The Battle of Verdun
By Raymond Recouly (Captain X)
[Scribner's Magazine, September, 1916]
In August and September, 1915, just a year after the war began, my military service took me frequently to Verdun. At that time it had been for months one of the quietest of our sectors; to the right arid left, around Eparges and in Argonne, the fighting had been fierce, and was renewed from time to time, but in the Verdun salient, which lay between, there was little going on.
A large part of the population had, in consequence, remained in the city. A few big German shells fired at very long range had, to be sure, fallen within the walls; they made a great noise but did little damage, and the gallant men and women of Lorraine, whose country has been a battle-field for hundreds of years, are not easily frightened. Almost all of the shops were open. Verdun is known far and wide for its sugared almonds, those "dragées" without which no wedding-feast nor christening in France is complete, and the confectioners went on calmly making them. Some ingenious spirits among them had even invented a large "dragée-bombe," shaped like the shell of our "75" gun, which opened suddenly with a loud report, scattering a harmless shrapnel of almonds.
The merest glance at the map is enough to show that the old citadel bars one of the principal highways from Germany into France. In the first days of the war, when the Germans were making their great offensive in Belgium, they took it for granted that Verdun would fall without a struggle, and at the time of their rush on Paris, early in September, the French army defending the fortress, commanded by General Sarrail, found itself peculiarly placed. The Crown Prince's army, spreading down by all the roads from the Argonne, had succeeded in getting to the south of Revigny; General Sarrail's right wing rested on Verdun, so that his main force faced west instead of north, and in that position played its part in the battle of the Marne. After that defeat the Germans retreated as fast as they could go; General Sarrail's army pursued them to the north, reoccupied Ste. Menehould, and pushed as far as possible into the forest of Argonne.
As the Germans, had not succeeded in taking Verdun during their great enveloping advance on Paris, they next tried to attack it on the other side, from the plain of Woëvre. An effort on what are called the "Hauts de Meuse" gave them possession of St. Mihiel, and if after that they had been able to cross the Meuse and push on farther, Verdun would have been almost entirely flanked. But their advance was energetically halted. St. Mihiel marked its farthest limit.
Thus both attacks on Verdun, one from the west by the Argonne, the other from the east by the Hauts de Meuse, failed completely, and the incessant efforts of the Crown Prince, kept up during a whole year in the forest of Argonne, met with insignificant results compared with the number of lives they cost. At last, unable to get around Verdun, no matter from what side they made the attempt, the Germans decided to attack it in front.
One of the great principles of German strategy is that the main body of the enemy must be sought, attacked, and beaten first of all, no matter what else has to be disregarded. This is not a discovery of the Germans; they borrowed it from Napoleon, who made it the dominant rule of his strategy, and like all strategical rules, it is based on common sense; what is essential must be considered before what is merely accessory. In accordance with this doctrine, in the beginning of the war the Germans directed most of their efforts against France, who was, and is still, as the Kaiser declared not long ago, "the chief enemy."
Their first great offensive having met with disaster at the battle of the Marne, they tried a second a fortnight later at the battle of the Aisne, and a third, not long afterward, at the battle of the Yser.
Each of these efforts failed, and toward the end of 1914 the Germans found themselves held in check at every point of our front. What shall they do then? It stands to reason that they will reconstitute their forces, organize new divisions, new army corps, and again try to force a decisive issue where alone it can be found—that is to say, on the French front. France once beaten, Germany might consider the war at an end, but on the contrary, while France holds out, no matter what victories may be won elsewhere, the war will go on indefinitely.
Let us see what actually happened. In the course of 1915 the Germans made some very severe attacks, as at Vailly, Soissons, the trench fighting at Calonne, and when they used gas at Ypres, but these did not lead to anything. In the operations on the western front it was the Allies who took the initiative. Nor could the fighting in the Argonne, no matter how fierce, be considered as a great offensive. At intervals of eight or ten days, during the last months of 1914 and the first half of 1915, the army of the Crown Prince, which was composed of some of the best German troops, made exceedingly violent attacks in the forest of Argonne, in which a whole division or even two were engaged. Their object was clearly defined; it was to gain our trenches one after another, and little by little, through incessant effort, to push the French line toward the south in order to cut, or at least to interfere with, the only railway on which Verdun depended for her supplies.
