Ch 9: The Attack on Verdun

The persistent and heavy casualty lists from the army of the Crown Prince, during his abortive attempts to isolate Verdun, were causing much dissatisfaction in Germany. "What had he accomplished?" The pivot of the war frontier but no longer the most vital postern between France and Germany was a difficult point to select for an offensive. But a stupendous blow at Verdun would divert the maximum of French strength from any sectors likely to be chosen by the Allies for a 1916 offensive. The moral effect of success would be great, and though the strategic value was minimised by miles of precautionary field works created by the French to bar the way across west Champagne, the reduction of France's most important fortress would add lustre to the Hohenzollern halo.
   During January, 1916, continuous fog and sleet spoiled air reconnaissance, but reports poured in to prove increased activity in Belgium, while the major preparations of the Fifth Army before Verdun were completed before the danger was discovered by the French staff. Two weeks before the blow fell some portents were heeded, but the decisive strength behind the effort was not anticipated. A cloud of new war planes prevented the French fliers from making a careful survey during the few opportunities for visibility, but accurate reports of massed batteries led the French Staff to improve the roads from the south.
   Verdun, the picturesque citadel city of the Meuse, gave its name to the great circle of modern forts and outer perimeter of ultra-modern field works, which had hitherto frowned down ideas for direct attack. Its people were still asleep, its garrison watchful, when a sharp staccato of air-craft guns was drowned by a rolling cataclysm of sound that sent people flocking to the street. The staff knew the meaning of the convulsion. Their cars dashed to the main circle of fortified hills where the panorama showed a curving line of eruption as of miniature volcanoes marking the confines of the outer front.
   A great air attack was delivered at dawn, in which every type of air craft, from Zeppelins to Fokkers, bombed French bases and communications, damaged bridges, and destroyed observation balloons and aeroplanes. It was the prelude for the concentrated roar of nearly two thousand German guns which opened fire from the Argonne to St. Mihiel. Long range shells played havoc with the main communications, but the great fury of the bombardment raged from batteries massed on a complete arc of twenty-five miles a titanic maw of artillery, stretching from Melancourt eastward across the Meuse to Etain, its wide-open jaws ready to close upon the Verdun perimeter. In perfect alignment the grip tightened on the outer positions. Fraction by fraction the range was increased as the great curve of destruction contracted slowly on its prey; yard by yard the ground was systematically pulverised as the cascade of shells closed in.
   The French artillery had to be distributed on a wide front, against any sector of which the German reserves could be hurled on the crumbling defences too swiftly to permit effective regrouping of batteries. Toward evening, the wide-flung outworks of Verdun's first lines and their defenders were practically obliterated, and just before dark the expected attack burst on the northern sectors between the Meuse and Ornes. The German masses advanced slowly to occupy and reconstruct the devastated trenches, marching behind the wall of shells which now moved within the outer lines. But some dazed and half-stunned defenders still clung desperately to the churned debris. A few machine guns had survived the fury of the shelling, and an incredibly deliberate fire checked the complacency of the German advance and reaped some toll before the enemy fixed bayonets and ended the amazing defence of men who knew that they could not be reinforced through the shell curtain but who refused to surrender.
   At Hertebois, the pitiful remnants of a regiment were rallied. Dragging out machine guns that had been hidden in a shattered wood, they fought back so desperately that the German attack broke, reformed twice, again to be repulsed, and actually withdrew after dark to enable their guns to recommence. At the Bois des Caures, in the centre, the survivors of the famous Chasseurs from Nancy resisted from shell holes through the entire night, and fought back successive assaults. Farther west, at Haumont, other decimated companies, driven from their first trenches, fought from the concrete redoubt and the broken houses of the village. At first pushed back slowly, they were miraculously stiffened by gunners who crept on hands and knees through the barrage, retrieved a third of the silenced and partly buried field guns, and brought them into action at point-blank range.
