- from the book
- To Verdun from the Somme'
- by Harry E. Brittain
A Visit to Verdun
It was almost sundown when we reached Bar-le-Duc, a busy town in the Department of the Meuse, rendered all the busier to-day by the necessities of the War and proximity to the fighting line.
The little hotel was as full as a hotel could be, and so we were escorted by the lady of the house to the annex across the road, where rooms had been reserved.
"They are not what they should be," she explained, "mais c'est la guerre." Her apologies to us, who needed no excuse, were most profound.
In a room above the courtyard we dined a little later, served by a bright-eyed youth of about fifteen. Our ever-thoughtful escort who so constantly gave us of the best, discovered to his sorrow that all the good wine had gone, for after sampling three or four bottles possessing varied titles, we came to the conclusion that the vin ordinaire was infinitely superior to the labelled vintages which remained.
Our distinguished American advocate was very anxious to sample on the spot Bar-le- Duc Jelly, which he explained was justly celebrated in America, where he said, it figured in every hotel-list.
The youthful waiter seemed almost incredulous, and after descending to inquire, returned with the information that there was no such thing. Further search, however, produced samples of both the red and white varieties, and although our friend attacked them with appreciation, I am not sure that he really enjoyed the satisfaction he would have known had he been able to return to New York with the story that the one place on earth where the celebrated jelly was unobtainable and unknown was Bar-le-Duc.
We left Bar-le-Duc shortly after 8 a.m., and although the sun and the cloudless sky still were smiling on us, a gratifying drop in the temperature made travelling almost cool.
Our route lay in a northerly direction across most attractive country, and over roads which appeared to have been recently widened to cope with the enormous traffic moving both ways over them.
Such traffic must be seen to be believed. What it has amounted to, day and night, during more than half a year, none but an expert statistician could imagine. Lorry followed lorry in an almost unbroken line.
Before going very far we began to overtake hundreds of French troops travelling in the up-to-date fashion of this utterly modern war, in other words taking the 'bus to battle. Long, low-built vehicles these 'buses were, with flapping curtains all around them, and they developed no mean speed behind their powerful engines.
Each one was covered with a thick and creamy dust and a good deal found its way inside. Gazing through the "stern-sheets" of the last 'bus of the line was a huge yellow dog, perhaps the Mascot of the Regiment, whose whitened nose, ears, and whiskers gave him a startling appearance as he blinked at us through heavily powdered eyes.
These long conveyances were not without arrangements for internal comfort. On another occasion, when I strolled by a long row drawn up in a little village, I detected a very savoury smell drifting from the vehicles. Closer inspection revealed in each a very handy little travelling kitchen, which we regarded with interest, at the same time receiving the heartiest invitation from cheery French soldiers to come inside and share their meal with them.
At a little village not far from our destination we drew up in a tiny square and watched a motley collection of Boche prisoners being brought along. It was a pleasant sight so near a city the imminent fall of which has been so frequently announced by men of the same breed.
And now the booming of the guns grew louder, and the long line of French observation balloons, which stretched to right and left as far as the eye could see, told us that we were reaching the famous Salient.
Surmounting a rise where the road was screened in the usual way by long stretches of canvas, we saw the first signs of shell-fire in a heavy German barrage, which stirred up clouds of dust on an opposite hill. At the same time we became aware of the hoarse roar of the French reply.
We were outside Verdun; and it was with wondrously mixed feelings of anticipation and intense satisfaction that we approached the stronghold of heroes upon which for six long months the eyes of the world had been riveted.
However and whenever this war may end, and whatever glorious deeds may yet be accomplished in its course, the name Verdun has won its place in history and will for all time symbolise heroic defence against almost irresistible hordes of barbarism and tyranny.
A few hundred yards downhill, although there had been little or no indication that any city was at hand, and we suddenly arrived. The cars drew up in front of Vauban's mighty citadel; mighty in those far-off days of its construction and an invulnerable centre of intense activity to-day.
After proof of our entirely good intent had been given to the sentries, we were permitted to pass through an entrance into the solid rock, where we found ourselves in a long tunnel running through a series of galleries to right and left.
