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Immortal Verdun

( Originally Published 1918 )



FRANCE was revealed to herself, to Germany and to the world as the heroic defender of civilization, as a defender defying death in the victory of Verdun. There, with the gateway to Paris lying open at its back, the French army, in the longest pitched battle in all history, held like a cold blue rock against-the uttermost man power and resources of the German army.

General von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff and military dictator of the, Teutonic allies, there met disaster and disgrace. There the mettle of the Crown Prince-was tested and he was found to be merely a, thing of straw, a weak creature whose mind was. under the domination of von Falkenhayn.

For the tremendous offensive which was. planned to end the war by one terrific thrust, von Falkenhayn had robbed all the other fronts of effective men and munitions. Field Marshal von Hindenburg and his crafty Chief of Staff, General Ludendorff, had planned a campaign against Russia designed to put that tottering military Colossus out of the war. The plans were upon a scale that might well have proved successful. The Kaiser, influenced by the Crown Prince and by von Falkenhayn, decreed that the Russian campaign must be postponed and that von Hindenburg must send his crack troops to join the army of the Crown Prince fronting Verdun. Ludendorff promptly resigned as Chief of Staff to von Hindenburg and suggested that the Field Marshal also resign. That grim old warrior declined to take this action, preferring to remain idle in East Prussia and watch what he predicted would be a useless effort on the western front. His warning to the General Staff was explicit, but von Falkenhayn coolly ignored the message.

Why did Germany select this particular point for its grand offensive? The answer is to be found in a demand made by the great Junker associations of Germany in May, 1915, nine months before the attack was undertaken. That demand was to the effect that Verdun should be attacked and captured. They declared that the Verdun fortifications made a menacing salient thrust into the rich iron fields of the Briey basin. From this metalliferous field of Lorraine came the ore that supplied eighty per cent of the steel required for German and Austrian guns and munitions. These fields of Briey were only twenty miles from the great guns of Verdun. They were French territory at the beginning of the war and had been seized by the army of the Crown Prince, co-operating with the Army of Metz because of their immense value to the Germans in war making.

As a preliminary to the battle, von Falkenhayn placed a semicircle of huge howitzers and rifles around the field of Briey. Then assembling the vast forces drained from all the fronts and having erected ammunition dumps covering many acres, the great battle commenced with a surprise attack upon the village of Haumont on February 21, 1916.

The first victory of the Germans at that point was an easy one. The great fort of Douaumont was the next objective. This was taken on February 25th after a concentrated bombardment that for intensity surpassed any-thing that heretofore had been shown in the war.

Von Falkenhayn, personally superintending the disposition of guns and men, had now penetrated the outer defenses of Verdun. The tide was running against the French, and shells, more shells for the guns of all caliber; men, more men for the earthwork`s surrounding the devoted city were needed. The narrow-gauge railway connecting Verdun with the great French depots of supplies was totally inadequate for the transportation burdens suddenly cast upon it. In this desperate emergency a transport system was born of necessity, a system that saved Verdun. It was fleet upon fleet of motor trucks, all sizes, all styles; anything that could pack a few shells or a handful of men was utilized. The backbone of the system was a great fleet of trucks driven by men whose average daily rest was four hours, and upon whose horizon-blue uniforms the stains of snow and sleet, of dust and mud, were indelibly fixed through the winter, spring, summer and fall of 1916, for the glorious engagement continued from February 21st until November 2d, when the Germans were forced into full retreat from the field of honor, the evacuation of Fort Vaux putting a period to Germany's disastrous plan and to von Falkenhayn's military career.

Lord Northcliffe, describing the early days of the immortal battle, wrote :

"Verdun is, in many ways, the most extraordinary of battles. The mass of metal used on both sides is far beyond all parallel; the transformation on the Douaumont Ridge was more suddenly dramatic than even the battle of the Marne ; and, above all, the duration of the conflict already looks as if it would surpass anything in history. More than a month has elapsed since, by the kindness of General Joffre and General Pétain, I was able to watch the struggle from various vital viewpoints. The battle had then been raging with great intensity for a fortnigiit, and, as I write, four to five thousand guns are still thundering round Verdun. Impossible, therefore, any man to describe the entire battle. The most one can do is to set down one's impressions of the first phases of a terrible conflict, the end of which cannot be foreseen.

"My chief impression is one of admiration for the subtle powers of mind of the French High Command. General Joffre and General Castelnau are men with especially fine intellects tempered to terrible keenness. Always they have bad to contend against superior numbers. In 1870, when they were subalterns, their country lost the advantage of its numerous population by abandoning general military service at a time when Prussia was completely realizing the idea of a nation in arms. In 1914, when they were commanders, France was inferior to a still greater degree in point of numbers to Prussianized Germany. In armament, also, France was inferior at first to her enemy. The French High Command has thus been trained by adversity to do all that human intellect can against almost overwhelming hostile material forces. General Joffre, General Castelnau—and, later, General Petain, who at a moment's notice displaced General Herr —had to display genius where the Germans were exhibiting talent, and the result is to be seen at Verdun. They there caught the enemy in a series of traps of a kind hitherto unknown in modern warfare—something elemental, and yet subtle, neo-primitive, and befitting the atavistic character of the Teuton. They caught him in a web of his own unfulfilled boasts.