During all that time the German strength was chiefly directed against Russia rather than France. Why did they give up their original plan? Why did they break one of the rules of their strategy? It was because political and diplomatic reasons intervened to counterbalance the judgment of the military authorities, and to force their hand. In the spring of 1915 the Russian army had reached the southern slopes of the Carpathians, directly menacing Hungary. Italy also was on the point of declaring war with Austria; the Dual Monarchy was likely to crumble away unless immediately assisted. Through her marvellous system of espionage Germany was fully informed of the scarcity of all sorts of munitions in the Russian army, and this was a good reason for attacking Russia while she could offer less resistance than France. It was therefore decided that the offensive should be on the eastern front. The movement was conducted with great vigor; its importance was undeniable, but it could not in any sense be regarded as conclusive.
This attack on the Russians was followed by another on the Serbians, and, with the effective assistance of the Bulgarians, Serbia and Montenegro were overrun.
But France determined to defend Salonica at whatever cost, and her ally, Great Britain, was of the same mind. A powerful and constantly increasing Anglo-French army assembled there, and although Germany blustered she did not dare to strike. The former situation repeated itself—Germany had made an advance without gaining any decisive result.
The end of 1915 brought her back, whether she would or no, to what was after all the essential point of the war—her struggle with France. The German people had been fed with false hopes and dazzled by glittering visions. They were told that, once the road to Constantinople open, the conquest of Egypt was certain, and Turkey and Bulgaria would furnish unlimited reserves to crush Germany's enemies. Those visions gradually faded, and reality had to be faced—the reality that until she had won a great victory over France Germany could not hope to end the war successfully.
Therefore, toward the end of 1915, the Germans determined to do what they had not attempted during the whole of the year—to make a supreme effort against the French front.
It is important to keep always in mind that they did this because they could not do otherwise; they had not, like England, Russia, and ourselves, resources which allowed them to wait; they knew that time was fighting not for but against them. The docile German press continued to assert that, as their armies occupied Belgium, Poland, and part of France, they were substantially victorious; in order to win it was not necessary that they should attack; they had but to keep the ground they already held.
The simple fact that the German General Staff felt obliged to undertake a great offensive against us proves the falsity of these asseverations. The Staff was fully aware that it would be most difficult, in fact almost impossible to force the French positions; its officers knew that lives by the hundreds of thousands must be sacrificed in order to gain a doubtful result. As, in face of such knowledge, an offensive was decided upon, it is self-evident that no other course was open, especially as an attack on Salonica was found to be impracticable.
Once it was settled that a thrust forward should be made, the point of attack had to be chosen. Why was that choice Verdun? There are many reasons to account for it. It was absolutely necessary that the French front should be penetrated at some especially important point. Also, since the Germans occupied St. Mihiel, the sector of Verdun formed a salient which laid it open perhaps to attack from three sides at the same time. Our front once broken through, both wings of the German army could envelope us and our defeat would become a disaster. Moreover, the sector of Verdun is cut in two from north to south by the Meuse, which gives the attacking party a distinct advantage. If troops on the right side of the river, which is the more exposed, were forced to retreat hurriedly, they could only do so by means of a limited number of bridges. In winter the Meuse often overflows its banks and floods the surrounding country, which would make the building of additional bridges a slow and difficult business; if the enemy should press on vigorously, bringing his heavy artillery to bear on the spots where he knows these bridges must be placed, retreat would become an exceedingly risky matter. Military history has often proved the truth of this, the battle of Leipsic being one of the most striking examples.
