With out-thrust bayonet and heaving chest,
He faced the beasts who tried to wrest
His hearthstone from him.
Behind him, goading to the very last,
Ghosts of handless children stand amassed,
Tortured wives and sisters, grayheads, too,
Bowed by the tyrant lines passing through
With torch and bullet grim.
No wonder he fights like one gone mad,
And keeps it up, this Poilu lad,
Till all his senses swim!
Germany had created her Mitteleuropa. She had undermined the military power of Russia. She had, in fact,—although this fact was not yet plainly visible,—dealt a death-blow to the Russian Empire and made sure of the Revolution and collapse which were to follow. She had opened the road to the East. Now she only needed to open one to the West by a decisive victory over the French, and any peace which might follow would confirm her mastery, not alone in the Balkans, nor in Constantinople, but in Mesopotamia and in Palestine, on the road to India and at the gates of Egypt.
Under one more colossal blow the Germans might expect that France would collapse, lose heart and abandon a struggle in which she had to stand practically alone—for neither of her great Allies could help her, and the cost to her, moreover, was bound to be tremendous. A great success, even though it were not a complete triumph—a success which should win more territory and at least one of the great fortresses of France—might lead the French to consent to a separate peace, provided that the terms were not made too onerous and that the German military achievement had been sufficiently brilliant.
So all German comment focused upon the decision that this new campaign was to be a gigantic and final attempt to crush France and utterly break the spirit of the French people. To spend half a million casualties in such an undertaking, and make it successful, would be a mighty good investment, in German opinion.
Then came the selection of Verdun as the objective of this great German attack. It had been noted, by the actual achievement of German and Austrian artillery in August and September, 1914, that despite the strength of the old entrenched camp of Verdun, despite the great defences which had been constructed after 1871 and had made the fortress alike in the military and popular mind one of the stanchest garrisons in the whole world, the powerful long-range guns of the Central Powers had mastered the fort and the great strongholds which but yesterday had been considered impregnable.
The French had realized this before the Marne, and Sarrail had moved the mobile defenders of the fortresses of Verdun well out beyond the fixed forts and into trenches. But the Marne campaign and the subsequent German operations had combined to make the Verdun position not merely a salient, but a salient with many defects, viewed from the defender's angle. The successful thrust of the Metz garrison up the valley of the little Rupt de Mad had enabled the Germans to seize St. Mihiel and thus to cut the Commercy-Verdun Railway, one of the two lines serving the fortress. And in their retreat from the Marne the Germans had halted about Montfaucon in positions from which their heavy artillery could interrupt the use of the Paris-Châlons-Verdun Railway, the other and more important line of communication.
Actually Verdun was isolated from the rest of France, as far as railway communication was concerned. The little narrow-gauge alone, which threads its way up from the valley of the Ornain, near Bar-le-Duc, was quite inadequate for the task of munitioning a great army, if Verdun should be made the objective of a major German attack, and the French Parliament had turned a deaf ear to all the appeals of the army for the construction of a strategic railway to meet the necessities of the situation. For its supplies Verdun was thus dependent almost wholly upon highway communication, as it remained dependent until the decisive phase of the attack was over.
It was thought by the Germans that, following a gigantic thrust, they might be able to insert a wedge between the French armies of the right, in Lorraine, and those of the center, in Champagne, whereupon the war movement might be resumed, the trench deadlock abolished, and that they might seriously again take up the road for Paris. This wedge would conceivably compel the French to quit all their positions from Toul to Rheims, enable the Germans to cut the Paris-Nancy Railway, and might compel the abandonment of all of northern and eastern Lorraine and the line of fortresses and bases from Chalons right down to Belfort. Actual possession of Verdun meant nothing, all depended upon the circumstances attending its capture, all was conditioned upon the success or failure of the Germans in crushing the French troops beyond the Meuse; for if these troops were able to make an orderly retreat behind the Meuse, they would still maintain the whole French front intact. There would be no break through; only a local gain of little value would be realized.
To understand the German plans it is necessary to grasp the essential features of the Verdun country. The town itself lies in a wide valley through which flows the Meuse River. Seen from any of the surrounding hills, it rather suggests a lump of sugar in a saucer. The lump represents the mass of the town, rising about the slopes of Vauban's old citadel and crowned by the twin spires of the cathedral, the latter being the single conspicuous landmark in the town. The rim of the saucer stands for the surrounding hills occupied by the now useless forts. On the west bank of the river these hills, which draw back from the Meuse, are divided by a deep, open furrow, through which comes the Paris-Verdun Railway.
In the old days, Verdun, with its rocky citadel guarding the bridge across the Meuse, was the key to the main road from Metz to the capital; that is, from Germany to France. Taking Verdun, which surrendered without resistance, the Prussians had penetrated through the Argonne into the outskirts of the Plain of Chalons only to be defeated in the battle of Valmy, in the wars of the French Revolution. In 1870 Verdun had held out strongly, and German invasion had been deflected southward, although the town ultimately fell to German artillery.
But since the Germans had forced the northern gates to France and come south through Belgium, Verdun was no longer an outwork of the capital. In their position about Noyon the Germans were scarcely more than fifty miles from Paris, while Verdun was one hundred and forty. The Germans were fully aware of these facts, and subsequent events have shown that it was not the town they wanted, nor the fortress, so much as to break the French line before Verdun and thereby wreck the French morale.
The real military value of the Verdun position was derived from the range of hills rising sharply from the east bank of the Meuse, and marked on all maps as the Heights of the Meuse (cotes de Meuse). This range of hills, some six hundred feet above the river, separate the Meuse from the peculiar Plain of the Woevre. They were, in fact, a sort of hog's back between two depressions. Both on the Meuse and Woevre side these hills—which in reality constitute a plateau upward of six miles wide on the average—break down sharply. Looking out upon the Woevre, from the crest about Fort de Vaux, in the early morning light, one could imagine himself standing upon a cliff overlooking the sea, so sharp is the fall to the marshy plain, at that hour, hidden in the mist.
