Following the loss of Alsace and parts of Lorraine due to the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, the French decided to ring the city of Verdun, now close to the new border, with a system of larger and smaller forts. The one at Douaumont
was to be the biggest of them all, owing to its most strategic position (i.e. highest elevation).
Construction began in 1885 and wasn’t fully completed until late 1913. It thus should have been well equipped for the outbreak of war. It had more artillery than any of the other forts, large storage space and barracks for at least 800 soldiers. It had two lower levels and the top was fortified 5-12m thick with bricks, rocks, concrete and topped with a thick layer of earth. Only the steel-capped observation cupolas and retractable gun turrets poked out.
But after the forts in Belgium
did not withstand the super-heavy German artillery in the early phases of WW1
in 1914, the then French high command under General Joffre believed the forts at Verdun
would also be of little use and so it came that from mid-1915 Fort Douaumont had some of its guns removed leaving just the large 155mm and smaller 75mm retractable gun turrets. Ammunition was also largely taken away and the garrison was reduced to just a caretaker force of less than 60 middle-aged reservists. These held out in the large fort, which would have been capable of accommodating over 1000 soldiers, and during the first days of battle they were largely cut off from communication.
The German attack had started on 21 February 1916, also pounding the fort with shells. On 25 February an advance group of ca. 80 Germans reached the fort, meeting no resistance. The machine guns guarding the moat and entrance were unmanned, and so one of the Germans managed to climb in and open the door before moving deeper inside, where he disarmed and locked up the cannoneers he found at the 155mm retractable gun turret.
The rest of the Germans went in too and eventually found the rump staff in the lower level of the fort where they had taken refuge from the noise of the constant shelling. They were all taken prisoner without having put up any resistance. Not a shot was fired and the largest of Verdun
’s forts had fallen into German hands. For the next seven months it would be a key asset for the German military, for sheltering troops, as a dressing station and for ammunition storage close to the front line.
The easy loss of Fort Douaumont was a blow to the French and an embarrassment too. Not least because of Joffre’s misjudgement regarding the forts he was replaced by General Pétain later that year.
On 8 May there was a major accident inside Fort Douaumont, when, apparently as the result of mishandling of flamethrower fuel, an ammunition store went up in flames and exploded, killing nearly 700 German soldiers. Since taking them outside for burial was deemed too dangerous, they were instead buried in a chamber inside the fort which was then walled in.
Shortly after this incident the French made their first attempt at recapturing the fort, but were repelled by stiff resistance. It wasn’t until October, after prolonged bombardment with super-heavy artillery, that the Germans were beginning to evacuate the fort and on 24 October it was retaken by the French, together with an elite regiment of Moroccans.
Fort Douaumont subsequently came under shelling attacks by the German artillery again and on 14 December, just a few days before the end of the battle, a German 420mm shell struck one of the casemates, killing 21 French soldiers.
Today, the fort is one of the main sites to visit on the Verdun battlefield. It’s only lightly commodified (much less than Fort Vaux
), with no dummies in uniform, guns or such museum artefacts. So it feels rather raw and grim. The topside of the fort and the land immediately around it was left in the moonscape state it was in after the war, though grass has grown over the numerous shell craters, but the site remains treeless
What there is to see: When you arrive, what strikes you more than the fort itself is the pockmarked landscape all around it. The fort was hit by a million shells and the craters they left on the land are still very much in evidence, even though now covered by grass, so not quite the muddy moonscape it was back in 1916.
You can walk around the top of the fort and take a look at the various observation cupolas made of thick steel, or the machine-gun and howitzer retractable turrets, including a double-barrel 75mm gun turret.
Above the entrance (not the original main gate) are several old bronze plaques mostly in French celebrating the various sections of the French military that took part in the recapture of the fort from the Germans on 24 October 1916 (including soldiers from Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal
and Somalia). There is also one German and French plaque commemorating the dead of the 8 May 1916 accident inside the fort (see above
– and below).
The interior of the fort is very “raw”, i.e. not much has been altered and there are hardly any exhibits on display. It’s cool and damp down here, and the dim lighting makes it further claustrophobic in atmosphere. A few relics lie around, including some gas shells and other projectiles, and in the barracks part there are rows of two-tier steel bed frames and some ovens.
Most rooms branching off the central corridor are empty. Stalactites of lime hang from the ceiling and in some places are matched by stalagmites on the floor or washbasins. Almost everywhere it is damp. There are the odd commemorative plaques about, but very little further information is given, except for a plan of the fort hanging on one wall.
When I visited at the end of August 2016, however, I was given a laminated two-page sheet of background text in English to carry around with me and to drop off by the entrance on exiting. This gave general historical information and some explanations about specific locations within the fort.