A winding staircase introduced us to still further corridors, which, like those below, were brilliantly lighted by electricity, and apparently enjoyed first-rate ventilation.
These galleries buzzed with men as does a hive with bees, and seemed to afford security for endless work by day and tranquil sleep by night.
Closely following Capt. B.-L., we eventually reached the simple headquarters of General Dubois, the Military Governor of the Fortress.
A grand type of soldier is General Dubois, short in stature, with a grey, grizzled moustache and a touch of white hair on his chin. He reminded me irresistibly of Lord Roberts; there was about him that same quiet charm of manner which was possessed by England's well-loved "Bobs," together with that peculiar quiet glance and attractive smile which were characteristic of our Field-Marshal.
Dressed in the rough blue of the French soldier, and capped with a steel helmet, it was not easy to immediately discover his rank, if one failed to see the unobtrusive little stars upon his sleeve.
But we soon learnt that General Dubois needed no outward insignia of office in the Fortress which he had commanded for so many stirring months. Not even our great Field-Marshal himself was more worshipped by his favourite Indian troops, than this gallant soldier appeared to be by the lion-hearted men in his command.
After giving a few rapid instructions to his staff, the General kindly intimated, to our very great delight, that he himself would become our guide and show us everything that it was possible for us to see. And so we formed again, and, descending another winding stair, found ourselves once more in the open, now opposite a couple of cars which had been ordered to take us for a tour of the city and its defences.
All the illustrations and photographs in the world would fail adequately to prepare one for the bird's-eye view of Verdun as it is to-day. Unlike the ruined cities in the plains, where it is difficult to get a general effect from any particular point, the "uneven lie" of this once beautiful city makes a panorama immediately and terribly visible from any one of its many hills.
The general effect is indescribable, and to me seemed to somewhat resemble Kingston, as I saw it after the great earthquake, plus battered Pompeii and "then some" as America so tersely puts it.
The perfect sunny day, with its calm and peaceful atmosphere, and the Meuse flowing quietly by, only seemed to emphasise the desolation. This sad effect of war was driven home by the unceasing gun-fire.
Our view of the town that once had been was just a flash, for we drove rapidly across without a stop, until we reached the entrance to the Eastern trenches.
Here, leaving our cars, we followed the General into one of that series of defences which the Germans tried in vain to conquer. The trenches were very deep and dry, and, to our great surprise, we found them lined with masses of such flowers as marguerites and poppies, with now and then a flaming hint of yellow and blue. My preconceived idea that trenches must always be unending mud, or banks of grit, dust, and stones, went glimmering. Here was a decorative bit of warfare.
We stayed for some time in these trenches, watching the firing at and from an important strategic point ahead, and, meanwhile, were introduced to several fine young artillery officers, together with the marvellous guns which they controlled.
Presently some one asked if we would like to see a little anti-aircraft work by these famous 75's.
Our answer was a rapid and unanimous affirmative, and so we were afforded an illustration of the amazingly rapid calculations which must be habitually made by anti- aircraft gunners, followed by the almost immediate departure of the first shell.
In vain we searched the sky for a possible hostile aeroplane, but the invading Hun was rare in the Verdun air those days. The General had ordered the firing of a round or two to enable us to appreciate the brief time occupied between the sighting of the plane and the beginning of the hunt.
After it was over we found in our hearts a very good excuse for the Boche flying-man who declined to overdo the hobby of manoeuvring near French artillery. These splendid little guns left us with no possible doubt that they must be uncannily accurate in the way they search the skies.
In contradistinction to the absence of the German airman, French machines were everywhere above, wandering apparently with impunity over the enemy's lines. It was obvious to the most unversed outsider that here, as elsewhere, the Allies' planes must be of the most priceless assistance to the fine artillery with which they so brilliantly co- operate.
They and the observation balloons are the eyes of the Allied Armies; the enemy's eyes are so often stricken that he frequently feels himself quite blind, but while we were at Verdun, whether the Boche were blind or not his firing never seemed to slacken nor his ammunition to give out.
Upon a slope in front of us German guns were pouring a very hailstorm of steel, searching, perhaps, for hidden French batteries.