While this plateau appears fairly regular upon the map, it is cut and seamed by an endless number of ravines. These descend rapidly, either to the Meuse or the Woevre Plain, ravines worn in the clayey soil by little brooks. There is thus an infinite number of hills, not much above the general level, yet distinct. Each has been in times past the prize of some mortal combat, and upon the more important stood the old forts of Verdun. Most of the slopes, too, were covered with little woodlands, designated by names upon the military maps, but now, after the terrible searing of shells which they endured during the Great War, all that remain of the beautiful green trees are shattered, forlorn-looking, branchless, leafless boles and stumps. Beneath are deserted trenches, dugouts, and many a grim grave marker.
For this Verdun offensive the Germans had begun preparations at least a year before the attack. New roads and light railways were constructed from Metz, their chief base. These ran in a circle about the Verdun salient as far west as Montfaucon, where the Crown Prince had his headquarters. For many months the accumulation of munitions and material also went steadily forward.
The artillery, consisting of not less than fifteen hundred guns of large caliber, including German 42-centimeter and Austrian 380's, were solidly emplaced. But as an additional detail it was planned to make the major portion of the concentration movable, so that the guns could follow the men. It was also decided to make their infantry little more than a subsidiary arm. The artillery was to destroy the French positions, while the infantry was to advance and occupy the destroyed positions. Then the big guns were to be moved forward, and the second line of the French reduced. Figuring thus, the Germans thought that in four days, with slight loss, they could reach Verdun, after covering a little more than eight miles. They calculated that the French losses would far exceed their own, that demoralization such as had occurred at Morhange in the opening days of the war would again transpire.
In addition, the Germans counted much upon the element of surprise. And in a very large measure they counted not without good reason. Certainly the French were aware of the growing concentration of the enemy near Verdun; unmistakably their official documents disclosed suspicion of a coming thrust in this sector; but no less remarkable is the fact that the blow far surpassed any expectation; that it caught them without any adequate counter-preparation; that it temporarily paralyzed their high command, which in the opening days seriously contemplated a retreat across the Meuse and the surrender of Verdun; and that it brought them within a narrow margin of utter defeat—a margin so close that it was scarcely a margin of safety at all.
To follow up the guns, the Germans intended to use three of their very best corps. These, accordingly, were sent down to the east bank of the Meuse, and were put through a very careful training for the part they were to play in the coming conflict. They were given daily bayonet exercise and drill, and fed with that generosity known only to the Teuton himself. These three corps, in addition to two which were regularly attached to the Crown Prince's army on this sector, supplied the resources for the early phases of the attack. Later, when the battle became a siege and the casualties swelled to the hundreds of thousands, many other units were drawn in, but at the outset rather less than three French divisions had to deal with five German army corps. The French troops, too, were territorials, while the Germans were the pick of the Kaiser's army, and, in certain stages, fought under his own eye, as they fought continuously under the Crown Prince, their nominal commander-in-chief. The real leader, however, was not the Kaiser's heir, but Count von Haeseler, the aged conqueror of Antwerp, who planned the whole campaign and went into retirement when it failed, followed closely by Falkenhayn, Chief of Staff, who was responsible for what proved the greatest of German defeats since the Marne.
For many weeks before the main attack the Germans carried on minor and deceptive operations on many fronts, which really made the French suspicious that a big blow was soon to be precipitated. Finally, as the ultimate incentive to his troops, the Crown Prince, in the order of the day, on February 21, 1916, thus addressed his soldiers: "I, William, see the German Fatherland compelled to pass to the attack." And this attack, his troops were told, was to be the brief prelude to a wonderful German victory.
At 7:15 on that same morning, the Battle of Verdun began. Unlike the French at Champagne, and the British at Loos, the Germans did not preface their attack with a bombardment of many days. On the contrary they sought to preserve the element of surprise to the latest possible moment, and relied upon the destructive effect of the heaviest concentration of artillery yet known in the history of war, to accomplish in a brief period of time that preparation which was essential to permit their infantry to advance. This concentration was made chiefly above the village of Gremilly and in the Forest of Spincourt, less than two miles from the French lines. Later French aviators reported that the number of guns defied their ability to indicate upon their maps.
Verdun—showing effects of bombardment.
At the moment when they were assailed by this artillery deluge, the French were holding a front line straight across the Heights of the Meuse, from a point between the villages of Consenvoye and Brabant on the river to the edge of the Woëvre Plain, some seven miles to the east, whence it ran out into the plain for a few miles and curved back gradually to the edge of the Meuse Heights far below Verdun. But the German storm was mainly concentrated upon the line between the river and the plain, although there was heavy fighting all the way from Montfaucon to St. Mihiel.
Under this terrible fire the French line collapsed and disappeared. Before many hours trenches had practically ceased to exist. Yet somehow the French held on through the day over most of the front. The Germans, still adhering to their original plan to spare their infantry until complete entrance into the ranks of the adversary had been opened up by the artillery, attempted relatively little infantry charges.
But on the following day the real attack began. It was a violent cannonading the French now had to face—a terrific rain of shrapnel, high-explosive and gas shells. For four days the struggle was more of a terrible nightmare to the French territorials than anything else. Shelled out of their first and second lines, lacking a third line, it was the hardest matter in the world to keep a front to the Germans and maintain some sort of a line between the river and the edge of the plain. Gamely the remnants of these few French divisions clung to their ground; hills, villages, woods were fought for with a bitterness heretofore unknown in the Great War, save, perhaps, for a brief time at Ypres.