   Next day, the crescent of German shells which was triumphantly contracting on the main positions was obliged to expand to the outer works, thus affording the main garrison further time to reorganise, while the front line of heroes again bore the brunt. These amazing forces were further reduced during the second day, but continued their resistance until the end, which approached in the late afternoon. Outnumbered twenty to one, the garrison of Haumont was gassed, tortured by Flammenwerfer, and the pitiful remnants were finally bayoneted amid the ruins of the houses in which they had made their Spartan defence. Their annihilation isolated Brabant on the river, and exposed the dank at Caures. Here Colonel Driant, son-in-law of Boulanger and Deputy for the Department, again and again rallied his men in the final defence on the front and the left flank.
   When his command was practically enveloped, with the last machine gun he and a sergeant held a narrow gap down which the survivors withdrew, a handful passing safely through the barrage. Erect and dauntless, the Colonel stood alone, facing the approaching horde, until pierced by the bayonets of the enraged enemy. A more chivalrous foe might have spared a hero whose courage has not been surpassed in history.
   At Hertebois, on the right, helped by a new field battery, the defence was maintained until annihilation at four o'clock on the 23rd. The relentless jaw of shells now again closed in, but the matchless heroes of Verdun had held the line with their bodies for thirty-six hours at Hertebois for fifty-seven hours thus gaining the respite that saved the fortress.
   The defence of pitiful hundreds against a reinforced army had localised the sectors chosen for the main assault, and had thus enabled the surprised higher command to organise for defence, and bring up shells, supplies, and reserves before the massed guns again closed on the second line. Fresh troops and guns were soon concentrated on the main strong line below the gap the defences before Douaumont west across the Cote du Poivre while reinforcements which reached the intermediate front Ornes to Samogneux fought from woods and shell holes to delay the advance. Their left wing was soon shattered, then the right, so that Ornes was lost. The centre was then enveloped and smashed. Here prisoners were spared and some quarter was given.
   The Germans were now holding a black gap of destruction stretching across from Brabant to Ornes, four miles deep.
   General Herr had rallied the Verdun garrison magnificently, but he had few reserves and could get no help from General Roques, who was facing heavy pressure on the east front, or from General Humbert, heavily engaged on the famous line west of the Meuse, which for seventeen months had foiled the efforts of the Crown Prince. But he grouped new guns to strengthen the position-batteries on the threatened sectors and this artillery pounded the captured lines and inflicted severe losses on the storming elements of the thirteen new divisions which von Haeseler, "the Devil of Metz," had grouped for the general assault.
   The St. Mihiel salient had long curtailed direct communications south from the fortress. The main railroad was available only to Bar le Due, thirty-five miles southwest of Verdun. The line and road from St. Menehould, approaching from the west, were now dominated by heavy howitzers. Road transport was the only solution. Ten thousand skilled men were placed on the roads from Bar le Due. Requisitioned by telephone, every available motor lorry on the Champagne front was loaded with men and supplies and rushed up to the garrison. On the second day, 4,000 motor vehicles were organised and working on the lines of communication in defined relays at nine and a half miles per hour, from rail-head to the fortress. At fixed intervals gangs dashed out, filled in ruts and maintained the surface, and by a clever system of controls the procession never halted. The national highway was reserved for loaded cars going up; the local highway linked minor roads for ambulances and empty lorries to get down. If a car broke down, it was ditched by its successor.
   With the upper curve of the Brabant-Ornes perimeter broken in, the French maintained a straight line across the gap four miles north of the fortress. On this narrowed front between Bras and Fort Douaumont, the German guns concentrated their fury until February 26th. During one period two thousands shells a minute were thrown on this five-mile strip. It was a flaming inferno.
   At 3:00 am. on the 25th, when matters were critical, General De Castelnau, chief of the General Staff, arrived. The main line from the river to Douaumont was quivering under the deluge. The defenders were dazed, and massed attacks were being repulsed with difficulty. The hours of the stronghold seemed numbered. The city was being heavily bombarded, and General Dubois, the military governor, had arranged for the evacuation of the civil population. But the place was crowded with wounded who were being ruthlessly slaughtered. The American and British ambulances were aiding the French, and working day and night to remove the thousands of disabled to a safe zone. Surgeons, stretcher bearers and drivers all paid a heavy toll, forty per cent of some units, men and cars, being destroyed on the roads as the guns closed in.
