The Butte de Vauquois
The next morning we rose early to go to the Butte de Vauquois. This was my second visit to what is, in my opinion, one of the finest battlefield sites on the Western Front. The Butte is a small hill, 290 metres high, that dominates the valley between the Argonne massif to the west, and the Mort Homme/Hill 304 massif to the east. In 1914 it was surmounted by the original village of Vauquois.
The Germans occupied the hill at the end of their retreat after the Marne, and turned it into a fortress. The French made four unsuccessful attacks between 28 October 1914 and 28 February 1915. They finally took the German trenches on 1 March 1915 and fought off constant German counter-attacks for the next four nights and five days. On 4 March the French secured the trenches to the west of the church and gained control of the hill. Surface fighting continued in 1915 but gradually became a war of mining. The US 35th Division cleared the hill on the first day of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on 26 September 1918.
A staggering total of 531 mines were blown here during the life of the Butte, the largest being 60 tons under the church in May 1916. The fear of being blown up became so great that both sides adopted a tacit 'live and let live' agreement in which mines were only to be blown up between 4 pm and 7 pm. The village was literally blown off the face of the earth during the Great War. Where the village once stood is a row of massive craters which split the Butte into two. It is estimated that 8,000 French and German soldiers went missing on the hill and were never found.
We had come to join in an Open Day that was being held by the Amis de Vauquois. This preservation society has explored and surveyed the Butte in recent years, and has done an immense amount of work in order to improve public access. (Open Days are held on weekends at various intervals thought the year, and always at the Toussaint weekend at the end of October/early November. Association des Amis de Vauquois, 1 rue d'Orleans, 55270 Vauquois, France. Tel: (03) 29 80 73 15)
In the car park that is part-way up the Butte one will find an information board which gives a history of the Butte. It includes photographs and a sketch which shows a cross section of the hill. The Amis estimate that there are approximately 12 miles of tunnels on each side. These are mostly in good condition: some are large enough to stand in, others are only 3 feet by 2 feet. There are at least three discrete levels of tunnels on each side of the hill, with tunnels leading a considerable distance away from the hill to enable safe resupply.
We had a three-hour guided tour of the underground tunnel system. The first part covered the German tunnels. There is a small museum in the German tunnels which consists of various artefacts that have been discovered over the years. It also contains a remarkable plan which shows the complex rabbit warren of tunnels that exist inside the Butte. Nearby rooms contain rusty examples of larger equipment for ventilation, electricity generation, and water supply. The Amis have rigged up a lighting system which resembles that used by the German troops since it uses the same wall brackets. One quickly becomes disoriented and our guide was essential in order to make sure that we did not get lost. The rough walls muffle sounds and light does not travel far.
We then went into the French tunnels which were not built to such a high standard. The French blocked many of their tunnels with iron pickets and barbed wire in the summer of 1918 when it looked as if the German army might break through. We had to carefully pick our way round such obstacles. There is another small museum in this side of the hill, and this consists of artefacts, as well as reproductions of maps and photos which helped to give an idea of what life must have been like inside the hill. The French side also contains a narrow gauge rail track on which small resupply wagons were pulled by hand.
On top of the French side of the Butte is the Memorial to the combatants and dead of Vauquois. This consists of an obelisk which shelters a lantern of the dead. On one face is a sculpture of a poilu who has a grenade in one hand and a rifle in the other. Behind him is a carving of the trunk of a mutilated tree. This represents a distinctive tree which used to stand on almost the same spot as the monument, and which was used as a point of registration by the French artillery. Nearby are two orientation tables which show where the original streets would have been in relation to the craters.
The modern village of Vauquois is sited at the base of the Butte. A memorial to one of the French units that attacked the Butte can be found at the end of the car park in the village.
Copyright © Charles Fair, July, 1997.
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