- by E. Alexander Powell - American Journalist
an American Journalist on the French Front 1916
- portraits of General Gouraud taken from two French magazines
- left - 'l'Illustré National' and right 'la Guerre du Droit'
They Shall Not Pass
GENERAL Gouraud, the one-armed hero of Gallipoli, who commands the forces in Champagne, is the most picturesque and gallant figure in all the armies of France. On my way south I stopped for a night in Chalons-sur-Marne to dine with him. He was living in a comfortable but modest house, evidently the residence of a prosperous tradesman. When I arrived I found the small and rather barely furnished salon filled with officers of the staff, in uniforms of the beautiful horizon blue which is the universal dress of the French army. They were clustered about the marble- topped centre-table, on which, I imagine, the family Bible used to rest, but which now held the steel base of a 380-centimetre shell, which had fallen in a near-by village that afternoon.
This monster projectile, as large as the largest of those fired by our coast-defense guns, must have weighed considerably more than a thousand pounds and doubtless cost the Germans at least a thousand dollars, yet all the damage it had done was to destroy a tumble-down and uninhabited cottage, which proves that, save against permanent fortifications, there is a point where the usefulness of these abnormally large guns ceases. While we were discussing this specimen of Bertha Krupp's handicraft, the door opened and General Gouraud entered the room.
Seldom have I seen a more striking figure: a tall, slender, graceful man, with a long, brown, spade-shaped beard which did not entirely conceal a mouth both sensitive and firm. But it was the eyes which attracted and held one's attention: great, lustrous eyes, as large and tender as a woman's, but which could on occasion, I fancy, become cold as steel, or angry as lightning. One sleeve of his tunic hung empty, and he leaned heavily on a cane, for during the landing at Gallipoli he was terribly wounded by a Turkish shell.
Covering his breast were glittering stars and crosses, which showed how brilliant had been his services in this and other wars. He is a remarkable man, this soldier with the beard of a poilu and the eyes of a poet, and, unless I am greatly mistaken, he is destined to go a long, long way.
It was the sort of dinner that one marks with a white milestone on the road of memory. The soldier-servants wore white-cotton gloves and there were flowers on the table and menus with quaint little military sketches in the corners. General Gouraud talked in his deep, melodious voice of other wars in which he had fought, in Annam and Morocco and Madagascar, and the white-mustached old general of artillery at my left illustrated, with the aid of the knives and forks, a new system of artillery fire, which, he assured me very earnestly, would make pudding of the German trenches. While the salad was being served one of the staff-officers was called to the telephone. When he returned the general raised inquiring eye-brows.
"N'importe, mon general" he answered. "Colonel--------telephoned that the Boches attacked in force south of---------" and he named a certain sector, "but that we have driven them back with heavy losses." Then he resumed his interrupted dinner as unconcernedly as though he had been called to the telephone to be told that the Braves had defeated the Pirates in the ninth inning.
original 1916 color photos of french aeroplanes
While we were at breakfast the next morning the windows of the hotel dining-room suddenly began to reverberate to the bang-bang-bang of guns. Going to the door, we saw, high overhead, a great white bird, which turned to silver when touched by the rays of the morning sun. Though shrapnel bursts were all about it I counted thirty of the fleecy puffs at one time it sailed serenely on, a thing of delicate beauty against the cloudless blue. Though few airplanes are brought down by artillery fire, the improvement in anti-aircraft guns has forced the aviators to keep at a height of from 12,000 to 17,000 feet, instead of 2,000, as they did at the beginning of the war.
The French gunners have now devised a system which, when it is successfully executed, makes things extremely uncomfortable for the enemy aviator. This system consists in so gauging the fire of the anti-aircraft guns that the airman finds himself in a "box" of shrapnel; that is, one shell is timed to burst directly in front of the machine, another behind it, one above, one below, and one on either side. The dimensions of this "box" of bursting shrapnel are gradually made smaller, so that, unless the aviator recognizes his danger in time, escape becomes impossible, and he is done for. Occasionally an aviator, finding himself caught in such a death-trap, pretends that he has been hit, and lets his machine flutter helplessly earthward, like a wounded bird, until the gunners, believing themselves certain of their prey, cease firing, whereupon the airman skilfully "catches" himself, and, straightening the planes of his machine, goes soaring off to safety.
Navarre, one of the most daring of the French fliers, so perfected himself in the execution of this hazardous ruse that he would let go of the controls and permit his machine to literally fall, sometimes from a height of a mile or more, making no attempt at recovery until within sixty metres of the ground, when he would save himself by a hawk-like swoop in which his wheels would actually graze the earth.