   De Castelnau called up General Petain, who was placed in supreme command of the central armies. He arrived during the afternoon with heavy reinforcements to build up the special Eleventh Army and save the fortress. The defenders of the advanced lines on the eastern outworks of the Woevre were already being drawn back under pressure, to give them a chance to escape should the fortress fall. The Samogneux-Ornes line was battered to pieces, and the first report to the new commander announced the loss that afternoon of the important hill which dominated the centre of the main line. It had been captured after seven desperate assaults, and tons of projectiles were falling on the ridges upon which rested a section of the main ring of the Verdun forts.
   But the famous Twentieth Corps under Balfourier, which started off eighteen minutes after orders were received, was now arriving. Next morning, two of its regiments dashed through the German barrage, as the Kaiser joined his son to watch a triumphant assault over the debris where the French lines had once rested. The main blow was delivered on the Douaumont ridge, where parts of the position could be swept from the hill captured the previous day, but the finest troops of France, clinging to shell holes and crumbled redoubts, hurled back the picked storm-masses which surged up the smoking ridges in successive waves.
   Early on the 27th, the approaches to Douaumont were again attacked by the Brandenburgers, but the Morocco division stood like a wall of steel against the "Ironclads" before the village. The armoured fortress crowning the height to the southeast had been dismantled after the lessons of Liege, and its guns were distributed in field fortifications in its rear. It was an important observation post, and rounded off the French line, but it proved a perfect target for the heavy howitzers. Huge gas shells reduced the garrison to nine hundred men, and the machine-gun detachments were finally buried alive in its crushed redoubts.
   All approaches to the fortress were closed by shell fire, and the isolated defenders soon were half suffocated in the underground chambers when the Twenty-fourth Brandenburg Infantry crept up a path through a thicket on the farther side, and entered by a broken embrasure near the northeast gate. Many of the garrison were bayoneted; the rest surrendered.
   The prize, heralded around the world, proved an empty shell. Except for the disappearing guns retained in the turrets, now utterly demolished, the real artillery of Douaumont, in reserve field works, was soon cutting off all support from its captors. The fort became an island in a sea of French and German shell-burst. The Brandenburgers received food and water only at night, delivered by men who crept down along the shell-swept path. And the French held the small western redoubt on the flank of their lines of trenches defending the village.
   Douaumont village was attacked persistently from February 27th to March 4th. Again and again every man of the Twentieth Corps re-earned the immortal honours which had already been won in Artois and Champagne. Hour by hour the trenches crumbled; each bombardment was punctuated by massed attacks, but the defenders hung on. "Our regiments will die but will not give a yard without orders," was the command and motto.
   Wearied by the failure of the costly frontal attacks, the Germans now reached for the flank west of the Meuse. Obviously, from the ground gained on the east bank, the original French lines west from the river could be enfiladed. After seven massed attacks, the advanced trenches of the line running from the Meuse west to Champagne were a shambles, and the right wing of the Third French Army withdrew to its main positions, conforming with the front north of Verdun across the Hautes de Meuse the high rocky defile through which the river curves its way northward.
   The French were now consolidated on ridges only five miles from the key positions on the communications from the Argonne to Verdun. Picked regiments held the heights of Mort Homme for thirty-three days of furious assault, with only one pause. As the front was partially protected by a curve in the river, massed attacks were also delivered farther west on Haucourt Hill, in an effort to gain the rear of the "Dead-Man" positions. Thousands of troops were slaughtered on both sides, but the Germans gained only a trench element and 600 prisoners. The pressure on the main sectors north of Verdun was also continued, and the fury of the assault developed farther eastward, with a special effort to envelop the fortress and village of Vaux, which at first failed.
   With its curve flattened and its grip widened, and with added weight on its claws, the relentless arc of artillery was closing in on both sides, while masses of troops tried to force weak points developed by the guns.
   On March 4th, the battle approached the climax of its intensity. The enemy first pushed in on both sides of Douaumont, enveloping the village. Losing heavily, the garrison cut its way out. Three companies attempting to harry this retirement were counter attacked, but the hand-to-hand fight was ended by a deluge of shells from German batteries which impartially tore up friend and foe as the French dug in south of the breach.
