A photo report of a visit on a rainy morning to the Destroyed Villages of Bezonvaux and Ornes, along the 1916 German jump-off line, some 12 km. north-east of Verdun.
In the pouring rain we depart from Vaux devant Damloup,
and follow the D 24 northward.
We pass this after war demarcation stone
on the east side of the road.
Often the emphasis of my impressions is on the military events of the locations of the Western Front. The sites of "Les Villages Détruits", the Destroyed Villages, like Douaumont, Fleury and Vaux remind us of the fate of the civilians along the Western Front. The civilians were often forced to evacuate their houses, were lying under artillery bombardments, lost their houses, were wounded, killed, or executed, etc.
This map of Hanotaux below represents all regions in Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, which were affected by the Western Front. These regions were for the most part quite densely populated. Due to the combats, battles and destruction many civilians were forced to flee to another location.
This trip we pay a visit to two destroyed villages,
north-east of Verdun: Bezonvaux and Ornes.
After a sharp curve of the D 24 we arrive at
the Bezonvaux Memorial.
"THE COMMUNITY OF BEZONVAUX
DIED AT THE FIELD OF HONOR
AND IT'S HEROES
FALLEN ON THEIR TERRITORY
SOLDIERS OF BEZONVAUX
GILLE Nicolas Auguste
DISAPPEARED NEAR MAUCOURT
9 NOVEMBER 1914"
A bronze relief on the memorial shows us
an image of the former village of Bezonvaux.
Next to the memorial are some traces
of shell holes and a demarcation stone.
From here was forced back the enemy"
At the corner of the road to the village stands an illustrated,
comprehensive text on an information panel.
It tells us, that this was the location of
the "Café / Bureau de Tabac", where Sergeant Maginot
and his scouts of the 44th R.I.T. had their quarters
during the autumn of 1914.
(Read more about André Maginot in my photo impression about
A first glance at the high street, the Grande Rue of Bezonvaux.
Before we continue our exploration of Bezonvaux,
some concise information.
Bezonvaux is one of the nine destroyed villages around Verdun. It was a hamlet of some 150 inhabitants, which has been evacuated on 15 February 1916, just six days before the offensive would start. The village is mainly destroyed by French artillery fire of 1916, and has "died for France".
The fate of Bezonvaux is connected to the fate of Ornes. In September 1914 the front line in this region, Ornes, Vaux, Abaucourt, is held by the French 67th Division. At the end of the year 1914 and in 1915 the Germans occupy the heights near Ornes, and sporadically shell the village of Bezonvaux. This situation persists until the date of the offensive of 21 February 1916.
By early 1916 the population experiences the violence of modern combat. Their properties damaged, they are condemned to flee. They have to abandon their homes “with the hope in their heart of returning one day to the country of their heritage and their roots”.
Until 24 February 1916 Ornes remains outside the battle, but from 7 o'clock in the morning, the village suffers incessant attacks. Being locked in from three sides the commander of the garrison evacuates at 18 hours Ornes and retreats to Bezonvaux, where the 44th R.I. holds the recently restored line near Bezonvaux. Though the village is by now isolated and under a barrage of fire the German infantry advances on Bezonvaux and Douaumont. The improvised defences of the 44th R.I. fall one by one.
On 25 February 1916 the 4th B.C.P. and the 44th R.I. desperately try to resist in the village. At 17.00 hours the Germans redouble their efforts and break the lines, and the defence is for the 4th B.C.P. defending the village foot by foot. The encirclement of the Germans is gradually tightened and at dusk, when almost all defenders have fallen, the Germans occupy Bezonvaux. The same day, the Fort de Douaumont is taken.
On 10 December 1916 the French Army launches a tremendous introducing artillery bombardment on the German positions. On 15 December at ten o’clock the French troops mount an assault on the German lines between Vacherauville and Eix. They are composed of four divisions, among these the best regiments of the 126th, 38th, 37th and 133rd R.I.. In particular three prestigious regiments, the 2nd and 3rd Zouaves and the 3rd Algerian Tirailleurs of the 37th Infantry Division, make progress all day long.
