French Fail To Retake Fort Douaumont

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 236th installment in the series.

May 22-25, 1916: French Fail To Retake Fort Douaumont 

Following the German onslaught against Verdun in February 1916, the defense of the symbolic fortress town was organized by general Philippe Petain, commander of the French Second Army, who won fame for holding off the first waves of the attack, implementing a system of rotating deployments to keep defenders (relatively) fresh, and creating the continuous truck convoy which kept the French divisions around Verdun supplied with weapons, ammunition, and food.

Even more importantly, Petain – a dour pessimist who’d quickly realized the futility of infantry assaults again entrenched defenders – avoided falling into the trap set by German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn, who hoped to wear France out through sheer attrition. Where Falkenhayn expected the French to fling every last man into the fight to save Verdun, Petain avoided sending his troops against strong German defensive positions whenever possible, was willing to cede small amounts of ground when necessary, and relied heavily on artillery to make the enemy pay for every square foot of captured ground (thus turning the tables on Falkenhayn, who’d hoped to lure the French into counterattacks and blow them away with artillery).

Between this and German commanders’ over-eager advances, what was supposed to be a battle of attrition for the French alone ended up being equally costly for the Germans, prompting the commander of the German Fifth Army, Crown Prince Frederick Wilhelm, to privately advise Falkenhayn that the attack had failed and should be called off on April 21, 1916. In short, the French defense of Verdun appeared to be successful. 

However, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre wasn’t satisfied with mere defense: given Verdun’s symbolic importance, the German gains had to be reversed through systematic counterattacks, even at great cost. In other words, he was prepared to abandon Petain’s hard-fought defensive posture, thus playing into Falkenhayn’s hands exactly as the latter hoped. And Joffre had the perfect commander to launch the glorious bloodletting: General Robert Nivelle, a cocky French artillery officer who’d made his name helping defeat the German offensive of 1914 at the Marne and Aisne. Nivelle was supported by the commander of the 5th Division, General Charles Mangin – a committed acolyte of the cult of the attack, who exuded confidence that the right combination of firepower and French bravery could dislodge the Germans from their positions north of Verdun. 

Of course Joffre couldn’t just cashier a successful officer like Petain (as he had literally hundreds of other lesser lights) so instead he decided to kick him upstairs. On May 1, 1916 Joffre promoted Petain to command of Army Group Center, giving him responsibility for a large stretch of the Western Front besides Verdun, while Nivelle was promoted to command the Second Army. The stage was set for the French to switch from defense to offense.


While the Germans remained focused on the incredibly fierce struggle for the strategic hills Cote 304 and Mort Homme (the appropriately named “Dead Man”) on the west bank of the Meuse, Nivelle and Mangin planned to strike a blow at the very center of the German line by recapturing Fort Douaumont, lost with scarcely a shot fired in the first days of the attack on Verdun, now a safe haven, communications hub and clearing house for German troops on the way to the trenches. They were understandably encouraged by belated news of the disastrous explosions and fire that killed 650 German soldiers at Fort Douaumont, concluding that these had probably damaged the fort’s defenses as well. 


However the Germans quickly repaired the damage with their typical efficiency, and then – alerted to the coming attack by intelligence reports – buttressed the garrison with reinforcements. Meanwhile the French artillery preparation (which lasted five days; above, the French bombardment) was frustrated by pre-war French engineering skill, making little impression on a roof composed of thirty feet of soil over eight feet of concrete, although several turrets, entrances, and a power generator were destroyed. 


Click to enlarge

When the French emerged from their positions to attack, German artillery in the trenches around Douaumont opened up with ferocious accuracy, wiping out entire battalions before they reached the fort. Nonetheless one French regiment, the 129th, managed to storm the roof of the structure, and a small number of French troops actually managed to penetrate the fort through a hole left by a lucky French shot, reaching the the outer tunnels and even glimpsing the interior of the fort itself before being swiftly expelled. 

The French set up a machine gun on the roof of the fort and mowed down scores of German (counter)-attackers emerging from the fort’s interior, but their own losses were astronomical, amounting to almost half the regiment by the end of the first day. One anonymous French observer at Douaumont noted the lunatic ferocity of the fighting, and its effect on the men: 

Even the wounded refuse to abandon the struggle.  As though possessed by devils, they fight on until they fall senseless from loss of blood.  A surgeon in a front-line post told me that, in a redoubt at the south part of the fort, of 200 French dead, fully half had more than two wounds.  Those he was able to treat seemed utterly insane.  They kept shouting war cries and their eyes blazed, and, strangest of all, they appeared indifferent to pain. At one moment anaesthetics ran out owing to the impossibility of bringing forward fresh supplies through the bombardment.  Arms, even legs, were amputated without a groan, and even afterward the men seemed not to have felt the shock.  They asked for a cigarette or inquired how the battle was going.