"The enemy began by massing a surprising force on the western front. Tremendous energy and organizing power were the marks of his supreme efforts to obtain a decision. It was usually reckoned that the Germans maintain on all fronts a field army of about seventy-four and a half army corps, which at full strength number three million men. Yet, while holding the Russians from Riga to the south of the Pripet Marshes, and maintaining a show of force in the Balkans, Germany seems to have succeeded in bringing up nearly two millions and a half of men for her grand spring offensive in the west. At one time her forces in France and Flanders were only ninety di-visions. But troops and guns were withdrawn in increasing numbers from Russia and Serbia in December, 1915, until there were, it is estimated, a hundred and eighteen divisions on the Franco-British-Belgian front. A large number of six-inch and twelve-inch Austrian howitzers were added to the enormous Krupp batteries. Then a large proportion of new recruits of the 1916 class were moved into Rhine-land depots to serve as drafts for the fifty-nine army corps, and it is thought that nearly all the huge shell output that had accumulated during the winter was transported westward.

"The French Staff reckoned that Verdun would be attacked when the ground had dried somewhat in the March winds. It was thought that the enemy movement would take place against the British front in some of the sectors of which there were chalk undulations, through which the rains of winter quickly drained. The Germans skilfully encouraged this idea by making an apparent preliminary attack at Lions, on a five-mile front with rolling gas-clouds and successive waves of infantry. During this feint the veritable offensive movement softly began on Saturday, February 19, 1916, when the enormous masses of hostile artillery west, east, and north of the Verdun salient started registering on the French positions. Only in small numbers did the German guns fire, in order not to alarm their opponents. But even this trial bombardment by shifts was a terrible display of power, calling forth all the energies of the outnumbered French gunners to maintain the artillery duels that continued day and night until Monday morning, February 21st.

"The enemy seems to have maintained a bombardment all round General Herr's lines on February 21, 1916, but this general battering was done with a thousand pieces of field artillery. The grand masses of heavy howitzers were used in a different way. At a quarter past seven in the morning they concentrated on the small sector of advanced intrenchments near Brabant and the `Meuse; twelve inch shells fell with terrible precision every few yards, according to the statements made by the French troops. I afterwards saw a big German shell, from at least six miles distant from my place of observation, hit quite a small target. So I can well believe that, in the first bombardment of French positions, which had been photographed from the air and minutely measured and registered by the enemy gunners in the trial firing, the great, destructive shots went home with extraordinary effect. The trenches were not bombarded—they were obliterated. In each small sector of the six-mile northward bulge of the Verdun salient the work of destruction was done with surprising' quickness.

"After the line from Brabant to Haumont was smashed, the main fire power was directed against the other end of the bow at Herbebois, Ornes, and Maucourt. Then when both ends of the bow were severely hammered, the central point of the Verdun salient, Caures Woods, was smothered in shells of all sizes, poured in from east, north` and west. In this manner almost the whole enormous force of heavy artillery was centered upon mile after mile of the French front. When the great guns lifted over the lines of craters, the lighter field artillery, placed row after row in front of the wreck-age, maintained an unending fire curtain over the communicating saps and support intrenchments.

"Then came the second surprising feature in the new German system of attack. No waves of storming infantry swept into the battered works. Only strong patrols at first came cautiously forward, to discover if it were safe for the main body of troops to advance and reorganize the French line so as to allow the artillery to move onward. There was thus a large element of truth in the marvelous tales afterwards told by German prisoners. Their commanders thought it would be possible to do all the fighting with long-range artillery, leaving the infantry to act as squatters to the great guns and occupy and rebuild line after line of the French defenses without any serious hand-to-hand struggles. All they had to do was to protect the gunners from surprise attack, while the guns made an easy path for them and also beat back any counter-attack in force.

"But, ingenious as was this scheme for saving the man-power of Germany by an unparalleled expenditure of shell, it required for full success the cooperation of the French troops. But the French did not cooperate. Their High Command had continually improved their system of trench defense in accordance with the experiences of their own hurricane bombardments in Champagne and the Carency sector. General Castelnau, the acting Commander-in-Chief on the French front, was indeed the inventor of hurricane fire tactics, which he had used for the first time in February, 1915, in Champagne. When General Joffre took over the conduct of all French operations, leaving to General Castelnau the immediate control of the front in France, the victor of the battle of Nancy weakened his advance lines and then his support lines, until his troops actually engaged in fighting were very little more than a thin covering body, such as is thrown out towards the frontier while the main forces connect well behind.

