Le Fort de Choisel...

 

LOCATION:

4910'41.49"N -  518'15.81"E

FIND ME:

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BUILT: 1883.
MODIFIED: 1894-97, 1906-12, and 1917.
ACCESS:

Prohibited - access was comprehensively barred at some time by the bricking up of the main entrance and all accessible firing ports with concrete block.

GARRISON:

290 men.

ARMAMENTS:

2 x armoured MG turrets, 2 x Bourges Casemates, 1 x dual 75mm armoured artillery turret.

NOTES:

Getting up from the bottom of the moat onto the carapace of the fort is the hardest part, once you are up it is relatively easy to find a way inside. All the turrets have been demolished by the Germans in WW2. The Travaux 17 tunnels are extremely delicate and should NOT be entered under any circumstances.

 

 

Following the declaration of peace after the Franco-Prussian war the French had to rapidly construct a ring of forts around the fortress town of Verdun to bolster their defences. The Prussians had annexed most of Alsace and Lorraine as conditions of their punitive settlement terms and this meant that the border between the two countries had effectively moved much, much closer to the city. With such a short distance to march before engaging the key French defence an invading German army could quickly over run Verdun and proceed along the shortest route to Paris with little in their way to stop them. The first forts built were rendered woefully inadequate almost overnight by the rapid evolution in German artillery and by the development of "Picric Acid" high explosive. The next huge blow to the French defence plans was an alliance between Germany, the Austro-Hungarian empire and Italy, meaning that yet again the French would have to have a radical rethink and spend millions of Francs "bigging up" the Verdun ring of steel and concrete.

Their answer was to begin a second wave of fort construction employing several radically new design concepts. The main feature of the newer forts was the addition of self contained, heavily armoured gun emplacements in the form of retractable turrets carrying a variety of different calibre weapons. This design got rid of the reliance upon mobile artillery deployed within the confines of the fort such as was conceived with the "Panic Forts" in the first wave of construction after the peace of 1872. By far the most commonly encountered emplacements from this period are the double Hotchkiss machine gun turret and the twin 75mm fast firing artillery turret, but there are also several twin 155mm artillery turrets dotted amongst the forts providing a much heavier bombardment capability in support of the lighter artillery pieces. All the turrets worked in conjunction with a 7 inch thick armoured steel observation turret, each connected to the corresponding fighting turret by voice tube communication so that independent fire control commands could be given by the observation officer even in the event of a loss of power to the fort. At the same time the tendency to build fighting galleries in the inner moat walls to protect the fort from attack along the moat was abandoned in favour of the construction of caponnieres. These are hardened concrete emplacements jutting out into the moat in such a way that the defenders could pour enfilade fire into their enemy along the moat bottom. The caponnieres were also sited in such a way as to afford mutual support to adjacent caponnieres. The problem though with caponnieres is that despite their heavily armoured walls they are still very vulnerable to plunging artillery fire such as that from howitzers and mortars, so as a result their roofs had to be built ever thicker in order to withstand the likes of the 420mm Krupp siege gun. Increasingly the construction of caponnieres was abandoned in favour of the construction of counterscarp galleries instead which are built into the outer wall of the moat and accessed by tunnels travelling beneath the moat bottom from within the fort proper. This meant that instead of a roof made with 3 or 4 feet of concrete the soldiers defending the moat could now rely upon several feet of earth over their heads as well. Despite the efficacy of counterscarp galleries the forts were still built with, or retained during periods of modification, a double caponniere on the entrance elevation of the fort to protect the drawbridge entrance.

On the  RIGHT  is a section of the map of the area in which Fort de Choisel is located. On the left bank of the River Meuse there are two prominent ridges along which a series of forts were built which effectively closed down the route around Verdun on that side of the river. Just outside the tiny village of  Lombut the first fort in the chain is de Choisel and it operated with the close support of a smaller fort or "ouvrage", du Chana, on the opposite side of the valley. Forming the slightly offset point to the triangle of defences for this valley is the Ouvrage de Germonville to the south west, and the three acting in conjunction could stop a sizeable force from proceeding as far as Fromereville-les-Vallons, the village at the exit to the narrow valley. In addition de Choisel could act in support of Forts de Bois Bourrus and Marre on the ridge of the next valley to the north. These chains of mutually supporting forts effectively closed off any possibility of an enemy bypassing Verdun on that side of the River Meuse.