The organization of the French air service, with its system of airplane and seaplane squadrons, dirigibles and observation balloons, schools, repair-shops, and manufactories, is entirely an outgrowth of the war. The airplanes are organized in escadrilles, usually composed of ten machines each, for three distinct purposes. The bombardment squadrons are made up of slow machines with great carrying capacity, such as the Voisin; the pursuit or battle squadrons the escadrilles de chasse are composed of small and very fast 'planes, such as the Spad and Nieuport; while the general utility squadrons, used for reconnoissance, artillery regulation, and photographing, usually consist of medium-speed, two-passenger machines like the Farman and the Caudron.
Until very recently the Nieuport biplane, which can attain a speed of one hundred and ten miles an hour, has been considered the fastest and most efficient, as it is the smallest, of the French battle-planes, but it is now out-speeded by the new Spad machine, which has reached a speed of over one hundred and twenty miles an hour, and of which great hopes are entertained. The Spad, like the Nieuport, is a one-man apparatus, the machine-gun mounted on its upper plane being fired by the pilot with one hand, while with the other hand and his feet he operates his controls. On the "tractors," as the airplanes having the propellers in front are called, the machine-guns are synchronized so as to fire between the whirling blades. Garros, the famous French flier, was the first man to perfect a device for firing a machine-gun through a propeller. He armored the blades so that if struck by a bullet they would not be injured. This was greatly unproved upon by the Germans in the Fokker type, the fire of the machine-guns being automatically regulated so that it is never discharged when a blade of the propeller is directly in front of the muzzle.
Since then various forms of this device have been adapted by all the belligerents. Another novel development of aerial warfare is the miniature wireless-sending apparatus with which most of the observation and artillery regulation machines are now equipped, thus enabling the observers to keep in constant touch with the ground. In addition to developing the fastest possible battle- planes, the French are making efforts to build more formidable craft for bombing purposes. The latest of these is a Voisin triplane, which has a total lifting capacity of two tons, carries a crew of five men, and is driven by four propellers, each operated by a 210-horse-power Hispana-Suiza motor. These new motors weigh only about two hundred kilograms, or a little over two pounds per horse-power.
During the past year the French have made most of their raids by nights. One reason for this is that raiding craft, which are comparatively slow machines, are so heavily laden with bombs that they are only able to perform straight flying and hence are easily brought down by the fast and quick-turning battle-planes. Daylight raids, moreover, necessitate an escorting fleet of fighting craft in order to protect the bombing machines, just as a dreadnought has to be protected by a screen of destroyers.
Though the dangers of flying are considerably increased by darkness, the French believe this is more than compensated for by the fact that, being comparatively safe from attack by enemy aircraft or from the fire of anti-aircraft guns, the raiders can fly at a much lower altitude and consequently have a much better chance of hitting their targets.
One of the extremely important uses to which airplanes are now put is the destruction of the enemy's observation balloons, on which he depends for the regulation of his artillery fire. An airplane which is to be used for this work is specially fitted with a number of rocket tubes which project in all direct-ions, so that it looks like a pipe-organ gone on a spree. The rockets, which are fired by means of a keyboard not unlike that of a clavier, are loaded with a composition containing a large percentage of phosphorus and are fitted with gangs of barbed hooks. If the rocket hits the balloon these hooks catch in the envelope and hold it there, while the phosphorus bursts into a flame which it is impossible to extinguish. During the fighting before Verdun, eight French aviators, driving machines thus equipped, were ordered to attack eight German balloons. Six of the balloons were destroyed.
But the very last word in aeronautical development is what might be called, for want of a better term, the aerial submarine. I refer to seaplanes carrying in clips beneath the fuselage specially constructed 18-inch torpedoes. In the under side of this type of torpedo is an opening. When the torpedo is dropped into the sea the water, pouring into this opening, sets the propelling mechanism in motion and the projectile goes tearing away on its errand of destruction precisely as though fired from the torpedo-tube of a submarine.
It may be recalled that some months ago the papers printed an account of a Turkish transport, loaded with soldiers, having been torpedoed in the Sea of Marmora, the accepted explanation being that a submarine had succeeded in making its way through the Dardanelles. As a matter of fact, that transport was sunk by a torpedo dropped from the air! The pilot of a Short seaplane had winged his way over the Gallipoli Peninsula, had sighted the troop-laden transport steaming across the Marmora Sea, and, volplaning down until he was only twenty-five feet above the water and a few hundred yards from the doomed vessel, had jerked the lever which released the torpedo. As it struck the water its machinery was automatically set going, something that looked like a giant cigar went streaking through the waves, there was a shattering explosion, and when the smoke cleared away the transport had disappeared. Whereupon the airman, his mission accomplished, flew back to his base in the Aegean. There may be stranger developments of the war than that, but if so I have not heard of them.
France is now (April, 1917) turning out between eight hundred and a thousand completely equipped airplanes a month, but a considerable proportion of these are for the use of her allies. I have asked many persons who ought to know how many airplanes France has in commission, and, though the replies varied considerably, I should say that she has at present somewhere between five thousand and seven thousand machines in or ready to take the air.
