Located on the highest piece of ground in the area, over 1,200 feet above sea level, Fort Douaumont has commanding views over the surrounding countryside. Its construction began in 1885 and it was continually reinforced and modified until 1913, just before the beginning of the First World War. The Fort has a total surface area of 30,000 square metres and is approximately 400 metres long. There are two subterranean levels, protected by a roof of 12 metres thick concrete. It was originally equipped with numerous armed posts, a 155 mm gun turret, a 75 mm gun turret, several other 75 mm guns and numerous machinegun turrets. Within the fort are integral barracks designed to hold a garrison of 635 soldiers. This included water tanks, latrines, kitchens and even a bakery. Fort Douaumont was reputedly impregnable, the strongest fort in Europe.
When the German Imperial Army advanced in 1914 Belgium's comparable forts failed to hold them. They had been quickly destroyed by the heavy German artillery and subsequently easily overrun. As a result the French decided that the usefulness of such forts was not what it had been and in August 1915 they reduced the size of the garrison at Fort Douaumont and removed many of the fort's guns. By February 1916 the size of the garrison at Fort Douaumont had been reduced to a mere 57 soldiers.
When Germany launched its offensive against the French at Verdun in February 1916 Fort Douaumont was seen to be a key objective. Even with its reduced garrison and limited weaponry, Fort Douaumont was still considered to be a formidable obstacle to the German attack and had to be taken. On 25 February 1916 the advance elements of the German 24th Brandenburg Regiment from the 6th Infantry Division of the German III Korps approached the fort. This was a squad of 10 combat engineers led by Pioneer-Sergeant Kunze. In the poor visibility, which was due to bad weather, the French machine gunners in the nearby village of Douaumont took the Germans to be French colonial troops returning from a patrol and did not open fire upon them. Sergeant Kunze and his party crept closer and eventually lower themselves into the moat.
Most of the 57 French soldiers of the garrison had gone down to the lower levels to escape the incessant German heavy shelling by a battery of "Big Bertha" 420 mm howitzers that had been pounding the fort. The 75 mm gun turret was damaged and the French garrison had been without any form of communication with the outside world for some time. Only one gunnery team remained at their post in the 155 mm gun turret and the observation cupolas and pillboxes were unoccupied.
On approaching the walls of the fort Sergeant Kunze was surprised by the lack of activity in the fort. He and his men crept closer and found the pillboxes and observation cupolas unmanned. Kunze managed to climb through one of the empty ports gaining access to the inside of the fort. Four more of his men followed, leaving the remainder outside. Sergeant Kunze and his men began to carefully reconnoitre the inside of Fort Douaumont. Moving down the corridors and checking the rooms they came across the French gunnery team in the 155 mm gun turret. Taking them by surprise, the Frenchmen surrendered without a fight. Leaving his four men to guard his captives, Sergeant Kunze continued his investigation of the fort. As he neared the back of the fort he came across a large room in which the bulk of the garrison were sheltering from the gunfire. Kunze reacted quickly and slammed the steel door shut and slid the bolt in place, he had looked the Frenchmen in the room.
He decided to return to his men and on the way back came across a French cook in one of the kitchens. Realising that he had not eaten for a while Sergeant Kunze sat down and ate, while covering the cook with his revolver.
By this time another groups from the 24th Brandenburg Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Ratke had entered the fort. They met up with Sergeant Kunze's men and Lieutenant Ratke reorganised his enlarged group who subsequently found the few remaining French defenders. Fort Douaumont was secure and in German hands.
A larger group of soldiers from the 24th Brandenburg Regiment arrived under the command of Hauptman (Captain) Haupt. With him was Oberleutnant von Brandis who whilst being the last of the officers to enter the fort wrote the despatch to the German High Command informing them of the fort's capture. A few days later, this Prussian officer was in the presence of the Crown Prince telling His Imperial Majesty about the heroic capture of the fort. He neglected to make any mention of the part played by Sergeant Kunze or Lieutenant Ratke in the taking of the fort and was soon being hailed as the "Hero of Douaumont." Oberleutnant von Brandis was awarded the Pour le Mérite, commonly known as the Blue Max, which was the Kingdom of Prussia's highest military order at the time. Hauptman Haupt was also subsequently awarded the Pour le Mérite, but Sergeant Kunze and Lieutenant Ratke got no recognition at all.
The strongest fortress in Europe, Fort Douaumont, had been captured by a handful of German Assault Pioneers commanded by a Sergeant without a fight.
The fall of Fort Douaumont without a fight was a terrible blow to French pride. It was also to prove costly, as Fort Douaumont provided the Germans with a near impregnable operating base just behind the French frontline. The German soldiers came to refer to the fort as "Old Uncle Douaumont" due to the protection it afforded them.
On the 8 May 1916, a careless cooking fire, set too close to grenades and flamethrower fuel, caused a blaze that in turn set-off an ammunition cache. The firestorm this created ripped through the fort killing hundreds of German soldiers instantly, including the entire regimental staff of the 12th Grenadiers. Worse, while some of the survivors were attempting to escape the inferno they were mistaken for attacking French infantry by their comrades outside the fort, and were mercilessly gunned down. In all nearly 900 German soldiers were killed that day. A plaque on the outside of the fort remembers the 679 German soldiers who were killed in the firestorm and their remains are buried in a casemate that was walled off. This is now considered to be a German military cemetery and can be visited whilst inside the fort. The alcove is marked by a cross bearing the words "the Dead Comrades" and a plaque on the wall to the left of the alcove bears the names of those thought to have died here.
The French made many attempts to recapture the fort and suffered heavy losses in the process. The Germans stubbornly held on to the fort, as it provided shelter for troops and served as first aid station and logistics centre. Every French attack was met with blistering artillery fire and direct fire from the fort. In turn the French artillery constantly shelled the fort, turning the area into a pockmarked moonscape, traces of which are still visible today. On the 24 October 1916 the French Colonial Moroccan troops from the Colonial Infantry Regiment of Morocco (Régiment d'Infanterie Coloniale du Maroc) [RICM] were ordered to recapture Fort Douaumont by General Mangain. Reinforced with the 43rd Senegalese Tirailleurs Battalion and three Companies of Somalis, they attacked and retook the fort in less than four hours. The RICM took over 5,000 prisoners, but lost 23 officers and 829 other ranks in the attack. In recognition of its actions in retaking Fort Douaumont the regiment was awarded the Légion d'honneur and a third palm to its Croix de Guerre.
Millions of shells had been fired at the Fort Douaumont since its capture by the Germans on 25 February. The French had repeated assaulted the fort's wall in their efforts to retake it. The artillery had had little impact on the impregnable fortress and in the region of 100,000 Frenchmen had died in the process.