- 'The Great Days of Verdun'
- by Henry Sheahan
- from his book 'A Volunteer Poilu' 1916
An American Volunteer Amubalance Driver
original color photo of volunteer American ambulance drivers at Verdun
Early in February we were called to Bar-le-Duc, a pleasant old city some distance behind Verdun. Several hundred thousand men were soon going to be killed and wounded, and the city was in a feverish haste of preparation. So many thousand cans of ether, so many thousand pounds of lint, so many million shells, so many ambulances, so many hundred thousand litres of gasoline. Nobody knew when the Germans were going to strike.
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 reconnoitering 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 troops, 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 18th 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 sunlit 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 aeroplanes.
"Nom d'un chien, il y'en a plusieurs," said one of the Frenchmen, pointing out four, five, seven, nine aeroplanes. One seemed to hang immobile over the barrack yard. I fancy we all had visions of what would happen if a bomb hit the near-by 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 another. 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 of Verdun during the battle
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 aeroplanes hovered overhead, then slowly melted away into the sky to the south- east. 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.
original color photos of part of the Verdun citadel
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 from 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 narrow 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 aertères. 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 and 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 center 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.
The next day, at noon, we were ordered to go to M------, and at 12.15 we were in convoy formation in the road by the barracks wall. 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.
roads and villages near Verdun
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 geographical 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 though several villages, being greeted in every one with the inevitable error, AnglaisI 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 knick-knacks 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 bloodstains, 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.
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 semicircle 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 specters 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 Mazel 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, "II est mort."
The 24th 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 reculés." 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.
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 near-by 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, "Flame-throwers!"
original color photo of volunteer American ambulance drivers at Verdun
I do not know what we should have done at Verdun without Lieutenant Roeder, our mechanical officer. All the boys behaved splendidly, but Lieutenant Roeder had the tremendously difficult task of keeping the Section going when the rolling-stock was none too good, and fearful weather and too constant usage had reduced some of the wagons to wrecks. It was all the finer of him because he was by profession a bacteriologist. Still very young, he had done distinguished work. Simply because there was no one else to attend to the mechanical department, he had volunteered for this most tiresome and disagreeable task. There is not a single driver in Section II who does not owe much to the friendly counsel, splendid courage, and keen mind of George Roeder.
A few miles below Verdun, on a narrow strip of meadowland between the river and the northern bluffs, stood an eighteenth-century château and the half-dozen houses of its dependents. The hurrying river had flooded the low fields and then retreated, turning the meadows and pasturages to bright green, puddly marshes, malodorous with swampy exhalations. Beyond the swirls and currents of the river and its vanishing islands of pale-green pebbles, rose the brown, deserted hills of the Hauts de Meuse. The top of one height had been pinched into the rectangle of a fortress; little forests ran along the sky-line of the heights, and a narrow road, slanting across a spur of the valley, climbed and disappeared.
The château itself was a huge, three-story box of gray-white stone with a slate roof, a little turret en poivrière at each corner, and a graceless classic doorway in the principal façade. A wide double gate, with a coronet in a tarnished gold medallion set in the iron arch- piece, gave entrance to this place through a kind of courtyard formed by the rear of the château and the walls of two low wings devoted to the stables and the servants' quarters. Within, a high clump of dark- green myrtle, ringed with muddy, rut-scarred turf, marked the theoretical limits of a driveway. Along the right-hand wall stood the rifles of the wounded, and in a corner, a great snarled pile of bayonets, belts, cartridge-boxes, gas-mask satchels, greasy tin boxes of anti-lice ointment, and dented helmets. A bright winter sunlight fell on walls dank from the river mists, and heightened the austerity of the landscape. Beyond a bend in the river lay the smoke of the battle of Douaumont; shells broke, pin-points of light, in the upper fringes of the haze.
original color photo of volunteer American ambulance drivers at Verdun
The château had been a hospital since the beginning of the war. A heavy smell of ether and iodoform lay about it, mixed with the smell of the war. This effluvia of an army, mixed with the sharper reek of anaesthetics, was the atmosphere of the hospital. The great rush of wounded had begun. Every few minutes the ambulances slopped down a miry byway, and turned in the gates; tired, putty-faced hospital attendants took out the stretchers and the nouveaux clients; mussy bundles of blue rags and bloody blankets turned into human beings; an overworked, nervous médecin chef shouted contradictory orders at the brancardiers, and passed into real crises of hysterical rage.
"Avancez!" he would scream at the bewildered chauffeurs of the ambulances; and an instant later, "Reculez! Reculez!"
The wounded in the stretchers, strewn along the edges of the driveway, raised patient, tired eyes at his snarling.