If we look at the railways we shall see yet another reason for the German decision. In ordinary times Verdun is supplied by two main railway lines, one running from south to north, by St. Mihiel, the other going from west to east, by Ste. Menehould. The first line was partly in the hands of the Germans since their occupation of St. Mihiel. The second was exposed to the fire of the German batteries between St. Mihiel and Verdun, especially in the region of Aubreville and Dombasle, where it makes a sharp elbow northward, and it would run great risk of being cut there. There is also a third line making a diagonal from Revigny to Verdun, but that is scarcely worth counting. As it was only meant to serve local interests its capacity is very limited; it zigzags cheerfully across the fields like a drunken man, so much so that the country people call it "le tortillard"—the twister.
The Germans supposed that the defenders of Verdun would be seriously embarrassed by this inadequate railway system. Many trains are constantly needed in order to feed a large army, and above all to keep it supplied with munitions, and our enemy hoped that these trains could not be provided. But they did not take into account our admirable French roads, nor the ingenuity of our General Staff, which makes marvellous use of our network of highways, and had for some time been considering the possibility of supplying the needs of Verdun by motor-trucks alone. This motor-truck service is one of the best-regulated and most successful developments of the present war. Its creation and organization were only a matter of a few months, and it works to perfection; the officers responsible for it have certainly shown that a faculty for rapid and intelligent organization is a privilege not exclusively reserved for Germans. Any lingering doubt would be dispelled by a visit to one of our "army zones." An apparently endless procession of these trucks stretches out for miles along the road, each keeping its proper distance from the one ahead of it, and all moving with absolute precision and discipline. When the fighting began at Verdun thousands of them were in readiness, and by their means our great army was kept fully supplied with food and ammunition.
The German High Command had another reason for attacking Verdun, besides those of home politics and military strategy. Although they have since denied it, they intended to take the city in a few days, and thus prove to all the world the irresistible power of Germany. The neutral nations which were still hesitating would make haste to range themselves beside her. The Teutonic General Staff is past master in the art of exaggeration, and when one remembers the capital which was made out of the advance on Fort Douaumont it is easy to imagine to what lyric flights the German press would have been inspired by the fall of Verdun.
With the sole exception of Paris, "Fertoun," as the Germans call it, has been more spoken of in their newspapers than any other French city. Half a dozen times since the war began its fall has been announced; each time the news was false, but now the German Staff resolved to make it true.
The plan of the attack was to be a repetition, with more crushing force, of the victorious offensive made in the spring of 1915 on the Russian army in Galicia. A mass of infantry, supported by heavy artillery, was to be hurled against the centre of our positions; our front once broken, both wings of the German army would close in on the salient of Verdun like a vice, making our retreat disastrous if not impossible.
In order to make sure of this result, all available forces were concentrated. Toward the end of 1915 some of the heavy guns which had been used in the Russian campaign were brought back, and as many as could be spared were withdrawn from the western front. It is estimated The Battle of Verdun that there were two thousand guns, all of large calibre, in the appalling mass of artillery thus concentrated. The ordinary field-piece was little used; the work was done chiefly by those much heavier: "105," "210," "305," "380," up to "420." It was expected that this deluge of fire would make pulp of our trenches and the men in them, rendering it impossible for us to hold our positions. For this enormous amount of artillery enormous quantities of munitions were provided; great piles of shells and bombs were accumulated in every possible place throughout the region which the Germans held. The supplies thus in readiness, they proceeded to organize the assaulting army.
As the Germans have not an inexhaustible supply of men, they could no longer make new divisions and army corps, as they had done at the battle of the Yser. For three or four months they had been withdrawing their finest corps from other fronts in order to make them into a phalanx such as Mackensen had thrown against the Russians. These corps were the 15th, brought back from the region of Ypres; the 38th, from the Somme; the 7th reserve corps, from the Aisne; and the 3d, part of which had been on the Serbian front, but had done no fighting. All these corps were allowed to rest at a distance from the front, in comfortable quarters, and the men were abundantly fed; some of the German prisoners said they had been given double rations of meat and triple of coffee. One of these corps, the 15th, which is in garrison at Strasburg in time of peace, ranks with the corps usually garrisoning Metz as among the best in the army.
