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Fleury: the Poudriere

To return to part one of this account go HERE


The evening sun hung like a blood red disk on the horizon, it lay behind the jagged lines of the "Kalte Erde" making the ridge look like a stage set reaching into the blue summer sky. As daylight faded, so did the artillery fire. Soon we could breath again and crawl out of our holes in the ground. Those wounded who could still walk made themselves ready for the trek to the rear. Unteroffizier Waldmeier, who had been shot through the right hand, took items (dog tag, papers valuables etc) recuperated from some of our dead back with him. Medics arrived from the rear to go about their business. Gefreiter Diepold had been looking after the wounded during and immediately after the bombardments, he had been extremely brave and would later receive a Bavarian Bravery medal for his efforts. A written report had been sent back to our Regimental commander in Douaumont describing our situation in detail and a request to be relieved, or at least reinforced.

That night our 4th Section (Under Vizefeldwebel Dreitzel Right) arrived to reinforce us. They had received orders and had already started moving up during the day. Even with the reinforcements we could only thinly man the shellholes. In view of our small number of men in the line we could not but worry about the coming days. We had two hopes, the French would remain quiet, and that we would soon be relieved by fresh troops. We collected our dead and stacked them a bit to the rear of our shell holes. Then we used the remainder of the night hiding our positions from the preying eyes of the French aviators and artillery the next morning. We had enough train tracks and wooden beams salvaged from the railway embankment behind us. A metal sign showed we were not far from what had been the Fleury railway station a few months before. As soon as the first rays of the sun greeted us, so did the first French pilots and artillery which began to wear away at our nerves where they had left off the day before. The whole area looked like the contents of a boiling kettle. Motionless, our knees against our chests, we shivered in our holes, waiting for the shell that would end it all. Minutes lasted an eternity. Exhaustion disappeared when trumped by nervous tension. Again and again clods of earth and rocks fell out of the sky sometimes causing large bruises. We tried everything to channel our thoughts elsewhere, hoping the time would pass faster.  


The company had suffered again today. Worried glances at the small group that fate had left alive. If our message had made it back last night there may be a chance that help would arrive tonight but we had no guarantee for this. Forward listening posts were set up and patrols went out to see what was out in front of us. Most of the wounded from the last few days were still laying out amongst the shellholes. There were too few medics to help everyone. Every time the French sent up a flare, the ghostly light swinging to and fro as it fell to earth we looked desperately to the rear to see if our relief was coming. At last! At midnight the 12th Company arrived. According to them the Regiment knew of our predicament. They had brought orders for us.

Left: French soldiers in one of the entrances to the Pourdriere at the beginning of July 1916

We were not to return to the rear, but were to go into the "M-Räume" as part of the battalion reserve. This "Poudriere" was an ammunition bunker in the fortress line and was on the side of the valley we were in. The battalion staff had already taken up position there during the heavy bombardments in the past few days. The remaining 30 men of the company set out to find this position, the location of which we did not yet know. After a few attempts we managed to find it. Other than the two tunnel entrances there was little to see of this position. It consisted of two long tunnels, connected in the middle with a cross tunnel, and numerous casements. There were iron doors with loopholes to shoot through at the entrances. Around the positions there were signs of very heavy bombardments. The concrete above the entrances had suffered badly. In front of the doors were piles of corpses and abandoned material. The entrance gaped towards us like a black hole in earth, which added to our surprise when we saw what was inside. It was like an anthill. We entered into the dark passage, it was impossible to see in front of us. We had to advance by feeling and hearing our way forward. Messengers, wounded, stretcher bearers pushing their way in and out of the tunnels. Some wanted in, some wanted out. Tripping over ammunition cases, walking into walls, falling over figures sitting in the tunnel. Feeling our way forward with our feet we reach the cross tunnel. French heavy artillery shells were stacked here. Weak candlelight flickered in the tunnel. Our battalion staff was here and we reported to them. The Battalion Doctor Dr. Maron had been working here without rest for days. Everyone lay where they managed to find a place. Adrenaline did not allow for sleep. Added to that, the constant passage of messengers, the moaning of the wounded who were collected here. At about 02:00am things became quiet and at daybreak the iron doors were banged shut.