Though great numbers of American-built airplanes have been shipped to Europe, they are being used only for purposes f instruction, as they are not considered fast enough for work on the front.
original 1916 color photo of a Verdun fort
Leaving Chalons, in the gray dawn of a winter's morn, we fled southward again, through Bar-le- Duc (the place, you know, where the jelly comes from) the words "Caves voutés" chalked on the doors of those buildings having vaulted cellars showing that air raids were of frequent occurrence, and so, through steadily increasing traffic, to Souilly, the obscure hamlet from which was directed the defense of Verdun. In the centre of the cobble-paved Grande Place stood the Mairie, a two-story building in the uncompromising style characteristic of most French provincial architecture. At the foot of the steps stood two sentries in mud-caked uniforms and dented helmets, and through the front door flowed an endless stream of staff-officers, orderlies, messengers, and mud-spattered despatch riders. In this village mairie, a score of miles behind the firing-line, were centred the nerve and vascular systems of an army of half a million men; here was planned and directed the greatest battle of all time.
On the upper floor, in a large, light, scantily furnished room, a man with a great silver star on the breast of his light-blue tunic sat at a table, bent over a map. He had rather sparse gray hair and a gray mustache and a little tuft of gray below the lower lip. His eyes were sunken and tired- looking, as though from lack of sleep, and his face and forehead were deeply lined, but he gave the impression, nevertheless, of possessing immense vitality and energy. He was a broad- shouldered, solidly built, four-square sort of man, with cool, level eyes, and a quiet, almost taciturn manner. It was General Robert Nivelle, the man who held Verdun for France. He it was who, when the fortress was quivering beneath the Germans' sledge-hammer blows, had quietly remarked: "They shall not pass!" And they did not.
I did not remain long with General Nivelle; to have taken much of such a man's time would have been a rank impertinence. I would go to Verdun? he inquired. Yes, with his permission, I answered. Everything had been arranged, he assured me. An officer who knew America well Commandant Bunau-Varilla, of Panama Canal fame had been assigned to go with me.
As I was leaving I attempted to express to him the admiration which I felt for the fashion in which he had conducted the Great Defense. But with a gesture he waved the compliment aside. "It is the men out there in the trenches who should be thanked," he said. "They are the ones who are holding Verdun." I took away with me the impression of a man as stanch, as confident, as unconquerable as the city he had so heroically defended. A few weeks later he was to succeed Marshal Joffre to the highest field command in the gift of the French Government.
It is twenty miles from Souilly to Verdun, and the road has come to be known as La Voie Sacré the Sacred Way because on the uninterrupted flow of ammunition and supplies over that road depended the safety of the fortress. Three thousand men with picks and shovels, working day and night, kept the road in condition to bear up under the enormous volume of traffic. The railway to Verdun was so repeatedly cut by German shells that the French built a narrow-gauge line, which zig-zags over the hills. Beside the road, at frequent intervals, I noted cisterns and watering-troughs, and huge overhead water-tanks; for an army men, horses, and motor-cars is incredibly thirsty. This elaborate water system is the work of Major Bunau-Varilla, who, fittingly enough, is the head of the Service d'Eau des Armées,
Half a dozen miles out of Souilly we crossed the watershed between the Seine and the Rhine and were in the valley of the Meuse. On the other side of yonder hill, whence came a constant muttering of cannon, was, I knew, the Unconquerable City.
While yet Verdun itself was out of sight, we came, quite unexpectedly, upon one of its mightiest defenders: a 400-millimetre gun mounted on a railway-truck. So streaked and striped and splashed and mottled with many colors was it that, monster though it was, it escaped my notice until we were almost upon it. Suddenly a score or more of grimy men, its crew, came pelting down the track, as subway laborers run for shelter when a blast is about to be set off. A moment later came a mighty bellow; from the up-turned nose of the monster burst a puff of smoke pierced by a tongue of flame, and an invisible express-train went roaring eastward in the direction of the German lines. This was the mighty weapon of which I had heard rumors but had never seen: the great 16-inch howitzer with which the French had so pounded Fort Douaumont as to cause its evacuation by the Germans.
The French artillerists were such firm believers in the superiority of light over heavy artillery, and pinned such faith to their 75's, that they had paid scant attention to the question of heavy mobile guns. Hence when the German tidal wave rolled Parisward in 1914, the only heavy artillery possessed by the French consisted of a very few 4.2-inch Creusot guns of a model adopted just prior to the war, and a limited number of batteries of 4.8-inch and 6.1-inch guns and howitzers; all of them, save only the 6.1-inch Rimailho howitzer of 1904, being models twenty to forty years old. These pieces were, of course, vastly outclassed in range and smashing power by the heavy guns of the Central Powers, such as the German 420's (the famous "42's") and the Austrian 380's. Undismayed, however, the French set energetically to work to make up their deficiencies. As it takes time to manufacture guns, large numbers of naval pieces were pressed into service, most of them being mounted on railway-trucks, thus insuring extreme mobility. The German 42's, I might mention in passing, lack this very essential quality, as they can be fired only from specially built concrete bases, from which they cannot readily be moved. The two German 42's which pounded to pieces the barrier forts of Antwerp were mounted on concrete platforms behind a railway embankment near Malines, where they remained throughout the siege of the city.