In November and December, 1914, during the battle of the Yser, I was in the sector of Ypres, directly facing this corps, and it was the opinion of competent judges that no troops in the German army fought with more dash and vigor, while their commander, General von Daimling, was of exceptional ability. An order of the day was found on one of our prisoners at Verdun, in which this general announced to his men that the decisive moment had come at last, and that their irresistible attack on Verdun would at once put an end to the war.
These four corps, intended especially for the assault, were largely made up of the most vigorous soldiers from the class of 1916, who had been drilled and trained with the utmost care. The formations of officers and non-commissioned officers had been entirely made over. During the last months of 1915 the German General Staff was obviously careful of officers, knowing that they could not easily be replaced, but in the attack on Verdun, which was meant to be conclusive, the officers received orders to sacrifice themselves without reserve. They were required to lead their men in order to make the assault more impetuous and overwhelming.
These four army corps were thus brought into the sector of Verdun and inserted, like a wedge, into the army of the Crown Prince, which crowded to right and left in order to make room for them. Three of his corps were also to attack, making seven army corps ready for the great offensive. The positions occupied by the French just before the great battle are well known, having been accurately given in an official publication from our General Headquarters, made in the Bulletin des Armées.
Our left, starting from the Meuse, rested on Brabant, Consenvoye, and Les Caures; on our centre we held the wood of Ville, l'Herbebois, and Ornes; our right included Maucourt, Mogeville, the pool of Braux, and the wood of Hautes Charrières. Behind this first line was a second, taking in the village of Samogneux, hill (or "côte") 344, the Mormont farm, Beaumont, La Wavrille, Les Fosses, Le Chaume, Les Carrières, Bezonvaux, Grand Chenas, and Dieppe. Still farther to the rear, with the village of Bras as a landmark, came the line of the forts of Verdun; Douaumont, Hardaumont, Vaux, La Laufée, and Eix. Between them and our second line a series of counter-sloping trenches ran from Douaumont to Louvemont, on the "côtes" of Poivre and Talou.
If our first line is followed on the map it will be seen to form an arc of a vast circle, beginning at the Meuse, stretching to its centre at Verdun, and ending as far up as Etain, in the plain of Woëvre. In this arc the sector most fiercely attacked was that between Brabant and Ornes, which forms a decided salient. Artillery fire could sweep it on three sides: from the heights of Montfaucon and the wood of Forges on the west, where it made a noticeable curve inward; from the north; and also from the east.
It must be borne in mind that, from its nature, this first line of ours could only be held against a violent attack with the greatest difficulty, and this is true of our second line as well. The part of prudence would therefore be to fall back gradually from one line to another, not risking a decisive engagement until a favorable position could be reached. This was what our General Staff decided to do.
The first four weeks of the war (August and September, 1914) and the first four days of the battle of Verdun (February 21-25) resemble each other strongly in general outline, and in what may be termed the rhythm of their operations. I wish to call attention to this, because to my mind it is the dominant and essential feature of these great military events. In August, 1914, as in February, 1916, the Germans made extraordinary preparations; they studied the plan of their offensive in all its details; they accumulated a formidable number of men and an inexhaustible amount of ammunition; their officers and soldiers alike were ready to throw, themselves into the attack with the greatest impetuosity. The method and the force of this offensive were so irresistible that the French High Command found it necessary to fall back, and some ground was given up in order that a successful stand might be made later. It was yielding a side issue; the important, the vital point, was to win the battle finally; whether a few leagues or kilometres more or less to the north or south was of no consequence. Our troops retired until the favorable moment came, and then, when the Germans were sure we were beaten, we struck with our full force, and at the crucial moment defeat was turned into victory. From that time the Germans were stopped, and in several places driven back; all their efforts and sacrifices were useless, and only served to mark the importance of their check.
That was the rhythm of the first four weeks of the war, up to the battle of the Marne, and it was also the rhythm of the first four days of the battle of Verdun, up to the recapture of the Fort of Douaumont by our 20th corps.
