Silence at Verdun

How a lush countryside came to resemble the surface of the moon

Infantrymen near Verdun, in northeastern France, use holes made by artillery shells as their shelter. (Associated Press)

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 …

The march continues, grimly, slowly. We have not stopped yet, and it is 2 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 must 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 …

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 500 or 600 meters 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 …

We had suffered cruelly. Yet we had been almost at the edge of the bombarded zone. What, then, had been the situation for the poor unfortunates 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.

Originally titled "With the Iron Division at Verdun"