The Verdun I saw in April, 1913, was an out-of-the-way provincial city of little importance outside of its situation as the nucleus of a great fortress. There were two cities, — an old one, la ville des évêques, on a kind of acropolis rising form the left bank of the Meuse, and a newer one built on the meadows of the river. Round the acropolis Vauban had built a citadel whose steep, green-black walls struck root in the mean streets and narrower lanes on the slopes. Sunless by-ways, ill paved and sour with the odor of surface drainage, led to it. Always picturesque, the old town now and then took on a real beauty. There were fine, shield-bearing doorways of the Renaissance to be seen, Gothic windows in greasy walls, and here and there at a street corner a huddle of half-timbered houses in a high contrast of invading sunlight and retreating shade. From the cathedral parapet, there was a view of the distant forts, and a horizontal sweep of the unharvested, buff-brown moorlands.
‘Un peu morte,’ say the French who knew Verdun before the war. The new town was without distinction. It was out of date. It had none of the glories that the province copies from Paris, no boulevards, no grandes artères. Such life as there was, was military. Rue Mazel was bright with the gold braid and scarlet of the fournisseurs militaires, and in the late afternoon chic young officers enlivened the provincial dinginess with a brave show of handsome uniforms. All day long squads of soldiers went flick! Flack! Up and down the street. Bugle-calls sounded piercingly from the citadel. The soldiery submerged the civil population.
With no industries of any importance, and becoming less and less of an economic centre as the depopulation of the Woevre continued, Verdun lived for its garrison. A fortress since Roman days, the city could not escape its historic destiny. Remembering the citadel, the buttressed cathedral, the soldiery, and the military tradition, the visitor felt himself to be in a soldier’s country strong with the memory of many wars.
During the winter great activity in the German trenches near Verdun had led the French to expect an attack, but it was not till the end of January that aeroplane reconnoitring made certain the imminence of an offensive. As a first step in countering it, the French authorities prepared in the villages surrounding Bar-le-Duc a number of dépôts for troops, army supplies, and ammunition. Of this organization, Bar-le-Duc was the key. The preparations for the counter-attack were there centralized. Day after day convoys of motor lorries carrying troops ground into town and disappeared to the eastward, big mortars mounted on trucks came rattling over the pavements to go no one knew where, and khaki-clad toops, ‘troupes d’attaque,’ tanned Marocains and chunky, bull-necked Zouaves, crossed the bridge over the Ornain and marched away. At the turn in the road a new transparency had been erected, with VERDUN printed on it in huge letters Now and then a soldier, catching sight of it, would nudge his comrade.
On the eighteenth we were told to be in readiness to go at any minute, and permissions to leave the barrack yard were recalled.
The attack began with an air raid on Bar-le-Duc. I was working on my engine in the sun-lit barrack yard when I heard a muffled Pom! Somewhere to the right. Two French drivers who were putting a tire on their car jumped up with a ‘Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça?’ We stood together looking round. Beyond a wall on the other side of the river great volumes of brownish smoke were rolling up, and high in the air, brown and silvery, like great locusts, were two German ’planes.
‘Nom d’un chien, il y’en a plusieurs,’ said one of the Frenchmen, pointing out four, five, seven, nine ’planes. One seemed to hang immobile over the barrack yard. I fancy we all had visions of what would happen if a bomb hit the nearby gasoline reserve. Men ran across the yard to the shelter of the dormitories; some, caught as we were in the open, preferred to take a chance on dropping flat under a car. A whistling scream, a kind of shrill increasing shriek, sounded in the air and ended in a crash. Smoke rolled up heavily in another direction. Another whistle, another crash, another and another and antoher. The last building struck shot up great tongues of flame. ‘C’est la gare,’ said somebody. Across the yard a comrade’s arm beckoned me, ‘Come on, we’ve got to help put out the fires!’