First act: The French fall back as the Germans advance.
Second act: A decisive battle ends in victory for the French.
Third act: The Germans are held in check; they may move to and fro, but they can make no serious advance, and will wear themselves out to no purpose.
I. THE GERMAN ATTACK AND THE FRENCH RETREAT
On the 21st of February, at a quarter past seven in the morning, the bombardment of Verdun began, and continued with an intensity which made the German fire during the war, even at the battles of Champagne and Artois, seem like child's play in comparison. The number of pieces of heavy artillery which fired incessantly was stupendous; French aviators flying over the German lines agreed in reporting that in the region to the north of our positions, especially in Spincourt and the woods adjoining, it was "like a display of fireworks." Such an incessant cannonade came from the little wood of Gremilly, north of La Jumelle, that our observers had to give up marking on their cards the different batteries in action; they were everywhere; the guns stood almost wheel to wheel. That went on for hours, and at four o'clock in the afternoon the firing became still more intense; it was as if thousands of rockets were being sent up for the "bouquet" of the show. In order to make our positions untenable, asphyxiating and lachrymatory bombs were mingled with, the heavy projectiles, while six captive balloons floated over the German lines and directed their aim. Our first lines were almost levelled by this avalanche of steel—trenches, parapets, shelters, no matter how well made, were utterly destroyed. Then, toward five o'clock, the first infantry attack was launched.
The Germans were convinced that their infernal fire had made it impossible for our infantry to hold their ground, and counted on occupying our positions almost without resistance on our part. Most of the work would have been done by their artillery; they need only advance and occupy ground which had been evacuated. The German tactics during their attacks on Verdun were all based on this conviction. The artillery must strike systematically and with crushing force on every point of our line, making a zone of death around all our centres of resistance. When the destruction seemed complete, part of the infantry was sent forward to examine the effect of the firing. Each reconnoitring group was made up of about fifteen men; behind them came the grenadiers, and after them again the first great wave of infantry. In this instance they did not sufficiently take into account the magnificent courage of our soldiers. In spite of the blasting fire they stuck to their positions, making the most of every little inequality of the ground, and crouching low in the craters made by the great shells. As the Germans advanced their ranks were mown down like grass by our mitrailleuses. Then the bombardment began again. No sooner was one attack repulsed than another came on, and at the end of the first day the enemy had a foothold in some of the trenches of our first line, and in a few places had even got as far as our supporting trenches. They had also taken the woods of Haumont and Caures, but the southern part of Caures was won back by the splendid bravery of Lieutenant-Colonel Driant and his chasseurs. In the region of Soumazzanes, the wood of Ville and l'Herbebois, our supporting line still held firm.
The morning of the 22d was cold and snowy, and about half-past seven the Germans began to warm us, in the western part of the sector, by throwing jets of liquid fire into the wood of Consenvoye. Thanks to these "flammenwerfer" they managed to get to the bottom of a ravine; in Herbebois and the wood of Ville the hand-to-hand fighting was bloody and determined. The German artillery fire became still more violent; great gusts of flame swept over Anglemont, the Mormont farm, and La Wavrille. The village of Haumont was in the hottest of it; but the gallant men who held it stood close around their colonel and fought until the last; it was six o'clock in the afternoon before the enemy could get into its ruins. By the end of the day we had lost the wood of Ville, but we still held most of Herbebois and La Wavrille.
The troops had no protection; main and communication trenches, shelters, centres of defense—all were battered to pieces; it was fighting in the open. Night fell; in the cold and the snow, under the unceasing bombardment, our men hastily dug themselves in again. It was absolutely necessary to stop the German advance, in order to give our reserves time to come up; the men knew it, and although they were tired out they worked, as they had fought, like demons. During the night of the 22d-23d we evacuated Brabant. The village of Samogneux was under such heavy fire that a counter-attack on our part was impossible, and we were obliged to remain on the defensive. To the eastward the Germans had got within eight hundred metres of the farms of Anglemont and Mormont, and were shelling them with their 305-mm. and 380-mm. guns. It was an infernal rain of fire, but with admirable energy and discipline our men held their positions.