At this time the weather was very bad. Snow and fog crippled the aviation branches of both armies, and men who fell died of cold where they lay. Scenes recalling the fighting in the Wilderness in our own Civil War were enacted in a dozen of the little woodlands and ravines, and all the agonies of the American conflict were accentuated by the rigors of winter.
Under the weight of superior numbers and superior artillery the French troops, brave as they were, were gradually cut to pieces. Except for two brigades, which came in toward the end, they were without reinforcements of any kind. Their mission was to hold to the very last, and right nobly had they fulfilled it. Their duty was to exact the greatest possible price for each yard of German advance, and right powerfully had they exacted it. For every Frenchman who went down, it is said at least four Germans did likewise. The slaughter was great. Verdun thus gained, almost instantly, the place it was to hold for many months as the graveyard of the contending armies.
Steadily the hordes of Germans pressed forward. They did not keep to their schedule, however, which should have brought them to Verdun within four days. It proved impossible for the great guns to keep pace with the infantry, and little by little the Germans were compelled to lay aside their original conception of an advance in which the infantry soldier was only an escort to the gun itself, and they threw their troops into the furnace of fire with a prodigious disregard for the value of life.
For four days, as stated, the advance of the Germans went on. By February 25th, they had reached the last line upon which the defenders of Verdun could stand—if, indeed, they were to make any stand. In this time the Germans had come down along the heights of the Meuse for more than four miles. They had set foot upon the Douaumont Plateau, looking directly down upon Verdun, four miles away, and they had taken the dismantled hulk of Fort Douaumont itself.
Verdun was in flames and ashes. Even now its inhabitants were fleeing along the roads afoot and a-cart, with what few possessions they could hastily snatch up and carry with them. More and more shells were thrown into the stricken town, and the Germans, looking down upon it, on February 25th, from the Douaumont Plateau, might well have believed that one more thrust, one more day, would tell the story. Already the price paid in lives had far exceeded the German calculations.
Eastward from Fort Douaumont, which they held with a firm if challenged grip, German troops were within a few hundred yards of Fort de Vaux, and little more than a mile in another direction was Fort de Souville. If these forts fell the end would be sure, and that end might bring with it a disaster to the whole French army east of the Meuse from Verdun to St. Mihiel. Yet, near as were these last barriers, it was not until the end of the first week in June that the Germans reached the ruined casements of Vaux, and six months were sufficient to permit them to enter Souville.
On February 26th the French counter-attacked on the Douaumont Plateau. In this operation they almost retook the fort and brought the German flood of men to a standstill. Although the truth was hidden from the people of Germany—who were still celebrating the preliminary victory and preparing for the fall of Verdun—hidden also from the people of France, at last aroused to the full extent of the Verdun peril,—the Battle of Verdun was over, and the Siege of Verdun was about to begin.
Thus February 26th, at Verdun, like September 9th at the Marne, is a memorable day in all French history—and in all world history, for the matter of that. Like Foch's thrust at Fere-Champenoise, Balfourier's counter-attack on the Douaumont Plateau was a determining factor in one of the decisive battles of human history.
There seems little doubt but that the defense of Verdun is the finest achievement of the two thousand years of military history of the French race. Like the Marne, it was a rally after initial defeat. Also like the Marne, it was the sudden flash of the collective genius of the race, after preliminary mistakes and weaknesses which had imperilled all. But unlike the Marne, it was not a quick return to the offensive, followed by a swift and complete victory. No, indeed; the German attack upon Verdun lasted from February 21st to October 23rd, and during six months of this time the situation of the defenders was always precarious and frequently actually desperate.
It was the tenacity of the defense which amazed the world; it was the revelation of that obstinate and unyielding spirit which made "They shall not pass" the watchword of every French soldier and transformed him into a veritable tower of indomitable strength—which first thrilled the whole civilized world, then made it admire as it had seldom admired before. The real achievement at Verdun was in reality the achievement of the French soldier himself. Badly led at the outset, plunged into a contest against hopeless odds, denied the protection which ordinary care should have given him, he nevertheless was superbly commanded in the latter phases of the battle, and by his own wonderful courage and innate military genius, by his capacity for endless endurance and unmeasured sacrifice, he won his victory.
At the Marne there had been a small contingent of British soldiers who had fought gallantly but contributed little to the outcome. At Verdun, on the other hand, France stood alone. None contributed to her terrible sacrifice; her blood was spilled alone. And when victory did come she had won it all, and deserved it all. Had she failed, Britain would have been beaten before Britain was ready; Germany would have triumphed while the United States was still trying to solve the real issues at stake on the remote European battlefield. For the second time in the Great War, France saved all the western nations. Verdun was, then, an epilogue to the Marne, a preservation of the decision reached on the earlier battlefield, which must forever stand with Marathon, with Poitiers and Chalons, as one of the supreme battles and victories of arrest which halted Barbarism as it was on the point of destroying western civilization!
From the moment that the first German assault struck the French lines upon the heights of the Meuse, all France felt the greatness of the peril and the magnitude of the crisis. Thereafter, all through the long months of agony, when the battle had developed into a siege, when the German troops still slowly but surely pounded their way forward, it was as if the whole French nation had set its shoulder against this portal by which the Barbarian was seeking to force his venomous way into the heart of France. Bleeding terribly from the tremendous wounds inflicted by a more numerous, a better-equipped, and a more cruel enemy, the French people, at the front and behind it, echoed and re-echoed the words of the first defenders: "They shall not pass."