The Battle of Three Days - 16-18 December 1916.
At 16 December 1916 around 2.00 AM the French troops resume the attack. Their aim is to capture Bezonvaux. After taking the key positions of the Lübeck trench and of the Kaiserslautern trench the attackers take a lot of Germans prisoner. Next the Zouaves make their connection with the 102nd Bataillon Chasseurs â Pied (B.C.P.) belonging to the 133rd Infantry Division. The Zouaves and the Chasseurs are ordered to guard the edges of the village, but the number of defenders and the ruins block their advance. Finally at the 17th, despite an error by the French artillery and despite violent German bombardments, the French troops clear Bezonvaux completely of its previous occupants.
The attack did not exceed the original target, and in this sector the front would stabilize for the next two years. The front line near Bezonvaux, that the Germans would keep until the Armistice on 11 November 1918, is just outside village, symbolized by the demarcation stone near the north-east entrance to the former village.
We continue our walk along the Grande Rue.
On the right runs the brook, or the "Ruisseau de Bezonvaux".
Between the ruins there are a lot of shell holes.
Silent witnesses of the village activities are preserved
on concrete tiles.
"Ruined mechanical parts
Iron hardware of window blinds"
"Hub of a machine to make hay."
"Pickaxe, wrenched by the shock of an artillery grenade.
The Mayor of Bezonvaux.
During our visit Christine and I had a fortuitous meeting with Monsieur J.P. Laparra. Monsieur Laparra told me during our pleasant conversation, that he has been elected by the descendants of the former inhabitants of Bezonvaux to "Maire" (Mayor) of Bezonvaux. Monsieur Laparra is responsible for the exceptional well preserved ruins of the village and the artefacts on the concrete tiles. Monsieur Laparra is also the author of the many information panels with comprehensive, very interesting texts about the history of the village during the Great War.
A large part of my knowledge is based on the information signs of Monsieur Laparra in the village and his patient answers to my questions.
Without the careful guardianship of gentlemen like Monsieur Laparra these sites would be forgotten and would perhaps even be transformed into parking places. Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Laparra, thank you very much, for your work to preserve this site and it's history.
We continue our walk through the ruins westward.
"Slab hit by a shrapnel grenade."
"Parts of a plough."
A milk container for farmers.
At the west end of the village lie the ruins of
the Château of Bezonvaux, the largest house.
South of this location stands the relic of an artillery carriage.
The carriage was meant to carry grenades and hay for the horses.
A view over the shelled ruins eastward.
Near this spot: the twisted relics of a mini 60cm. railway.
The German Railway Network.
We cross the bridge of the Ruisseau de Bezonvaux.
We near the presbytery of the village priest.
Near the former location of the village church ...
... lies the broken barrel of an artillery gun.
At the former location of the village church
stands the 1927 Memorial Chapel of Bezonvaux.
While the rain is pouring down again, we leave Bezonvaux, ...
... and continue northward to Ornes.
Just before the modern hamlet, at the east side of the road,
is located the Ornes Memorial.
It honours Ornes' fallen soldiers, and nine civilians,
those who died in captivity.
It is also a tribute to three executed civilians and two children,
"killed by a grenade".
On 15 September, during an artillery bombardment on Ornes, the 15 year old Lucienne Collignon fled in a cellar, carrying her 3 months old baby brother, Edmond, in her arms. Lucienne was hit in the head by a shell fragment. By the impact he girl dropped her brother. The girl died the same day. Her baby brother, severely wounded by his fall, died 13 days later, on 28 September 1914.
Before we walk on, some concise information about Ornes...
The Fate of Ornes.
Ornes used to be a larger village than Bezonvaux. The population of Ornes in 1914 counted around 700 people. The inhabitants of villages like Vaux, Douaumont, Bezonvaux and Ornes lived of agriculture and craft. Ornes had more mills and workshops than other villages in the area. Ornes was also more prosperous than the other villages.