Some idea may be had of the variety of artillery in use on the French front when I mention that there are at least eleven calibers of guns, howitzers, and mortars, ranging in size from 9 inches to 20.8 inches, in action between Switzerland and the Somme. All of these, with a very few exceptions, are mounted on railway-trucks. In fact, the only large calibered piece not thus mounted is the Schneider mortar, a very efficient weapon, having a remarkably smooth recoil, which has a range of over six miles. It is transported, with its carriage and platform, in six loads, each weighing from four to five tons, about four hours being required to set up the piece ready for firing. Nearly all of these railway guns are, I understand, naval or coast-defense pieces, some of them being long-range weapons cut down to form howitzers or mortars, while others have been created by boring to a larger caliber a gun whose rifling had been worn out in use.
For example, the 400-millimetre, already referred to as having proved so effective against Douaumont, was, I am told, made by cutting down and boring out a 13.6-inch naval gun. But the master gun, the very latest product of French brains and French foundries, is the huge 520- millimetre (20.8-inch) howitzer which has just been completed at the Schneider works at Creusot. This, the largest gun in existence, has a length of 16 calibers (that is, sixteen times its bore, or approximately 28 feet), and weighs 60 tons. It fires a shell 7 feet long, weighing nearly 3,000 pounds, and carrying a bursting charge of 660 pounds of high explosive. Its range is 18 kilometres, or a little over eleven miles, though this can probably be increased if desired. This is France's answer to the German 42's, and, just as the latter shattered the forts of Liege, Antwerp, and Namur, so these new French titans will, it is confidently believed, humble the pride of Metz and Strasbourg.
So insistent has been the demand from the front for big guns, and yet more big guns, that new batteries are being formed every day. Generally speaking, the French plan is to assign short- range howitzers and mortars to the division; the longer range, horse-drawn guns hippomobile the French designate them to the army corps; while the tractor-drawn pieces and those mounted on railway-carriages are placed directly under the orders of the chief of artillery of each army.
A new, and in many respects one of the most effective weapons produced by the war is the trench mortar. These light and mobile weapons, of which the French have at least four calibers, ranging from 58-millimetres to 340-millimetres, are under the direction of the artillery, and should not be confused with the various types of bomb-throwers, which are operated by the infantry. The latest development in trench weapons is the Van Deuren mortar, which takes its name from the Belgian officer who is its inventor. Its chief peculiarity lies in the fact that its barrel consists of a solid core instead of a hollow tube like all other guns. Attached to the base of the shell is a hollow winged shaft which fits over the core of the gun, the desired range being obtained by varying the length of the powder-chamber: that is, the distance between the end of the barrel and the base of the shell proper. The gun is fired at a fixed elevation, and is so small and light that it can readily be moved and set up by a couple of men in a few minutes.
In no branch of the artillery has such advancement been made as in the trench mortars, which have now attained almost as great a degree of accuracy as the field-gun. Such great importance is attached to the trench mortars by the Italians that they have formed them into a distinct arm of the service, entirely independent of the artillery, the officers of the trench-mortar batteries, who are drawn from the cavalry, being trained at a special school.
original 1916 color photo of Verdun
The city of Verdun, or rather the blackened ruins which are all that remain of it, stands in the centre of a great valley which is shaped not unlike a platter. Down this valley, splitting the city in half, meanders the River Meuse. The houses of Verdun, like those of so many mediaeval cities, are clustered about the foot of a great fortified rock. From this rock Vauban, at the order of Louis XIV, blasted ramparts and battlements. To meet the constantly changing conditions of warfare, later generations of engineers gradually honey-combed the rock with passages, tunnels, magazines, store-rooms, halls, and casemates, a veritable labyrinth of them, thus creating the present Citadel of Verdun. Then, because the city and its citadel lie in the middle of a valley dominated by hills like a lump of sugar in the middle of a platter upon those hills was built a chain of barrier forts: La Chaume, Tavannes, Thiaumont, Vaux, Douaumont, and others. But when, at Liege and Namur, at Antwerp and Maubeuge, the Germans proved conclusively that no forts could long withstand the battering of their heavy guns, the French took instant profit by the lesson. They promptly left the citadel and the forts nearest to it and established themselves in trenches on the surrounding hills, taking with them their artillery.