It is this fundamental fact which must be recognized as an element which cannot be embodied in any written description of what took place about the old Lorraine fortress. When Petain reached the broken lines, Verdun, by every law of war, was lost; when Douaumont fell, the road to Verdun was all but open; and the Kaiser did not go beyond probability when he forecast the speedy entrance of his troops into the old French town. To him, and to his army, it must have seemed thereafter as if the very law of gravitation had been arrested to save Verdun.
Against the onslaught, dimly suspected in the weeks immediately preceding the German attack, the French had made certain preparations which were wise and far-seeing. By contrast, they had unfortunately neglected certain essentials which came very near to ending everything in disaster, and which really did put a close to the military career of more than one French general, chief among whom was Joffre, who went into honorable retirement at the request of his government.
When the German blow fell, not only were the existing French lines on the Meuse Heights in bad condition, but there was lacking a solid third line to which the troops might retire should the first two lines be pierced. As has been shown, the French were surprised, with no proper system of supports behind them, and had to face the tempest of leaden hail with barely three divisions of territorials, occupying trenches no longer in the best state of repair, having at their back a flooded river, and finding it necessary for the greater part of the first week to fight in open country far behind the last line of prepared trenches which had belonged to them on February 20th.
At the outbreak of German artillery in the Verdun sector, it was impossible for Joffre and his associates to act at once. Time must be allowed to determine whether this was a real attack or a mere feint. If the latter, to hurry an army to this point might be to leave the real objective of the enemy unguarded. So, while the High Command made preparations to move the transport machinery should the necessity become apparent, no actual steps were taken to relieve the troops defending the heights of the Meuse until February 24th.
By this time there was no mistaking the seriousness and magnitude of the German intention regarding Verdun. In fact, it was now a question whether or not it would be wise to attempt to defend the east bank of the Meuse at all. Joffre himself inclined to the belief that it would be a poor policy, even perilous. Under pressure from Paris he sent his chief adviser—General de Castelnau, the defender of Nancy—to Verdun to make the great decision. In case he decided to withdraw the whole French line from the east bank, Germany could justly claim a very considerable victory. Then Verdun might fall, the Germans would be solidly established on the line of the Meuse if they should later have to retreat; but the new French position, resting on the western hills, would doubtless hold; the German advance would be halted at the western edge of the river, and the success would be local rather than decisive. With the extent of German advance already achieved, it seemed that it might be courting disaster to throw a great army across the flooded river whose crossings were now under enemy observation and fire.
Once at Verdun, however, Castelnau decided for the defense. He saw both the moral and the military significance; he recognized Verdun to be the same problem which he had solved at Nancy. So the French High Command accepted his choice, and Castelnau summoned Petain—the sagacious officer who had saved the situation at Soissons the preceding winter, gained reputation at the Artois fighting, and won real fame in the Battle of Champagne. The next day Petain was on the spot. But during the two days preceding his arrival the sacrifices of the trench territorials at Verdun were tremendous. Despite all their heroism and devotion the Germans were able to set foot upon the last defensive line. And when Petain at last began to throw his advance guards across the Meuse, the road to Verdun was wide open.
It was the Twentieth Army Corps which Petain projected against the victorious Brandenburgers, who had taken Douaumont. While the Iron Corps, the most famous in the French Army, counter-attacked, held the German advance, and even rewon considerable ground, new trenches were hastily dug behind them, new gun positions were selected and prepared, and the new army had things much better.
On Friday, February 25th, when the Brandenburgers took Fort Douaumont, the German success reached its high tide. They captured the fort by surprise, the few men left to defend it seeing the folly of resistance and giving in without a struggle. But by contrast, on February 26th, the French counter-attack of Balfourier's, which was a thrust out to the Ravine of Death on the edge of the Douaumont Plateau, brought the whole German rush to a dead halt. In truth, the storm had worn itself out. The French had inflicted upon their enemy losses so great, and had opposed a barrier so obstinate, that the German reserves in men and munitions had become exhausted before the final blow could be delivered. In shell-holes, in ditches, in the ruins of villages, the defenders had found crude shelters, and thus protected had exacted an incredible toll of casualties from their foes. Lacking in heavy artillery they had used their "75's" with terrible effect and sacrificed guns freely that the artillery fire might be maintained to the last possible moment.
Only one of the old forts—although the most important of the outer circle—had been taken; only on a narrow front had the old limits of the entrenched camp of Verdun been passed; and the thin wedge which the Germans had driven in offered no immediate opening for a final push into Verdun itself. Against this situation, the French flanks on the Charny Ridge and Le Mort Homme, west of the Meuse, and on the Vaux Plateau, south and east of Fort Douaumont, offered admirable opportunity to sweep the German center about Douaumont with a converging artillery fire, and forbade any further attempt to break the French center until the French flanks had been disposed of.
In addition to this, the new French army's arrival changed the entire aspect of things. It was composed of first-line corps splendidly organized and well commanded. The momentary disorganization which was noted in Verdun in the first days of the attack—when terrified refugees, driven from the city by the bombardment, choked the roads, and every wounded man coming from the battlefield was a messenger bearing evil tidings—had vanished. The sorely-tried French heart began to flutter with a great hope. Just when all seemed lost—at the very darkest moment—at the eleventh hour—Petain, Verdun's deliverer, had come.
As an interesting sidelight upon the generalities of the battle which I have just described, let me, before closing this chapter, give the story of Richard Cartier, a French lieutenant, who took part in the defense of Verdun. As he tells the tale, it runs in this wise:
We were in the early days of the battle. Enough had transpired, however, to make it clear to every one of us that at last we were face to face with a big affair. The roar of the big German guns was so deafening that we had to stuff our ears with cotton batting to deaden the dreadful sound. The ground shook under the shock of the exploding shells.
