On February 21, 1916, the opening guns of the great German offensive against Verdun were fired. As it had been preceded by a number of small local attacks at various points along the line, the French High Command was not sure at first whether the movement on Verdun was to be a serious effort or only a feint, and no adequate reserves were on hand. The bombardment soon grew intense beyond all anticipations; the advanced French lines were buried under a deluge of high explosives, and the German infantry, following up on this advantage, were able to progress about a mile a day. By Saturday, the 26th, a Brandenburg regiment had reached and taken by storm the fort of Douaumont, To use the language of the French official reports, the situation was a ‘delicate’ one.
The famous ‘Iron Division’ was therefore selected to reëstablish the balance, other reserves being rushed in the meantime to Verdun from various parts of the French line. As all the available railroads were within the scope of the German long-range artillery, the men had either to march on foot or be carried in automobiles or motor-trucks.
When the German attack began, the author of the following article had been enjoying the customary week’s rest behind the French lines on the river Somme, in the north of France. He expected to return with his regiment to regular trench duty in a few days; but instead, the men were suddenly loaded on motor-trucks and rushed with scarcely a pause to Verdun. They arrived just in time to be thrown into the breach, joining in a fierce counter-attack side by side with the ‘Iron Division’ under General Balfourrier.
The crest of Haudromont, of which mention is made, is a continuation of that Douaumont ridge which has figured so largely in the bloody chronicles of the battle. The Thiaumont farm lies on the southern slopes of this same ridge.
No attempt has been made to eliminate from this stirring narrative the peculiar savor which the English language acquires in passing through the Gallic temperament. – The Editors
On the evening of February 26 the anxiety was great, north of Verdun. By a deluge of shells the Germans had crushed, during the day, the 85th Regiment, which was defending the crest of Haudromont. When night came the miserable remnants of this fine troop had been obliged to evacuate their positions. The gap was made; the route to Verdun lay open. On the same day, moreover, the Germans had reached, a little farther to the east, the ruins of the fort of Douaumont.
In the evening, taking into account his double victory, the German Emperor, by a famous telegram composed in lyrical terms, announced to his faithful subjects the imminent fall of the impregnable fortress, thereby arousing in their hearts tremendous enthusiasms and hopes without limit.
Among our chiefs the anxiety was great. As for us modest soldiers, we were in a complete ignorance of the true situation. We had passed the day in a sort of indifference and even in a certain degree of tranquility.
Having been brought before daybreak into a wood situated on the edge of a little valley, we were to relieve the troops that were fighting on that day. While waiting the moment to intervene we had, therefore, nothing to do except to contemplate the spectacle. It was truly interesting, and on our first day of real war, a war of movements and not one of positions only, we were having our fill. Two artillery regiments of ‘seventy-fives’ were drawn up in the open behind the crest which we were occupying. Since early in the morning the guns had been thundering with vigor. For what purpose, exactly, were these random volleys multiplied, making above our heads an uninterrupted rumble? Curtain fire? Fire of destruction? Fire against infantry? We never knew, and moreover we did not try to find out. At any rate, this firing annoyed the Boches, because soon their shells were coming thick and fast. We would hear the warning whistle, slow at first, then rapidly increasing in speed, and while the whistle was still above our heads we would see suddenly on the plain opposite a flame, then a great black cloud; then, a long time afterwards, there would reach us a tremendous concussion. We would see, also, the German shells plough up the crest; advance, retreat, strike to the right, to the left, but never reach the place where we knew our ‘seventy-fives’ were. And always these guns of ours, barking like angry dogs, replied to the long-drawn-out bellowing of the enemy’s guns.
We spent the day counting and sizing up the shots, and if it had not been for several shells which lost their way and landed in our ranks we would have been rather diverted by the spectacle.
Evening came. What were we to do? A serious question soon solved. We were to lie down in the open to guard the passage of a ravine leading to the Meuse.
This precaution was significant, but we understood nothing. Except for a section which was to mount guard, we pitched our tents and went to sleep in perfect tranquility.
