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.
The experience of 1914 taught the French Army that to be conspicuous on the battlefield meant certain death; especially on the modern battlefield with massed machine-guns and artillery. In 1914 alone France had lost over 300,000 Poilus killed in action and despite going to war locked in the mentality of the Franco-Prussian the French Army proved remarkably quick to adapt to the war when it went into stalemate during the winter of 1914/15.
The French Army was the first to introduce a steel helmet; a first this was a light steel skull cap worn under the issue Kepi. Then an officer called August-Louis Adrian adapted the design of the Paris fire helmet to produce the M15 Adrain helmet, worn by the men in this illustration, which became the standard French helmet for the rest of the war. The French also discarded the dark blue serge and red trousers and adopted the Horizon Blue uniform, also seen here; it was felt the blue would blend in with the skyline when French soldiers attacked, rather than attempt to develop a uniform colour that would blend in with the shattered landscape.
New uniforms also meant new weapons and stuck in trenches unable to emerge and fire their weapons, both sides turned to using the periscope rifle, also seen in this illustration; in this case enabling the Poilu to fire his 8mm Lebel rifle remotely and safely using the periscope fitted to the frame. It was just the start of adapting old weapons to work in a new way, or re-introducing old weapons from earlier siege wars.
Battlefields of the Great War were often littered with unburied dead killed on patrols in No Man’s Land or in the last attack. The recovery of such bodies was often too dangerous to be attempted or if the body was of an enemy soldier the inclination to do it may not have been there. Such sights therefore became quite standard to the average front line soldier.
The French Camouflage Service used this fact and constructed their own dead soldiers from papermache and other material. This illustration from La Guerre Documentée shows the dummy body of a German soldier having replaced an actual one on the front line wire close to a French trench. The dummy body is hollow to allow a soldier to gain access to it’s interior and observe from within. Obviously a papermache dummy offered little protection from bullets or shell fire so armoured sheeting was often placed inside or the soldier wore trench armour to protect him. There are images in the archives of the Imperial War Museum showing similar dummies constructed by the Royal Engineers, so it is likely to have been a device used by all sides on the cluttered battlefields of the Great War.
Another task of the French Camouflage Service was deception; to trick the enemy into believing that something was happening when it wasn’t or troops were in a specific area when in fact they were in another. One ruse was the so-called ‘Chinese Attack‘ where dummy soldiers would be used with real covering fire to simulate an attack taking place. This would prompt a response from the enemy who would reply often revealing positions that could be spotted and then dealt with by artillery fire, or it might draw enemy troops into a forward position in great number which could also be dispersed with shell-fire.
This illustration from La Guerre Documentée shows one such Chinese Attack taking place. A series of life-time wooden cut-outs of soldiers have been made and painted and been placed in front of a trench, and can be raised and dropped using a pulley system. This example is quite a sophisticated one; some British examples I have come across indicate that sandbags stuffed with straw with a tin helmet pushed on top were used; how effective that was is difficult to say.
The use of camouflage in the Great War is something not widely appreciated or even known about. This week the site will feature a series of images from La Guerre Documentée a little known French publication printed in 50-odd parts in 1919/20. Unusually for contemporary publications it used colour illustrations widely, the majority of which were specially commissioned and have never appeared in any other source.
The image above shows the preparation of a steel observation of a type commonly used in many front line positions. These bunkers would be manufactured behind the lines and then brought up at night and installed in a forward position with a good field of vision. If just put in place without any attempts to disguise them the bunker would be highly conspicuous and likely to be destroyed by artillery fire very quickly. The French Army camouflage service therefore painted on camouflage before they were taken up the line, and often created a covering that would blend in with the battlefield they were going to be placed on. In many cases such devices were never spotted and allowed the user to get clear observation of key points on the battlefield.
We began this week’s look at French images of the Great War with horror, and we end with horror.
Nearly a century after the Great War, it is hard to imagine what a charnel-house the battlefields were during the conflict. Images that give an insight into the horror are rare. This one from the Verdun battlefields of 1916 was taken in the aptly named ‘Ravin de la Mort’ – the Ravine of Death. The caption states the skull was nick-named ‘The Crown Prince’ – after the Kaiser’s son who had commanded German forces at Verdun that year.
Today the skulls of Verdun are just as visible; under the ossuary at Douaumont are the bones of more than 120,000 soldiers who fell in the battle and could not be identified. The ossuary has purpose built glass windows so visitors can look in and see the piles of bones and skulls all positioned so they look at the inquisitive. It is one of the most extraordinary places I have ever visited.
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.