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

Thursday, May 18, 2023

High Noon at Verdun: The Attack on Fort de Souville

Inside Fort de Souville Before the Big Battle

The Battle of Verdun—the longest struggle of the Great War—came to a head over two days in July 1916 at a site that neither the German or French general staffs might have anticipated.  After all, there were dozens of strongly fortified and critical positions scattered all around the highly fortified city of Verdun. Yet, in hindsight, it's quite understandable how Fort de Souville came to be that location.  

On the morning of 12 July a scattering of surprised German assault troops made it to the top of the fort and first beheld the object of their Kaiser and commanders ambitions, the reason that they had been fighting in one of the grimmest battles in history—Verdun on the River Meuse.  Certainly, they  immediately appreciated that the possession of such a dominating position meant certain victory for their nation's forces.  Alas though, they were soon driven off and France retained the enormously advantageous position.  Their own army would never mount another serious attack at Verdun and would spend the rest of  1916 on the defensive both here and on the Somme.

The Critical Fort

Souville Fort was built between 1875 and 1877 then reinforced in 1888 and 1889. It was part of the first project by General Séré de Rivières to fortify Verdun. More than a simple fort, Souville was a fortified massif overlooking the most important sectors of the potential battlefield.  It was equipped with a garrison of two infantry companies and artillery sections, a cavern shelter for an additional 300 men,  terraced fortress batteries, and armored observation posts.  All the positions were linked by deep protected tunnels.  Nearby was  a retractable turret for two 155mm cannon. 

During the 1916 battle, however, all the fort’s external structures were severely damaged by German artillery shells. The retractable turret was unusable after only 11 days; one of the two tubes exploded after having shot 600 shells from 24 February to 6 March. 

Map Showing Opening Attack Line of 23 June and
Final Line of 12 July

In May and June, the fort suffered devastating bombardments from 380 and 420mm cannons, ruining all its non-reinforced parts. Over 38,000 shells of all calibers, including a high percentage of gas,  fell on the fort during this period.  

Despite the structural damage and elimination of most of the fort's firepower, its position overlooking the entire attack zone of the German's summer assaults meant the French artillery could still use it as an observation post. After the early fall of Fort Douaumont, Souville, at 388 meters, was the highest point on the entire Verdun battlefield. This was the priceless value of Souville. Its loss would give the enemy a commanding view of Verdun, the Meuse Valley and the two remaining smaller forts on the right side of the river. Petain believed the loss of Fort de Souville would mean the loss of Verdun and, possibly, the war.

German intentions

In June, after the paralysis of positions on the left bank, where the Germans found after capturing Mort Homme and Hill 304, that their enemy had created a massive artillery kill zone in the valley just beyond,  the Germans refocused their attention back across the river.  Difficult Fort Vaux was taken on the 7th of the month.  Next came the series of ridges and ravines  where Froideterre and Thiaumont ouverages (small forts), fortified Fleury Village and Fort de Souville, collectively, shaped a powerful barrier.  A breakthrough of this line would place the prize, Verdun proper, just a few miles away.

Postwar Photo from the Slope of the Souville Massif.
The German Take-Off Line Was on the Horizon.
Fighting of 11-12 July Was over the Foreground and on  the Flanks.

Initial Attack: German Successes

On 23 June, 70,000 men attacked on the front Thiaumont-Fleury-Ft. Vaux. Thiaumont redoubt was lost, captured, and recaptured countless time. Finally, Germany secured it. Farther west, waves of attackers were hurled upon the Froideterre redoubt which was briefly held, then lost by the attackers. A counterattack then cleared the plain as far as Thiaumont. In the center of the French line,  the enemy's attack was most successful, flanking the devastated village of Fleury on both sides. A deep penetration had been made. The attempt to capture Fort de Souville, though, despite direct attacks and flanking moves on both sides, failed utterly, but only after one close call for the defenders.

The 407th Infantry Regiment held the line on the wooded slopes of Vaux-Chapitre just to the north of the fort.  During the initial attack, its right held on without giving way, but on the left contact between companies was broken.  Germans flooded through the gap and got to the defenders in rear. It was a critical  moment, saved by the Colonel of the 407th who had posted several machine gun batteries near his headquarters. These machine gunners were able to slow down the attacking wave. At the same time, he deployed an improvised force of reserves made up of telephone operators, stretcher-bearers, pioneers, orderlies and cooks. With this extemporized force he attacked the unsuspecting enemy, who were halted and then driven back. Access to Souville was still barred. The fort, where so many heroic artillery observers had been buried or blown to pieces by the relentless bombardment, continued to remain the ever-alert sentinel of the battlefield dominating the left flank of the enemy's push to Verdun.  Today a monument to the heroism of the 407th R.I. stands nearby on Road D112.

