On Sunday the 18th. of June, 1815, near the small Belgian village of Waterloo BELOW LEFT on the rolling agricultural plains a serious power vacuum was created in Europe. On that day the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated by the British under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, better known as the Duke of Wellington. But it was a close run thing. The British had withstood repeated frontal attacks by the French all day then in the evening the Prussian army appeared unexpectedly on the battlefield, driving hard into the French flank. Wellesley saw his chance and pushed his infantry forward, Napoleon's army buckled, and then fled from the field in total dissarray. The timely intervention by the Prussian army under the command of the insane but tactically brilliant Field Marschall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Fürst von Wahlstatt, effectively turned the battle into a rout. The charismatic von Blücher had once informed Wellington that he was pregnant with an elephant that had been sired by a French soldier!!!
But insane or otherwise, at the time of the Battle of Waterloo von Blücher was not representing the nation of Germany; Germany was not actually a nation in the traditional sense at all, rather it was a collection of states with a reasonable degree of commonality of language throughout - although differences in the pronunciation, spelling, and even the actual words for some things differed from state to state, a situation which was not "officially" rectified until as late 1914 and which is still apparent to some degree to this day.
Prussia bordered Russia to the north; the other states collectively covered a vast area of land from the Baltic coast line right down to the state of Baden which sits next to France's Department of Alsace in the south east. Alsace was originally part of the Holy Roman Empire but it was progressively annexed by the French in the 17th. century. A long time bone of contention for the two neighbours, it had changed hands no less than FOUR times in 75 years. Bordering Austria, Bavaria was a kingdom in it's own right at that time and was the last state to enter the German confederation - indeed Bavaria still had it's own Crown Prince - Ruprecht - at the time of the Great War. Prussian politicians, led by the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismark, endeavoured to unite the Germanic states, but it was not until a short time after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 that Germany finally became one nation.
And with a national identity came the desire for empire.
The might and efficiency of the German army under the leadership of the Prussian General Von Moltke was so great that both the Austrian and French armies were comprehensively defeated in short order in the so called German Wars of Unification of 1866 and 1870 respectively. This is actually something of an over-simplification of the situation as the reality of the war with Austria in 1866 was closer to that of a civil war within Germany itself, so divided were the Germanic states as to which side - Prussia or Austria - they wished to offer their allegiance to. Suffice it to say the Prussian army and her allies prevailed.
In the case of the later Franco Prussian war of 1870, victorious German troops, this time from practically all of the Germanic states, so devastated their French opponents that they were able to march into Paris in a matter of only a few weeks whereupon they promptly imposed punitive terms which included the annexation to Germany of vast areas of France, principally the Department of Alsace once again, but also the Department of Lorraine. Naturally such a crushing defeat did not go down too well with the French nation so steps were taken to ensure that Germany could not repeat the same thing a second time. Due to the annexation of the Department of Lorraine the border with Germany in the region of the Plain of Woevre had moved much closer - it was now only of the order of 40 miles or so away. The most direct road to Paris from Germany through the plain was therefore also correspondingly shorter so something would have to be done to shore up this gaping breach in the French capital's defences. The military engineer, General Raymond Adolphe Sere De Rivieres - seen right, was appointed to plan and oversee the fortification of the town of Verdun which lay at a point on the route which strategically offered the best possible opportunity for defence. Accordingly a ring of forts was quickly built on hill ridges close to the city, then work immediately began on a secondary ring some distance further out, again on the strategically important high ground. Finally the gaps between the forts were further strengthened by the addition of "ouvrages" - smaller forts - fortified troop shelters, artillery emplacements, and a network of small gauge railways to run ammunition and personnel quickly between all the key areas. The city itself had been massively fortified during the reign of Louis XIV in the mid 1600s when a vast citadel was constructed by another formidable French military engineer, the Marquis de Vauban.
An extensive program of modification and improvements to both the armaments and reinforcement of all the fortifications was carried out right up to the outbreak of war in order to keep pace with the increasingly formidable and ever more efficient German artillery, Churned out by the likes of Skoda and the mighty Krupps factory in Essen, the largest and most devastating of the siege artillery was the 420 mm "Big Bertha" Krupps howitzer - seen left.
Thus by the time France entered the Great War in 1914 Verdun had become a formidable ring of steel and concrete which Germany would find exceedingly hard to get past. Sadly though that was not how things quite turned out. During the Battle of Verdun which began in February 1916, the ring of steel almost caused France's downfall through a combination of appalling tactical decisions, bad soldiering, poor leadership, and sheer, bloody minded obstinance.