Suddenly, at nine o’clock in the evening, alert! order to start. It seems that we are going to occupy or to dig a trench; no one knows exactly. To be sure, I overhear the commandant say, ‘We are going to relieve the Eighty-Fifth, or the Boches …’ The rest I lose. But decidedly I am in the dark; I understand nothing.
We march. A stretch interminable and lugubrious. We wind through a little valley, cross fields, pass through ravines; we follow along a railroad track; we stumble over the bodies of dead horses; we fall into holes made by exploding shells. But here are cannon, very near! These shells seem to be hunting for us. They explode to the right, to the left, ahead on the path. Fortunately they do not fall exactly where we are. A search-light sweeps the night. Grant that its rays may not fall upon us! Never have I lived through a night so sinister.
At last we arrive at Thiaumont farm. Now I realize our situation and I begin to see where we are going.
The march continues, grimly, slowly. We have not stopped yet, and it is two o’clock in the morning. We enter a ravine with steep wooded sides. Here we must go one by one, in Indian file, along an improvised path. What fatigue! We msut ascend, descend; extricate ourselves from the underbrush; hurry, so as not to lose the file; we must push back the branches which lash our faces. The darkness is complete. Our eyes are tired after three nights without sleep, and with trying in vain to see. They perceive vague outlines and at once construct from them the most fantastic objects.
Every instant rockets shoot up, throwing suddenly a light like that of the moon, which vanishes as quickly, making the night blacker than ever. Without interruption the cannon boom from every point of the horizon. Straight in front of us, at close range, numerous guns are firing. Some heavy enemy shells have just exploded at the mouth of the ravine. Are we protected by the abrupt slope, or is it only that the Boches are unskillful?
But a strange odor strikes our nostrils—one would say the odor of dead bodies. Where are we then? And what are those strange, indefinite patches which I see there at the edge of the path? I open my eyes wide; I make an effort to see; I approach. It seems to be a man stretched out there, his legs blown off, a corpse. A shiver of horror runs through my whole body. And that patch over there? Wait a minute; it moves! It is a wounded man lying on a litter, covered with a piece of canvas. And her is another, and there is still another, and over there lie still more. What are they doing here? Why is it that their presence does not frighten us, does not make our blood run cold? We do, indeed, suffer a little, but we put above all that the thought that we are here to defend France.
I continue on my way, but I have hardly ceased talking a few minutes with a friend when an explosion, even more terrific than those which have preceded, breaks loose. A sergeant comes running by, announcing that the Boches are advancing in columns of four. A Boche officer, no doubt to terrify us, cries out, ‘Paīonette au ganon!’ Then, all of a sudden, we see advancing other columns, massive, long, without limit, the end of which is lost in the depth of the wood behind the crest.
It is frightful, terrifying. A dreadful shiver shakes me. What can one do against that? But immediately every one has fixed his bayonet, has risen, and begins to shoot. I still see the slender line which we form, and the fury of the Boches which seems bound to wipe us out in the twinkling of an eye. But no one hesitates; no one looks back. It is wonderful. Erect, standing firmly on their legs, the men fire into the mass without aiming. The target is so close that it is not necessary to aim, it is only necessary to fire as quickly as possible. Every ball will find a mark.
The shooting is furious. With renewed vigor the machine-guns set to rattling, and the wood resounds again with their angry ticktack. The wave of our enthusiasm has reached the rear. Reinforcements, hastily demanded to replace our many killed and wounded, arrive, the men running, with backs bent, necks stretched forward, their bayonets threatening. All arrive with the same magnificent rush.
The combat drags on. Like a fine thread which looks frail but is made of an unbreakable metal, our line remains inviolate. Not a Boche reaches us. They were so proud when they burst forth, confident in their masses! But that assurance does not last long. Machine-guns in action make quick work of that sort of arrogance. Soon our ‘seventy-fives’ begin to take part. Then we see the monstrous beast waver and hesitate. Its scattered members draw together, pile up. At each deluge of fire they fall in rows; whole ranks tumble down, one after the other. At each volley of the ‘seventy-fives’ the column is pierced by a great hole. Little by little the mass crumbles; it seems to evaporate. The survivors scatter through the trees in different directions. Soon there remains nothing but the corpses and wounded which strew the ground.