Another doctor, a little bearded man wearing a white apron and the red velvet képi of an army physician, questioned each batch of new arrivals. Deep lines of fatigue had traced themselves under his kindly eyes; his thin face had a dreadful color. Some of the wounded had turned their eyes from the sun; others, too weak to move, lay stonily blinking. Almost expressionless, silent, they resigned themselves to the attendants as if these men were the deaf ministers of some inexorable power.
The surgeon went from stretcher to stretcher looking at the diagnosis cards attached at the poste de secours, stopping occasionally to ask the fatal question, "As-tu craché du sang?" (Have you spit blood?) A thin oldish man with a face full of hollows like that of an old horse, answered "Oui," faintly. Close by, an artilleryman, whose cannon had burst, looked with calm brown eyes out of a cooked and bluish face. Another, with a soldier's tunic thrown capewise over his naked torso, trembled in his thin blanket, and from the edges of a cotton and lint- pad dressing hastily stuffed upon a shoulder wound, an occasional drop of blood slid down his lean chest.
A little to one side, the cooks of the hospital, in their greasy aprons, watched the performance with a certain calm interest. In a few minutes the wounded were sorted and sent to the various wards. I was ordered to take three men who had been successfully operated on to the barracks for convalescents several miles away.
A highway and an unused railroad, both under heavy fire from German guns on the Hauts de Meuse, passed behind the château and along the foot of the bluffs. There were a hundred shell holes in the marshes between the road and the river, black-lipped craters in the sedgy green; there were ugly punches in the brown earth of the bluffs, and deep scoops in the surface of the road. The telephone wires, cut by shell fragments, fell in stiff, draping lines to the ground. Every once in a while a shell would fall into the river, causing a silvery gray geyser to hang for an instant above the green eddies of the Meuse. A certain village along this highway was the focal point of the firing. Many of the houses had been blown to pieces, and fragments of red tile, bits of shiny glass, and lumps of masonry were strewn all over the deserted street.
As I hurried along, two shells came over, one sliding into the river with a Hip! and the other landing in a house about two hundred yards away. A vast cloud of grayish-black smoke befogged the cottage, and a section of splintered timber came buzzing through the air and fell into a puddle. From the house next to the one struck, a black cat came slinking, paused for an indecisive second in the middle of the street, and ran back again. Through the canvas partition of the ambulance, I heard the voices of my convalescents. "No more marmites!" I cried to them as I swung down a road out of shell reach. I little knew what was waiting for us beyond the next village.
A regiment of Zouaves going up to the line was resting at the crossroad, and the regimental wagons, drawn up in waiting line, blocked the narrow road completely. At the angle between the two highways, under the four trees planted by pious custom of the Meuse, stood a cross of thick planks. From each arm of the cross, on wine- soaked straps, dangled, like a bunch of grapes, a cluster of dark-blue canteens; rifles were stacked round its base, and under the trees stood half a dozen clipped-headed, bull-necked Zouaves. A rather rough-looking adjutant, with a bullet head disfigured by a frightful scar at the corner of his mouth, rode up and down the line to see if all was well. Little groups were handing round a half loaf of army bread, and washing it down with gulps of wine.
"Hello, sport!" they cried at me; and the favorite "All right," and "Tommy!"
The air was heavy with the musty smell of street mud that never dries during winter time, mixed with the odor of the tired horses, who stood, scarcely moving, backed away from their harnesses against the mire- gripped wagons. Suddenly the order to go on again was given; the carters snapped their whips, the horses pulled, the noisy, lumbering, creaky line moved on, and the men fell in behind, in any order.
I started my car again and looked for an opening through the mêlée.
the Verdun citadel and forts
Beyond the cross, the road narrowed and flanked one of the southeastern forts of the city. A meadow, which sloped gently upward from the road to the abrupt hillside of the fortress, had been used as a place of encampment and had been trodden into a surface of thick cheesy mire. Here and there were the ashes of fires. There were hundreds of such places round the moorland villages between Verdun and Bar-le-Duc. The fort looked squarely down on Verdun, and over its grassy height came the drumming of the battle, and the frequent crash of big shells falling into the city.
In a corner lay the anatomical relics of some horses killed by an air- bomb the day before. And even as I noted them, I heard the muffled PomI Pom! Pom! of anti-aircraft guns. My back was to the river and I could not see what was going on.
"What is it?" I said to a Zouave who was plodding along beside the ambulance.
"Des Boches--crossing the river."
The regiment plodded on as before. Now and then a soldier would stop and look up at the aeroplanes.
"He's coming!" I heard a voice exclaim.
Suddenly, the adjutant whom I had seen before came galloping down the line, shouting, "Arrêtez! Arrêtez! Pas de mouvement!"
A current of tension ran down the troop with as much reality as a current of water runs down hill. I wondered whether the Boche had seen us.
