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

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Verdun 1917: The French Hit Back by Christina Holstein

17 Aug 1917 Aerial Image of Mort Homme, Left Bank
of Meuse, Showing Evidence of Shelling Prior to Assault of
20 Aug. (Tom Gudmestad)

by Christina Holstein

Penn & Sword Books, 2020

Editor's Note:  Regular readers of Roads to the Great War and the St. Mihiel Trip-Wire will recognize the name of author Christina Holstein, who has frequently contributed articles for us. For those who are not familiar with her, let me introduce her this way—she is simply the most knowledgeable person alive about the Verdun battlefield.  Verdun 1917 is the fourth in  a series on her specialty.  In covering the period between the wrap up of the legendary 1916 battle and the American arrival in the sector in the fall of 1918, she provides an amazing number of facts that are either neglected or glossed over in most works other on Verdun. Verdun 1917 has the same format as the earlier works in her series, a highly detailed mixture of history, operational descriptions, personality profiles, and itineraries for "boots-on-the-ground" visitors, supplemented by helpful maps, and numerous photos from Christina's own collection and that of fellow expert Tom Gudmestad.  Here is a selection from the work, it's on a fascinating topic I knew little about until I opened my copy of Verdun 1917. MH

The Tunnels of Mort-Homme (Excerpt) 

Restored Southern Entrance for Gallwitz Tunnel (Author)
See Top Photo and Map Below for Location

By mid-1917, the German positions at Verdun comprised, roughly speaking, five defensive lines on the Right Bank, with some positions still under construction, and three lines on the Left Bank, which included three tunnels on the Mort-Homme. The lines were served by an extensive railway network and supported by roughly 130 batteries, many of them heavy, and 20 air escadrilles comprising bombers, fighters and spotter, reconnaissance and communication units. As regards infantry, French intelligence reports at the time named four German infantry divisions on the Right Bank, plus three with elements of a fourth on the Left Bank. As for reserves, there were two divisions available on the Left Bank and four or five which could be brought rapidly forward to support the Right Bank.  

The existence of the tunnels was well known to the French from aerial observation and the interrogation of prisoners. Work on them had begun during the summer of 1916, when the really desperate fighting had died down, leaving the German lines visible to French observers. This made supplying them both difficult and costly and to solve the problem General von François, commander of VII Corps, ordered the excavation of three tunnels to provide safe, underground passage between the front and the rear. The work, which took almost nine months to complete, was carried out by pioneers and infantry, many of whom were miners, who also provided the nightly labor needed to bring the tools and building materials from the regimental pioneer park several kilometers back. Even ration parties were pressed into service once they had delivered the rations.  All three were inaugurated by General von François in May 1917, an occasion on which decorations were handed out.  

French Map Showing the Three Tunnels
Click on Image to Enlarge

The Kronprinz Tunnel  

Starting in a ravine on the lower slopes of the north side of the Mort-Homme, the Kronprinz tunnel ran through the hillside to the Schlesier Graben, a deep trench forming part of the intermediate line. From prisoners’ reports the French knew it to be just under a thousand meters long, varying from two to four meters wide and approximately two meters high. Tunneling through limestone was hard work and even with jack hammers and pneumatic drills progress was only about seven meters per day. At first the spoil was dumped close to the main entrance and covered over; but as the tunnel progressed rails were laid and the spoil was loaded into wagons and hauled away by horses. In addition to the main entrances at the northern and southern ends of the tunnel, twelve side exits offered access by steep flights of steps to a series of rooms housing a regimental command post, a first aid post and beds for two companies. There was a machine room with a four horse power motor, a compressor, a power unit, and a generator providing power for the drills and lighting for the workface. The power unit, which comprised a petrol engine and a lighting dynamo, provided tunnel lighting. There were kitchens in a short branch tunnel at the northern end, while a captured spring at the southern end provided water for the machine room and a mineral water plant. All the exits had gas doors and internal barricades allowed the tunnel to be defended against attackers. General von François called it "a masterpiece of civil engineering ,"but others had reservations. 

Electricity Generator Supplying Light and Power for a Tunnel
(Schantzen-Warten-Sterben, Alexander Berkel, 2014)

In May 1917, the commander of Reserve Infantry Regiment 35, one of the regiments using the tunnel on a daily basis, complained that "inexcusable design flaws" made it weaker than it should have been. He had numerous complaints: the timbering was inadequate, particularly in the widest part where the kitchen tunnel branched off; the roof in the central section was weak; the entrances needed reinforcement; the kitchen tunnel had no independent escape route; and generally speaking the construction was amateurish. He was rebuked, told that other regiments would be pleased to have such accommodation, and his report was dismissed.  

The Bismarck Tunnel 

This short tunnel was first named after Generalleutenant von Runckel, commander of the 43rd Reserve Division, but the name was later changed. Starting in the Schlesier Graben a short distance from the exit from the Kronprinz tunnel, it ran for a little over 400 meters under the summit of the Mort-Homme to the German front line. Most of it was excavated by pioneers and progress was slow, with only about one meter being added each day. The Bismarck tunnel was the same height as the Kronprinz tunnel but it was only half as wide and differed in being entirely timbered. It had no electric lighting and whilst there were multiple exits, there were few side rooms, as it was purely designed for the passage of troops, i.e., a subway.    

The Gallwitz Tunnel 

This ran from the north side of the Mort-Homme, passed under a hilltop and ended in the Ravin des Caurettes, a sheltered ravine behind the German front line to the east of the summit of the Mort-Homme. Although shorter than the Kronprinz tunnel it was similar in many respects, being the same width and height and having the same sort of timbering, gas protection and barricades. It was also electrically lit, and had several side exits accessible by long flights of steps, including one of 165 steps known as the "stairway to heaven" which led to an artillery observation post. The machine room was similarly equipped and there was a command post, a first aid post, kitchens, and side rooms with enough beds for one company. Rails ran the whole length of the tunnel, allowing spoil to be evacuated and equipment to be brought in. 

During the summer of 1917 all three tunnels offered shelter, food, and accommodation for the regiments in the sector but the weaknesses noted by the commander of Reserve Infantry Regiment 35 remained and in time they would prove disastrous.  

German Dead in the Kronprinz Tunnel after
Its August 1917 Capture

PS: If you like this work and find the Battle of Verdun utterly fascinating, Christina Holstein's earlier works,  Fort Douaumont, Fort Vaux, and the Left Bank are recommended and available on  MH


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