This trench-line ran through certain of the small outlying forts, such as Tavannes, Thiaumont, Douaumont, and Vaux, and that is why you have read in the papers so much of the desperate fighting about them. Thus the much-talked-of fortress of Verdun was no longer a fortress at all, but merely a sector in that battle-line which extends from the Channel to the Alps. Barring its historic associations, and the moral effect which its fall might have in France and abroad, its capture by the Germans would have had no more strategic importance, if as much, than if the French line had been bent back for a few miles at Rheims, or Soissons, or Thann. The Vauban citadel in the city became merely an advanced headquarters, a telephone exchange, a supply station, a sort of central office, from the safety of whose subterranean casemates General Dubois, the commander of the city, directed the execution of the orders which he received from General Nivelle at Souilly, twenty miles away.
Though the citadel's massive walls have resisted the terrific bombardments to which it has been subjected, it has neither guns nor garrison: they are far out on the trench-line beyond the encircling hills. It has, in fact, precisely the same relation to the defense of the Verdun sector that Governor's Island has to the defense of New York. This it is important that you should keep in mind. It should also be remembered that Verdun was held not for strategic but for political and sentimental reasons. The French military chiefs, as soon as they learned of the impending German offensive, favored the evacuation of the city, whose defense, they argued, would necessitate the sacrifice of thousands of lives without any corresponding strategic benefit.
But the heads of the Government in Paris looked at things from a different point of view. They realized that, no matter how negligible was its military value, the people of other countries, and, indeed, the French people themselves, believed that Verdun was a great fortress; they knew that its capture by the Germans would be interpreted by the world as a French disaster and that the morale of the French people, and French prestige abroad, would suffer accordingly. So, at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute, when the preparations for evacuating the city were all but complete, imperative word was flashed from Paris that it must be held. And it was. Costly though the defense has been, the result has justified it. The Crown Prince lost what little military reputation he possessed if he had any to lose; his armies lost 600,000 men in dead and wounded; and the world was shown that German guns and German bayonets, no matter how overwhelming in number, cannot break down the steel walls of France.
It was my great good fortune, when the fate of Verdun still hung in the balance, to visit the city and to lunch with General Dubois and his staff in the citadel. Though the valor of the French infantry kept the Germans from entering Verdun, nothing could prevent the entrance of their shells. Seven hundred fell in one day. Not a single house in a city of 40,000 inhabitants remains intact. The place looks as though it had been visited simultaneously by the San Francisco earthquake, the Baltimore fire, and the Johnstown flood. But once in the shelter of the citadel and we were safe. Though German shells of large caliber were falling in the city at frequent intervals, the casemate in which we lunched was so far beneath the surface of the earth that the sound of the explosions did not reach us. It was as though we were lunching in a New York subway station: a great, vaulted, white-tiled room aglare with electric lights.
We sat with General Dubois and the members of his immediate staff at a small table close to the huge range on which the cooking was being done, while down the middle of the room stretched one of the longest tables I have ever seen, at which upward of a hundred officersand one civilianwere eating. This lone civilian was a commissaire of police, and the sole representative of the city's civil population. When the Tsar bestowed the Cross of St. George on the city in recognition of its heroic defense, it was to this policeman, the only civilian who remained, that the Russian representative handed the badge of the famous order.
The dejeuner, though simple, was as well cooked and well served as though we were seated in a Paris restaurant instead of in a besieged fortress. And the first course was fresh lobster! I told General Dubois that my friends at home would raise their eyebrows incredulously when I told them this, whereupon he took a menu for they had menus and across it wrote his name and "Citadel de Verdun," and the date. "Perhaps that will convince them," he said, passing it to me. By this I do not mean to imply that the French commanders live in luxury. Far from it! But, though their food is very simple, it is always well cooked (which is very far from being the case in our own army), and it is appetizingly served whenever circumstances permit.
After luncheon, under the guidance of the general, I made the rounds of the citadel. Here, so far beneath the earth as to be safe from even the largest shells, was the telephone-room, the nerve- centre of the whole complicated system of defense, with a switchboard larger than those in the "central office" of many an American city. By means of the thousands of wires focussed in that little underground room, General Dubois was enabled to learn in an instant what was transpiring at Douaumont or Tavannes or Vaux; he could pass on the information thus obtained to General Nivelle at Souilly; or he could talk direct to the Ministry of War, in Paris. I might add that one of the most difficult problems met with in this war has been the maintenance of communications during an attack. The telephone is the means most generally relied upon, but in spite of multiplying the number of lines, they are all usually put out of commission during the preliminary bombardment, the wires connecting the citadel with Fort Douaumont and Fort de Vaux, for example, being repeatedly destroyed.
For this reason several alternative means of communication have always to be provided, among these being flares and light-balls, carrier-pigeons, of which the French make considerable use, and optical signalling apparatus, this last method having been found the most effective. Sometimes small wireless outfits are used when the conditions permit. On a few occasions trained dogs have been used to send back messages, but, the pictures in the illustrated papers to the contrary, they have not proven a success. In the final resort, the most ancient method of all the despatch bearer or runner has still very frequently to be employed, making his hazardous trips on a motor-cycle when he can, on foot when he must.