At six in the morning of the 23d the enemy attacked La Wavrille and were repulsed. In l'Herbebois the fighting was desperate all day. The northern border of this wood is a thick coppice about five hundred metres wide; the Germans, who wanted to carry this position at any cost, attacked here in great force and in close formation. The French waited until they were within fifty metres and then opened on them with volley-firing by platoons; our mitrailleuses and "755" also fired at close range into the solid mass. Whole ranks were wiped out at a time; it was downright slaughter. This first attack having failed, four others were launched, with the same result. The fighting became furious beyond description. In one of our "boyaux," or communicating trenches, four grenadiers threw bombs steadily for more than twenty hours; it was death for whoever tried to pass them. The Germans, in spite of all their efforts and their reckless squandering of life, could not gain a foot of ground. But unfortunately, as night fell, after incessant attacks, they succeeded in taking La Wavrille, and the holders of Herbebois were obliged to fall back or risk being flanked. The men, fighting-mad, refused to retreat, choosing rather to die where they stood.
Again, on the 24th, the Germans advanced and again we fell back, having evacuated the village of Samogneux during the night, as it was in a very dangerous position. A French regiment was stationed astride of the road from Samogneux to Vacherauville, with orders to hold "côte" 344, whatever happened. The Germans knew how important this road was and did their best to get it. Five or six times they tried to make their way out of Samogneux, each time to be met by the combined fire of our infantry, our mitrailleuses, and our artillery. Their losses were frightful, and it was evening before they succeeded in fastening themselves on the "côte." By that time the village of Beaumont, the wood of Fosses, and Le Chaume had been already occupied for some hours.
At twenty minutes past two in the afternoon a large German force poured out between Louvemont and "côte" 347; the village of Ornes, attacked on three sides at once (a danger to which it had always been exposed), was almost surrounded and had to be evacuated. That threw us back on the line of the forts. The Germans were sure they had won this greatest war game. One last effort would make them masters of the heights above Verdun, and our army would be forced to retire in disorder.
II. THE COUNTER-ATTACK: AND THE FRENCH RECOVERY
And yet all the elements which were to come to our rescue were already at hand. Our High Command had had time to bring up important reserves, which, coming into action at the right time and place, would at once change the situation. These reserves could not have been used effectively until the real object of the enemy was clear; it might be that he was only making a feint before Verdun and would strike his chief blow at another point of our lines. It was necessary that he should come on, and thus show his hand. The heroic resistance of our men for three days to numbers much greater than their own, their fierce dispute of every foot of ground, their wearing down of the German resistance had given our reinforcements this necessary time.
On that day of desperate fighting, the 24th, Major-General de Castelnau left Headquarters in order to decide upon the spot what measures he should take. He came; he made up his mind without hesitation. His orders were that the reserves should come into action at once, and at whatever cost stop the German advance on our principal lines.
That same day General Pétain arrived, with all his staff, to take active command of the troops defending Verdun.
In one of my former articles, "The French Offensive in Champagne" (May, 1916), I described this general, one of the glories of our army and of France. "He is tall, slim., young-looking, with an air of extreme distinction, quick, incisive speech, and resolute blue eyes. Whenever those eyes of his light on a new face he feels the immediate need to label and classify it, and store away the image in some pigeon-hole of his marvellously lucid memory, where thereafter it will always have its distinctive place. Looking at him and listening to him, one has the impression that the art of warfare is above all things a matter of precision, forethought, and tenacity. The masters of military science, the men predestined to shine in war, are those in whom the balance between brain and character, between understanding and willing, is most perfectly adjusted."
One of our finest army corps was impatiently waiting to be sent into action. Since the war began it had been in battle wherever fighting was to be found; in Flanders, in Artois, and in Champagne, winning laurels everywhere.
It was now thrown into the furnace without hesitation. The German advance was checked; their offensive broken; they could go no farther.