But neither the sounds which came to us, nor the sights which met our eyes as we looked down upon the ever-advancing masses of foe in their gray-green uniforms, had the slightest ill-effect upon our nerves. With pictures ever before our mind's eye of the inhuman sufferings these beasts had wantonly brought upon our defenseless aged fathers and mothers and wives and little brothers and sisters, as they advanced across our fair lands, we felt a fierce joy at this meeting. It seemed to me, especially, that I had been waiting all my life for this day. I was supremely, grimly, savagely happy.
"Come on, come on, gray-green battalions of vipers, and let us crush you under our heel! It matters not what cowardly things you have done now—what cowardly means you may adopt with us. Cast upon us your deadly gas fumes; poison our wells; shoot at us your devilish flaming liquids—in spite of them all you will never get through to despoil our precious homes just behind us! We are here to meet you. Come on, come on! Those of you who escape the arrosage of our '75's' will still find 'Rosalie,' the bayonet, awaiting you!"
Such was the substance of the savage hymn which my men sang in their hearts as the Boches came to close quarters.
And "Rosalie" did her work well, true enough. At times they got through to her, never past her. The snow-flecked ground in front of us, furrowed as though by a titanic plow, was covered with gray-green bodies—and many horizon-blue ones also. But what a difference in the up-turned faces! The gray-green were stolid, brutal, or fear-struck. The horizon-blue were calm, peaceful, happy, buoyant—and one of the most satisfied death-grins of all that I saw was upon the blood-smeared countenance of a little Poilu we found with his bayonet jabbed through the breast of a big Boche twice his size. That poor boy I knew. He had had a younger brother maimed for life the year before by Germans in northern France who had deliberately cut off one of his hands. Now he had had his revenge.
As the Germans continued to come against us in serried masses, it was decided that a retreat was necessary. Slowly we fell back to the Wood of Caures, still slaughtering the enemy as we went.
Since you may not know just where this wood is located, I will say that it is to the north of Verdun, lying between the Bois d'Haumont and the Herbe Bois, on the Bois des Fosses and the Forest of Spincourt.
That afternoon, after we had reached our position in the Wood of Caures, Captain Peyron came up to me and said: "I understand from Chief Engineer Moreau that we're to prepare a little surprise for the Kaiser's crack troops. We've got to hold the wood like grim death till all is ready, which will be sometime to-morrow, probably towards evening, and then Moreau will spring his little joke. All day he and his staff have been out in the wood propecting, and the sappers are already at work."
That night I learned a little more from one of Moreau's assistants, a Lieutenant Chabert. Chabert was a former brilliant pupil of the Ecole des Arts et Métiers. Owing to his deep knowledge of electrical science he has on countless occasions during the war rendered invaluable service. He is one of those men you sometimes meet who can turn their hands to almost anything in the scientific line. On this occasion, after ten hours of feverish and continuous work with the sappers, Chabert staggered into our dugout, dead-beat. Before throwing himself down to sleep he had just strength enough to mumble to me: "See that I'm called as early as possible, mon ami, will you? I have hundreds of yards of wiring to see to yet. Dieu merci, we have still a day before us!"
I promised to wake him at five sharp, and, envying him his sleep, immediately went in search of Sergeant Fleury, to delegate him to carry out the duty entrusted to me in case I might be prevented from arousing Chabert.
By the time I had found the sergeant the moon had risen over the battlefield, and if I live to be a hundred I shall never forget the sight. Our machine-guns were still firing two hundred rounds a minute on the German formations. As the enemy approached through the ravines round Flasbas the hollows were positively glutted with the dead.
Towards morning there came a lull. The respite was doubly welcome; it gave both sides time to breathe and behold the work done. A ghastly spectacle indeed was revealed when our search-lights swept their big paths of white over the shadowed battlefield. Men, dead and wounded, lay everywhere. Some of the latter were crawling as fast as they could toward their own lines. If they were sure these were their own men, the Boche suffered them to go scot free; but woe to the wounded if they detected horizon-blue upon him! for efforts were made at once to shoot him down.
When dawn came the lull continued. But by noon both sides went into the clutch once more, and again we had to face the overwhelming odds of the Kaiser's and Crown Prince's troops. In the meantime I had called Chabert at the appointed hour, and after a great stretch and a yawn he had gone off to work among his human moles of the Caures Wood.
About noon Chief Engineer Moreau came to hold a consultation with Captain Peyron, under whose immediate orders we were. He then hurried back to his sappers and electricians, simply saying: "Bon jour, my friend. All goes well." But the satisfied expression upon his dark face would have told me all was well without the words.
I met neither Moreau nor Chabert till after the retreat. To tell you the truth, we were so busily engaged in keeping back the Germans till it suited our purpose to let them come on en masse that I had no time at all in which to make inquiries after them.
With the approach of evening the gradual move back to more advantageous positions began for the French. I shall not go into the details of a strategic retreat; it is enough here to simply state that we evacuated Caures Wood and got away to the high ground in the neighborhood of the Bois des Fosses. Here I encountered my chiefs again, and here we drew aside and I was made fully aware of the nature of the trick that the engineering force had planned. I must admit that, as I gazed off in the gathering darkness of night toward the Bois de Caures, I felt a strong excitement. Whether or not Moreau, Peyron, Chabert and Fleury had a similar feeling I do not know; at least, they gave no evidence of it in their calm faces as they gazed in the same direction I did. In the gloom the Wood we had so recently vacated stood out across the shadowy meadowland a huge, black, portentous mass, a great blot against the blue sky of night. As I continued to stare, I recall that the mass seemed to move and mysteriously evolve itself into a gigantic interrogation point. But, of course, that was imagination, brought on from my own thoughts and expectations and overwrought nerves.
Finally, for relief, I turned to Captain Peyron. "What do you estimate the strength of the attacking force in our sector to be?" I inquired.