In response to this invitation the French gunners presently began to spare no pains to make it known that they were still alive and well.
At the General's suggestion the keen young lords of the 75's took us to see their dug- outs, which appeared to be both dry and airy, and as comfortably fitted up as the circumstances would allow. In the quarters of one merry young subaltern was prominently displayed a large coloured proof of a laughing maid of France, with a war medal securely attached to her breast.
Before we left the trenches I gathered a little bunch of brightly coloured flowers to keep as a reminder of our visit. One of the officers who watched me philosophically remarked: "But yes, they are delightful and doing everything they can. Only mankind is disappointing."
A Tortured City
"Returning by the same route we had followed earlier, we re-entered the town, stopping for a moment to inspect the damage caused by a German shell. It had dropped in the middle of the street through which we had just driven and, unfortunately, had killed a military cyclist who happened to be riding by, and then torn a mighty hole out of the opposite house. Some time later I was presented with a pathetic relic, the piece of jagged steel which had killed the poor fellow. On the edge of the section of the shell were the letters "Kr-----," though whether they stood for the name of the great Essen firm or had some other meaning I remain unable to guess.
From the level of the river we climbed to a certain look-out, not far from which we saw a small ammunition store, which was humorously labelled: "Depot de Pillules, Anti- Boches."
Behind us a house was smouldering somewhat fiercely, but a well-directed stream of water was rapidly putting out the fire.
Passing the Theatre, which is on the once delightful Promenade de la Digue, by the side of the Meuse, curiosity led us in for a hasty look round. The outer wall was quite undamaged, but inside the destruction was almost complete. Half the roof had gone, dust and wreckage covered like a shroud the rows of stalls, while the boxes, lined with what once may have been a delicate pink silk, projected gloomily from torn and blistered backgrounds. The scenery had been shifted by a power more explosive even than a stage-workman, and in the semi-darkness hung in tattered fragments about its twisted framework.
No drama ever was performed in that little playhouse which could have been more pathetically appealing than its own appearance is to-day.
Throughout the town the damage done appeared curiously uneven, for some sections had been completely wiped away, with merely heaped up piles of rubbish left behind. Then would come a row of buildings with side and back walls standing, but with that which once had faced the street cut off clean as with a knife, reminding one for all the world of a child's doll's house with its front thrown back.
In these little homes which had suffered, as have so many more, in Flanders and in France, furniture might still be seen standing in the rooms, with here and there a picture on the walls, while occasionally, certain of the household gods arrested in their fall would be hanging at extraordinary angles over the ragged edges of their respective floors.
It was impossible to look at these pathetic wrecks, born of cruel ruthlessnesseach and every one, till some six months before, the abode of hardworking and inoffensive familieswithout attempting to visualise what an invasion of England would mean. Instantly such thoughts doubled one's deep sympathy for that splendid race which is enduring all this suffering, confident of the dawning of that happy day when the last German is driven from the sacred soil of France.
We were taken to see a large building which had been a prosperous and entirely modern factory before the war. The walls were standing, but the interior was entirely gone, the machinery and the stock-in-trade having been reduced to an unrecognisable mass, principally of twisted metal.
At the corner of another street which rose somewhat abruptly from the riverside, and surrounded by brightly painted railings, was a dwelling which had been of the kind described by house agents as "a most desirable residence standing in its own grounds." It had suffered the fate of so many others, but the attractive little garden was gay with flowers, and in one corner, beneath the shade of a weeping ash, stood a green table and four wicker chairs, which were so arranged as to give the impression that their occupants had only just left them. There somehow was a very human, very tragic, touch about that little garden. For some reason those chairs, standing just as they had been deserted, appealed strongly to me. It was so easy to picture their owner, a worthy and respected citizen, sitting in one of them at that small green table, with two or three old friends, all scanning the pleasing prospect spread for their eyes beyond the Meuse, while they discussed the calm and comfortable news of other days far different from these.
