux, General Mangin's artillery opened fire with 750 guns in preparation of a new attack on 29 November. Bad weather intervened, forcing him to halt the firing. On 9 December, the weather having improved, the artillery resumed its preparatory fire. At 10:,00 hours on 15 December, a "Black Day" according to Crown Prince Wilhelm, the French attacked Louvemont capturing a large number of prisoners and their artillery. The readjusted front was now two miles north of Fort Douaumont, not quite to the opening line of February but close enough for the French to claim they had regained all the territory lost in the battle.

The Re-planted Area of the Final Fighting Today — Forts Douaumont and Vaux Barely Visible on the Horizon (Steve Miller Photo)

By 18 December the longest battle of the First World War was over.  The French in 1917 would make minor advances on both sides of the Meuse, but the next major offensives in the area would be initiated by General Pershing's AEF in September 1918.

Source: This is adapted from an article prepared by the students of American Verdun High School, which closed in 1968 after General de Gaulle ordered American forces out of France.

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