from ‘The War Illustrated’, 11th November, 1916
'France Triumphant at Verdun'
by Max Pemberton

Battle Pictures of the Great War

covers from French patriotic penny novelettes - see La Collection Patrie


France Triumphant at Verdun

The communiqués told us on the evening of Tuesday, October 24th, that the French had that day won a great and striking victory at Verdun. Coming as it did upon the unsatisfactory tidings from the Dobruja, the good news would have been welcome in any case, but, associated with Verdun and our gallant Allies, it provoked an enthusiasm such as we have rarely witnessed since the days of the Marne. Very properly men said that it was more than' a set-off to Mackensen's success. But there was more than this in their tribute—a realisation perhaps of the true meaning of this famous story; a retrospect which could not but stir the pulse.

Verdun! In what letters of gold is not the name written in the history of Armageddon ! Very early in the war we had a picture of the Kaiser standing "in shining armour" upon the heights above Nancy and watching the slaughter of his troops who were battling westward toward the citadel. Many men then heard of Verdun for the first time since the outbreak of hostilities. Great as the fortress was, it stood for little to the uninformed. Even the ancients who remembered " '70" would also recollect how little was done at Verdun during those memorable days. True, a part of Bazaine's army was there at the outbreak of hostilities, Napoleon rode thence to Saarbrucken and witnessed his son's baptism of fire— that wholly theatrical display which was so soon to become a tragedy.

Critical Hours at Verdun

When the French, fighting gallantly as ever, were beaten at Mars-la-Tour, the Emperor quietly entered his carriage, and surrounded by an escort of hussars set off to Verdun. But the fortress, though one of the greatest in France, never loomed large in the fighting, and there was a time even in the present campaign when it seemed that a similar story might be told of it. This was in the early days. The war had swung northward. The line of the Aisne permitted the faint hearts to speak of "stalemate." There were the terrible days in Flanders, when our men lived in ditches and the Germans fired a hundred rounds of their artillery for every four we could muster. Verdun became, as it were, a side-show. People rarely spoke of it until that famous February 1st in this present year of grace, when there came the startling news from Paris that the Crown Prince's army had opened a terrible bombardment upon the outer works and that Verdun suddenly had become the danger-point.

They were critical hours. For three days Paris was at a tension. Was it possible that the French Staff had been caught napping and had made no adequate provision against the vast preparations of men, guns, and material the Huns were known to have completed on the eastern bank of the Meuse? It might have seemed so in the first hours of this titanic conflict. The thinly-held line was driven in by an artillery bombardment surpassing all precedence. There were orderly retreats, shortenings of the line, throwing up of new defences ; the summoning of new generals ; the reorganisation of commands.

The Key of the Coveted City

With an unfailing instinct, Joffre sent for the one man who was to save Verdun—General Petain, the possessor of one of the shrewdest brains in France. We know the sequel well. Reserves were hurled forward in camions. A subtle strategy yielded fort or hill when the Boche had paid the price. We began to hear of the attack in waves. Vast masses of Germans would suddenly leap from their trenches and cross the terrible zone, shoulder to shoulder, as sheep for the slaughter. They were mown down by the thousand and the hundred thousand. In a despatch— the best that the war has given us—Lord Northcliffe told how, standing with a battery of French artillery, he wit-nsesed a whole plain covered suddenly with the blue-grey forms; heard the deadly rattle of the "75's"; perceived that plain blotted out by a loom of thick black smoke; watched the smoke drift away, and then looked for the hosts that had been. But not a German could he see.

Of all the thousands who had rushed valiantly to the attack not ten minutes before, the glass could not discern a single stricken man advancing or retreating. Such slaughter went on day by day, until April 9th made it clear that the great assault had failed and that Verdun was saved.

For all the French gallantry, the situation of the splendid citadel became precarious more than once before July had come. The chief of its great strongholds were lost by then. Haudromont Quarries had gone ; the village of Vaux and the citadel of Vaux were taken with terrible German loss—above all, Berlin had become delirious at the capture of Douaumont. This fell on February 26th and moved the Kaiser to a frenzy of bombast even he has rarely surpassed. It was the key to the coveted city, he said.

The Somme and the Meuse

In Berlin they even cried, the fall of Verdun itself. Only in Paris was there no excitement. The "Il les aura" of Petain was never for an instant forgotten. The French believed that the Germans would never get there, and they were right. July 1st brought our own great offensive on the Somme and ended in a twinkling the menace to Verdun.

For the next three months we heard little news from this sector. Everybody supposed there was great inactivity there. But if we had forgotten the citadel, we were reminded of it on August 18th, when the French retook Fleury after a brilliant assault. Then again came stagnation. All the beautiful district of the Meuse appeared to have dropped out of the picture. If we tried to conjure up the scene, we saw trenches but lightly held ; artillery that but nibbled the enemy; the somnolence of the hill-lands in the truce beyond the river.