In the room next to the telephone bureau a dozen clerks were at work and typewriters were clicking busily; had it not been for the uniforms one might have taken the place for the office of a large and busy corporation, as, in a manner of speaking, it was. On another level were the bakeries which supplied the bread for the troops in the trenches; enormous storerooms filled with supplies of every description; an admirably equipped hospital with every cot occupied, usually by a "shrapnel case"; a flag-trimmed hall used by the officers as a club-room; and, on the upper levels, mess-halls and sleeping-quarters for the men. Despite the terrible strain of the long- continued bombardment, the soldiers seemed surprisingly cheerful, going about their work in the long, gloomy passages joking and whistling. They sleep when and where they can: on the bunks in the fetid air of the casemates ; on the steps of the steep staircases that burrow deep into the ground; or on the concrete floors of the innumerable galleries. But sleeping is not easy in Verdun.
A short distance to the southwest of Verdun, on the bare face of a hill, is Fort de la Chaume. Like the other fortifications built to defend the city, it no longer has any military value save for purposes of observation. Peering through a narrow slit in one of its armored observatoires, I was able to view the whole field of the world's greatest battle a battle which lasted a year and cost a million men as from the gallery of a theatre one might look down upon the stage, the boxes, and the orchestra-stalls. Below me, rising from the meadows beside the Meuse, were the shattered roofs and fire-blackened walls of Verdun, dominated by the stately tower of the cathedral and by the great bulk of the citadel. The environs of the town and the hill slopes beyond the river were constantly pricked by sudden scarlet jets as the flame leaped from the mouths of the carefully concealed French guns, which seemed to be literally everywhere, while countless geyser-like irruptions of the earth, succeeded by drifting patches of white vapor, showed where the German shells were bursting. Sweeping the landscape with my field-glasses, a long column of motor-trucks laden with ammunition came within my field of vision.
As I looked there suddenly appeared, squarely in the path of the foremost vehicle, a splotch of yellow smoke shot through with red. When the smoke and dust had cleared away, the motor- truck had disappeared. The artillery officer who accompanied me directed my gaze across the level valley to where, beyond the river, rose the great brown ridge known as the Heights of the Meuse. "Do you appreciate," he asked, "that on three miles of that ridge a million men 400,000 French and 600,000 Germans have already fallen?"
Beyond the ridge, but hidden by it, were Hill 304 and Le Mort Homme of bloody memory, while on the horizon, looking like low, round-topped hillocks, were Forts Douaumont and de Vaux (what a thrill those names must give to every Frenchman!) and farther down the slope and a little nearer me were Fleury and Tavannes. The fountains of earth and smoke which leaped upward from each of them at the rate of half a dozen to the minute, showed us that they were enduring a particularly vicious hammering by the Germans.
There are no words between the covers of the dictionary which can bring home to one who has not witnessed them the awful violence of the shell-storms which have desolated these hills about Verdun. In one week's attack to the north of the city the Germans threw five million shells, the total weight of which was forty-seven thousand tons. Eighty thousand shells rained upon one shallow sector of a thousand yards, and these were so marvellously placed that the crater of one cut into that of its neighbor, pulverizing everything that lived and turning the man-filled trenches into tombs. Hence there is no longer any such thing as a continuous line of trenches. Indeed, there are no longer any trenches at all, nor entanglements either, but only a series of craters.
It is these craters which the French infantry has held with such unparalleled heroism. The men holding the craters are kept supplied with food and ammunition from the chain of little forts Vaux, Douaumont, and the others and the forts, themselves battered almost to pieces by the torrents of steel which have been poured upon them, have relied in turn on the citadel back in Verdun for their reinforcements, their ammunition, and their provisions, all of which have had to be sent out at night, the latter on the backs of men.
So violent and long-continued have been the hurricanes of steel which have swept these slopes, that the surface of the earth has been literally blasted away, leaving a treacherous and incredibly tenacious quagmire in which horses and even soldiers have lost their lives. General Dubois told me that, only a few days before my visit to Verdun, one of his staff-officers, returning alone and afoot from an errand to Vaux, had fallen into a shell-crater and had drowned in the mud. Indeed, the whole terrain is pitted with shell-holes as is pitted the face of a man who has had the small- pox. So terrible is the condition of the country that it often takes a soldier an hour to cover a mile. What was once a smiling and prosperous countryside has been rendered, by human agency, as barren and worthless as the slopes of Vesuvius.
Verdun, I repeat, was held not by gun-power but by man-power. It was not the monster guns on railway-trucks, or even the great numbers of quick-firing, hard-hitting 75's, but the magnificent courage and tenacity of the tired men in the mud-splashed uniforms, which held Verdun for France. Though their forts were crumbling under the violence of the German bombardment; though their trenches were pounded into pudding; though the unceasing barrage made it at times impossible to bring up food or water or reinforcements, the French hung stubbornly on, and against the granite wall of their defense the waves of men in gray flung themselves in vain.