The streets were quite deserted; horses and wagons abandoned to their fate were, however, quietly holding their places. Faces, emotionally divided between fear and strong interest, peered at us as we ran by, disappearing at the first whistle of a bomb, for all the world like hermit-crabs into their shells. A whistle sent us both scurrying into a passageway; the shell fell with a wicked hiss, and, scattering the paving stones to the four winds, blew a shallow crater in the roadway. A big cart horse, hit in the neck and forelegs by fragments of the shell, screamed hideously. Right at the bridge, the sentry, an old territorial, was watching the whole scene from his flimsy box with every appearance of unconcern.
Not the station itself, but a kind of baggage-shed was on fire. A hose fed by an old-fashioned seesaw pump was being played on the flames. Officials of the railroad company ran to and fro shouting unintelligible orders. For five minutes more the German ’planes hovered overhead, then slowly melted away into the sky to the southeast. The raid had lasted, I imagine, just about twenty minutes.
That night, fearing another raid, all lights were extinguished in the town and at the barracks. Before rolling up in my blankets, I went out into the yard to get a few breaths of fresh air. Through the night air, rising and falling with the wind, I heard in one of the random silences of the night a low distant drumming of artillery.
The next day, at noon, we were ordered to go to M——, and at twelve-fifteen we were in convoy formation in the road by the barrack walls. The great route nationale from Bar-le-Duc to Verdun runs through a rolling, buff-brown moorland, poor in villages and arid and desolate in aspect. Now it sinks through moorland valleys, now it cuts bowl-shaped depressions in which the spring rains have bred green quagmires, and now, rising, leaps the crest of a hill commanding a landscape of ocean-like immensity.
Gray segments of the road disappear ahead behind fuzzy monticules; a cloud of wood-smoke hangs low over some invisible village in a fold of the moor, and patches of woodland lie like mantles on the barren slopes. Great swathes of barbed wire, a quarter of a mile in width, advancing and retreating, rising and falling with the georgraphical nature of the defensive position, disappear on both sides to the horizon. And so thick is this wire spread, that after a certain distance the eye fails to distinguish the individual threads and sees only rows of stout black posts filled with a steely, purple mist.
We went through several villages, being greeted in every one with the inevitable error, ‘Anglais!’ We dodged interminable motor-convoys carrying troops, the poilus sitting unconcernedly along the benches at the side, their rifles tight between their knees. At midnight we arrived at B——, four miles and a half west of Verdun. The night was clear and bitter cold; the ice-blue winter stars were westering. Refugees tramped past in the darkness. By the sputtering light of a match. I saw a woman go by with a cat in a canary cage; the animal moved uneasily, its eyes shone with fear. A middle-aged soldier went by accompanying an old woman and a young girl. Many pushed baby carriages ahead of them full of knickknacks and packages.
The crossroad where the ambulances turned off was a maze of beams of light from the autos. There was shouting of orders which nobody could carry out. Wounded, able to walk, passed through the beams of the lamps, the red of their blood-stains, detached against the white of the bandages, presenting the sharpest of contrasts in the silvery glare. At the station, men who had died in the ambulances were dumped hurriedly in a plot of grass by the side of the roadway and covered with a blanket. Never was there seen such a bedlam! But on the main road the great convoys moved smoothly on as if held together by an invisible chain. A smouldering in the sky told of fires in Verdun. Another comrade and I were sent to get some wounded in the town.
From a high hill between B—— and Verdun I got my first good look at the bombardment. From the edge of earth and sky, far across the moorlands, ray after ray of violet-white fire made a swift stab at the stars. Mingled with the rays, now seen here, now there, the reddish-violet semi-circle of the great mortars flared for the briefest instant above the horizon. From the direction of this inferno came a loud roaring, a rumbling and roaring, increasing in volume—the sound of a great river tossing huge rocks through subterranean abysses. Every little while a great shell, falling in the city, would blow a great hole of white in the night, and so thundering was the crash of arrival that we almost expected to see the city sink into the earth.