The storm has passed. Life becomes normal again.
Toward half-past eleven, violent bombardment on our right. Not having been able to break through in front, the enemy is trying to outflank us. They fail. Again numerous dead Boches lie upon the ground.
Noon. The battle is going to take a different turn. Up to now we have been fighting, buoyed up by enthusiasm, carried away by the fever of action. Henceforth we are going to be left to ourselves, victims of a blind and fatal fury, like targets for the elements.
In the morning the Boches thought they had before them demoralized troops, which a snappy attack would suffice to drive back. They were mistaken. They were then going to make use of the same tactics that had been so successful against the Russians, the Servians, and even against us in preceding combats: that is, clean the way before them by a deluge of steel, then occupy the ground thus cleared.
At midnight exactly, the shells, which up to now had visited us rather hesitatingly, suddenly multiplied their powerful roar. Little by little their rhythm increased, and the situation became terrible. The enemy artillery hammered the ground methodically. Soon we were in the midst of a furnace. At first, when the explosions were taking place five or six hundred metres away, we were rather indifferent. But as the thick of the shell-bursts drew nearer, the crash of the explosions shook us through and through. Each time it was a grievous strain on our nerves. When I heard, in the distance, the powerful roar of a shell which was then about to arrive, my whole body would contract to resist the vibration of the explosion, and with each shell the suffering seemed greater and greater. Under a strain like this the most solid nerves cannot resist long. The blood rises to the head; the blood burns the body; the nerves no longer have the power of reaction.
They are frightful moments, long as centuries, when, in this method of firing, you feel that the next blow may be for you. What unspeakable horror to hear in the distance a dull bellow, slow at first, and then suddenly to recognize the special characteristics of a ‘personal’ shell; to know it is rapidly gaining speed; to hear the brutal crescendo of its shrieking whistle! You shrivel from head to foot, and you wait in agony for the final blow, the decisive crash. The shell explodes several feet away. The shock is terrible. There is an indescribable confusion, and too often, alas! the air is filled with clouds of dirt, pebbles, branches, arms and legs, pieces of flesh—a rain of blood. At the same moment a frightful concert arises. It is the cry of the wounded. You are overcome by an intense feeling of horror which possesses you for several seconds, and then quickly gives way to a blessed feeling of relief. The crisis is over. You can breathe for several moments. You can live again, — until the next shell.
This torture lasted without interruption from noon until two o’clock. It was especially intense at the end, because the bombardment had become extremely rapid, and in spite of our moral apathy we had a presentiment that we were approaching a crisis.
Sure enough, at two o’clock, sudden silence. Then, some minutes later, like a sheet rent in two, the firing breaks forth on our left. Their flank attacks are to be continued.
We were in doubt, however. For some time we had seen the Boches filing by, one by one, on the run, to mass themselves in a little hollow, sheltered from our bullets. We had organized a rifle contest, and had been shooting them on the wing.
The movement ceased. We were living through the anxious period of waiting which precedes a big blow. We did not have to wait long. All of a sudden a column, four deep, surged up from the hollow and advanced rapidly, at a threatening pace. But it did not last long. The column soon crumbled. It was over. To our great joy the survivors fled at full speed over the slope.
The attack had miscarried; it must be repeated. The bombardment began again more furiously than ever, and the agony lasted three long hours. We awaited the end, inert, tired out.
Five o’clock. Sudden calm. We hesitate, surprised a little, like the hare after the passage of the hunter. We raise our heads and inspect the horizon. Yes, it is really over. We crawl out of our holes and walk around a bit.
We climb down into the ravine at the bottom of which there runs a little stream, colored with blood. Never mind. We are thirsty. We drink of this water, and fill our canteens. We gather together our dead. Alas, there are many of them! The stretcher-bearers carry away the wounded. We deepen our shelters, and link them together in a sort of line of trenches. We must be ready to defy any other attack.