   The claw that was reaching west of the Meuse made constant progress over the defences toward Melancourt, but the tactics of envelopment failed on account of the stubborn resistance maintained by the French, curved around the Mort Homme and west on Hill 304 above Avoucourt. On March 12th, the weight of four German divisions on a three-mile front finally pushed men over a trail of corpses up two ravines from Forges and farther west, penetrating the French lines at both points and gaining the front trenches between them. But every effort of the assailants to join forces in the rear in order to cut out the high ground between them, or to work along the rear of the Mort Homme, failed.
   On the 16th, a third wedge was driven in farther west, but again the point was blunted and checked, and these salients restricted the target for the German batteries.
   Sheer weight on the last wedge, sustained for two weeks, spread its area, and the front before Melancourt was evacuated late on March 31st. An airman by moonlight saw scores of batteries closing over to follow up this advantage, so before daylight the French troops were moved silently back to strong reserve positions on the south bank of the small Forges River. It was on April 1st, rather significantly, that the Crown Prince delivered his "surprise" which was to break and turn the stubborn line to the Meuse in order to outflank Verdun. Thousands of shells blasted the empty French trenches the troops silent and unscathed across the Forges. Then five massed lines moved to the attack. Not a shot was fired until the Germans were well over the crest of the evacuated position. Then the untouched French unmasked a murderous fire, throwing the enemy into confusion. They bravely tried to cling to shell craters, but were too exposed, and finally fled, batteries above Bethincourt tearing their flank. Two thousand dead marked this attempt.
   The centre above Verdun, further flattened by a week of desperate assaults, was still unbroken, and for seven days picked storm-troops under von Cornitz littered the ground east of Douaumont with thousands of dead, in a fruitless effort to break in around Vaux. When they paused from exhaustion, a counter attack drove them from part of the Caillette wood. On April 3rd a desperate battle with entirely fresh German divisions raged on a front of thirty-three miles. On the eastern sectors, the claw made a definite advance below Vaux. One force broke in on the reorganised line between Vaux and Douaumont and created a dangerous situation until the marvellous "75" guns closed in and, regardless of losses, delivered a hurricane of fire at close range. Then a famous infantry regiment, trained by Foch, swept up with the bayonet and ejected the Germans, firing not a single shot in the operation.
   Fighting ebbed and flowed, tons of steel raining on the French, until April 20th when, after a quieter night, drum fire burst on the entire front at daylight, and the afternoon saw waves of gray again breaking at every vulnerable point on the left centre and right. The high tide of the battle was outlined by mounds of corpses and by a dozen minor salients held by utterly exhausted German troops, and night was marked by comparative silence, both sides being incapable of further effort. But as reveille sounded, Petain gave the signal, and impetuous French reserves sprang forward in a restrained counter-offensive which ejected the enemy from seven salients, and on the entire front the line was straightened.
   On April 29th three simultaneous assaults on all sectors were repulsed. Further attacks were attempted, but even supermen have a limit, and the German masses now broke and recoiled at the first burst of French fire. On April 30th aviators reported that many German batteries were retiring. The battle, continuous for more than nine weeks, was lapsing sullenly, and despite awful losses the French front and spirit remained unbroken. At night now star shells revealed only gruesome fatigue parties collecting the German dead who littered the landscape like the gray rocks of the Brittany coast.
   The German casualty lists were appalling. With what Napier called the "mechanical courage of close-order discipline" perfectly developed, masses of troops again and again had swept at practically impregnable French positions. The dead were piled in thousands. Sanguinary combats had raged on the steep defiles along the Meuse. Miles lower down, during the height of this fighting, the writer saw the river thickly polluted with the gruesome debris of these battles, especially after the Germans launched mines to drift against the French barriers, or when concentrated fire smashed loaded pontoons in costly attempts to turn flanks on the banks.
