May 8, 1916 - Accidental Explosion in Fort Douaumont Kills 650 German Soldiers
Pictured - The location of the explosion, pictured for a French postcard. The blast completely blew out the concrete floor.
Triumph came for Germany on May 7 at Verdun, with the capture of the French strong-point at Cote 304, which had the Crown Prince raving with glee: “Never since 1914 had I been able to see the fight so clearly!” Tragedy, however, followed the next day, when an accidental explosion blew most of the German garrison of Fort Douaumont to pieces. No eye-witnesses survived, but Douaumont’s German artillery officer had been arguing for days that a disaster loomed from the careless way thousands of hand grenades had been stored in the fort.
On May 8, a platoon of Bavarian soldiers, in casual southern German fashion, were brewing up their morning coffee in the fort by using upturned cordite cases as a pot, and gun-powder scooped from hand-grenades as fuel! A small explosion resulted, which set off a chain reaction, detaining hand-grenades lying close by, which burst the tanks of a few flame-throwers laying at hand. In a matter of minutes, the liquid fire from the flame-throwers was flowing across the floor, seeping into the magazine containing thousands of huge 155-mm howitzer shells.
An entire section of the fort blew sky-high. Those who were not instantly vaporized had their lungs popped by the wave of pressure, or were asphyxiated by fumes in the air-tight corridors. All lights were extinguished, and panic set in among the survivors, who stampeded for the exits, trampling more of their unfortunate comrades. In a tragically absurd twist, the men who did make it out, covered with pitch-black soot, were taken as African French troops, and mown down by panicky German machine gunners. Six hundred-fifty German soldiers died in the accident, including the whole regimental staff of the 12th Grenadiers. Today most of them still lie within the caved in walls of Douaumont, their fortress and their tomb.