The Reims Forts

My tenth and final battlefield visit of 1996 took place on a cold November day. I went to visit some of the Reims forts with an American colleague and his father ( who is another member of WW1-L).

The first stop was Fort de Montbre which is about 4 miles SSW of the city. As it was behind the French front line throughout the war, except for a few days during the Battle of the Marne, it is totally intact. It is heavily overgrown, and is used by the French Army as an assault course. The gate appears to be permanently open, and we were able to walk around undisturbed. The barrack rooms, washrooms, powder magazines, casemates etc. are all in good condition, despite at least 50 years of neglect.

Northern Trench of Fort Pompelle - Winter, 1916

Fort de la Pompelle

Tel: 33/03 26 49 11 85
1st. Nov - 31st. Oct  10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
1st. Apr - 31st. Oct  10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Closed annually from 24th. Dec to 6th Jan.

French Infantryman (1914)

The next stop was Fort de la Pompelle, the most famous of the Reims forts. It is heavily damaged since it was in the front line for four years, so provides a total contrast to Fort Montbre. The fort is described in many modern battlefield guides so I will not go into details. ("A Second Alternative Guide To The Western Front" by A.J. Peacock gives some information about the fighting here in 1918.) The information sheet states that the fort "was built between 1880 and 1883, so as to complete the belt of forts started in 1875 to defend Reims. In 1913, adhering to the directives of the General Staff, the fort was disarmed to such an extent that on 4 September the Germans occupied it without a fight. After the Marne, the French retook Reims, but encountered the Germans who had established themselves in all the forts in the Reims belt. Ten days of fierce fighting was required before la Pompelle was recaptured."

"However it was in 1918 that the fort of la Pompelle played a vital role on the defence of Reims. On 1 March, 1 and 18 June, the Germans attacked the fort in great strength; artillery, flame-throwers and on 1 June with 15 tanks, in an effort to capture this key point in the defence of Reims. It was in vain. Each time, and by the chance rotation of troops, it was the 6th Company of the 21st Colonial Infantry Regiment which was responsible for the defence of the fort. Each time the assaults were fought off victoriously."

"On 15 July, Ludendorff launched the last German offensive along the Champagne front. The 7th Colonial Infantry Regiment, who at that time were defending la Pompelle, fought off this attack, which was to be the last against the fort. Nevertheless, until 5 October 1918, when the Germans evacuated their positions in front of Reims, the fort was still subjected to artillery bombardments."

The fort contains, among other things, an interesting museum to the "Crapouillots" (trench mortars), with several trench maps and aerial photos, and an impressive collection of German 1914-18 head-dress and other militaria.

Just over the road from the fort is a memorial to the defenders of the sector, on which are several plaques to specific individuals who were killed in the defence of the fort. In the nearby village of Sillery is a French Military Cemetery in which some 12,000 of the men who defended the fort and the front nearby are buried.

Armed with the local IGN 1:100,000 map, we drove north and continued our anticlockwise circle round the city in an effort to find the other forts. They are sited on a semi-circle of low hills which dominate the northern and eastern approaches to the city. "An Alternative Guide To The Western Front" mentions these forts without going into details. The ruins of the forts at Nogent-l'Abbesse and Witry-les-Reims were inaccessible, being held by the French Army and a private landowner respectively. The Fort de Fresnes has been almost completely obliterated and the remaining heaps of earth show only the occasional piece of stonework as evidence.

However, the Fort de Brimont appears to be in better shape, but fenced off. In the woods on the hill on which this fort sits we found a complete German trench system and evidence of dugouts. Between September 1914 and October 1918 this fort remained just behind the German front lines. It withstood several assaults by the French Army since it completely dominates the area around. The 5th D.I. failed to take the hill and village between 13 and 19 September 1914 as the Germans stabilised the front after their withdrawal from the Marne. (See "Between Mutiny and Disobedience: the case of the French 5th Infantry Division in World War I" by Leonard V. Smith pub 1994, Princeton University Press.)

William Yorke Stevenson of Section No. 1, American Ambulance, referred to the fort in his memoir "From Poilu To Yank", pub 1918. His diary entry for 20 April 1917 at Muizon reads:

"We had a splendid view of the opposing lines in front of Reims and the famous Fort Brimont, which is still holding out. The French have practically surrounded it and the huge "320s" and "400s" are falling on it steadily. The Russians having failed to take it, their divisions are being brought back, and the Chasseurs Alpins, the best troops the French have, are going to attack. We saw the shifting going on, the roads being blocked with troops and artillery."

Lastly, we tried to find Fort de St Thierry, the last fort, which is NW of Reims. The ruins of this fort are described in the guide "Première Guerre Mondiale des Flandres a l'Alsace" as being hidden in the woods and difficult to find. In fact they are so well hidden that we failed to find the fort: better luck next time.

Post-war pictures of Forts de la Pompelle and de Brimont can be found in the Michelin Guide "Reims et les batailles pour Reims 1914-18". (I assume these photos also appear in the English language version of this guide.)

Copyright © Charles Fair, May, 1997.

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