The tremendous assault upon Verdun fell upon the apex of the French defense system. It was not a single fort by any means, but a series of forts, supported on a twenty mile front by trenches, barbed wire, artillery positions, to such an extent that the French called it the Iron Frontier. They had learned long since from the experience of Antwerp that any fixed fort could be destroyed by heavy artillery. Verdun, the most important single point in the French line, must be an impregnable fort, and it must therefore be movable, nor must it depend upon any single position.
Every foot of ground for twenty miles was hence covered in a dozen ways by various grades of artillery, planted to sweep the roads, fields, and woods, as a fire hose sweeps a gutter. All the forests on the hills were labyrinths of barbed wire, so cunningly concealed, that if German spies, much less a file of men, should get in they would never find their way out. Bottles and pans were also hung on the wires so as to make a terrible noise, whenever any one unacquainted with the place attempted to move around in it. There would be no surprise at Verdun.
The strength of the new line was well known to the Germans, but its importance was no less clear, and when they concluded to crush the French army before the British could arrive in strength no spot was better adapted to their purpose than Verdun. It was the hinge between eastern and western France. It controlled all the roads from Germany to Paris; it controlled the great highway of the river Meuse; it was the center of the French line, and its key. Once lost, the roads to Paris would be open and the rest of the French army could be beaten at pleasure. The fact that the Crown Prince was given command showed that it was intended to be the decisive blow of the war.
The method employed in fighting at this time was to pave the way for the infantry by a prolonged bombardment of the enemy's fortifications, so long continued and so thorough that it was expected to break down all the barbed wire, blow up all the trenches, kill all the infantry, and prevent any other preparations being made to replace those destroyed. Such a bombardment lasted in this case for weeks. The effect of it is thus described by a French officer, caught for twelve hours in one sector by the bombardment.
"Alone, in a sort of dugout without walls I pass twelve hours of agony, believing that it is the end. The soil is torn up, covered with fresh earth by enormous explosions. In front of us are no less than twelve hundred guns of 240, 305, 380, and 420 caliber, which spit ceaselessly, and all together, in these days of preparation for attack. These explosions stupefy the brain; you feel as if your entrails were being torn out, your heart twisted and wrenched; the shock seems to dismember your body . . . Twelve hours alone, motionless, exposed, and no chance to risk a leap to another place, so closely did the fragments of shell and rock fall in hail all day long."
Successive German gains at Verdun.
At night the firing slackened momentarily and he was able to make his escape from the hole, but passed five days in a cave underground with other men, packed so tight they were unable to lie down. They escaped then into a tunnel, where they stayed for two days, and then ran at top speed through the remains of what had once been a dense forest, through a hail of shell—to safety.
After the artillery preparations were judged complete, and the French troops and artillery destroyed, the German infantry came on in dense masses to the attack, surely expecting to occupy the territory from which the French had thus been driven. But the French had not been expelled from it. With artillery, with machine guns, with rifle fire, and at last with bayonets, and even with their bare hands, they fought back the finest troops of the German army and defeated them. When the German infantry advanced, the German artillery had to cease fire or it would have killed their own troops. Then the French guns operated upon these vast masses of men proceeding across the fields.
A French officer describes such a fire. "We fired at full speed for twenty minutes. When 'cease fire' came, there was a heap of shell cases fully man high behind our guns. At the order I rushed to look out of the trench at the side of the battery. At the bottom of the ravine, on the edge of the plateau, was a great heap of Germans. They looked like a swarm of bees, crawling over one another. Not one was standing. . . . The whole ravine slope was gray with corpses. . . . The snow was no longer white .. . and the river ran past, dappled with great patches and streaks of blood."
For weeks and months this steady attacking by the Germans, the ceaseless bombardment, this continual reply of the machine guns and counter-attacks by the French infantry went on and on. At the beginning of the battle, the Germans won some considerable territory, first here and then there, but they did not reach Verdun. Toward the end of the year the French won back again more than they had at first lost.
Thousands of brave deeds, both by the French and by the Germans, were done during this tremendous battle. The following description of an eyewitness tells of the French counter-attack upon the Germans. "At midnight the concentration is completed and the armies are in their appointed places. Is the cannonade fiercer or less fierce? I cannot say. The noise is so deafening that I have lost the power of judging its intensity. I cannot even distinguish the explosions of the shells that fall nearest. . . . The searchlights throw patch after patch of trees into bright relief; . . . Not a yard of ground fails to receive the shock of a projectile. The solid earth bubbles before my eyes. Trees split and spring into the air. It is a surface earthquake with nothing spared, nothing stable. . . . The searchlight reveals the German redoubt . . . a wall of earth and tree trunks half buried in the ground. Now and again in the patches of brightness one sees tiny shadows running, falling, rolling over or flitting from trunk to trunk. . . . They are the soldiers of the Kaiser trying vainly to escape from the rain of death.