And when the fury of the German assaults had in a measure spent itself, General Nivelle retook in a few hours, on October 24, 1916, Forts Douaumont and de Vaux, which had cost the Germans seven months of incessant efforts and a sacrifice of human lives unparalleled in history.
The fighting before Verdun illustrated and emphasized the revolution in methods of attack and defense which has taken place in the French army. At the beginning of the war the French believed in depending largely on their light artillery both to prepare and to support an attack, and for this purpose their 75's were admirably adapted. This method worked well when carried out properly, and before the Germans had time to bring up their heavy guns; it was by resorting to it that the French won the victory of the Marne. But the Marne taught the Germans that the surest way to break up the French system of attack was to interpose obstacles, such as woods, wire entanglements, and particularly trenches.
To destroy these obstacles the French then had to resort to heavy-calibered pieces, with which, as I have already remarked, they were at first very inadequately supplied. In the spring of 1915 in Artois, and in the autumn of the same year in Champagne, they attempted to break through the German lines, but these attacks were not supported by sufficient artillery and were each conducted in a single locality over a limited front.
Then, at Verdun, the Germans tried opposite tactics, attempting to break through on a wide front extending on both sides of the Meuse. So appalling were their losses, however, that, as the attack progressed, they were compelled by lack of sufficient effectives to constantly narrow their front until finally the action was taking place along a line of only a few kilometres. This permitted the French to concentrate both their infantry and their artillery into dense formations, and before this concentrated and intensive fire the German attacking columns withered and were swept away like leaves before an autumn wind.
The French infantry and the same is, I believe, true of the German is now to all intents and purposes divided into two classes: holding troops and attacking, or "shock" troops, as the French call them. The latter consist of such picked elements as the Chasseur battalions, the Zouaves, the Colonials, the First, Twentieth, and Twenty-first Army Corps, and, of course, the Foreign Legion. All these are recruited from the youngest and most vigorous men, due regard being also paid to selecting recruits from those parts of France which have always produced the best fighting stock and among these are the invaded districts. Shock troops are rarely sent into the trenches, but when not actively engaged in conducting or resisting an attack, are kept in cantonments well to the rear. Here they can get undisturbed rest at night, but by day they are worked as a negro teamster works his mule. As a result, they are always "on their toes," and in perfect fighting trim.
In this way mobility, cohesion, and enthusiasm, all qualities which are seriously impaired by a long stay in the trenches, are preserved in the attacking troops, who, when -they go into battle, are as keen and hard and well-trained as a prize-fighter who steps into the ring to battle for the championship belt.
The most striking feature of the new French system of attack is the team-work of the infantry, artillery, and airplanes. The former advance to the assault in successive waves, each made up of several lines, the men being deployed at five-yard intervals. The first wave advances at a slow walk behind a curtain of artillery fire, which moves forward at the rate of fifty yards a minute, the first line of the wave keeping a hundred to a hundred and fifty yards, or, in other words, at a safe distance, behind this protecting fire-curtain. The men in this first line carry no rifles, but consist exclusively of grenadiers, automatic riflemen, and their ammunition carriers, every eighth man being armed with the new (Chauchat automatic rifle, a recently adopted weapon which weighs only nineteen pounds, and fires at +he rate of five shots a second.
Three men, carrying between them one thousand cartridges, are assigned to each of these guns, of which there are now more than fifty thousand in use on the French front. The automatic riflemen fire from the hip as they advance, keeping streams of bullets playing on the enemy just as firemen keep streams of water playing on a fire. In the second line the men are armed with rifles, some having bayonets and others rifle grenades, the latter being specially designed to break up counter- attacks against captured trenches. A third line follows, consisting of "trench cleaners," though it must not be inferred from their name that they use mops and brooms. The native African troops are generally used for this trench-cleaning business, and they do it very handily with grenades, pistols and knives. When the first wave reaches a point within two hundred to three hundred yards of the enemy's trenches, a halt of five minutes is made to re- form for the final charge.
In addition to the advancing curtain-fire immediately preceding the troops, a second screen of fire is dropped between the enemy's first and second lines, thus preventing the men in the first line from retreating and making it equally impossible for the men in the second line to get reinforcements or supplies to their comrades in the first. Still other batteries are engaged in keeping down the fire of the hostile artillery while the big guns, mounted on railway-trucks, shell the enemy's headquarters, his supports, and his lines of communication.
The attack is accompanied by and largely directed by airplanes, certain of which are assigned to regulating the artillery fire, while others devote themselves exclusively to giving information to the infantry, with whom they communicate by means of dropping from one to six fire-balls. As the aircraft used for infantry and artillery regulation are comparatively slow machines, they are protected from the attacks of enemy aviators by a screen of small, fast battle-planes the destroyers of the air which, in several cases, have swooped low enough to use their machine- guns on the German trenches.