* * *
February 28. Night calm. From time to time lively shooting for a few moments, then quiet again.
Toward six o’clock I wake in a strange mood. My calm, my energy, my cold-bloodedness have disappeared. A vague and terrible apprehension seizes me. I see death before me. I fear the shells—my shell. Is this day going to be my last? Am I Going to die to-day? I am in a frightful state of depression.
I pass some time a prey to this dejection. Then, mechanically, I nibble a cracker, and suddenly I find myself calm, serene, tranquil—almost indifferent.
The morning passes. There is a little firing—once in a while an isolated shot, but that is all. I do not have a chance to see any game and my rifle remains silent. Have the Boches renounced Verdun? Alas, we are going to experience a terrible example of German obstinacy!
At ten o’clock exactly, alert! The air is astir. Quickly I jump into my hole. We must avoid surprises.
The shells are falling straight into the southern part of the ravine. At first they seem to be coming cautiously, hesitatingly, as though studying the ground. Then, all of a sudden, the artillerymen seem to have found the range they were looking for, and the tempest is let loose in all its violence. The great shells follow each other thick and fast. They explode simultaneously in every part of the ravine, and in the ravine of Thiaumont farm through which we came. The bombardment extends for a long way on our right, and we can see clearly the bombs falling on Douaumont, which that night is nothing but a heap of ruins.
In front of us the shells are tearing up the slope; they strike higher and higher; soon they reach us. The enemy is serving us with a varied assortment of shells: there are a few small ‘seventy-sevens’ which seem to be lost in the medley; there are ‘one=hundred-and-fives,’ ‘one-hundred-and-fifties;’ ‘marmites’ of two-hundred-and-ten; there is a wicked stew of ‘three-hundred-and-fives,’ ‘three-hundred-and-eighties,’ and ‘four-hundred-and-twenties.’ All these shake the earth to its very foundations, belching out enormous clouds of black smoke. After the bombardment I saw holes twenty-five metres wide made by a single shell. The great trench mortars throw into the air their deafening bombs which burst in round clouds. Then there come the ‘trains’—three, four, or even ten shells arriving at the same time, exactly as if invisible railroad trains were passing above us.
The blows succeed each other at an extremely rapid pace. A squall infernal breaks loose. The explosions, amplified still more by the immense echo from the wood and the ravines, produce a monstrous and frightful racket. We feel as if the earth were coming to an end.
Once again, our nerves are put on the rack. More quickly than on the day before, we feel the paroxysm of fatigue. We wait in a sort of apathy, thinking that the murderous concert will never come to an end.
Moreover, a horrible idea seizes me: we have been abandoned. Above our heads we recognize the shrill, angry whistle of our ‘seventy-fives.’ But where is our heavy artillery? We do not hear its bellow. We need heavy artillery to muzzle the Boches. The ‘seventy-fives’ are going to be put out of commission very quickly, as on the preceding days.
And the aviators. Where are our aviators? The Boche aeroplanes are continually above our heads. They come and go; disappear and reappear. At first there are two of them, then four, then five. Soon there are twelve. Never a French aeroplane! What are they doing—our aviators?
And always the bombardment increases. As for me, I feel sure that we are lost. We were the last resource, and now they are sacrificing us. We have fought bravely; we have done our duty; but our sacrifice is going to be in vain. We are lost. We are all going to be killed here.
However, in spite of these reflections, which certainly every one of us is making, nobody moves. We will die here at our post. Strong as is our belief that we are the last resource of our country, our feeling is just as strong that each one of us must do his duty.
At three o’clock a welcome diversion. Sudden silence. At once rifle-firing bursts forth again. Taking advantage of the bombardment, the enemy advances, but fortunately our rifles and machine-guns force them to turn back in double-quick time.
Now the bombardment begins again, and with it our torture, this time without interruption.
At five o’clock, sudden calm. The bombardment is over. Never had I, or any one else, seen anything like it.