"Is he approaching?" I asked.
Ahead of me was a one-horse wagon, and ahead of that a wagon with two horses carrying the medical supplies. The driver of the latter, an oldish, thick-set, wine-faced fellow, got down an instant from his wagon, looked at the Boche, and resumed his seat. A few seconds later, there sounded the terrifying scream of an air-bomb, a roar, and I found myself in a bitter swirl of smoke. The shell had fallen right between the horses of the two-horse wagon, blowing the animals to pieces, splintering the wagon, and killing the driver. Something sailed swiftly over my head, and landed just behind the ambulance. It was a chunk of the skull of one of the horses. The horse attached to the wagon ahead of me went into a frenzy of fear and backed his wagon into my ambulance, smashing the right lamp. In the twinkling of an eye, the soldiers dispersed. Some ran into the fields. Others crouched in the wayside ditch. A cart upset. Another bomb dropped screaming in a field and burst; a cloud of smoke rolled away down the meadow.
When the excitement had subsided, it was found that a soldier had been wounded. The bodies of the horses were rolled over into the ditch, the wreck of the wagon was dragged to the miry field, and the regiment went on. In a very short time I got to the hospital and delivered my convalescents.
My way home ran through the town of S------, an ugly, overgrown village of the Verdunois, given up to the activities of the staff directing the battle. The headquarters building was the hôtel de ville, a large eighteenth-century edifice, in an acre of trampled mud a little distance from the street. Before the building flowed the great highway from Bar-le-Duc to Verdun; relays of motor lorries went by, and gendarmes, organized into a kind of traffic squad, stood every hundred feet or so. The atmosphere of S------at the height of the battle was one of calm organization; it would not have been hard to believe that the motor-lorries and unemotional men were at the service of some great master-work of engineering. There was something of the holiday in the attitude of the inhabitants of the place; they watched the motor show exactly as they might have watched a circus parade.
"Les voilà," said somebody.
A little bemedaled group appeared on the steps of the hôtel de ville. Dominating it was Joffre. Above middle height, silver-haired, elderly, he has a certain paternal look which his eye belies; Joffre's eye is the hard eye of a commander-in-chief, the military eye, the eye of an Old Testament father if you will. De Castelnau was speaking, making no gestures--an old man with an ashen skin, deep-set eye and great hooked nose, a long cape concealed the thick, age-settled body. Poincaré stood listening, with a look at once worried and brave, the ghost of a sad smile lingering on a sensitive mouth. Last of all came Pétain, the protégé of De Castelnau, who commanded at Verdun--a tall, square-built man, not un-English in his appearance, with grizzled hair and the sober face of a thinker. But his mouth and jaw are those of a man of action, and the look in his gray eyes is always changing. Now it is speculative and analytic, now steely and cold.
In the shelter of a doorway stood a group of territorials, getting their first real news of the battle from a Paris newspaper. I heard "Nous avons reculé--huit kilomètres--le général Pétain--"A motor-lorry drowned out the rest.
That night we were given orders to be ready to evacuate the château in case the Boches advanced. The drivers slept in the ambulances, rising at intervals through the night to warm their engines. The buzz of the motors sounded through the tall pines of the château park, drowning out the rumbling of the bombardment and the monotonous roaring of the flood. Now and then a trench light, rising like a spectral star over the lines on the Hauts de Meuse, would shine reflected in the river. At intervals attendants carried down the swampy paths to the chapel the bodies of soldiers who had died during the night. The cannon flashing was terrific. Just before dawn, half a dozen batteries of "seventy-fives" came in a swift trot down the shelled road; the men leaned over on their steaming horses, the harnesses rattled and jingled, and the cavalcade swept on, outlined a splendid instant against the mortar flashes and the streaks of day.
On my morning trip a soldier with bandaged arm was put beside me on the front seat. He was about forty years old; a wiry black beard gave a certain fullness to his thin face, and his hands were pudgy and short of finger. When he removed his helmet, I saw that he was bald. A bad cold caused him to speak in a curious whispering tone, giving to everything he said the character of a grotesque confidence.
"What do you do en civil ? " he asked.
I told him.
"I am a pastry cook," he went on; "my specialty is Saint-Denis apple tarts."
A marmite intended for the road landed in the river as he spoke.
"Have you ever had one? They are very good when made with fresh cream." He sighed.
"How did you get wounded?" said I.
"Éclat d'obus," he replied, as if that were the whole story. After a pause he added, "Douaumont--yesterday."
I thought of the shells I had seen bursting over the fort.
"Do you put salt in chocolate?" he asked professionally.
"Not as a rule," I replied.
"It improves it," he pursued, as if he were revealing a confidential dogma. "The Boche bread is bad, very bad, much worse than a year ago. Full of crumbles and lumps. Dégoûtant!"
