Today is the 96th Anniversary of the start of the Battle of Verdun. This defining Great War campaign cost France and German more than 700,000 casualties in 1916 and for the French Poilu it became the notorious ‘mincing machine’ as seemingly regiment after regiment was thrown into the fighting here to stem the German advance and make sure that ‘They Shall Not Pass‘.
This image from a wartime set of French stereo-cards shows French soldiers in the quarries near Verdun at the site of a ‘Poste de Secours‘ or Dressing Station. French stretcher-bearers are seen towards the rear in the area where sandbagged dugouts line the quarry. The men at the front do not look wounded but appear to have just been fed, so there could have been a supply point here or field kitchen as well.
Verdun remains the by-word for the Great War in France and today ceremonies will be taking place at various sites on the Verdun Battlefield.
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.
The French 75mm Field Gun has often been called the artillery piece of the Great War. Brought into service in the last years of the nineteenth century, it had a unique recoil mechanism which meant that it could fire between 15 and 30 rounds a minute without the gun moving. Normally a field gun had be re-positioned to fire after every shot; the 75mm could deliver a huge rain of shells precisely in a short space of time, which gave the French Army the upper hand when the war turned to stalemate and artillery dominated the battlefield. In 1914 more than 4,000 were in service and by the end of the war more than 12,000 had been produced.
This image shows men of the 44th Regiment d’Artillerie of the French Army either just before the war on manoeuvres or at the time of mobilisation in August as it is dated 1914 on the reverse in pencil. The 44th was from Le Mans in France and weeks after this photo was taken, the unit was in action during the Battle of the Marne, where the German Army was stopped in its tracks at the very gates of Paris. It spent the winter of 1914/15 near Reims getting used to being dug in as Trench Warfare developed, and in 1915 took part in Operations in the Champagne. In 1916 it fought at Verdun, and in 1917 was back on the Marne before returning to the Champagne in 1918.
The men in the photograph are officers of the 44th; they are wearing the pre-war uniforms of blue serge and in field service attire with the equipment needed to do their job as gunner officers; map cases and binoculars. The officer second from right is likely to be either the 44th’s commander or a Brigade commander within the 44th; he is wearing the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration which could be awarded for general duties as well as for gallantry in the field and may just indicate he had some service in the army. Sadly no names are appended, but one wonders what sights and sounds these men experienced only weeks after this image was taken, and how many of them survived that long journey from the Marne back home.