We had suffered cruelly. Yet we had been almost at the edge of the bombarded zone. What, then, had been the situation of the poor unfortuantes in back of us, in the ravine, in the middle of the furnace? I have a chance to go and see. Men are needed to help bring up provisions. I go there, and I shall never be able to describe my vision of horror. But I shall try, just the same.
The sight was terrifying: the ground made me think of the yawning craters one sees in photographs representing the surface of the moon. The underbrush had been ripped and chopped. There remained of it nothing but shreds. The trees had all been cut off, smashed; not one did I see standing. They had been shaved clean off at different distances from the ground. Of the wood there remained nothing but an indescribable confusion of trunks and branches, broken, crushed, splintered.
But all this is only a setting for an atrocious scene. The ground is strewn with corpses. Poor mutilated bodies! To what odious profanations they have been submitted! Here is one which had been sheltered by a tree; the tree has been cut, and in falling the trunk has crushed him to the earth. This other one has had his head flattened, without a wound, as if it had been made of cardboard. That one there has an empty skull. That one over there has had his chest staved in, and his arms and legs, dissevered. Here are some bodies which have been hurled into the trees and are hanging there, pathetically, like old rags. Here and there are parts of human bodies—intestines clinging to the branches, from which the blood runs in a horrible dribble. Right here is a human trunk without a head, or arms, or legs, which is glued to a tree-trunk, flattened out and split open. Everywhere is an atrocious mixture of flesh and blood, over which floats a fetid, sickening vapor.
Are not the stretcher-bearers at hand? Undoubtedly they are coming. A body bars the path, naked; the legs, cut off, are lying ten feet further on. Suddenly, from the depth of the wood rises this lamentable cry, ‘Stretcher-bearers! Stretcher-bearers!’ The horror is intense. I would like to run to the aid of these poor unfortunates, but I must hasten, so as not to lose my line. With tightened heart I go away.
The march continues, slowly, and while fighting against a deep sleepiness which is overpowering and insurmountable, we keep knocking against the pack of the man in front of us; we stumble along, sometimes wading in mud and water. At last we come to a clearing. The companies which have preceded us are massed there, and already every one is asleep. I stretch myself out, and instantly I, too, am sleeping.
Four o’clock in the morning. I have hardly gone to sleep when some one wakes us up. I am frozen to the marrow. Risen to my feet, I listen to the commandant, who is telling my captain where we are to go. We move on. We pour into the ravine, which is to become, a few hours later, ‘the ravine of death.’ Here is the path, and now we stop a moment.
I take advantage of the halt to inspect the position. There in front of me lies the ridge of Haudromont farm, where we must take the trenches. It is a massive ridge, perfectly round; one of those hills which are the despair of the infantry soldier. He sees the crest ten paces in front of him, then he sees it grow farther and farther away as fast as he approaches it. This ridge, moreover, is partly surrounded by deep ravines. The enemy can cut us down whenever he likes. Nevertheless, we must get there. …
I do not lose any time on these depressing thoughts, because there is no time to waste. I look. I have before me the unmistakable signs of a precipitate retreat—abandoned wagons, great mortars, gun-carriages, cases of ammunition; a dead horse, and another living one, pure white, which is wandering around looking mournful, hopeless; a few steps away some corpses; at a glance, in the half light, I can count at least thirty of them. There they lie, stretched out stiff and grinning, in all sorts of positions.
We have climbed the slope. The Germans are waiting for us. They have forced back the Eighty-Fifth, and the words of the Commandant come back to me: ‘We are going to relieve the Eighty-Fifth, or the Boches—’ In an instant I understand it all. There is no longer any one ahead of us.
We march, preceded by a patrolling company, the captain at its head. Suddenly he is stopped by the cry, ‘Halte, rentez vous!’ A bayonet stab. Forward, march! After that, nothing. To the right, to the left, the same thing happens. Our forces have come into contact; the battle is under way.
A bombardment breaks loose. We keep on climbing, and we begin to lose some men. After four stops we reach the line which we are to occupy, a little beyond the crest of the hill. We have been surprised by that rapid contact, but every one is ready at once. We attack the line. We enter the wood, firing as we go, and install ourselves definitely two hundred metres from its edge.