Worse still, the French troops on the fort’s roof were cut off from reinforcements and resupplies by German artillery, meaning it was only a matter of time before they ran out of ammunition and succumbed as well. By May 24 a German trench mortar wiped out the French machine gun, and the arrival of the Bavarian 1st and 2nd Divisions as reinforcements on the German side on May 25 spelled the end of the venture.

Thus the attack by the French 5th Division against Fort Douaumont ended in total defeat. The total cost from May 22-25 was 6,400 French casualties, including dead, wounded, missing and prisoners, or almost half the strength of the 5th Division, now so battered it could barely hold its own position in the French defensive line. 

Meanwhile fighting continued along the entire Verdun front (above, newsreel footage of Verdun) and especially on the west bank of the Meuse, where the French and Germans were still battling for control of Cote (Hill) 304. One eyewitness, the French soldier Louis Barthas, described the shocking scenes amid nonstop fighting at Cote 304: 

As day broke, I looked out upon this famous, nameless hill. Our trench lay at the foot of it. For several months the hill had been disputed as if it had diamond mines on its slopes. Alas, all it contained now were thousands of shredded, pulverized corpses. Nothing distinguished it from neighboring hills. It seemed to have been partly wooded at one time, but no trace of vegetation remains. The convulsed, overturned earth offered nothing but a spectacle of devastation. All day long we stayed close to the ground, huddled in this covered trench, suffering from heat and lack of air. 

Barthas later saw the remnants of a French regiment which had been wiped out on Cote 304 not long before in the “Rascas trench”: 

There, human flesh had been shredded, torn to bits. At places where the earth was soaked with blood, swarms of flies swirled and eddied. You couldn’t really see corpses, but you knew where they were, hidden in shell holes with a layer of dirt on top of them, from the wafting smells of rotten flesh. There was all sorts of debris everywhere: broken rifles; gutted packs from which spilled out pages of tenderly written letters and other carefully guarded souvenirs from home, and which the wind scattered; crushed canteens, shredded musette bags – all labeled 125th Regiment. 

An anonymous French lieutenant painted a similar picture of conditions at Verdun: 

We all carried the smell of dead bodies with us. The bread we ate, the stagnant water we drank… Everything we touched smelled of decomposition due to the fact that the earth surrounding us was packed with dead bodies… you could never get rid of the horrible stench. If we were on leave and we were having a drink somewhere, it would only last a few minutes before the people at the table beside us would stand up and leave. It was impossible to endure the horrible stench of Verdun.

See the previous installment or all entries.

15 Convenient Products That Are Perfect for Summer

First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch
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1. CARSULE Pop-Up Cabin for Your Car; $300 (20 percent off)

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This tent connects to your hatchback car like a tailgate mobile living room. The installation takes just a few minutes and the entire thing stands 6.5 feet tall so you can enjoy the outdoors from the comfort of your car.

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If you just so happen to be one of those unlucky souls who attracts a suspicious amount of mosquitos the second you step outside, you need this repellent lamp to help keep your arms and legs bite-free. It uses a non-toxic combination of LED lights, air turbulence, and other methods to keep the pests at bay.

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10 Fascinating Facts About Fleabag

Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars in Fleabag.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars in Fleabag.
Amazon Studios

In just two short seasons, British sitcom Fleabag has made a lasting mark on television. The series centers around Fleabag, a 30-year-old Londoner—played by the effortlessly funny Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who also created the show—who is caught up living a life of late nights filled with booze and promiscuity in the wake of her mother’s death.

At first Fleabag appeared to be a simple half-hour comedy following the often naughty exploits of its quirky main character. Yet, as the series progressed, it quickly proved itself to be a truly masterful piece of work with each episode adding more complicated layers and darker themes to which many viewers can relate. Here are some facts about the groundbreaking comedy.

1. Fleabag began as a one-woman stage play.

It’s hard to imagine what Fleabag might look like if it were stripped of all its chaotic characters and performed as a solo show, but that’s exactly how it started. Before there was a TV show, creator/star Phoebe Waller-Bridge staged Fleabag as a one-woman play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival back in 2013. The title character addressed the audience in an hour-long, sexcapade-filled monologue, which was generally met with praise by theater critics. The TV show was created soon after, and originally premiered on BBC Three in July 2016.

2. The title of the show refers to more than just the main character.

The title Fleabag comes from a nickname given to Phoebe Waller-Bridge by her family. “It was my family nickname as far back as I can remember,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2019. Speaking to This Morning in April 2020, Waller-Bridge also revealed a deeper meaning for the name choice (which is never actually spoken in the show).

“A fleabag motel is something that's a bit rough around the edges,” Waller-Bridge explained. "I wanted to call her that because I wanted her persona and her outside aesthetic to give the impression that she was completely in control of her life, when actually, underneath, she's not."