It was bitter cold, and drifting snow hindered the march of our columns. The German artillery tried to stop the coming of our reinforcements by a formidable curtain fire and by shelling our rear lines incessantly. But our men, knowing the value of those fateful hours, marched with eager hearts, regardless of all obstacles. As an official communiqué said: "It was like the battle of the Marne—the cry of 'Forward!' gave them superhuman courage."
The principal field of the great fight was the table-land of Douaumont, which is to the battle of Verdun what the marshes of St. Gond, the chateau of Mondement, and the plain of Fere-Champenoise were to the battle of the Marne. On the morning of the 25th the Germans made a fierce attack on the "côte" of Poivre, carrying the villages of Louvemont and Bezonvaux. Before Douaumont the fighting was fiendish; by five o'clock in the afternoon the village seemed to be surrounded. While this violent struggle was going on, a party of Brandenburgers, belonging to the 3d corps, managed to creep up to the fort of Douaumont, and held on there.
The Teutonic General Staff forthwith trumpeted to the world that "the armored fort of Douaumont, the corner-stone of the French defense of Verdun, has been carried by a Brandenburg regiment;" and wireless messages everywhere proclaimed this victory as positive. But it was only temporary. By the time the news was spread abroad our troops had thrust back the enemy by a vigorous counter-attack, and were closing around the Brandenburgers. A bloody struggle followed; the Germans, knowing how much depended on it, did their utmost to widen the breach they had made toward the fort of Douaumont; the village of Douaumont was taken and retaken, but all the German effort and bloodshed were in vain—henceforth their advance was definitely controlled.
III. THE FIGHTING ON OUR WINGS AND THE GERMAN CHECK
When the Germans found that their frontal attack was not the conclusive success for which they had striven, they decided, after a pause, to attack both our wings, on the left bank of the Meuse. This movement was to be carried out by the army of the Crown Prince, with the help of the picked corps which had joined it. In an order of the day dated March 4th the Crown Prince exhorted his troops to prepare themselves for the supreme effort necessary to take Verdun, "the heart of France." Our positions on the left bank of the Meuse now formed more or less of a salient, compared to those on its right bank, where our troops had been obliged to draw back, and against this salient the German attack was accordingly directed.
The same movement which had taken place on the right side now repeated itself. We held our first line only long enough to retard the German advance, but when they reached our principal positions at Mort-Homme and "côte" 304 they could go no farther. Then began a series of very bloody struggles. The wood of Corbeaux, for instance, was taken and retaken and lost over and over again, the enemy only succeeding in holding it after a third attack. On the 14th of March, new German divisions having come up, another fierce attempt was made. Mort-Homme was shelled even more heavily than at the beginning of the battle; every infernal modern projectile, time and percussion bombs, asphyxiating and lachrymatory shells were hurled on our positions; one hundred and twenty were counted in one minute.
When at last, about three in the afternoon, the German infantry swept forward, most of the men in our trenches were half suffocated and almost buried alive. "Côte" 265 was taken, but the little peak 295 remained in our hands.
While the fighting on the left bank of the Meuse was going on, an attack was also made on the fort and village of Vaux, on the right side of the river, east of Douaumont, and on the 8th of March a vigorous offensive gave the German infantry possession of the first houses of the village, from which they were almost entirely driven out by a brilliant counter-attack on our part. At no time did they get near the fort, which lies to the rear; a fact which did not prevent their authorities from issuing the following sensational communiqué: "The 6th and 19th regiments of Posen reserves, led by General von Guretski-Cornitz, have stormed the armored fort of Vaux, and have also taken many other fortifications in that neighborhood."
It so happened that, at the very time when this "news" was being rushed everywhere, one of the officers of our General Staff went into the fort of Vaux and was able to assure himself that it had not been attacked, and that the troops holding it were quite undisturbed. Our General Staff thereupon immediately contradicted the lying report in the most positive manner.
Again, as in the case of the Sussex, the intentional bad faith of our enemy was exposed, but that did not disconcert him; it was then announced that the fort had been taken, and retaken later by a French counter-attack. It was not necessary for us to retake Vaux, for the simple reason that we hid never lost it.