At once we set to work by twos—one man to dig and the second to observe and fire.
Two red rockets shoot up. The Germans are asking for reinforcements. While waiting for them they send us several shots from here and there, to which we reply copiously. On several occasions they even try to advance. At such times we hear a series of grunts, for all the world like animals, as they rush forth, mutually encouraging each other. We quickly calm their bellicose manifestations, and they hastily go back where they came from, dodging from tree to tree. More than one is struck down on the way. Their infantry is powerless. Their ‘seventy-sevens’ begin to take part, but the first shells fall on their own ranks. Immediately two white rockets shoot up. ‘Lengthen the range!’ This time the shells go too far. We are protected by a curve of the ground. The ‘seventy-sevens’ can do nothing against us.
About an hour goes by, interspersed with various episodes. At nine o’clock our attention is aroused. The bombardment breaks out again violently. It is like the crackling of hail. The machine-guns are in action and are firing at full speed. Above my head, on both sides of me, the bullets whistle, hum, rattle, and rebound. There is an infernal uproar, multiplied infinitely by the echoes of the wood and the ravines which reverberate in deafening waves. The enemy reinforcements have just arrived. It is a beautiful sight. We are all standing upright, officers and men, perfectly calm. Never have I felt calmer, nor so much the master of myself. I shoot into the heap with a rugged, keen joy. I am having my revenge. I want to kill them, and I feel that my bullets are entering their flesh. What glorious moments! What unspeakable delight! Ah, but it is good to live through moments such as these!
The bombardment continues. Only too soon do we learn that such a man has been killed, such a one wounded. Each time it causes a sad tightening of the heart—but that lasts only a second. We do not have time to stop to think. Besides, to speak frankly, we are out of our senses, we are carried away by the fight.
But soon we see an undulation in the ranks of the Boches, then a disbanding, then, all of a sudden, nothing, except a heap of dead and wounded into which we fire to finish them off.
I walk about here and there. Our dead are still in their places, — and they are numerous. An unspeakable horror seizes me. What scenes must have taken place here during the bombardment! Nevertheless, these brave men have remained till the end at the post to which duty assigned them.
And over there in the ravine our colonel stood continually, without moving, without shelter, superb, giving to all of us an example of courage and of contempt for danger.
I feel surge up within me an intense and implacable anger toward those who, consciously, unchained all this atrocity, and with this frightful rage tearing at my heart I walk away from the dreadful scene.
* * *
February 29. Night calm. During the morning the Boches try once more to advance, but we are continually on the lookout and their attempt is it vain.
From now on it is finished. The enemy has been vanquished by our strength. The hole which the Boches had made has been filled in. The route to Verdun is barred. Halt there, you Boches, the Eighth Regiment has arrived!
During the day a rumor spreads. We are to be relieved this evening. We are really exhausted. For eight days, ever since we were brought up in automobiles, we have lived through an uninterrupted series of fatigues and privations. We have spent five consecutive nights without sleep; eight days without sufficient food—five of them practically fasting. We have undergone three bombardments and have delivered, during three days and four nights, desperate and ferocious attacks. What wonderful powers of resistance in the human body! There is not a sick man among us. But the fatigue is great. We have borne all sorts of hardships and privations in their most extreme forms. As we look at each other we see, under a thick layer of dirt, drawn features, sunken eyes, faces grown frightfully thin.
But we have one great consolation. The Eighth Regiment—our regiment—receives the personal congratulations of General Joffre. We have held on ‘like moths,’ to use the term of the colonel. We would have held on till death if it had been required.
At midnight a regiment comes to relieve us. It is the One-Hundred-and-Sixtieth—a crack regiment.
We go away satisfied, proud of having done our duty bravely. We regret nothing. Yet, as we descend the hill, our hearts tighten. We are all thinking of the comrades who lie sleeping there, close by, keeping their last watch, and it is with our hearts filled with tender memories of them that we melt away, without saying a word, into the bluish night of the ravine.
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