There is an oddity here though which we really cannot fathom for sure, and a glance at the map of the area  ABOVE RIGHT  will show you what I mean... given that the enemy the fort was designed to repulse would surely be coming from the east or the north east it is rather odd that Fort de Choisel appears to face in the opposite direction! I can only conclude that the nature of the terrain here abouts meant that there was a strong possibility of the enemy flanking the forts by heading west way up to the north and then turning back on itself to attempt access to the Meuse valley floor and ultimately Verdun itself along either of these valleys in a north easterly direction. Thus the direction de Choisel faces would then make sense.

As the twentieth century approached and the newly emerging German empire increased their sabre rattling the need to rapidly install cheap but effective additional fire power into all of the forts became apparent. Tests were carried out at the French Army Artillery proving grounds near Bourges, and the result - the "Bourges Casemate" - began to be added to the forts, each one armed with two quick firing 75mm artillery pieces. Fort de Choisel was no exception with two of these formidable emplacements sited on the top of the fort. At the outbreak of the Great War de Choisel was armed with no less than six QF 75mm artillery pieces and four turreted Hotchkiss machine guns. In addition the garrison infantry could man the ramparts, each section controlled by an officer standing in an armoured observation turret of a similar design to those which had been built to work with each of the armoured turrets. Moat protection was achieved with the placement of Hotchkiss Revolver canons and machine guns plus infantry deploying small arms and hand grenades. The peace time masonry barrack blocks were not used in time of conflict, the garrison was housed instead in subterranean barrack blocks deep within the armoured "red line" areas of the fort. Painted red lines on corridor walls within the fort denote the areas which were deemed to be bombardment proof.

Like forts du Regret and Vaucheraville the entrance to de Choisel is accessed from the moat bottom where there is also an eight feet deep secondary moat dug out right up against the fort walls in order to deny an enemy any chance of access by climbing through firing ports. Entrance to the moat itself is closed down with very high steel gates, though they are no longer in place today. A drawbridge immediately to the right of the gorge capponniere crossed the sub moat and afforded normal movement for the garrison but again the drawbridge has been removed or destroyed, presumably in the interests of isolating the fort from the attentions of the curious.

After the Battle of Verdun ground to a halt in December 1916 the lessons learnt during the fighting for Fort Vaux were analysed and a need for a series of interconnecting tunnels within all the forts was identified. This was in order to allow any fighting compartment to continue the battle even if the fort was partially occupied by the enemy. At Vaux the garrison had eventually capitulated not from lack of ammunition, nor by being overrun; rather they had to finally surrender simply because they ran out of drinking water. With the new tunnel systems that were ordered to be dug in the forts any fighting compartment could be re-supplied almost indefinitely through the tunnels, and the fort itself could also be accessed from the outside world by the same tunnel network in order to effect continued re-supply. The work began in 1917 and received the name "Travaux 17", which literally translates as "17 works". Many of the tunnels were never finished and very few were properly concrete lined, so it is common to find narrow tunnels dug into the rock with rotten pit props barely holding up the roofs, or huge areas of collapse only a few feet beyond the concrete walls proper of the fort.

 ABOVE  is a "floor plan" of Fort de Choisel, shown here by kind permission of Cedric and Julie Vaubourg. I would strongly recommend a visit to their excellent site where comprehensive information and masses of superb photographs document this and all the other Verdun forts, plus many other fortifications throughout the whole of France - it is a "must see" site and there is a picture link to access it at the bottom of this page.

 


Here are some of the photographs we took at Fort de Choisel on our visit in April 2012.

 
 
 


 


To view any of the photographs in a much larger format click the small photograph and a larger version will open in a secondary window.
 

