The Western Front was more than 450 miles long and the British Army at one point occupied just over a hundred miles of it. Sometimes it is easy to forget the sacrifice of the French Army who held more than 300 miles of the front, or the more obvious fact the mighty German Imperial Army was holding all 450 miles on its side of the lines.
The so-called ‘French front’ had many of its own landmarks but for France and Germany one of its greatest symbols would be Verdun. Here both nations bled in 1916 with more than 770,000 casualties.
Fort Vaux was one of many static fortifications that came to characterise the battle; nearby Fort Douaumont fell to a handful of Germans but costs the lives of thousands of Poilus to retake. Fort Vaux was a more heroic story, at least in 1916. Surrounded, the besieged garrison under Commandant Raynal held on until food, water and ammunition all ran out. Raynal signalled his fate in a pigeon message delivered by the pigeon Valiant, which fell dead at the feet of the staff officers in the Verdun citadel once its mission was complete. Fort Vaux fell on 7th June but it was a hollow victory for the Germans who casualties were verging on catastrophic for a battle in which they had hoped to ‘bleed France white’.
Today Fort Vaux has been left in its wartime state and has an excellent museum. The pocked landscape that surrounds it reminds us of what once the whole Western Front landscape was like.
We start this week with images from the album of a battlefield pilgrim who travelled to the French battlefields between Reims and Verdun in 1925. The album belonged to a ‘D.Lauder’ who appears to have been a woman in her late twenties. Whether she had a connection to the family of the famous Sir Harry Lauder is not clear, but it appears she may have worked as a volunteer Nurse attached to the French Army, which explains why she visited locations outside of the usual area for British pilgrims.
Fort Vaux was one of the famous French forts which featured in the fighting during the Battle of Verdun in 1916. It had fallen to the Germans in June and was later recaptured that November. The women in the photo above are standing on an Observation Post which directed some of the forts gun turrets. The smashed nature of the ground is clearly visible.
When visitors came to Fort Vaux in the 1920s they were given a French Army guide, whom Miss Lauder photographed on top of the same bunker. He holds a miner’s lamp in his hand which was presumably used to take his party through the tunnels of the fort.