Béveaux National Cemetery
Béveaux National Cemetery. © ECPAD
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Located in the commune of Verdun, Bévaux National Cemetery contains the remains of French soldiers killed in the fighting at Verdun between 1916 and 1918. Established in 1914, the cemetery, like a number of others on the Verdun battlefield, should have been transferred to Douaumont. But the idea caused such an uproar among the grieving families that it was eventually maintained, in 1924, then redeveloped in 1967 to accommodate the bodies of other soldiers killed in the Verdun sector. In 1962, 569 bodies were brought from Petits Monthairons cemetery. Bévaux contains the individual graves of more than 3 500 French soldiers killed in the First World War and 485 killed in the Second World War.
The Battle of Verdun, 1916-18
During the Battle of the Marne, Verdun and its ring of forts formed an entrenched camp that provided solid support for General Sarrail’s 3rd Army. The enemy sought to bring down this stronghold with two attacks: one to the west against Revigny-sur-Ornain, the other to the east against Fort Troyon. Both attacks failed.
Throughout 1915, General Joffre launched bloody operations to the east against the Saint Mihiel salient and, to the west, deployed the 3rd and 4th Armies to defend the Argonne. These local combats descended into tunnel warfare and became a real test for soldiers’ morale.
It was in this sector, therefore, where French positions were poorly maintained, that Germany’s General Falkenhayn decided to launch an offensive to wear down the French Army. On 21 February 1916, Operation Gericht went ahead against the French positions. After a violent bombardment of the right bank of the Meuse and the town, the Germans advanced over a ravaged landscape. In four days, they progressed four miles, despite determined resistance from the 30th Army Corps, defending the Bois des Caures woods.
On 25 February, the enemy took Fort Douaumont, while General Pétain’s 2nd Army was tasked with defending Verdun. Pétain organised the front and supplies. The Bar-le-Duc to Verdun road became the main artery, the “Sacred Way” which, day and night, brought supplies for the defence of Verdun.
Stalled outside Vaux and Douaumont, on 6 March the German 5th Army expanded operations on the left bank of the Meuse. These two ridges, the only natural obstacles controlling access to Verdun, became the most disputed positions on the left bank of the Meuse. On 9 April, the attack was driven back. For every French and German soldier, the battle became “the hell of Verdun”, in which the artillery triumphed. On 7 June, despite a heroic defence against attack from flame-throwers and gas, Fort Vaux, in turn, fell. The Germans threw everything they had into the battle. On 23 June, 80 000 German infantrymen, preceded by a deluge of gas shells, took the village of Fleury. On the 26th, the Germans took Thiaumont.
The Franco-British offensive launched on 1 July on the Somme forced the Germans to divert troops, aircraft and guns from the Verdun front. The last major attack took place on 11 and 12 July against Fort Souville, less than two miles from Verdun. The bitterest of struggles went on for Hill 304 and Mort-Homme. Between 21 February and 15 July, the two armies fired more than 40 million shells of all calibres. Three quarters of the French Army passed through Verdun, where losses on 15 July amounted to 275 000 dead, wounded or captured. The same was true for the German Army.
On 24 October, Fort Douaumont was recaptured. On 2 November, Fort Vaux fell into French hands. From February to November 1916, French and German troops fought one another in what was one of the most terrible battles of the Great War.
In August 1917, the French recaptured Hill 304 and Mort-Homme, and completely freed up Verdun. But the struggle went on along the Caurières ridge, where enemy artillery deployed new mustard gas shells.
On 26 September 1918, the Allies attacked from Champagne to the Meuse. Bois des Caures was retaken in October.
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