German Soldiers Near the 23 June Jump-Off Line
Fort Douaumont in the Distance

11–12 July 1916

While the Somme offensive had begun 1 July and the Fifth Army of the Kronprinz no longer had any strategic reserves, Falkenhayn decided to launch a final limited offensive to conquer the last stronghold of the French defenses, Fort de Souville. Without it, all the German advances to date were meaningless. At dawn on 11 July, after three days of artillery preparations, 40,000 German soldiers, including the Alpenkorps, launched another  assault on a 4 kilometer front intended to seize Souville.

At 0542, the Bavarian Guards initiated the assault, using flamethrowers and supported by artillery. They penetrated down the ravine behind Fleury village before the French had time to react. The accompanying gas and shells also interrupted all heliograph communications with Fort Souville.

At 0600, Colonel Coquelin de Lisle  sent a homing pigeon with the following message: "The 255th Brigade's situation in front of Fleury is grave, with gas bombardments and the enemy's attacks, which were delayed, and morale is high but the men are exhausted. I need artillery support with 100 red fuses and 100 white fuses. The main attack appears to be between the [train] station and the village of Fleury." 

At Souville proper the 140th East Prussian Infantry Regiment aimed to seize the fort, but failed to break through French lines. Meanwhile, the other arm of the attack progressed from south of Fleury on the flank of Fort Souville. However, heavy French artillery fire inflicted severe casualties, causing that attack to stall. Both branches of the German attack called for artillery support to help them press on to Souville.

At the fort—a gassed, disabled Captain Soucarre was in command, when Lt. Kléber Dupuy, who has orders to report on the situation at Souville, arrived on the scene. He is appalled at the situation and send this report:  

"Here, everything is turned upside down. The commander of the fort is gassed,  the garrison is out of action. Unless otherwise ordered, I remain at the fort and defend it. Signed: Dupuy."

Soucarre turned over leadership to Dupuy. For three hours, the most critical position on the Verdun battlefield was under command of a 2nd Lieutenant. Dupuy decided to spend his time reorganizing the defenses of the work despite the meager means at his disposal. At 0900 Captain Decap arrived having received orders to take command of the fort. With only about forty able-bodied men and three machine-guns served by the territorials, he carried out his mission with Dupuy's energetic assistance.

Some Defenders of Souville, Pre-Battle

In the evening, French reinforcements, the 169th and 100th Infantry Regiments, were moved towards "the ravine of Our Lady" (site of a destroyed chapel) just north of the fort. The site of intense earlier fighting, it had come to be renamed "the ravine of Death" by the men. The 100th Regiment advanced at the head of the line, with its 2nd and 3rd Battalions in the lead, and the 1st Battalion behind in reserve. They drove back the elements of the Bavarian Guards who had advanced uncomfortably close to Souville, taking 80 prisoners. 

During the night, a heavy German bombardment on "the ravine of Death" inflicted severe casualties on the 1st Battalion, which had advanced in support of the 2nd. The majority of its soldiers were killed, as well as their commander.  This left the defensive line immediately in front of the fort quite thin.

The Main Entrance After the Battle

The next day, 12 July, the nearly exhausted German forces renewed the attack, but the overall effort quickly ebbed. Surprisingly, about thirty men of the140th Regiment made their way to the top of Souville without a Poilu in sight. The tired Frenchmen were undercover in the tunnels of the fort, unaware there were any invaders left in the area. Proud of their achievement and hoping for reinforcements,  the young Ensign in charge waved a flag that was visible for miles.  This drew artillery support from his headquarters, but it  also stirred the opposition down below to investigate. Quickly, the redoubtable Lt. Dupuy went into action. Alistair Horne described what ensued:

Hearing that there were Germans on the glacis, Dupuy promptly led out his men to drive them off, in what (not knowing that this was only an isolated group) might well have been a heroically suicidal attack.   After a sharp exchange, Souville was once more undisputedly French; some of  the Germans whose eyes had beheld the sacred city were taken prisoner, the rest killed or dispersed. 

The last German offensive action at Verdun had ended. French losses at the Fort de Souville  were estimated to be almost 300 officers and men killed. The French Army, however, was not inclined allow the front to stabilize at the foot of Souville.  Over the next 159 days, it would expend tens-of-thousands of additional lives pushing its adversary almost back to the starting point of the great battle.  This second half of the Battle of Verdun would have a grave draining effect on the Army's morale.

Memorials to the 407th R.I. and  Lt. Dupuy Near the Fort

After the Battle of Verdun, reconstruction work began on Souville. Shelters under protective rock were set up. A 140m tunnel linking the fort to the 155mm cannon turret was built. In 1917, three Pamart "elephant head" emplacements with 14cm-thick reinforced shells and each with two machine guns were installed to provide close defense.  Late in the war, the action had moved beyond Verdun's fortified zone and the heroic, but no longer relevant, fort was effectively shut down for the remainder of the war. Today, Fort de Souville is a fascinating stop for battlefield visitors. There's much to see. However, the forest-like new growth over the crest prevents an appreciation of the remarkable 360-degree view that was available to men of 1916 and seemed worth fighting a desperate battle over. 

Sources:  Wikiwand; Michelin Verdun, Argonne-Metz: The Price of Glory; various websites

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