The ambulance rolled up to the evacuation station, and my pastry cook alighted.
"When the war is over, come to my shop," he whispered benevolently, "and you shall have some tartes aux pommes à la mode de Saint-Denis with my wife and me."
"With fresh cream?" I asked.
"Of course," he replied seriously.
I accepted gratefully, and the good old soul gave me his address.
In the afternoon a sergeant rode with me. He was somewhere between twenty-eight and thirty, thick-set of body, with black hair and the tanned and ruddy complexion of outdoor folk. The high collar of a dark-blue sweater rose over his great coat and circled a muscular throat; his gray socks were pulled country-wise outside of the legs of his blue trousers. He had an honest, pleasant face; there was a certain simple, wholesome quality about the man. In the piping times of peace, he was a cultivateur in the Valois, working his own little farm; he was married and had two little boys. At Douaumont, a fragment of a shell had torn open his left hand.
"The Boches are not going to get through up there?"
"Not now. As long as we hold the heights, Verdun is safe." His simple French, innocent of argot, had a good country twang. "But oh, the people killed! Comme il y a des gens tués!" He pronounced the final s of the word gens in the manner of the Valois.
"Ça s'accroche aux arbres," he continued.
The vagueness of the ça had a dreadful quality in it that made you see trees and mangled bodies. "We had to hold the crest of Douaumont under a terrible fire, and clear the craters on the slope when the Germans tried to fortify them. Our 'seventy-fives' dropped shells into the big craters as I would drop stones into a pond. Pauvres gens!"
The phrase had an earth-wide sympathy in it, a feeling that the translation "poor folks" does not render. He had taken part in a strange incident. There had been a terrible corps-à-corps in one of the craters which had culminated in a victory for the French; but the lieutenant of his company had left a kinsman behind with the dead and wounded. Two nights later, the officer and the sergeant crawled down the dreadful slope to the crater where the combat had taken place, in the hope of finding the wounded man. They could hear faint cries and moans from the crater before they got to it. The light of a pocket flash-lamp showed them a mass of dead and wounded on the floor of the crater--"un tas de mourants et de cadavres," as he expressed it.
After a short search, they found the man for whom they were looking; he was still alive but unconscious. They were dragging him out when a German, hideously wounded, begged them to kill him.
"Moi, je n'ai plus jambes," he repeated in French; "pitié, tuez-moi."
He managed to make the lieutenant see that if he went away and left them, they would all die in the agonies of thirst and open wounds. A little flickering life still lingered in a few; there were vague râles in the darkness. A rafale of shells fell on the slope; the violet glares outlined the mouth of the crater.
"Ferme tes yeux" (shut your eyes), said the lieutenant to the German. The Frenchmen scrambled over the edge of the crater with their unconscious burden, and then, from a little distance, threw hand- grenades into the pit till all the moaning died away.
Two weeks later, when the back of the attack had been broken and the organization of the defense had developed into a trusted routine, I went again to Verdun. The snow was falling heavily, covering the piles of débris and sifting into the black skeletons of the burned houses. Untrodden in the narrow streets lay the white snow. Above the Meuse, above the ugly burned areas in the old town on the slope, rose the shell-spattered walls of the citadel and the cathedral towers of the still, tragic town. The drumming of the bombardment had died away. The river was again in flood. In a deserted wine-shop on a side street well protected from shells by a wall of sandbags was a post of territorials.
To the tragedy of Verdun, these men were the chorus; there was something Sophoclean in this group of older men alone in the silence and ruin of the beleaguered city. A stove filled with wood from the wrecked houses gave out a comfortable heat, and in an alley-way, under cover, stood a two-wheeled hose cart, and an old-fashioned seesaw fire pump. There were old clerks and bookkeepers among the soldier firemen--retired gendarmes who had volunteered, a country schoolmaster, and a shrewd peasant from the Lyonnais. Watch was kept from the heights of the citadel, and the outbreak of fire in any part of the city was telephoned to the shop. On that day only a few explosive shells had fallen.
"Do you want to see something odd, mon vieux?" said one of the pompiers to me; and he led me through a labyrinth of cellars to a cold, deserted house. The snow had blown through the shell- splintered window-panes. In the dining-room stood a table, the cloth was laid and the silver spread; but a green feathery fungus had grown in a dish of food and broken straws of dust floated on the wine in the glasses. The territorial took my arm, his eyes showing the pleasure of my responding curiosity, and whispered,--
"There were officers quartered here who were called very suddenly. I saw the servant of one of them yesterday; they have all been killed."
Outside there was not a flash from the batteries on the moor. The snow continued to fall, and darkness, coming on the swift wings of the storm, fell like a mantle over the desolation of the city.
the desolate Verdun battlefield
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