"Two thousand odd," was his reply. "And all of them have fallen into the trap. As our men retreated through the wood, they followed in a mad triumph of possession, blindly, stupidly—les imbéciles!"
"Not one of them shall escape," put in Moreau grimly. He glanced at his luminous watch. Turning to Chabert, he added: "One minute more—then France shall be avenged for at least some of the horrors these greyhounds of perdition have forced upon us!"
Again our eyes fixed themselves intently upon the dark mass across the fields. Somebody, somewhere, we knew, was about to press an electric button, and—
Bo-o-o-o-m-mm! Bo-o-o-o-m-mm! Bo-o-o-om-mm!
The loud reverberations startled even we who were looking for them. For an hour afterward I could hear their ringing in my ears. They came in a series of deafening, awful reports, unrivalled by any thunder clap I had ever heard. The earth beneath our feet quivered—even the air was disturbed. The scenery about took on a queer, wavering, unstable aspect, and I felt like a man gone suddenly tipsy.
The weirdness of it all was intensified greatly by huge sheets of flame which leaped high above the trees of Caures Wood as the series of terrific explosions occurred. Though quite a distance away, we could plainly make out stark objects in those blow-gusts of fire which looked to be either bits of shattered timber or bits of human anatomy. Inwardly we knew they were both.
I shuddered, and covered my eyes. This was war; war must be endured; a mad-dog must be met with something besides a mere cuff on the ears. Yet one does not always have to look as he inflicts deserved punishment upon another.
It will be remembered that on February 24th, General de Castelnau, representing the French High Command, had to make the momentous decision whether France would accept or decline battle on the Meuse Heights. To decline meant not only to confess defeat, and abandon the ruined town of Verdun itself whose traditions were of great importance in the eyes of the world at large, but it also meant to risk disaster in a retreat across a flooded valley.
On the other hand, to accept battle meant to throw a force of two hundred and fifty thousand piecemeal across the swollen Meuse, to face huge numbers of the enemy enthused by great successes and expecting a decisive victory. The first French divisions, moreover, must face the oncoming flood of Germans in the open field, without any but the most flimsy trenches to shelter them against the greatest concentration of heavy artillery yet known in war.
Castelnau, as we have shown, chose to accept the last-named situation on February 24th. By so doing he virtually signed France to engage Germany until Russian armies should be restored and British armies ready. Once more France bravely bore the burden of the Great War.
But by March 1st the situation had changed materially. The great German advance, the drive down the Meuse Heights on a narrow front and behind a huge artillery fire, had come to an abrupt halt, owing to reinforcements under the valiant Petain. In the center further enemy advance was impossible, while from the flanks the French fire swept the communications and rear of the Germans in a withering manner.
It now became necessary for the German High Command to make a decision—a decision, at that, quite as momentous as that recently settled by the French. Should it continue the Verdun operation? The possibility of a supreme victory, once so glowing, was now gone. The chance to break the French line, to drive a wedge between the armies of the center and the right, and resume the march on Paris, had disappeared. True, Verdun might still be taken, but it could only be after a long siege, and by that time the French were sure to have prepared endless lines behind the town, lines of admirably defensible hills that rise to the west of the Meuse Valley.
Puzzling as the situation must have seemed, the Germans really had no choice. They had by now so far committed themselves that there was no alternative but to continue; they had spent many long weeks in preparing for this offensive; they had had to build long lines of railroad, repair highways, and transport thousands of tons of heavy artillery and munitions. For months hordes of men had been laboring upon earthworks, etc. In fact the German preparation had begun fifteen months before the Verdun battle! Therefore, they could not be expected to give up without a more decisive defeat than thus far inflicted upon them.
So Germany decided to continue her offensive. But she knew her new calculations must be far more modest than her previous reckonings. She could hope to capture Verdun and depress the soldiers and public of the Allies, but she could no longer expect to drive in that separating wedge in opening the way to Paris between the Oise and Meuse. And now that the element of surprise and overwhelming numbers was gone, and the French wide-awake and thoroughly stirred to their real danger, she—Germany—must count on a tremendous sacrifice of her soldiery if she even attained the town. But she reasoned that this loss might be worth while, especially since the Meuse Heights in the possession of the French would serve as an important bridgehead, render a new German line perilous, and preserve a dire threat to the invaluable Briey iron district only a few miles to the east, from which Germany derived the larger part of the iron ore used in her war industries.
In this siege of Verdun, which lasted with little interruption from March to the end of August, and did not really come to a close until the December offensive of the French had cleared the whole area of the entrenched camp, a new order of fighting came into use. In all earlier battles the concentration of artillery had abolished the first and second line defenses, and thereafter the assailant had either advanced to victory or been halted at the third line, and the struggle had quickly fallen back to the old familiar routine of trench warfare.
But at Verdun the bombardment, which had heretofore been merely the prelude to infantry attack, endured for days and even weeks. Over eight thousand shells fell every day, for nearly three months, upon Fort de Vaux alone! Main trenches, dugouts, communication-trenches—all were soon abolished, never to be restored. Men fought in defenses supplied by chance, chiefly in shell-holes. The forest-clad hills of the Meuse Heights were soon swept clear of every vestige of tree or plant. The whole area was pock-marked with shell-craters until, looking down from an airplane, one might well believe himself examining the surface of the Sahara itself. In these the rains left sufficient waters to drown scores of men who unwittingly stepped into them, and who could, as in a well, get neither fingerhold nor foothold to succor themselves.
Roads were reduced to mere trails. Organized lines and ways of communication were completely blotted out. Landmarks familiar to one to-day were strange and weird to-morrow. In France, as in Germany, Verdun became a name of evil omen before the end of the fighting. It is estimated that well nigh a quarter-million men perished in both armies in the first ten months of the fighting.