Out front, standing on the highest point for miles around was the gigantic fort of Douamont. Visible for miles from the plain below, like the bow of a giant ice breaker upon which it was thought the waves of attacking German soldiers would break and scatter, it was designed to be the king pin in the ring of steel. Armed to the teeth and massively fortified, the fort should have been impregnable, however during the first few weeks of the war in 1914 the French military authorities, seeing what had happened to the Belgian forts around Liege when the German heavy siege artillery arrived, promptly had a serious change of mind. They dramatically down sized all the Verdun fortress garrisons, replacing the young, able bodied soldiers with elderly reservists in order to provide more line infantry.
But perhaps most significantly they removed all none permanent artillery from the forts for re-deployment with the mobile army elsewhere, leaving only the armoured turrets - and not all of the forts had these installations to begin with!
On 24th. February 1916, within only a few days of the start of the Battle of Verdun, and quite contrary to what the New York Times article suggests - right - Douamont fell with hardly a shot being fired. And even more bizarrely it fell to a most unlikely individual, a German Pioneer Sergeant from Thuringia by the name of Kunze, who was attached to the 24th. Brandenburg Regiment. Depending upon which version of the story you read the disaster came about in a variety of ways - Kunze - left -was blown into Douamont's moat by a near miss, he climbed down the counterscarpe wall into the ditch on some old wooden poles, etc. etc. etc. What is without doubt though is the fact that he took the fort almost single handed, assisted in no small part by a comedy of errors on the part of the defenders! Accompanied by only a handful of men Kunze entered Douamont via an open doorway on the fort's Rue du Rempart and swiftly locked up the garrison who were eating dinner in a barrack room deep within the fort's lowest level totally oblivious to the battle raging outside!
A matter of only a few weeks later Fort Vaux also fell despite a spirited defence by the garrison; indeed it did not fall for want of bravery nor lack of ammunition, it fell for the simple need for drinking water. By July 12th. 1916, with the aid of a new poison gas referred to as Green X, the Germans had pushed so far forward that they reached the top of Fort Souville, one of the key inner ring forts, from where they could see the spire of Verdun's cathedral. But they never got any further. From that point onwards the French progressively pushed them back until by the end of the battle in December there had been 337,231 French casualties, of which 162,308 were dead or missing, and 337,000 German casualties of which 100,000 were dead or missing. Many of the missing reappear every year, and sadly it is almost impossible now to identify them or work out their nationality from what little is left of their bodies. As a result they are interred in a mass ossuary very close to what is left of Fort Douamont with total disregard for their former enmity. Their remains go into one of several small rooms within the ossuary, the choice of room being dictated by the area upon the battlefield where their remains have been found. Each of the rooms is capped with a large tomb stone in the chapel built above the internment rooms.
Numerous lessons were learnt during the Battle of Verdun, and many flaws and inadequacies were discovered in the design and construction of the forts. Not least of these problems was the fact that areas within the forts could easily get cut off from each other as had happened to such disastrous effect at Fort Vaux. So in early 1917 a series of works referred to as "Travaux 17" were begun, the main job being the construction of a series of deep tunnels connecting all fighting compartments within the forts and the provision of an emergency exit tunnel for the garrison to evacuate should the fort fall. Many of these Travaux 17 tunnels were never completed and it is common to find roofs held up with pit props rotted now to little more than a few black, mouldy, sodden fragments of timber. But in a few very rare cases reinforced concrete tunnels head off for some considerable distance underground. The forts were not abandoned after the war ended in 1918 but were retained as potential defensive works in the unlikely event of a further war with Germany. As history records, "unlikely" did not prove to be reality, and in 1940 the forts were spectacularly bypassed, together with the much more formidable Maginot Line, itself inspired by and modelled upon the Verdun forts, by a rapid, mechanised German army wielding "Blitzkrieg" to devastating effect. To this day the French army has retained almost all of the forts ostensibly for the use of military training, the exceptions being the tourist attractions of Douamont and Vaux. Some of the others are also in private ownership such as Fort de Troyon, Fort Bellrupt and Fort Dugny. Many of the forts retained by the military are seriously razor wired to prevent entry, some have every potential point of entry comprehensively bricked up, one or two like Marre and Belleville are as porous as a sieve...
...and some can be entered with just a little patience and ingenuity!