"We shall see the strategical effect of this extraordinary measure in the second phase of the Verdun battle, but its tactical effect was to leave remarkably few French troops exposed to the appalling tempest of German and Austrian shells. The fire-trench was almost empty, and in many cases the real defenders of the French line were men with machine guns, hid-den in dug-outs at some distance from the photographed positions at which the German gunners aimed. The batteries of light guns, which the French handled with the flexibility and continuity of fire of Maxims, were also concealed in widely scattered positions. The main damage caused by the first intense bombardment was the destruction of all the telephone wires along the French front. In one hour the German guns plowed up every yard of ground behind the observing posts and behind the fire trench. Communications could only be slowly re-established by messengers, so that many parties of men had to fight on their own initiative, with little or no combination of effort with their comrades.

"Yet, desperate as were their circumstances, they broke down the German plan for capturing trenches without an infantry attack. They caught the patrols and annihilated them, and then swept back the disillusioned and reluctant main bodies of German troops. First, the bombing parties were felled, then the sappers as they came forward to repair the line for their infantry, and at last the infantry itself in wave after wave of field-gray. The small French garrison of every center of resistance fought with cool, deadly courage, and often to the death.

"Artillery fire was practically useless against them, for though their tunnel shelters were sometimes blown in by the twelve-inch shells, which they regarded as their special terror by reason of their penetrative power and wide blast, even the Germans had not sufficient shells to search out all their underground chambers, every one of which have two or three exits.

"The new organization of the French Machine-gun Corps was a fine factor in the eventual success. One gun fired ten thousand rounds daily for a week, most of the positions -selected being spots from which each German infantry advance would be enfiladed and shattered. Then the French 75's which had been masked during the overwhelming fire of the enemy howitzers, came unexpectedly into action when the German infantry attacks in-creased in strength. Near Haumont, for ex-ample, eight successive furious assaults were repulsed by three batteries of 75's. One battery was then spotted by the Austrian twelve-inch guns, but it remained in action until all its ammunition was exhausted. The gunners then blew up their guns and retired, with the loss of only one man.

"Von Falkenhayn had increased the Crown Prince's army from the fourteen divisions—that battled at Douaumont Fort—to twenty five divisions. In April he added five more di-visions to the forces around Verdun by weakening the effectives in other sectors and drawing more troops from the Russian front. It was rumored that von Hindenburg was growing restive and complaining that the wastage at Verdun would tell against the success of the campaign on the Riga-Dvinsk front, which was to open when the Baltic ice melted.

"Great as was the wastage of life, it was in no way immediately decisive. But when the expenditure of shells almost outran the highest speed of production of the German munition factories, and the wear on the guns was more than Krupp and Skoda could make good, there was danger to the enemy in beginning` another great offensive likely to overtax his shellmakers and gunmakers."

Immortal and indomitable France had won over her foe more power than she had possessed even after the battle of the Marne. If her Allies, with the help of Japan and the United States, could soon overtake the production of the German and Austrian munition factories, it was possible that Verdun, so close to Sedan, might become one of the turning points of the war.

Throughout the entire summer Verdun, with the whole population of France roused to the supreme heights of heroism behind it, held like a rock. Wave after wave of Germans in gray green lines were sent against the twenty-five miles of earthworks, while the French guns took their toll of the crack German regiments. German dead lay upon the field until exposed flesh became the same ghastly hue of their uniforms. No Man's Land around Verdun was a waste and a stench.

General Joffre's plan was very simple. It was to hold out. As was afterwards revealed, much to the satisfaction of the French people, Sir Douglas Haig had placed himself completely at the service of the French Commander-in-Chief, and had suggested that he should use the British army to weaken the thrust at Verdun. But General Joffre had refused the proffered help. No man knew better than he what his country, with its exceedingly low birthrate, was suffering on the Meuse. He had but to send a telegram to British Headquarters, and a million Britons, with thousands of heavy guns, would fling themselves upon the German lines and compel Falkenhayn to divide his shell output, his heavy artillery, and his millions of men between Verdun and the Somme. But General Joffre, instead of sending the telegram in question, merely dispatched officers to British Head-quarters to assure and calm the chafing Scotsman commanding the military forces of the British Empire.

Throughout that long summer the battle cry of Verdun, "Ne passeront past" ("They shall not pass!"), was an inspiration to the French army and to the world. Then as autumn drifted its red foliage over the heights surrounding the bloody field, the French struck back. General Nivelle, who had taken command at Verdun under Joffre, commenced a series of attacks and a persistent pressure against the German forces on both sides of the Meuse. These thrusts culminated in a sudden sweeping attack which on October 24th, resulted in the recapture by Nivelle's forces of Fort Douaumont and on November 2d, in the recapture of Fort Vaux.

Thus ended in glory the most inspiring battle in the long and honorable history of France.



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