Day followed day, and the attacks on our right and left wings led to no more decisive result than those made at first on our centre. The German assaulting corps, which had borne the brunt of the fighting, were decimated and worn out; some of the regiment had lost as high as sixty per cent of their officers and men. It was absolutely necessary that they should be sent to the rear to rest and be reorganized.
But the officers of the German General Staff were well aware that the whole world had its eyes upon Verdun. They knew they were playing for a high stake, and that the outcome of the war depended to a great extent on the mighty struggle on both sides of the Meuse. Therefore, rather than acknowledge failure they decided to redouble their efforts. New divisions were hurried forward to replace those which were exhausted, and on the 9th of April another very violent attack was hurled against our positions on the left bank of the river, at "côte" 304. But there were no longer sufficient reserves to give this thrust the power and scope of those in the beginning. All that could be done was to bring up one division after another, to relieve those which were most exhausted. Heavy artillery could be used like a battering-ram against one or other of our positions, but there was no longer any question of a general advance. I wish to dwell upon this point, for a new phase of the battle has begun.
In order to be convinced of the magnitude of the German failure, one has but to follow the successive changes in the tone of the Teutonic press as the struggle drags on.
It was taken for granted that the advance on Verdun would strike us like a thunderbolt. The Crown Prince said so in a proclamation, and the Kaiser, as usual, made an inspiring visit to the army about to fall on us. In a Bavarian newspaper, the Münchener Neueste Nachrichten, Colonel Medicus proudly wrote, "Our ring of steel is visibly tightening around the fortress; we shall therefore be able to record a great and decisive victory, of which the consequences will be felt at once; of this the governor of Verdun must be sadly certain." This was at the time when the German wireless stations were busily spreading the news broadcast that "the armored fort of Douaumont, the corner-stone of the defense of Verdun," had been carried by storm under the eyes of the Kaiser. The press, usually so carefully muzzled, was allowed to say what it chose: the Rheinische Westfälische Zeitung declared that "the taking of the fort of Douaumont, which breaks the circle of forts at its most vulnerable point, makes it possible to predict the speedy fall of the fortress itself." The Frankfurter Zeitung improved on this forecast by saying: "It is clear that men who have not recoiled before the defenses of Douaumont, one of the strongest fortresses in France, will not be stopped by any slighter resistance."
As time went on, and Verdun did not fall, it became necessary to put a damper on, this enthusiasm. The German press was therefore ordered to exhort the public to possess its soul in patience. All the military critics explained carefully to their readers that the delay was foreseen and intentional. The Berliner Tageblatt of March 15th said: "Spoiled by the extraordinary rapidity of the campaign which made us masters of the Russian fortresses last summer, we sometimes make the mistake of comparing it with the present fighting on the western front, which has for its objective the fall of Verdun."
Days lengthened into weeks, and the fortress still stood; so the press faced about, gravely affirming that the General Staff had never really meant to take Verdun at all, and that any such statement was a malevolent and perfidious invention of the French. The staff had only attacked at that point in order to prevent the general offensive for which the French were making ready.
These contradictions are very significant and enlightening, because they bear witness to the hopes, the fears, and the disappointment of the German people from day to day.
To sum up one may say: First, Germany knew that a war of erosion must of necessity be to her disadvantage, because time was working against her, and the resources of England, Russia, and France were increasing, while her own steadily diminished. She therefore meant to end the struggle by a smashing blow, and chose the sector of Verdun in order to deal this blow to her "chief enemy," France. After masterly preparation she had accumulated in this sector all the resources in men and munitions of which she could dispose. The result of the first four days of the battle was in her favor, but as soon as our reserves came up her advance was checked. Willing to sacrifice any number of lives in order to win, she has drawn ruthlessly on her reserves, and at the end of three months of carnage she finds herself like a desperate gambler—she has risked her fortune on a single stake, and luck has turned against her.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald