Continuing his exploration of French military museums, this month Keith Robinson heads north to Reims.
Set high above the road from Reims to Châlons-en- Champagne, the Fort de la Pompelle forms part of the ring of fortifications built to defend Reims after France’s disastrous defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The Fort de la Pompelle, alternatively known as FortHerbillon, was part of a system of forts known as the Séré de Rivières, named after the general who initiated the building of this belt of forts, designed to defend Reims. The defensive line comprised seven major forts and seven smaller, supporting forts, of which de la Pompelle was one.
Built between 1880 and 1883, the fort has a surface area of 2.31 hectares (5.7 acres), its dry moat was covered by two-level caponiers designed to provide flanking fire on any enemy trying to cross the moated areas. The Fort de la Pompelle was provided with six 155mm de Bange guns and four 138mm guns, as well as lesser artillery pieces and machine-guns, all serviced by an artillery company of over 270 men.
It was a working fort for 30-35 years, before technological advances appeared to make it redundant. It was demilitarised in 1913 – only to be hastily reoccupied a year later.
First World War
The German offensive of 1914 captured many of the forts of the Séré de Rivières, which were then used by them as bases. The Fort de la Pompelle was surrendered to the Germans without a fight on 4 September 1914. However, this was a short-lived occupation as, following the First Battle of the Marne (5-12 Sept 1914), the fort was retaken by the French 138th Infantry after a fierce struggle.
Thereafter, the Fort de la Pompelle remained a key point in the defence of Reims, and suffered heavily from numerous German attacks. Infantry assaults, heavy bombardments, gas attacks, mines, and tanks all failed to break the fort’s stalwart resistance.
This defensive effort was shared among half of the French forces, with 180 regiments having, at some time, provided the garrison. These forces included two special Russian brigades, sent by Tsar Nicholas II in 1916, which in January 1917 successfully defended against a German gas attack. A monument that commemorates the Russian involvement in defending the fort was set up in the grounds in September 2012.
By the end of the Great War the fort had been severely battered and the land around it was pockmarked with shell-holes. It was largely abandoned after the war until 1955, when it came into the hands of the City of Reims. Its remaining usable parts were converted into a museum, which was inaugurated in November 1972.
However, with the centenary of the Great War on the horizon, the City of Reims is investing large sums of money in repairing and updating the museum, the fort, and the visitor facilities here. There should be some 40% more of the site to visit, and an equally impressive increase in the number of high-quality artefacts on display.
In the open ground before the drawbridge which leads to the fort’s main entrance stand a couple of interesting artillery pieces. The first is the Canon de 155mm GPF (or Grande Puissance Filloux) of 1917, designed by Colonel Filloux to answer France’s desperate need for modern heavy artillery; it was France’s standard heavy field-gun until WWII. The Canon de 155mm took a 43.1kg (95lb) shell, which could be fired at a rate of two rounds per minute, and had a maximum range of 19,500m.
The second artillery piece is an Italian version of the French 1913 model Schneider Canon de 105mm L field gun. The Ansaldo 105/28 was manufactured in 1918 by Ansaldo of Genoa. It had a different shield from the French Schneider, and would have required a unit of six men under the command of an NCO. This mark of field-gun remained in active service with the Italian Army until 1945.
Crossing the drawbridge and entering the museum proper, you enter the area of the troops’ living quarters. Half of these have now been turned into modern exhibition spaces, and good galleries they make too. They hold a good mix of material, mostly relating to the Great War.
A prototype of the ubiquitous French 75mm field-gun of 1877, often regarded as the first modern piece of artillery due to its hydro-pneumatic recoil mechanism, is on display. This rubs shoulders with a French Field Kitchen and a 1914 model Hotchkiss machine-gun, mounted on a 1916 tripod.
An example of the German 77mm FK 96n/A field-gun can also be seen. This was a very mobile piece of artillery, but once the War had settled into the trenches its lack of range – around 5,500m – became a problem. It was duly superseded by the longer-barrelled 77mm FK 16.
Great War uniforms
There are displays of WWI uniforms, including a Russian in ‘khaki’, and a special section on air warfare. One interesting display houses material relating to the French fighter-ace Joseph Guiguet, credited with five kills, from his time with Escadrille No.3 Les Cigognes (‘The Storks’), one of France’s most celebrated squadrons.
Undoubtedly, however, the highlight of the collection is the unique collection of 560 pieces of military headgear from the German Imperial Army – the former Charles Friese collection.
The display of the helmets and caps is perhaps a little old-fashioned, and this will probably be updated, but one cannot help but be impressed by the serried ranks of headwear on show. The sheer variety of German headgear is impressive, not surprising given the fact that the individual states kept their own distinctive uniforms despite unification.
This fort is well worth a visit, both for the collections and as a grand piece of military architecture.