CHARLES FAIR

Two Forts near Verdun

One fine day in late September I joined up with the Luxembourg branch of the Western Front A ssociation for a visit to two of the forts near Verdun. Our guide was a trilingual German lady and long-time resident of Verdun called Ingrid who makes a living by giving tours of the Verdun forts. She is extremely knowledgeable and charges 200 FF per hour, which turned out to be excellent value when split between our party.

The first fort was Fort Troyon which is on the right bank of the Meuse between Verdun and St Mihiel, and is just off the D964. Verdun is ten miles to the north. The fort is one of those built in 1879 under Sere-de-Rivieres after the Franco-Prussian War and helps to link the major fortresses of Verdun and Toul.

In 1914 the fort was critical in determining the future course of the war on the Western Front. During the battle of the Marne, Joffre's right flank consisted of General Sarrail's 3rd Army. Sarrail was holding onto Verdun with his right, whilst at the same time his left had been pushed about 35 miles south, to Revigny which is south-west of the city. His army was thus arrayed north to south, but facing west. The Crown Prince realised that Sarrail's forces were therefore highly exposed to an attack from the east. Von Strantz's 5th Corps was attacking the eastern side of Verdun, and was ordered to take Fort Troyon and force a crossing of the Meuse. This would have completed the encirclement of the city.

At about 8.30 am on 8 September the bombardment started and it continued almost uninterrupted for five days. At one stage the fort's magazine was hit and a store of 90mm shells was exploded. The garrison of 450 men - one infantry company, two machine-guns and an artillery battery with no more than twelve guns - resisted the 10th German Division for a vital week. The siege was lifted at 2 am on 13 September and the Germans withdrew. The fort remained a few miles behind the French front lines for the rest of the War. (See 'A Second Alternative Guide To The Western Front', by A. J. Peacock, for further information on the history of the fort.)

The fort has been badly damaged, but the superstructure is still more complete than Forts Douaumant and Vaux (Verdun), Pompelle (Reims) and Malmaison (Chemin des Dames). The barrack area is only partially complete, and the semi-circular gun battery which guards the Meuse has been penetrated by large calibre shells. Ingrid first gave us a thorough tour of the superstructure, including the barracks which include staircases, washrooms, a bakery, and some surviving turrets for observation. Tunnels lead out to the infantry positions which are narrow slits which overlook the dry moat. There is a fine powder magazine.

(photo: courtesy "Association de Troyon.")

We then moved down to the underground levels which are complete and most impressive. The defenders had dug down below the original underground level, and we were told that there are approximately 3km of tunnels in the bedrock. These tunnels were sometimes lined with massive timber joists, but were usually just rough stone. We followed one tunnel which led down and several hundred yards west. This tunnel used to open onto the Meuse, and would have allowed the fort to be resupplied during battle. The outside entrance was closed off after the war.

On top of the fort there is a small monument to the defenders. Most of those killed in the defence of the fort are buried in the military cemetery in Troyon village. However, some are still buried in the fort since they were trapped underneath tons of earth and masonry when the roof of one of the corridors collapsed after receiving a direct hit. A plaque on a nearby wall lists these men.

In the afternoon we visited Fort Regret, a fort that guards the south-west side of Verdun. This fort stayed out of the battlezone, so is one of the few undamaged forts in the region. It therefore gives a good idea of what many of the other Verdun forts would have looked like before the Great War. Some Maginot Line era improvements were made to the fort, but these are mainly minor. In particular all the machines for raising, lowering and rotating the machine gun and artillery turrets seemed to be intact, albeit very rusty. The barrack area with its kitchens, washrooms, toilets etc. was also undamaged.

Copyright © Charles Fair, June, 1997.

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