Above: Fleury at the beginning of July, the Poudriere was still behind French lines.
Right: The Poudriere is now in the German front line as the 37th French division attacks

The "Poudriere" was unfavourably situated, the entrances facing the French positions 200m further away, during the day they could see right into the tunnels. Three men were detailed to guard each entrance. All other occupants were to keep out of the two main tunnels. The small Casement in the cross tunnel was for the Battalion Staff. Dr. Maron had the larger one as an aid post. There were so many badly wounded that even in this large room there was not enough space for them. The poor wretches lay out in the corridors, or anywhere else where they could find a place. Loud and hard, rifle shots outside sounded like cracks of a whip to the occupants. Light artillery sounded like distant thunder as it rolled over the position, and when heavy artillery landed the Poudriere shivered, candles went out and dust and mortar fell from the walls and roof.  

We felt that our shelter was "Bombproof" but in the back of our heads was the thought that the protective earth above us was getting less and less by the day. We had to see how to best pass the time. Caring for the wounded gave us something to do. Amongst the wounded were a number of French soldiers who complained the loudest. There was not much we could do to help out here. At night men went out to get drinking water from nearby shellholes. Clean water needed by the doctor had to be brought from the rear and only arrived in small amounts.  

As soon as night fell and the enemy could no longer see us, the doors were opened. Lively activity took place all night, contact with the outside world... but at dawn the doors would clang shut again.  

At 21:00pm the first messenger from Douaumont arrived as did a stretcher bearer company to fetch the wounded. Our company received a new officer, Lt. Gold from the 16th bayer. Inf. Regt. A supply detail had brought ammunition and material for the men out front and they passed some time with us and brought news from the rear.

And so, each night was lively with activity. We had right away gotten used to our new home and reckoned with staying in the ammunition depot until the battalion was relieved. The enemy made sure that from the first night on we would be disturbed. At midnight a messenger from the right flank of the battalion arrived with the news that the enemy drumfire had blown an 80m wide gap in the line, reinforcements were urgently needed to close the gap. A message was sent to the rear but the answer came back that, due to the fact that the whole Alpenkorps was soon to be relieved, there would be no new troops put into the line. The Battalion had to make do with the men it had. 

Left: The Poudriere, courtesy of http://www.effectrix.ca/

The order was given for an Unteroffizier and 16 men to fill the gap. Lt. Gold went out with them to find the position and organise the defence. After 15 minutes he was carried back, a bullet having cut an artery in his right arm. 4 more wounded found their way back. They reported that the French were firing with everything they had into the gap in the line. The whole section of the line was now held only by the dead. Outside dawn was breaking. Life in the Poudriere died down as the last messengers to and from Douaumont arrived or left. The ghostly flares which caused flickering shadows in the passages at night died down. Before the first ray of the sun the doors were closed and locked. The daily routine set in. The men not mounting the guard sought out a corner to catch up on the sleep missing from the night before. According to a message, this was to be our last night here. Our stint at Verdun was coming to an end. We were to be relieved the next night by the 11. bayer. Inf. Regt.  

Three officers and a number of men from the regiment had already arrived the night before to prepare for the relief. Soon after we had closed the doors 3 of the 16 men sent out to plug the gap came back wounded, followed by Unteroffizier Rupprecht, who had been the only man left in the position. All the rest were dead. This piece of news was devastating. After the failure of this emergency action the Battalion decided to limit the occupation of this sector to a few patrols. The newly arrived fresh troops could organise a defence the following day.

This day, like the ones before it, passed slowly. We counted the hours and dreamed of our march to the rear, of our well earned rest. There were even rumours of home leave. The evening brought very unpleasant news. The patrols send out to make contact with the troops on each side of the gap could not find the German line on the far side. The French were very active and the gap had widened, it seemed now to be over 300m. The patrol had gone that far and not found a living soul.  