No pen can describe, no brush paint, no tongue tell, the real horrors of this siege. The misery of those who fought is beyond all realization, the desolation of the country hardly believable. As for Verdun itself, the historic town melted into dust and ashes, as Arras had, as Rheims was to. Yet, strange to say, the wonderful, beautiful cathedral survived, as if protected by the Almighty Hand; and to the very end there were houses in which troops were billeted.
All the romance of the war of movement, the old-fashioned war in which the relative comforts arising from long months of experience made possible in the trench-lines elsewhere, were absent from Verdun. Men lived in mud and ruins. They fought with no shelter over them but the blue or gray heavens, and none about them but the partially frozen or extremely slimy portions of a shell-crater. In such positions they faced the terrific storm of shrapnel from the Germans for hours and days without interruption. Ground was won only after it had been pulverized to a powder and the dust mixed past flying with the life-blood of the fighters. In some instances the smallest gain of the French meant the sacrifice of more lives than had been given up in an entire battle in some of the memorable struggles of the Civil War in America.
The rifle played a relatively small part. Aside from the artillery, the deadliest weapons were bombs, liquid fire, asphyxiating gas, machine-guns and the bayonet. Such scientific butchery has never been equaled before in the world's history. While the artillery led in this decimation of life, every weapon that modern human ingenuity could devise on both sides was utilized. And to the horrors of the fight itself were added the tortures of a relentless weather and a stern landscape. Forests, swamps and marshes—even fogs, rains and blizzards—had to be faced by the men of Verdun. In many instances Death seemed to be the kindest friend the soldiers knew, for scores of letters from French and German alike contained this sentiment when opened and read by the folk back home.
By the first day of March the German advance on the Meuse Heights had definitely halted. While in the next few days there were spasmodic efforts to gain ground on the Douaumont Plateau, the conflict, after several interludes, shifted from the center of the flanks, from the Douaumont Plateau to the westward, to the left bank of the river north of Verdun; to the eastward to the Vaux Plateau, south and east of Fort Douaumont.
At this moment the French lines were shaped like a crescent, with the horns facing the German line; and from these horns—formed by Le Mort Homme ("Dead Man's Hill") and by Fort de Vaux, on the Vaux Plateau,—the French directed a converging fire upon the enemy's center within the curve of the crescent.
Therefore, before they could push farther forward the Germans had to deal with the French flanks—with the left wing at Dead Man's Hill and the right at Fort de Vaux. In the end they were bound to reach Verdun, if at all, through the breach they had opened in the French center, because there they were nearest to their objective and there the ground was more favorable to their attack. But French artillery was sweeping this breach from both wings, and until it could be silenced and the horns of the crescent seized, no further advance in the center was possible.
The two operations that make up the "Battle of the Wings"—as the French term it—went on not simultaneously, but alternately, during nearly three months. First on the French left, and then on the right, the Germans attacked. New artillery concentrations and new infantry divisions and corps were brought up. German losses mounted rapidly, while the French, holding the unessential positions lightly, and counter-attacking only when some vital trench or redoubt was temporarily lost, paid a far smaller price for their resistance. As a matter of fact there was nothing more costly to the Germans in the whole conflict than the struggles on the west bank of the river during March and April, excepting possibly the brusque attack upon the Vaux, which failed.
When the Germans began their attack on the left bank the French there were still holding the line occupied when the Battle of Verdun opened. This line ran westward from the Meuse along the south bank of the little Forges Brook, which enters the Meuse just opposite the village of Samogneux, lost by the French in the first days, the stream which our own Americans crossed in the first stage of their offensive between the Argonne and the Meuse more than two years later. A branch of this brook, coming down at right angles to the main stream and parallel to the Meuse, separates Dead Man's Hill from Hill 304, an adjoining summit, and the various German efforts aimed at taking these two isolated elevations, first by frontal attack, then by a push up the south branch of the Forges Brook, and finally by an attack from the west up the slopes of Hill 304.
The main French defensive position on the left bank of the river was not along the crest of the two contested hills, but a couple of miles south of them, along the Charny Ridge, which was higher then either and extended in an unbroken line westward from the Meuse, and more than four miles north of Verdun. Both Dead Man's Hill and Hill 304 were far outside the old area of the entrenched camp of Verdun. The French clung to them as long as they could without too great losses, and finally surrendered them when the attack became too fierce, although they retook them a year later, with little cost, when they had regained the offensive.
This battle on the left wing lasted from the first week of March to the last week of May. When it ended the French had been driven south and off both hills; they had lost their power to assail the Germans on the Douaumont Plateau by a flanking fire. Thus the enemy obtained the result which they sought, but at a tremendous cost in men, and not until after three months of the hardest kind of fighting.
When they had attained their objectives, the tired Germans contented themselves with occupying and fortifying the captured hills, and the fighting on the left bank was over.
The fighting on the right wing attracted more attention, and will probably enjoy more lasting fame, because it had a single, clearly distinguishable objective in the shape of Fort de Vaux, and because the defense of this fort constitutes an epitome of the whole Verdun epic and one of the finest and most appealing chapters in the history of warfare.
Standing on a broad, fairly level plateau, Vaux faces east over the edge of the Woevre Plateau, and at the north fronts Fort Douaumont across the deep ravine carrying the brook of Vaux. Little water-courses have eaten so deeply into the clayey soil that Vaux is really almost surrounded by ravines, and is thus practically isolated from the mass of the heights of the Meuse behind it, which bears the inner line of old forts, Tavannes and Souville, among them.