"Dawn breaks. . . . A shrill ringing startles every one. The captain springs to the telephone, listens for an instant, and murmurs, 'They're off ' . . . Our guns still thunder, but they have lengthened their range, and the line of smoke blobs opposite leaps toward the horizon. . . . Some one grabs my arm and paints northward. Down the slopes of Hill 304, a multitude of nimble figures are rushing westward. Their numbers increase; armed warriors spring from the ground, as in the old Greek. 'Our men,' says the officer beside me. It is the soldiers of France at the charge. For a while they are sheltered from the German fire by a swelling billow of ground. They mount its crest and pour headlong downward.
"Now the pace is slower; they advance singly or in scattered groups—crawling, leaping, running. . . . They pass the first trench without. hesitating, as though it were a tiny brook . . . Now the whole mass is across . . . The charging men go straight forward like runners between strings, leaving open lanes along which their comrades can still fire upon the defenders. At last the edge of the woods is reached . . . It is hand to hand now . . .work for bayonet or revolver, for butt or club, or even for fists and teeth. Corpses are everywhere until the bodies form veritable heaps among which the living fight and wrestle."
At Caillette Wood an extraordinary exploit was performed by the Germans. They had found the work of holding the gains made by the troops during an assault extremely difficult because they could not fight and at the same time dig themselves in. After an attack had been sent forward successfully some little distance, the German commander determined to build a new barrier immediately behind it. Lowering clouds and the smoke of battle aided them. Behind the German assault columns came a corps of workers, three thousand strong, forming a long line across the fields. They passed from man to man, like firemen passing buckets at some old country fire, wooden billets, sandbags, pieces of steel, machine guns, and everything needed for the barrier.
To have carried the material across that field in any other way would have been impossible. The ground was too rough for wagons even had the artillery fire not been too intense. Only by such a human chain could the material reach its destined point. Cover was disdained. The workers stood erect, exposed to the sweep of the French fire. Again and again, great rents were torn in the line. Coolly, new men sprang from shelters to take the place of the fallen. Gradually another line began to double the line of workmen. It was a line of corpses, but, with the material they were piling, it did form the barricade they wanted. At last at a frightful cost, the new line was completed, At evening, the barrier still held, covering troops burrowing like moles into the hillside, strengthening the trench.
And then came a French exploit matching the German. It was eight o'clock and pitch dark. Volunteers from a French regiment crept forward on their stomachs, carrying with them dynamite with which to blow up the new fortification. In Indian file, the volunteer blasting corps advanced, the long line stiffening to look like corpses when the German searchlights played upon them, and crawling slowly forward when the searchlights moved away. When within a few yards of the new fortification, each man, lying at full length, began to scoop out with his shovel the earth under him, gradually making a shallow trench in which he sank out of sight.
Then the leader began to dig forward. Inch by inch, the file stole on, sheltered by this narrow ditch from the hail of German machine gun fire, which constantly swept the field. Hours passed. It was all but day, when the gallant remnant at last reached the barricade, placed the explosives in position, and crawled back along the ditch as fast as they dared. Suddenly came a roar, engulfing the sound of the cannon. Along the new barrier, fountains of fire rose skyward, hurling a rain of fragments upon the survivors of the blasting party. And then came to their ears the music of the cheers of their French comrades, dashing forward to the assault as they carried the position.
Another difficulty surmounted by the French during these long months was that of supplying the fortress and its defenders with ammunition and food. The German preparations had been carefully made and they had control almost at once of the only railroad leading to Verdun. There remained for the French only an automobile road and only one: over that for six months passed everything used in this tremendous defense. The Germans had calculated that Verdun must fall by reason of the inability of the French to supply it, but the French put in use every auto truck or car on the whole French front and started an endless chain of autos, running along that highway only a few feet apart at top speed.
For months that chain went on and on, day and night, never stopping, every car going in loaded with supplies and coming out loaded with wounded. If a car broke down, it was shoved off the highway in an instant, so that it should not block the line upon whose movement the fate of France depended. If it could be mended, a corps of machinists mended it and shoved it back into line; if not, they abandoned it.
The result of this long battle was a German failure. How many hundreds of thousands of Germans perished in this great assault is not yet known, but the number was exceedingly great, and in the end they failed to destroy the French army or to defeat it before the British could arrive with adequate assistance.
Of the fortress of Verdun nothing was left but the site where it had stood. Of the city nearly all was in ruins. As the battle went on, it became essential for the French to construct, deep in the earth, new fortresses which became, as time went on, a city underground, sufficiently large to house comfortably the entire army, with bedrooms, dining rooms, concert halls, theaters, long lines of corridors, to say nothing of the emplacements from which the artillery fired upon the enemy. Aboveground—not a blade of grass, not a tree, nor a yard of earth not churned up by artillery fire. Below—the French army, courageous, indomitable.