One such place was the chapel-like memorial room by the wall behind which is the mass grave of nearly 700 German soldiers who died in the 8 May 1916 accident when flamethrower liquid and an exploding shell storage created a hellish inferno inside the fort. Most of the dead were simply piled in one of the storage rooms that was then walled in. A wooden cross hangs on this wall with an inscription on it saying “den toten Kameraden” (‘to the dead comrades’).
You can wander further along cobbled corridors and peek into side rooms. In one of them I found a swallow’s nest with several chicks. In another a lone old gun barrel was lying about. And a rusty stove still stood in what presumably must have been a kitchen. Yet other rooms turned out to be primitive washrooms and latrines. Even the officers’ dormitory looked decidedly simple. It must have been depressing living down here.
Here and there you pass niches in the walls with ladders leading down to the lower level. And at one point you come to a deep rectangular hole in the floor that leads even further down. In fact I was hardly able to see the bottom. Ladders in two corners lead down this abyss too. I have no idea what would be down there. Maybe it’s a well?
Fortunately the circuit through the fort leads down regular stairs to reach the lower floor. More dank and dark corridors follow, powder rooms and other storage halls. And eventually you go back up to the upper level and reach the 155mm gun turret.
The mechanisms of this retractable gun turret are all still in place, including the counterweights for lifting the turret up as well as the hand wheels for turning the gun and the shell lift. How the cannoneers would have been able to aim the gun is beyond me, given that they couldn’t see out. Maybe precision of aim was never even intended.
Back outside you could go and have another look at the top of this retractable turret and see the incredibly short gun barrel’s muzzle.
All in all
, Fort Douaumont exudes a great deal of place authenticity and is suitably dark and grim, but lacks a bit in information and exhibits. Still, this gives it that certain “raw” atmosphere, not that of a museum (cf. Fort Vaux
Access and costs: fairly easy only by car; very reasonably priced.
There is only very limited public transport, apparently, namely by shuttle bus (see under Fort Vaux
) between the main Douaumont
sites and the Tranchée des Baïonnettes, departing from the Mémorial de Verdun
hourly from 10.15 a.m., daily between June and September, only at weekends in April/May and October/November. But you’d first have to get to the Mémorial. And as this would force you into the hourly intervals, though, it is quite inconvenient. So unless you’re on a guided tour that provides transport you will need your own vehicle.
The fort is at the end of the D913D road which branches off the D913, the main route through these hills, east of the necropolis of Douaumont
just south of the Muslim monument (see Douaumont
). There’s a free car park just a hundred yards or so from the entrance. The outside of the fort and the pockmarked former battlefield around it can be explored freely at any time. But going inside costs a small admission
fee of 4 EUR (some concessions apply). Note that you can get combination tickets with Fort Vaux
which saves you 1.50 EUR. You can also get a “battlefield pass” covering not only both forts but also the ossuary of Douaumont
, the Mémorial de Verdun
and the citadelle souterrain
e in Verdun
, offering a saving of 6 EUR compared to the total for individual tickets for all these sites.
The fort interior has the following opening times: in July and August daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., in May and June only to 6.30 p.m., in April and September only to 6 p.m., October to 5.30 p.m., and February, March and November to mid-December to 5 p.m.; closed during the second half of December and all of January. Last admission 40 minutes before closing time.
Time required: An hour to an hour and a half.
- Fort de Douaumont 01 - solid built
- Fort de Douaumont 02 - scars of shelling outside
- Fort de Douaumont 03 - steel turrets
- Fort de Douaumont 03b - 75mm gun turret
- Fort de Douaumont 04 - entrance
- Fort de Douaumont 05 - inside
- Fort de Douaumont 06 - relics
- Fort de Douaumont 07 - long dark tunnels
- Fort de Douaumont 08 - old dorm
- Fort de Douaumont 09 - oven
- Fort de Douaumont 10 - damp side chamber
- Fort de Douaumont 10b - German mass grave
- Fort de Douaumont 11 - stalagtites forming
- Fort de Douaumont 12 - even stalagmites
- Fort de Douaumont 13 - niche with ladder
- Fort de Douaumont 14 - leading one level down
- Fort de Douaumont 15 - but it goes much deeper down still
- Fort de Douaumont 15b - stairs to the lower level
- Fort de Douaumont 16 - eerie
- Fort de Douaumont 17 - some green growing despite the dark
- Fort de Douaumont 18 - swallow nest
- Fort de Douaumont 19 - old hob
- Fort de Douaumont 20 - old cannon
- Fort de Douaumont 21 - plan of the fort
- Fort de Douaumont 22 - cobbled
- Fort de Douaumont 23 - former bathroom
- Fort de Douaumont 24 - mechanism for the retractable turret
- Fort de Douaumont 25 - counterweight
- Fort de Douaumont 26 - retractable turret
- Fort de Douaumont 27 - swallows and barbed wire