Verdun itself, lying in the hollow of the hills, we knew to be grievously hurt. The beauty of its ancient buildings was sadly marred. The churches were but ruins; its splendid buildings but whited sepulchres. Occasionally travellers gave an account of the country to those who were unfamiliar with it. I have seen many word-pictures of Verdun, but none which described it in a sentence so well as that phrase of Lord Northcliffe which says: "It is like looking down on Perth from the hills round about."

General Joffre Strikes

If these hills be imagined to be twice the height of those which surround the Scottish city, then we get the panorama in its due proportion. The hill upon which Fort Douaumont is built rises, for instance, to an altitude of three hundred and eighty-eight metres. There are others almost as high all about, and the ravines between them used to be as picturesque as anything the Valley of the Meuse can show. Now they are sadly scarred—their woods but cemeteries; their trees but ghosts haunting the once beautiful woodlands so characteristic of the district.

Here was the scene of the great advance on Tuesday. Through these ravines in three splendid columns the gallant French set out at 11.40 upon Haudromont and Douaumont and the ghastly Caillette Wood. They found the Hun taken wholly by surprise. Yet he should not have been, for ten days previously the French had begun to bombard his positions, and his aeroplanes should have told him of that endless procession of camions rolling up on the great white high-roads behind the French lines. Apparently they did not, and he droned on in the lazy confidence that the Somme was occupying all the Allies' energies.

For ten days this belief seemed justified. Rain fell incessantly. The deep ravines ran with water. Mists loomed above the river. The dolour of autumn lay heavy upon the land and nothing could be done. Even on Tuesday the weather did not favour the glamour of battle. Fine rain fell all day, we are told. There was mist in the morning and wreaths of it still hung about the hills when the action began. But the French had had enough of waiting. General Joffre was at Verdun. At any cost, General Petain must show him what his splendid fellows could do.

Dawn of Victory

So the rain and the mist are disregarded and the welcome word goes forth. Very early in the morning the hills resounded to the thunder of the "75's" and of the great howitzers behind the lines. Everywhere the roads were alive with the dense masses of troops who moved upon them; camions and cannon, transport and ambulance, Staff officers on horseback, and regimental officers on foot —all the countless items which go to make the sum total of battle as we know it to-day. In Verdun itself, in the cellars below its once splendid houses, those who have made the French Army what it is sat in earnest conclave, directing the course of that victory they knew to be inevitable. A terrible bombardment they decreed upon it, a barrage as daring as any yet attempted. The troops were often to be but twenty-five yards behind the torrent of shells which hewed a path for them. Thus do the French wage war—so are their losses but few. They took more German prisoners on Tuesday than all their own casualties. Truly an astounding victory !

It was twenty minutes to twelve precisely when this great battle began, and after five o'clock at night when it was finished. The word being given, the three columns dashed forward like hounds that are unleashed, and soon their grey figures were to be discerned behind a curtain of flame and smoke, pressing on through the ravines, swarming the heights, and anon disappearing in the woods and thickets of a far horizon. Upon the left at Haudromont, where the hill-side is a hive of quarries, they had expected a fierce resistance but found nothing worse than a few machine-guns still undestroyed and a few hundred desperate Huns who crossed bayonets with them but were speedily worsted. A rocket soon signalled to General Joffre that the quarries had been taken, and hardly was this splendid news realised when the Staff heard with amazement that the general in command of the centre had surpassed all hopes by capturing the Fort of Douaumont itself.

This, certainly, was not expected. At the best an envelopment had been looked for. But who could hold the Poilu on such a day? All the finest traditions of fighting France were with him as he went. Cheering like a boy at play, he stormed the forbidding heights and plunged into that maze of trench and dug-out. Soon "Kamerad" was holding up his hands or dying. A whole regimental command was taken here—and next day the commanding officer came up from the very depths of the pit. Such a triumph could not have been looked for by the warmest friends of France.

What France Has Won in a Day

On the extreme right, the third column penetrated the Bois du Caillette, that place of the skull whose ghastly story is world-famous. These were the troops who were to be threatening the Fort of Vaux next day after the fiercest slaughter of the battle. But here, as elsewhere, the splendid work of the French artillery minimised the French loss, and so wonderfully did the men fight that their onslaught proved wholly irresistible. The citadel of Vaux itself may have fallen by the time these lines appear. There would, indeed, appear to be nothing this superb army of Verdun cannot accomplish in its present mood.

Three thousand five hundred Boche prisoners were the first-fruits of Tuesday's advance. Another fifteen hundred were taken on Wednesday the 25th, and the total was five thousand by the 26th. The material booty has not been less generous. Europe rightly deemed this one of the most striking victories the war in the west has vouchsafed to us. And why should there be any other verdict? Has not France rewon in a single day the losses of those bloody battles the Germans waged from April to July? The Hun stands where he did toward the end of February, and he has sacrificed 500,000 men to attain that end. The Kaiser's "bright jewel" has fallen to French valour and efficiency; and Verdun shall ever be remembered to the honour and glory of France.


covers from French patriotic penny novelettes - see La Collection Patrie


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