Not far away a row of shops, once very trim, now very sad, attracted my attention. At one end they had been merely splashed by shrapnel, while at the other they had been reduced to a mournful heap of stones. At about the middle of the row a modiste had had her simple workroom. Above the door her name was still legible in blistered paint. There was wreckage everywhere, and in the midst of the debris, grim and gaunt, stood the last and only souvenir of her trade, a ladies' dress model.
Although a vindictive spirit is not one of the usual attributes of the Anglo-Saxon, I cannot but hope that at least one German city may share the fate of Verdun, for only by some such means can it be brought home to the German bourgeoisie what have been the sorrows of the humbler classes of the peaceful nation which they sought to crush.
After a fairly thorough tour round the lower-lying sections, the General took us to the heights behind and above the city, from whence a tremendous and most impressive view is visible.
Immediately below us lay all that was left of this once prosperous community, a sad enough sight for the most callous stranger, and one which must be heartrending for a son of Verdun.
Beyond the city limits hill after hill rose from the surrounding country. Each had been the scene of terrific fights and the name of each is known to every schoolboy of to-day.
From this impressive look-out point, we were able to follow and appreciate in what manner the monstrous waves of German soldiery had swept up again and again to overwhelm this granite rock. Yet now, at the end of a six months' storm, the rock was firm as ever, while the waves were on the ebb.
What this great resistance has meant for the world will be for history to decide, but no one could have stood beside that doughty old soldier who guided us and who is "seeing it through" and, with him, could have gazed upon those hills and dales, where had been shed the best and bravest blood of France, without experiencing a feeling far too deep for words.
In a little square below us a large shell exploded as we watched, and on our way down we inspected the damage it had caused. This was purely local, for the shell had landed upon a patch of yielding earth and had merely scattered to the winds a certain amount of harmless soil. However, even this attention was rapidly acknowledged by a series of French guns, which from their cleverly hidden retreats, sent back a very lengthy and, no doubt, effective message.
We were much impressed by the quiet way in which these German visitors were regarded by the Verdunois. His attitude towards them was really, not pretentiously and theatrically, but actually, one of supreme contempt, though one might add that some of us, whom time and experience had not yet inured, could not avoid a slight feeling of curiosity as to where the next shell would drop.
Another point which one could not fail to notice was the very affectionate regard so obviously felt on all sides for the splendid little General. Quick as lightning to detect the smallest deficiency, he seemed to have a genial word for every one, and gave us the lasting impression that he was enormously master of his job.
Having put in a long, though supremely interesting morning, we made our way back to the citadel with excellent appetites, quite ready for the most memorable little meal it has been my lot to experience.
Once more we were led through a series of galleries till we came to one which possessed not only length but considerable breadth.
This proved to be the messroom. At the far end was the General's table, with places laid for some 15 or 16. Beyond this table, in a great cave cut out of the rock, was the kitchen, whence, from the centre of intense activity, came the most savoury indications of a French cuisine.
Overhead huge electric fans kept the air moving, and at the same time stirred to violent fluttering the assembled flags of the Allies, whilst brilliant electric lamps did all they could to make up for the absence of sunlight.
After a rapid introduction to the Staff, the very interesting luncheon began. Surrounded by the very best of fellows, we found superimposed on perfect confidence a spirit of the most unaffected gaiety resulting in an instantaneous feeling of comaraderie. Two of my delightful neighbours were the Commandant of the Artillery and Commandant M. of the --- Chasseurs, both full of the most interesting experiences.
The gallant chasseur was one of the most attractive personalities it has ever been my good fortune to meet, and soon we were talking of his native town of Pau, where, in other and happier days, we used to follow the hounds under the mastership of a sporting citizen of Massachusetts. That Bostonian is working hard for France, to-day, and his son has gained honour and renown as a distinguished member of the Flying Corps.
My French friend told me that this feast was a very special one in our honour, and that the normal fare was on more Spartan lines. It certainly was a great war-beleagured fortress luncheon, announced upon real mimeographed menu cards, marked with the Gallic cock proudly standing on the summit of Verdun's stronghold, and crowing derision to the retreating foe.
The General and my other neighbours kindly wrote a series of little sentiments on my card, which will ever be a treasured souvenir. The first line inscribed: "Ils ne passeront pas, on les aura," expresses, as no other words could do, the dour determination which has animated every one of those heroic defenders since the first day of the siege.
