Back in February a handful of German troops captured the impregnable fortress of Fort Douaumont, largely because the French had considered it so impregnable they had left it undefended. Since then it has served the Germans at Verdun as a forward base, where soldiers can shelter near the front without having to worry about French artillery. Unfortunately the fort provides the Germans with no protection against their own carelessness.
What happens today is unclear as there are no surviving witnesses. It is speculated that soldiers may have been brewing coffee, using hand grenade explosive as fuel, when some hand grenades are accidentally detonated. This sets off a chain reaction, igniting more hand grenades and then some containers of fuel for flame throwers before finally reaching the fort’s store of heavy artillery shells. Once these explode the blast kills many of the fort’s occupants with others dying of asphyxiation or in the panicked stampede to escape from the suddenly darkened bastion.
A grim fate awaits those who escape from Douaumont’s tunnels. Many of their faces have been blackened in the inferno. In the confusion, German troops outside the fort mistake them for France’s feared colonial troops. As a result many of the survivors are shot by their own comrades. At least 650 men die in the inferno and its aftermath. Many of their bodies will never be retrieved from where they met their end.
German soldiers resting in Fort Douaumont (Pierre’s Photo Impressions of the Western Front 1914-1918)
Memorial to the soldiers who remains still lie in Fort Douaumont (Pierre’s Photo Impressions of the Western Front 1914-1918)
That website has many interesting photographs of Fort Douaumont, both as it is today and vintage pictures from the First World War.