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 10, 2022

Three Battles at Beaumont en Verdunois (Village Détruit)

Prewar Beaumont

Beaumont en Verdunois, believed to have been founded in 324 AD,  suffered in war throughout the ages, including the Thirty Years War, Napoleon's last campaigns, and the Franco-Prussian War. The Great War, however, would be irreversibly fatal for the community.  Located nine miles north of Verdun overlooking the River Meuse, it was destined to become one of the nine villages détruit (destroyed) on the Verdun battlefield that have never been reoccupied. Unique among the nine, though, Beaumont  found itself bombarded and trampled by infantry in each of the three years before war's end.

Today with Memorial Chapel

In September 1914 the 186 residents were evacuated from the village, which was left temporarily in no man's land. In October 1914, it was occupied by French troops who turned the site into a strong point.  Beaumont, unluckily, was just behind the front line where the initial German assault took place on 21 February 1916.  Defending Caures Wood to the north, in the most advanced position, were the chasseurs of Lt. Col. Emile Driant. Despite the chasseurs' heroic resistance, the woods fell and Colonel Driant ordered a  retreat to Beaumont. When the columns emerged from the wood, they came under withering German machine gun fire. The colonel, who was bringing up the rear, was killed, but fragments of his  sections managed to reach Beaumont and reinforce the garrison there.

Memorial at Village Cemetery

Twenty-four February was the critical day. From the village, components of two French regiments (four companies) fought off repeated attacks. As the troops of the 18th German Corps entered the village, machine guns firing from cellar windows mowed them down. The enemy formations, which were particularly dense, advanced so quickly, with each wave passing the previous one, that the French automatic fire first seemed to overwhelm them, and they suffered terrible losses. The Germans started systematically shelling the village again. When the infantry attack was renewed they once again met with fierce resistance but the balance of forces was now too uneven. As more of the assaulting troops managed to break through, the French officers realized a withdrawal was necessary.  The French were able to keep an escape route open and some of their survivors were able to escape.the following morning. Beaumont was lost and it would become a formidable strong point throughout the remainder of the 1916 battle for the German Army.

In the summer of 1917,  General Petain ordered a limited offensive to recapture some of the terrain lost the previous year that had not been regained in France's fall counteroffensive of 1916. After considerable shelling, on 26 August, two regiments, the 154th RI and the 155th RI, attacked but failed to retake Beaumont, which remained in German hands. On 2 September, a final French attack failed to retake the Beaumont sector. The village—now merely ruins—would stay in enemy hands until the American Meuse-Argonne Offensive of 1918.

Men of the U.S. 26th Division at Beaumont, November 1918

General Pershing's First Army, which included some French divisions, concentrated its initial assault west of the Meuse River.  However, inconvenient artillery fire from the heights east of the Meuse, where Beaumont is situated, compelled him to attack the German forces there. On 8 October, the French 26th Division finally recaptured the village but then came under withering artillery and gas fire. They got no further than the village. An American division (coincidentally, the U.S. 26th Division) was moved into the area at the start of November and fought an exhausting struggle for the remainder of the war against determined resistance.

Mural at the Memorial Chapel

In 1919,  Beaumont was declared a "red zone", meaning that it was forbidden to rebuild the village and return the land to farming. In 1920, the prefect appointed a municipal commission. In 1925, a monument was built to the memory of the children of Beaumont who died for France. Afterwards, to honor the ancestors' memory and pay another tribute to the native sons who died on the battlefield, the interior of the cemetery was leveled, the walls raised, and a monument erected engraved with the text of the army's citation to the village and the names of its war dead. In 1932, the decision was taken that on the fourth Sunday in September, the patron saint's feast day (Saint Maurice), "the former inhabitants and their families would gather to honor their dead and breathe the air of the land where they were born," a tradition that carries on today. A chapel for conducting the service was built between 1932 and 1933. 

Sources:  French Ministry of Defense; American Armies and Battlefields in Europe

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