The situation was a catastrophe in the making. Our right flank called desperately for reinforcements. We ourselves were too weak to be of help. An urgent message was sent back to Douaumont. They answered that the 11. bayer. Inf. Regt. was on its way. Further, the order came that every able man in the Poudrierre was to be sent out to stop the gap. Vizefeldwebel Dreitzel took command of our rag tag group and out we went. We exited the left hand tunnel and climbed the embankment looking for our line. We were above the Poudriere. It was a dark night, and as a result it was very difficult to get our bearings. We could find no trace of a front line. All around us were shell craters, remains of barbed wire obstacles and dead bodies. Carefully we worked our way from shellhole to shellhole until we finally found a row of dead "Leiber", this, we decided, must have been our front line. How far, and in which direction the enemy lay was a mystery. We gazed into the darkness, the mysterious darkness that hid hundreds of enemy rifle barrels ready to spit death if we moved in the wrong direction. The were no flares that may have allowed us the chance of seeing the enemy positions and although all ears were strained, there were no suspicious sounds giving away what we needed to know. We had no contact to friendlies to the left, or the right. It was extremely eerie. We were in a huge void, through which the French could waltz at any time. As we inched forward our right flank discovered the outline of spectres that seemed to be moving around us. In that moment hand grenades landed amongst us. Without needing orders, we disappeared into shellholes. We no longer needed to find out how far we were from the enemy. They in turn seemed to know where we were as the hand grenades kept coming. We had barely avoided running into their hands.  

We now had to be very careful. Ducked down low we moved back the way we came, until we found ourselves in the shellholes where the dead "Leiber" lay. The enemy did not follow us. We expected the arrival of the 11. bayer. Inf. Regt to be at midnight. Hour after hour passed. 23:00pm, nothing moved ahead or behind us. Midnight, still nothing. A terrible feeling of abandonment overcame us. If there was a relief, it would have to come in the next few minutes, if not, they would be caught in the barrage. At dawn the shells would rain down on the thin strip of land making survival impossible. To re-establish a line here would take more than a handful of exhausted men. At last, at 01:00am help arrived. The first shadows appeared behind us. Ducked down low they arrived, peering left and right, looking for the front line. They were taken aback, astonished, when we pulled then into our shellholes. If we had not caught them in time they would have stumbled on into the enemy lines. For the men of the 11th Regt, who had spent the last 2 years in a quiet sector, the reality of the situation was horrific. The relief was carried out rapidly and we hurried back to the Poudriere. New orders from Douaumont had arrived there already. The rest of our Battalion, staff included, would have to stick it out another day, the relief would arrive in the coming night. This was depressing news indeed. Our machine guns and lightly wounded were already on their way to the rear. At Dusk the doors banged shut again. It was the 19th of July.

Above: An entrance to the Poudriere, still "Dangerous"

The day did not start slowly. Barely had the doors closed when a number of heavy shells landed in front of the doors. The pressure of the explosions blew open one set of doors and we hurried to close them. The shells did not cause us great worries; they had surely fallen short of their real target? But we soon realised this was not the case. Again and again salvoes landed. They landed as fast as the French gunners could load and aim their guns, exploding in front of the doors. A number of the men on guard at the door were wounded and everyone was pulled back, deeper into the tunnel. Again and again shells hit the entrances, each time all lights inside went out. Suddenly a huge explosion rocked the area, All went dark. Sickly sweet smoke and clouds of burnt powder filled the corridor. We were sure that the right entrance had collapsed. Luckily this was not the case. The doors had been blown off their hinges, blown a number of meters up the corridor. The roof and a portion of the brickwork had collapsed. We came to the conclusion that the enemy wanted to bury us alive. If only the walls would hold out till nightfall, we would be saved, the artillery observers would not be able to call back the corrections.  

Outside the doors the terrain was no longer recognisable, all had been churned over. In reality, we no longer cared about the Poudriere and its future, we were to be relieved that night, that was all that interested us at that moment.  

The relief was to arrive at 23:00pm. At 21:00pm we began to get ready to pull back. There was not much to get ready. Rifle hung around the neck, Ammunition pouches emptied ... and we were ready! (Ammunition left behind as resupply was difficult). We filled our empty breadbags with tinned food, sugar and other treats from the piles of French supplies still lying around. The clock continued ticking, the hour of the relief coming closer. We stood around, waiting for the message that the 11th Regt was arriving. To avoid a huge bottleneck in the Poudriere, we were to leave it shortly before the relief. Just before 23:00pm a messenger arrived with the good news, the 11th Regt had reached Fleury and would be arriving soon! Relief.. joy! We would soon be able to breath easily. We did not even worry about the dangers along the march to the rear.   We strained our ears, listening for the coming of the relief, when all of a sudden a voice at the other entrance shouted "Alarm! die Franzosen Kommen!"

To continue to part three click HERE

 
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