From 10 august 1914 the French army did set up a field hospital in the spinning factory of Ornes. From that day Ornes received the first wounded men, arriving from the Battle of Mangiennes (10-25 August 1914).
On 25 august the Commander of Verdun requested the inhabitants of Ornes to evacuate their village. Initially a large part of the population obeyed the request, but later, after the First Battle of the Marne, a large part of these refugees returned to the village.
The Germans did set up a position east of Ornes at the "Jumelles d'Ornes", the double heights of hill 307 en 310. The village was not yet occupied by French troops nor by the Germans. Patrols of both parties entered the village of Ornes several times. These patrols caused artillery bombardments from both sides.
During this period the first buildings in the village were destroyed, and the first civilian inhabitants were wounded. As I remarked before, on 15 September, during an artillery bombardment, the children Collignon were killed by a bombardment.
In the meantime the circumstances in the village become more and more unbearable. On 9 October 1914 a troop of forty Germans entered the village and ordered the population to gather at the village fountain. A large part of the inhabitants disobeyed and succeeded to escape. Three civilians were executed. Their names are on the Ornes Memorial. The Germans still deported 74 persons, men, women and children to Longuyon. Their deportation ended on 18 October in Zwickau in Saxony. On 28 January 1915 all prisoners were transported back via Switzerland to France with exception of 9 prisoners, who died in captivity and whose names are also mentioned on the Ornes Memorial, and all men in the age between 17 and 60 years old.
For the German attackers the jump off lines of February 1916 near Azannes, Ornes and Bezonvaux formed also an important pivotal point in the front line.
After 18 December 1916 the front line in the east was running from Ornes roughly in a north-south direction. In the other direction the front line ran from Ornes roughly from east to south-west.
From the German occupation on 24 February of the Ornes area has been an often contested part of the battlefield and the area knew many combats. In contrary to Bezonvaux, Ornes stayed in German possession until October 1918. The Germans occupied the Jumelles d' Ornes until Armistice Day on 11 November 1918.
The Aftermath of the Destroyed Villages.
The prospect of the refugees of returning to the happiness of living again once in their old villages formed a valuable support in their misery. In 1918 however the reality was alas quite different from their hope. The aftermath of the battles had endangered the locations of the destroyed villages too much, and the risk of more explosions was too great to hope for a reconstruction. These piles of debris could no longer offer a safe haven or a home for it’s former inhabitants. The refugees were left with nothing but confusion to whom they would appeal for national recognition and survival of their community by legal means. The refugees exerted pressure on local officials, parliamentarians and ministers. They even contacted Raymond Poincaré, also an in habitant of the Département Meuse, and President of the Republic.
In 1919 a law endowed each destroyed village to a municipal commission and a president, whose powers and prerogatives are those of a mayor. Later on the president will officially be elected or appointed as mayor. In the twenties a chapel, serving also as a shelter, and a war memorial was constructed at all destroyed villages. Like on all other war memorials in still existing villages of France the names “of their children, who died for the fatherland” are inscripted on these war memorials.
(Main sources: J.P. Laparra and J.C. Broek Roelofs. Merci Messieurs!)
At the entrance of the village stands a modest memorial
with a sign: "PLACE DE CEUX DE VERDUN"
("Square of Those of Verdun").
Opposite of it is the Ornes Memorial Chapel, ...
... which has been built in 1932.
Some 150 meters to the west:
the ruins of the former village church.
A thin sunray is for a short moment
introducing another, next shower.
We seek shelter in our car
and continue later north-westward to Azannes.
On the next photo page this trip will continue to the German Cemeteries of Azannes, Romagne-sous-les-Cotes, Damvillers, the American Memorial at La Grande Montagne, and the German Cemetery of Consenvoye along the Meuse river.
Go to the next chapter,