3. Phoebe Waller-Bridge co-founded a theater company before penning Fleabag.


L to R: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Vicky Jones, and Tuppence Middleton at London's Soho Theatre.
David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images

In 2007, several years before Fleabag was born, Waller-Bridge was fed up with not being able to find work, despite having graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art two years earlier. So she co-founded her own theater company, DryWhite, with her best friend Vicky Jones. DryWhite paved the way for Waller-Bridge’s 2008 debut stage performance in Roaring Trade at London’s Soho Theatre, which led to two other successful plays—Crashing and, of course, Fleabag—both of which were created by and starred Waller-Bridge, and both of which were turned into television series. DryWhite is still going strong today, bringing fresh talent out in new productions every year.

4. Isobel Waller-Bridge, Phoebe's sister, composed the Fleabag soundtrack.

The badass guitar chords played after every episode of Fleabag are composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge, Phoebe’s very talented sister. Isobel earned a bachelor's degree in Music at Edinburgh University followed by a master's degree at King's College London then additional study at the Royal Academy of Music.

Isobel has firmly established herself in the music world. Like her sister, Isobel has received several awards, including Best Composer at the Underwire Film Festival. She also composed the chorused background music for Fleabag’s second season, which perfectly fit the religious theme. Her impressive work can be heard on her SoundCloud.

5. The fourth wall breaks in Fleabag aren’t just there for comedic effect.

Fleabag’s hilarious fourth wall breaks actually serve a deeper purpose for the character, which is realized by the end of season 1. Fleabag, who is deeply suppressing grief from the loss of her mother and best friend, uses these breaks to escape her troubled reality.

By season 2, the fourth wall breaks became less of a crutch as the character became more engaged in her real life and even fell in love. By the end of the show (spoiler!), Fleabag retires from the audience altogether as she decides to face her reality going forward.

6. The “Hot Priest” role was written specifically for Andrew Scott.

Waller-Bridge worked with Irish actor Andrew Scott years before she cast him to play the role of The Priest—a.k.a. “The Hot Priest”—in Fleabag’s second season. Speaking to IndieWire in 2019, Waller-Bridge praised Scott’s acting style, saying, “there’s something really dangerous about how truthful he is as an actor … he just comes with so much complexity that your characters instantly become interesting.” Waller-Bridge wrote the part once Scott agreed to it and their perfectly tragicomic love story was born.

7. Had Andrew Scott turned the part down, a second season of Fleabag might never have happened.

Waller-Bridge was so set on getting Andrew Scott to sign on to play The Priest that she admitted a second season might not have happened if he had said no. She told IndieWire:

"Religion was already a theme in my mind from very, very early on, but I didn’t know how to distill that until I had decided on The Priest. I worried it would be too much of an obvious sort of comedy idea, that Fleabag, who you can’t imagine has ever stepped foot in a church before, that she should come up against a man of the cloth. It seems almost too comedic, too sitcom.

"But then the moment I imagined Andrew Scott in that role, and making this man complex and three-dimensional, and sort of a match for Fleabag, then I was like ‘I’ve got the show now.’ It’s all about these two and how they affect each other’s lives. I called him up before I’d even written it to see if he’d be interested in doing it, and I pitched him the idea because I think if he’d said no, I don’t know if I would have actually been able to write that part."

8. The Priest notices something about Fleabag that no other character in the show is able to see.

Andrew Scott in Fleabag (2016)
Andrew Scott stars in Fleabag.
Amazon Studios

Fleabag often breaks the fourth wall mid-conversation with characters to address the audience, until she is eventually caught in the act of doing it by The Priest—much to her, and the viewer's, surprise. Whenever things get too intense for Fleabag, she switches off, which is something the Priest notices almost right away. In a 2019 interview with IndieWire, Waller-Bridge discussed the significance of this moment between the two characters: “[S]peaking to the audience concerns the theme of loneliness, and I think that he’s able to recognize that because he’s actually able to see her.”

9. Fleabag had an alternate ending.

In 2019, Waller-Bridge revealed to The Guardian that there was an alternate ending for Fleabag, but she remained tight-lipped on what it was. At the beginning of season 2, Fleabag tells audiences this is “a love story” which, despite ending rather tragically, remains hopeful by the end as Fleabag leaves audiences behind to move forward in her own life. So Waller-Bridge can keep her alternate ending—the one viewers saw was perfect.

10. No, there will not be a third season of Fleabag.

Sian Clifford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in 'Fleabag'
Sian Clifford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag.
Hal Shinnie/Amazon Studios

Though Fleabag dominated the most recent awards season, winning two Golden Globes (including Best Television Series - Musical or Comedy) and six Emmy Awards (including Outstanding Comedy Series), Waller-Bridge has made it clear that there will not be a third season. Even after the second season won so many awards, Waller-Bridge said, “I haven’t changed my mind about season 3. It feels more and more about being the right decision. [These awards shows] are just beautiful goodbyes."