The Germans who attacked Vaux from the north, advanced out of the valley at its feet, having taken the little village of Vaux-devant-Damloup, just under the fort. As they advanced the contour of the hills gave them a protected sector right under the fort, the slope being too sharp to permit the guns of Vaux to reach them.
From March 9th the battle of Vaux went forward with unending severity. Little by little the Germans crept up the Vaux Plateau. More and more closely their trench lines drew about the doomed fort, which now, by reason of terrific artillery fire, was nothing more than a heap of shapeless masonry and crumbling brick. By the first of June the investment was complete. Only a little garrison of six hundred men still held out; and this garrison, made up largely of survivors of other units who had sought refuge there, was beyond the resources of the fort to feed or furnish with water.
Ensconsed in the underground passages of the ruined fort, like rats fighting for life, the gallant little garrison still hung on, fighting the overwhelming force of attackers gamely. All communication with their brother forces outside had ceased. Carrier pigeons had supplied the lack for a while, but finally the last pigeon had been released. Then, for a day or two, messages were flashed back and forth by heliograph.
But by June 3rd, the end was in sight, for the Germans were, now pushing up and occupying the ground over the ruins of the fort, and the troops had to defend themselves against an attack from above. First a shower of bombs were thrown down the narrow staircases by the enemy, and these were quickly followed by a pouring in of the Germans themselves, who sought every underground passage they could find.
However, the comparatively small force of defenders did not yield. Desperately they defended the passages and inner stairways. Then the implacable foe reverted to the use of gas. They poured charge after charge of the deadly chemical down into the recesses, in which the air was already mephitic. And failing in this, they even tried shooting down liquid fire. But not until all food and water were gone did the stubborn Frenchmen give in. Then—and only then—did Major Raynal, whose last message from his commander had been one announcing his decoration for supreme bravery, yield his sword to a conqueror who, for once at least, honored himself by honoring the brave man who had defended his post to the very last moment. This occurred June 7th.
While the battle had raged on the flanks the lines in the center had changed but little. There had been a slight but immaterial German advance. The French, on their side, by a brilliant counter-attack designed to relieve the pressure on Vaux, had stormed the ruins of Fort Douaumont, and managed to hold them for one long May day, only to retire in the face of new German concentrations. This counter-offensive was really the last ray of light for the defenders for many days.
When the final German thrust for Verdun began, the positions of the two contending forces were something like this: No longer facing south, but west, the Germans were endeavoring to advance from the Douaumont Plateau down-hill toward the Meuse Valley and Verdun, four miles before them and in plain view. They and the French occupied halves of a gigantic letter "H." One of the sides represents the Douaumont Plateau; the other, the parallel ridge, which contained Fort Tavannes. Between the two sides ran the German route to Verdun. The crossbar represents the narrow ridge connecting the two longer ridges, and itself supported Fort de Souville. On this connecting ridge the French and German lines faced each other with only a few yards separating them, and the whole German desire was by frontal attacks to force the French off this ridge, seizing first the Thiaumont redoubt and the village of Fleury in their immediate front, and then Fort de Souville. If they could take the latter place they would then isolate and capture Tavannes, and advance upon Verdun along the three valleys giving access to that point.
This would enable the Germans to drive the French downhill, as they advanced, and once Souville and Tavannes had fallen, the French would have only St. Michel and Belleville—forts which stand upon the first slopes east of the Meuse and which, in the nature of things, could only be held lightly and for a brief time, since the retreat of their garrisons would be practically impossible and their destruction by German batteries on the higher ground to the east was bound to be only a matter of time. Forts, however, had long lost their old importance, and even Tavannes and Souville were desirable only because of gun positions about them and the cover their under-ground galleries afforded reserves and munitions and food supplies.
The final phase of the Verdun offensive came between June 8th and August 8th. In this time the German line was pushed forward a little more than a mile. On the right it entirely thrust the French off the Douaumont Plateau and back upon the subsidiary and lower elevation of Froide Terre. Here the German advance was marked by the capture of Thiaumont Farm and redoubt. In the center, the German troops reached and passed the village of Fleury, attained the Chapelle St. Fine beyond, and halted exactly at the ditch of Fort de Souville, the extreme highwater mark. On their left, the Germans advanced from Fort de Vaux rather more than a mile, thus covering half the distance between Vaux and Tavannes.
By August 8th the German line between the Meuse and the Vaux Plateau curved inward toward Verdun, and then bent back toward the Vaux Plateau; it was, in fact, a gigantic wedge driven toward Verdun, penetrating most deeply southwest of Douaumont. The Germans were now on the downward slope, less than four miles from the old Vauban citadel. They had flung back both wings of the French army defending Verdun; they had also opened a breach in the venture. Souville, nothing but a collection of blackened ashes, was the single fragile barrier between them and an advance which would carry them to the Meuse.
But this advance was not to come. The Anglo-French offensive in Picardy was now five weeks old; there was a heavy call upon the Germans there for reserves. Now, with equally as insistent a call in the Verdun sector, it became obvious that the German High Command could not meet both appeals with the required reinforcements. Had the Germans been able to reach Fleury in May or June they might have forced the French to retreat beyond the river. But in August their opportunity had come too late. The Verdun game had been played out, and the assailants had failed in every particular to gain any of their principal objectives.
For the Allies, however, it was different. Verdun had served their purpose admirably. The military end of its victory had been attained in June; the moral value was now realized in August. In other words, in its six months of battle and siege, it had not only held out long enough to serve the purpose of Allied strategy, but it had also supplied the moral victory, which was almost beyond calculation at this particularly trying stage of the war.
To the glory of Thermopylae, Verdun had added the achievement of Plataea. In February the Poilu had said stoutly, "They shall not pass." As late as August, following, they had not passed. The challenge had become a prophecy, and the prophecy was already fulfilled.