   It often took all night to collect the thousands of German dead. For sanitary reasons, few could object to the cremation of the fallen; but the mind revolts at the system which gathers the gallant dead like carrion, strips off the uniform, and wires the stark forms in bundles which are stacked in the district morgue and transported by periodic trains to the furnaces of the different army groups. Words fail in dealing with the direct evidence of foul materialism which used its science to extract by-products from the bodies of its heroes, and which changed its kilns for incineration into "corpse utilisation" factories, where bone and fat were separated and reduced to economic terms to maintain the Kultur which claims "God with us" and inscribes "Deutsche Treue" on the escutcheon of Europe. This horror, reported first from the Verdun front, was confirmed by a captured order to the Sixth Army on the Somme front.

Order to the 6th Army on the Somme Front

   The British army was now taking over the lines in Artois and Picardy, releasing French forces to repair the Verdun losses. Having underestimated the British efforts, the German Staff now found that a formidable menace was growing on their western centre. At all costs, therefore, it seemed necessary to smash Verdun in order to establish direct communications from Metz and dominate the Meuse-Moselle watershed before the British could attack.
   On May 7th, General Petain was promoted to command the entire southern line, and General Nivelle, the half-English hero of Alsace, leader of the Seventh Corps on the Ourcq, was selected to control the Central armies, with Mangin in local command of Verdun. This day was marked by a new artillery attack, with the greatest weight on the east wing. The artillery retirement reported earlier was for regrouping, and the German assaults were soon falling more fiercely than ever. Their weight finally told. The line crept in well below Vaux; the grip on Fort Douaumont was firmly re-established on June 1st, and at Fort Vaux held by Major Raynal and the 101st Infantry over 8,000 howitzer shells crashed in on turret and battlement until only 130 men were left. At night, 260 survivors from the trenches southeast crept into the fort, which next day was surrounded. With this garrison, reduced daily and without water, the Major resisted until the night of the 6th, when he and the survivors crept through the main sewer and escaped. The eastern claw had now gripped the Souville plateau and pushed in the French right to Fleury and Forts de Souville and Tavannes on the inner line, which barred the railroad from Metz. Tons of steel daily smashed the defences at Fleury, where for five weeks a persistent but fruitless effort was made to break in and take the forts in the rear. On July 11th, with new Bavarian divisions, eight tremendous assaults were delivered along the entire eastern half of the crescent. The defenders of Fleury were practically obliterated and a gap was forced through the reserve lines.
   An engineer commander, leaving Verdun in his car, saw the German flood suddenly pouring down the road that led behind the forts and to the city. Under a hail of shots he went back for machine gun detachments, which checked the rush until reserves arrived.
   For four days the Germans battled desperately to enlarge their thrust which was reaching the vitals of the fortress called by the Crown Prince "the Heart of France." British victories on the Somme now made the royal general desperate for a decision, and he poured out his men like water until their endurance failed. Yet during these attacks the French sent three divisions to the Somme.
   Forces specially selected and directed by General Mangin severely modified the German advance below Fleury on July 15th. Frontal attacks, regardless of cost, on the two threatened forts, were also repulsed. The Germans had occupied 120 square miles of territory and had captured over 40,000 prisoners. The French losses were nearly 200,000 men, but the Germans had lost over 500,000.
   Mangin now decided upon a surprise stroke against an evidently over-strained enemy. On August 1st the forces of the Crown Prince were attempting to push in well south of Tavannes, when the French suddenly counter attacked toward Fleury and farther north, where they temporarily broke the German centre and pushed it back toward Douaumont. When the first impact was checked, the French dug in and for sixteen days fought on until Fleury was theirs again and the irregular front was straightened on its old intermediate defence line. The huge drain of shells for the Somme had quieted the batteries attacking Verdun, and the increasing success of the British in September drew several German divisions westward. Nivelle and Mangin now prepared another surprise, with three divisions led by De Salines, De Passaga, and De Lardemelle. The troops first went to Chalons to recuperate and rehearse every detail of attack on huge plans marked in replica on the grounds. On October 24th the attack was delivered.
   The French had definitely located seventy German batteries on the five-mile front selected. Massed guns suddenly concentrated their fire and crippled this artillery and then blew definite gaps in the German lines. Just before midday, in a dense fog, the French divisions dashed forward, following their carefully rehearsed tactics. On the left, a division aimed due north to gain the Bras-Douaumont road and to swing around with its right on the fort. The next division the centre aimed between that fortress and Vaux, its wings to spread to the outworks left and right. The third division aimed south of Vaux.