Terrible in the desolation of the night, on fire, haunted by spectres of wounded men who crept along the narrow lanes by the city walls, Verdun was once more undergoing the destinies of war. The shells were falling along rue Maxel and on the citadel. A group of old houses by the Meuse had burnt to rafters of flickering flame, and as I passed them, one collapsed into the flooded river in a cloud of hissing steam.
In order to escape shells, the wounded were taking the obscure by-ways of the town. Our wounded had started to walk to the ambulance station with the others, but, being weak and exhausted, had collapsed on the way. They were waiting for us at a little house just beyond the walls. Said one to the other, ‘As-tu vu Maurice?’ and the other answered without any emotion, ‘Il est mort.’
The twenty-fourth was the most dreadful day. The wind and snow swept the heights of the desolate moor, seriously interfering with the running of the automobiles. Here and there, on a slope, a lorry was stuck in the slush, though the soldier passengers were out of it and doing their best to push it along, The cannonade was still so intense that, in intervals between the heavier snow-flurries, I could see the stabs of fire in the brownish sky. Wrapped in sheepskins and muffled to the ears in knitted scarves that might have come from New England, the territorials who had charge of the road were filling the ruts with crushed rock. Exhaustion had begun to tell on the horses; many lay dead and snowy in the frozen fields. A detachment of khaki-clad, red-fezzed colonial troops passed by, bent to the storm. The news was of the most depressing sort. The wounded could give you only the story of their part of the line, and you heard over and over again, ‘Nous avons reculé.’ A detachment of cavalry was at hand; their casques and dark blue mantles gave them a crusading air. And through the increasing cold and darkness of late afternoon, troops, cannons, horsemen, and motor-trucks vanished toward the edge of the moor where flashed with increasing brilliance the rays of the artillery.
The driving snow half blinded me. I fell into conversation with a wounded soldier who sat beside me—a chunky black poilu wounded in the arm. He wanted to know what I did en civil. ‘I am a pastry-cook,’ said he. ‘Oh, the good old days! I do the cooking and my wife keeps the shop. When this damned war is over, come and have a cake with me.’
I saw some German prisoners for the first time at T——, below Verdun. They had been marched down from the firing-line. Young men in the twenties for the most part, they seemed even more war-worn than the French. The hideous, helot-like uniform of the German private hung loosely on their shoulders, and the color of their skin was unhealthy and greenish. They were far from appearing starved; I noticed two or three who looked particularly sound and hearty. Nevertheless, they were by no means as sound-looking as the ruddier French.
The poilus crowded round to see them, staring into their faces without the least malevolence. At last—at last—voilà enfin des Boches! A little to the side stood a strange pair, two big men wearing an odd kind of grayish protector and apron over their bodies. Against a nearby wall stood a kind of flattish tank to which a long metallic hose was attached. The French soldiers eyed them with contempt and disgust. I caught the words, ‘Flamethrowers!’
The Verdun I saw on March 24, 1916, after a month of explosive shells and incendiary bombs, was almost half in ruin. Almost every house was bitten and pock-marked with fragments of shell. A large number, disemboweled by projectiles, had fallen into the street. Incendiary shells had done the greatest damage, burning great ugly areas in the close-packed streets.
Opening on rue Mazel, by some miracle untouched, was the gay shop window of a military tailor, and in the window stood a manikin dressed as a lieutenant. With hand raised to salute, of irreproachable tenue, the dummy surveyed the scene of desolation with inane eyes. Shells have scarred the steep walls of the citadel, and dug great craters in the enclosure at the summit. Many times in a day shells start new fires, which a brigade of territorials and police officers put out if they can. The smoke of the artillery hangs low on the buff-brown moor. There are Germans assaults at Malancourt and toward the Hauts de Meuse. But the great attack is over. Both sides know it. Verdun is beyond all question out of danger.
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