 

The ridge Fort de Choisel is situated upon with the woods surrounding the Ouvrage de Germonville in the distance. Across the valley is situated Fort du Chana...
 

Entering the heavily wooded area in which the fort stands.


 

The ubiquitous French military sign warning that the woods are a training area.

 

Within the moat now where the old steel gates would have been.

 

The formidable double gorge caponniere protecting the moat and the entrance to the fort.
 

Firing ports for revolver canons.

 
One of the two Bourges Casemates looms overhead.
 
More firing ports protecting the moat.
 
A breach in the fort wall affords access to the top.
 
It's no mean feat to climb it though!

 

On the glacis of the fort and here are the peace time barrack blocks partially buried over the years.
 

The first route in we decided to try...

 

...and we're in!


 

The absence of a painted red line shows that this area was NOT bombardment proof. It must therefore be the peace time barrack block.
 

In the main communicating corridor within the barrack block.


 

Given that the masonry is relatively delicate it's clear this fort did not receive a great deal of heavy artillery attention from the Germans.
 

Le Bog!


 

Heading off down into the bombardment proof areas of the fort.


 

This staircase at the opposite end of the war time barracks leads back into the masonry constructed barrack block.


 

In the first Bourges Casemate now.



 

This was the firing port through which the 75mm artillery piece could be fired. The overgrown woods beyond are the product of tens of years of neglect but would have afforded a commanding view down the valley once upon a time.
 

the remains of the overhead rail track which was used for moving ammunition to the guns.

 

The steps lead down into the area below the casemate where ammunition was stored and the gun crew could shelter.
 
 

The observation cupola for this casemate has been destroyed with explosives and part of it has fallen down the shaft from the surface..

 

This is the bottom compartment of one of the twin MG turrets.
 

The staircase leads down to a tunnel running under the moat and out to one of the moat counterscarp galleries.
 

We have just come up into a counterscarp gallery from the moat tunnel.
 

There is a revolver canon firing port in the middle of the counterscarp wall and it is surrounded by infantry firing ports and grenade chutes.
 

The moat beyond.


 
We are back in transit under the moat once again.


 

Deep within the war time barrack block area.


 

At the moat wall end of the block there is a firing port for a sentry to look out or shoot from.

 

The sentry's eye view.


 

Back underground and heading out towards the opposite counterscarp gallery now.
 

A collapsed section of Travaux 17 tunnel.

 

This counterscarp gallery has the same firing arrangements as it's opposite brother.

 

This grenade chute still has the wooden mechanism in place down which "bombs" were "posted".
 

M is about to photograph the remains of the 75mm turret, destroyed with HE in WW2 by the Germans.

 

Bigger the bag which did this!


 

The light beyond...



 

We have traversed the moat once more and we are heading back up towards the top side of the fort adjacent to the second Bourges Casemate.


 

TJ emerging from the side door of the Bourges Casemate.



 

Topsides now and heading back towards the moat. The high counterscarp sidewall of the moat is clearly visible.
 

An observation cupola minus it's 7" thick steel lid!

 
The remains of another observation cupola destroyed with HE.

 

This is one of the infantry OP cupolas. It appears to have sustained a direct hit with an artillery shell in enfilade. As the damage is to all intents and purposes from behind it's hard to see how this can have happened except with by the likes of a relatively modern shoulder launched anti-tank weapon or the like.
 

The remains of the 75mm artillery turret seen now from above.




 

This is a skirt section of the armoured top of the turret. Built to withstand anything up to very heavy calibres it would have taken a very big demolition charge to do this.

 

An alternative view into the remains of the emplacement.

 

In the outer (counterscarp) wall of the moat can clearly be seen the firing ports of a counterscarp gallery.
 

TJ tackling the rather dodgy climb back down to moat level.

 

And we're back where we started by the fort's main entrance and it's protective caponniere.

 

Click above to navigate to Cedric & Julie Vaubourg's

excellent and informative site on the forts of France...
 

Click above to navigate back to the

Verdun forts main page once more...