   The French had constructed the largest siege howitzer in history, a greater weapon than "Busy Bertha." As the attacking lines approached their objectives, this dropped its projectiles on the German lines. Four shells hit Fort Vaux and it was temporarily evacuated. Fort Douaumont was soon on fire and filled with fumes. Von Luchow, von Luttwitz, and the doughty Reservist, von Zwehl, had been utterly baffled by the scientific tactics of the French. With huge forces they had attempted similar things and failed. Superior numbers had lost, and elan and initiative were now to win.
   Driving forward in three protected wedges, the French joined forces behind their objectives, and thus cut out great sections of the enemy's lines. A huge forceps of men, Colonials on the left, the French divisions in the centre, literally clamped out the Douaumont ridge, debouching through ravines and woods on the west and east. On the right, the other division broke through east of Vaux and turned the line there. It was a dramatic coup which had fully succeeded before dark a trident pushed in to encompass two strongholds.
   A battalion of rapid Morocco infantry, "cheval a pieds," led by Major Nicols, fought their way to Fort Douaumont. A party of volunteers led by Lieutenant Dumont crept under the wire into the blazing fort. Machine guns were smashed by their hand grenades, and the depleted garrison of dazed Brandenburgers dropped their rifles and surrendered.
   Vaux was gripped also, but fought on stubbornly. Next day, the lines west of Douaumont were rolled up from the flank and occupied to within two miles of the Meuse. The French moved their guns up, reinforced their exhausted troops, and exerted steady pressure for five days. Then Andlauer’s division stormed over the Vaux plateau; Arlabosse's division crept through the Fumin wood, and the enemy fled from Vaux fort.
   The tricolor was hoisted on November 2nd a dramatic scene with the French musicians ironically playing the "Chant de Depart" amid a cascade of German shells. The ugly defences of the village were crushed on the 4th. An attack southeast toward the Woevre and west to the Meuse restored to France in two weeks the entire main line a full negation of Germany’s nine months of bloody effort.
   The Crown Prince had now to re-establish and hold the outer line of the original perimeter with six divisions, and he held in reserve only five more, "resting" from the Somme. Haig's pressure had told.
   Three French divisions of Verdun veterans and a new division went back to Chalons to train for the final coup. Air photographs and maps made reproduction of the front possible. Each unit rehearsed its part, and on December 16th the scientific offensive was launched to final victory pushing out a six-mile curve over solidly fortified ridges to a depth of two miles. In three days the earlier victory became a triumph.
   In the revenge at Verdun the French captured 26,668 Germans; 115 guns were taken in three December days. In the area of woods and ridges, German authorities estimate that there were expended in shells 1,350,000 tons of steel, sowing an average of 50 tons an acre. No less than 42 divisions had passed through the ordeal of sacrifice to win a halo for their Crown Prince, who was given supreme command of the entire group of armies on the Aisne, of Champagne, and Verdun, while his septuagenarian mentor, his lesser generals, and also von Deimling, were retired in disgrace as scapegoats for the sanguinary failure. In his Verdun command some ex-members of his infamous "Club der Harmlosen" had truly earned their promotion.
   On the eve of this victory, General Nivelle was promoted to commander in chief of the French Army in the field; and after the wear of over two years of active service General Joffre, as field marshal, took over the administrative control of the new era of military history opened by the Battle of the Somme.
   In June, 1917, the famous Mort Homme, held by dismounted cavalry, and Hill 304 were lost by a sudden German coup. The French answer was complete. Inviting the American officers to witness their triumph and learn actual conditions, the French made an impetuous drive on both sides of the Meuse on August 20th, with the troops of Fondclair, Franchette and Martin. Von Dietrich was driven from Mort Homme. The French put their front on the important points of the original line as it stood in 1916, except at Ornes. In the Legion Etrangere, Americans again fought and died, but inspired by the knowledge that they were no longer individual representatives of their country's conscience, but allies in a common cause. And General Pershing greeted the wounded as they were carried back, proud and content, part of the first regiment to win the Legion of Honour Cross.

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