If it becomes necessary to give to the infantry some special information not provided for by the prearranged signals, the aviator will volplane down to within a hundred feet above the infantry and drop a written message. I was told that in one of the successful French attacks before Verdun such a message proved extremely useful as by means of it the troops advancing toward Douaumont, which was then held by the Germans, were informed that the enemy was in force on their right, but that there was practically no resistance on their left. Acting in response to this information from the skies, they swung forward on this flank, and took the Germans on their right in the rear. Just as a football team is coached from the side-lines, so a charge is nowadays directed from the clouds.
- examples of french camouflage techniques
- from a french magazine - 'la Guerre Documentée'
One of the picturesque developments of the war is camouflage, as the French call their system of disguising or concealing batteries, airplane-sheds, ammunition stores, and the like, from observation and possible destruction by enemy aviators. This work is done in the main by a corps specially recruited for the purpose from the artists and scene painters of France. It is considered prudent, for example, to conceal the location of a certain "ammunition dump," as the British term the vast accumulations of shells, cartridges, and other supplies which are piled up at the railheads awaiting transportation to the front by motor-lorry. Over the great mound of shells and cartridge-boxes is spread an enormous piece of canvas, often larger by far than the "big top" of a four-ring circus. Then the scene painters get to work with their paints and brushes and transform that expanse of canvas into what, when viewed from the sky, appears to be, let us say, a* group of innocent farm-buildings.
The next day, perhaps, a German airman, circling high overhead, peers earthward through his glasses and descries, far beneath him, a cluster of red rectangles the tiled roofs of cottages or stables, he supposes; a patch of green evidently a bit of lawn; a square of gray the cobble- paved barnyard and pays it no further attention. How can he know that what he takes to be a farmstead is but a piece of painted canvas concealing a small mountain of potential death?
At a certain very important point on the French front there long stood, in an exposed and commanding position, a large and solitary tree, or rather the trunk of a tree, for it had been shorn of its branches by shell-fire. A landmark in that flat and devastated region, every detail of this gaunt sentinel had long since become familiar to the keen eyed observers in the German trenches, a few hundred yards away. Were a man to climb to its top and live he would be able to command a comprehensive view of the surrounding terrain. The German sharpshooters saw to it, however, that no one climbed it.
But one day the resourceful French took the measurements of that tree and photographed it. These measurements and photographs were sent to Paris. A few weeks later there arrived at the French front by railway an imitation tree, made of steel, which was an exact duplicate in every respect, even to the splintered branches and the bark, of the original. Under cover of darkness the real tree was cut down and the fake tree erected in its place, so that, when daylight came, there was no change in the landscape to arouse the Germans' suspicions. The lone tree-trunk to which they had grown so accustomed still reared itself skyward. But the "tree" at which the Germans were now looking was of hollow steel, and concealed in its interior in a sort of conning- tower, forty feet above the ground, a French observing officer, field-glasses at his eyes and a telephone at his lips, was peering through a cleverly concealed peep-hole, spotting the bursts of the French shells and regulating the fire of the French batteries.
Nearly three years have passed since Germany tore up the Scrap of Paper. In that time the French army has been hammered and tempered and tested until it has become the most formidable weapon of offense and defense in existence. I am convinced that in organization and in efficiency it is now, after close on three years of experiments and object-lessons, as good, if not better, than the German and I have marched with both and have seen both in action. Its light artillery is admittedly the finest in the world. Though without any heavy artillery to speak of at the beginning of the war, it has in this respect already equalled if not surpassed the Germans. It has created an air service which, in efficiency and in number of machines, is unequalled. And the men, themselves, in addition to their characteristic élan, possess that invaluable quality which the German soldier lacksinitiative.
It is worthy of note, in this connection, that the entire reorganization of the French army has been carried out virtually without any action on the part of the French Congress, and with merely the formal approval of the Minister of War. The politicians in Paris have, save in a few instances, wisely refrained from interference, and have left military problems to be decided by military men. But, when all is said and done, it will not be the generals who will decide this war; it will be the soldiers. And they are truly wonderful men, these French soldiers. It is their amazing calm, their total freedom from nervousness or apprehension, that impresses one the most, and the secret of this calm is confidence. They are as confident of eventual victory as they are that the sun will rise to-morrow morning. They are fanatics, and France is their Allah. You can't beat men like that, because they never know when they are beaten, and keep on fighting.
I like to think that sometimes, in that cold and dismal hour before the dawn, when hope and courage are at their lowest ebb, there appears among the worn and homesick soldiers in the trenches the spirit of the Great Emperor. Cheeringly he claps each man upon the shoulder.
"Courage, mon brave," he whispers. "On les aura!"
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