The luncheon closed with two or three most enthusiastic toasts to the great Alliance, together with expressions of sincerest friendship towards the U.S.A. After these we were presented with little mementos in the shape of German fuses, to the accompaniment of the bursting of further shells above us, some of the fragments of which were duly brought down for inspection.
Before we left the General in Command of the Armies in that region arrived, and we were presented to him.
Our kind hosts all came down to the entrance of the citadel to see us start away, and it was with the sincerest regret that we said au revoir to these truly gallant friends, wishing them from the bottom of our hearts a speedy and triumphant conclusion of the greatest siege in history.
Through the Argonne
Leaving Verdun, we ran for many miles beside the Boche, in a due westerly direction, which helped us to appreciate more than ever the meaning of the Verdun Salient, and the wondrous way in which it had withstood the Germans' hammer blows.
Over our heads in unbroken succession floated the French observation balloons, inciting us to try and figure out how large might be the family of these queer-shaped creatures, lined up between the Swiss frontier and the far sea.
After passing through a little town which had been somewhat badly chipped, and where, incidentally, the chipping process was still proceeding, we entered the beautiful Argonne, through which the hostile lines ran side by side, almost meeting at the Four de Paris, to the north of us.
The fighting in this sector must have been of a very trying description, for the density of forest and the thick, heavy undergrowth must have made anything like rapid movement impossible. One officer who had been through a good deal of it, told me that his men were dug in around the tree-roots like rabbits, often near enough to the enemy's trenches to shake a Boche's hand, should that more than doubtful privilege have been desired, but, he added in conclusion, "This form of fighting is not without its fascination."
In the midst of a forest clearing we came upon another little town, where signs of recent destruction were visible on all sides. Here the Hun was a little too close for comfort and firing vigorously, so we pushed along at a rare pace as the shells whistled overhead.
We soon passed through this narrow zone of excitement, for the rapidly rising road turned sharply to the south. Pulling up at a higher level, we were able to contemplate, from a picturesque look-out above the trees, the little village in the valley far below.
The Boche here was still busy, but from what we could make out his missiles appeared to be dropping with unfailing regularity into the unoffending fields.
Our exciting incidents over for the day, we forged ahead, along a perfect road, which, like all other roads upon which we had journeyed near the firing-line, was in wonderful condition, and appeared to have been considerably widened to cope with the increased traffic of the war. Mounds of broken stones were piled up on either side ready for improvements and repairs. The French authorities let nothing interfere with the great work of keeping up the Republic's highways in these important sections.
When we reached our comfortable quarters in a clean and bustling little town, we found a kind invitation awaiting us to dine with Gen. Gouraud and his Staff, so, after a much needed and thorough brush-up, we got into the cars, and escorted by Capt. B.-L., drove away to-----.
On arrival at the severely plain and simple little building, which served as the distinguished soldier's headquarters, we duly were presented to some six or eight Generals and officers of high rank attached to the Staff of this Army. Almost immediately afterwards General Gouraud came in, accompanied by General X. of the Artillery, and then we all adjourned into the garden, where a most delightful meal was served under the trees.
General Gouraud is a very striking-looking man, with the clearest eye imaginable, a massive, broad forehead, strong Roman nose and a light-brown, pointed beard. Altogether, he is a most impressive personality.
This keen-looking General, who before taking up his present post held an important command in the Near East, wastes no words, and is a master of the most unequivocal and incisive French.
He left us in no doubt as to his quiet confidence in the Allies' future progress. I often had heard that his men were devoted to him, and found it quite easy to realise why they should be. That the same affectionate regard for their chief is entertained by his personal Staff I learnt on inquiring of one what length of service he had put in with the General. "Twelve years," he replied, "mais pas de service, douze ans de bonheur! "
Not far from these Headquarters the hopes of Attila and his Huns were wrecked some fifteen hundred years ago. Should fortune so ordain, the French Army in this sector is quite ready to deal in the self-same measure with the hopes of Attila the Second, and his Huns, in turn.