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Dixmude

The Dixmude, originally known as the L-72, was completed at the great airship works at Friedrichshafen, Germany, at the signing of the armistice. Turned over to the French by the terms of the armistice, it was the pride of the French Air Service. The Dixmude was built in 1918, with a length of 743 ft. and a capacity of 2,250,000 cub. ft. Its useful lift was 36 tons, the speed 70 mph, and it had six engines of 260 h.p. each. It had a cruising radius of 9,500 miles, a tank capacity of 11,000 gallons.

The L.72 never flew a mission for Germany. Scheduled for delivery in October 1918, an Admiralty conference in September 1918 directed design revisions to give her a ceiling of over 26,000 feet. The airship would be lengthened to accomodate one more gas cell and modified to operate on one fewer engine. Unlike most other former German airships handed over to the Allies as war prizes, L.72 was handed over on 9 July 1920 in what the French described as "perfect condition". On 13 July 1920 the French Navy christened her Dixmude, in honor of the heroic stand by the French Navy's Fusiliers Marins brigade at the Belgian village of that name in October 1914.

Lt. Cdr. Jean du Plessis de Grendan had proposed that naval rigid airships would greatly increase the effectiveness of shore bombardments. Able to operate independently of the fleet, they would be much less vulnerable than a moored balloon and able to attack targets themselves. World's records for distance and endurance were set in the last week of September 1923 when the French dirigible Dixmude soared uninterruptedly for 118 hrs., 41 min. over 4,500 miles of Africa, Europe and the Mediterranean. The distance equivalent to that from San Francisco to New York and half way back; or from Boston to Southampton and thence to Gibraltar.

Leaving Cuers-Pierrefeu, near Toulon, at 7.55 a.m. on September 25, the " Dixmude " flew to Toulon and Marseilles, and then, leaving the French coast, made for the Balearic Islands. Thence the journey was continued to Algiers, and along the northern coast of Africa to Bizerta. Continuing the next day the airship turned inland as far as Tuggurt in the Sahara desert, by way of Sousse, Sfax and Gabes on the coast.

On Thursday the return flight across the Mediterranean was commenced, but over Sardinia a severe storm was encountered, and the "Dixmude" was forced to return towards Bizerta. A second attempt was made the following day and successfully accomplished, this time the airship passing over Sardinia and Corsica to Marseilles. From here the journey was continued to Bordeaux, and Paris was reached at sunrise on the Saturday. She then circled round about Paris, flying over the " Republique " memorial-which had been unveiled by M. Laurent Eynac the previous day - in honour of the victims of this sister craft. (The " Republique " was destroyed on September 25, 1909.) By this time fuel was becoming exhausted, so the " Dixmude " turned towards her base at Cuers-Pierrefeu, which was reached at 8 o'clock in the evening. There still being sufficient fuel left, an immediate landing was not made, however, and after a quick visit to Nice and back, the " Dixmude " eventually landed at 6.30 on Sunday morning. The "Dixmude" was commanded by Naval Lieut. Plessis de Granadan.

In December 1923, the French Dixmude vanished over the Mediterranean with a crew of 53 men aboard. All hopes of saving the ship or its crew ceased when on the ninth or tenth day from the date of departure the body of the commander, Lieutenant du Plessis de Granadan was found in Sicilian waters by the net of a fisherman. The French abandoned all their work in such craft, concentrating on supremacy in airplanes. France focused on heavier-than-air craft with immediate returns while other nations undertook costly dirigible experiments.

The Special French Navy Commission, which studied the Dixmude disaster on the spot, reported definitely that the airship was struck by lightning when it was 7,000 feet up at 2 o'clock in the morning, Dec. 21. The commander had remained in touch with a naval station until 15 minutes before the disaster, when he signaled that he was drawing up his wireless aerial. Presumably the ship was struck before the completion of the maneuver.

The Dixmude Legend

At the time of the Great War, Dixmude was a large village of 4,000 souls (before they fled, and it was destroyed), happy in their cottages of rosy brick and tile, prosperous in their surrounding beet-fields and grazing grounds, their flocks and herds, and proud of their ancient church of St. Nicholas. In this dead flat land, seamed with canals and dykes, man was ever doomed to a double struggle-against the reluctance of the earth, and the insidious aggression of the water. Between the hills of the French border and the dunes of the North Sea coast, it lay saturated, misty, saved from total submersion only by an intricate system of drainage.

Dixmude constituted in effect one of the principal points of passage of the Yser and, at the end of October 1914, a force of Belgians and a brigade of French marines resisted the desperate efforts of the Germans to seize the town. Down in their ditches by Dixmude, 5,000 Belgians under General Meyser and 6,000 French Marines under Admiral Ronarc'h, held out from October 17 to November 10, 1914 against three corps of the Duke of Wurtemberg's army from October 16 to November 10, in torrents of rain hardly less painful than the fire of the German guns. On 7 November a determined German attack was made on Dixmude, now defended by Admiral Ronarc'h and his French marines. It succeeded after three days' fighting and a heavy bombardment on the 10th. The town held out until Nov. 10, by which date, by damming the lower reaches of the Yser and opening the sluices between Dixmude and Nieuport, a large flooded area was placed between the two armies. Dixmude had, as was natural in a country which had generally feared attack from France, been built on the eastern bank of the Yser ; and the Germans were never able to debouch across the river. The town was retaken by the Belgians on Sept. 29 1918.

The story of the French Marines is one of the epics of the World War. Such is the story of the Breton's. At Dixmude, under command of their own officers, retaining not only the costume, but the soul and language of their profession they were still sailors. Grouped with them were seamen from all the naval stations. "Dixmude was an epic then, or, as M. Victor Giraud proposes, a French geste, but a geste in which the heroism is entirely without solemnity or deliberation, where the nature of the seaman asserts itself at every turn, where there are thunder, lightning, rain, mud, cold, bullets, shrapnel, high explosive shells, and all the youthful gaiety of the French race."

Located in Dixmude the 'Trenches of Death' comprise preserved trenches featuring galleries, shelters, firesteps, chicanes, concrete duckboards and concrete sandbags. Together they give a fair impression of the makeup of trenches during the First World War - that is, notably leaving aside the quiet, serene nature of the trenches as they appear today. The Dixmude trenches were in fact held by the Belgians for over four years during the Battles of the Yser against determined German forces (often ranged just 100 yards away), hence their grim name. A Demarcation Stone was unveiled at this site - representing Belgian determination, resistance and heroism - on Easter Sunday 1922 by King Albert amid a sizeable gathering including many former veterans of the struggles which had occurred there during wartime.





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