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By Malcolm Brown
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Malcolm Brown
All rights reserved.
Certain places are fated to be permanently marked by what happened in them or in their vicinity at one particular moment of history. The name is enough: mention it and the connotations gather around, the reputation clicks instantly into place. The twentieth century was rich in such names and in its own particular category Verdun stands high. The battle to defend that garrison town in northeastern France from 21 February to 18 December 1916 has become a symbol almost without parallel of the awfulness of modern industrialised conflict. Perhaps only Stalingrad, famous for the six-month-long siege-battle in Soviet Russia which became the turning point of the Second World War, can invite serious comparison. So much was implicitly acknowledged by the man who more than anyone caused the Stalingrad débâcle, Adolf Hitler, when in November 1942 he assured his Nazi Old Guard in a speech at Munich that it would never become 'a second Verdun'. It did, with himself and his country as the losers.
Verdun had its Russian connotations even while the battle was being fought. The German Supreme Commander on the Russian Front (himself to be closely associated with Hitler's rise to power) was General Paul von Hindenburg. He would later write:
'Verdun!' The name was continually on our lips in the East from the beginning ... As time went on ... doubts gradually began to prevail, though they were but seldom expressed. They could be summarised shortly in the following question: Why should we persevere with an offensive which exacted such frightful sacrifices and, as was already obvious, had no prospects of success?
The Russians – allies of France and Britain at this time, their withdrawal from the war under Lenin still almost two years away – looked on the French response to the German attack on Verdun with something approaching awe. M. Maurice Paléologue, the French ambassador at the court of the Tsar, had been aware that for some time the Russian people had tended to sneer at the French contribution to the war. Now he sensed a different mood. 'The Battle of Verdun,' he noted in his diary as early as 28 February, 'has changed all that. The heroism of our army, the skill and coolness of our High Command, our enormous resources in matériel and the splendid attitude of our public opinion are admired by everyone.'
Britain also watched with admiration, if with frustration in military circles because 1916 was meant to be the year of a great Anglo–French offensive, not a German one. The intended attack went ahead, if with reduced French participation. It became known as the Battle of the Somme, itself a kind of Verdun replica, not dissimilar in level of sacrifice if fortunately shorter in duration.
For the French, Verdun would become a lasting symbol. When Henry Bordeaux, who doubled as soldier and patriotic writer, produced the first of his two books about the battle, The Last Days of Fort Vaux – published in 1917 – he began his Preface with the paragraph:
VERDUN – those two syllables that have already become historic ring out today like the brazen tones of a trumpet. In France, no one can hear them without a thrill of pride. In England, in America, if any speaker utters them, the whole audience rises as one man.
If one were to nominate a British parallel, it would not be associated with the Somme, but with that other sector of the former Western Front where the British have long had a special link, Flanders, where between 1914 and 1918 there took place no fewer than four Battles of Ypres. The city of Ypres, determinedly defended with the kind of 'they shall not pass' mentality which pertained at Verdun, is the only possible British equivalent. In August 1915, a young British private, Rifleman P.H. Jones of the Queen's Westminster Rifles, wrote in his diary:
One feels that this City of the Dead is infinitely greater, infinitely more sublime in the hour of its ruin than it could ever have been in the past. It seems to be a symbol, not only of the mad destruction against which we are fighting but also of the ideals for which we struggle. We hold this place for moral effect only (our troops would be better off behind the Canal) for an ideal, in short. We have paid a heavy price for our ideal, two great battles and Heaven knows how many more to come. There is nothing sordid in this place, in holding it men have died for a dream, sacrificed themselves for a heap of ruins.
The French would have recognised such sentiments for they reflect what they themselves felt instinctively in relation to Verdun. There was, however, a major difference. The British were fighting abroad. The French, like the Belgians, were fighting on their own ground, their patrie. More, substantial areas of that patrie were under occupation. As far back as the first weeks of the war a British cavalry officer, Captain E.W.S. Balfour, Adjutant of the 5th Dragoon Guards, had sensed the fury his allies felt at the loss of so much territory to the enemy. In a letter to his family he wrote:
To the French it is their own home and it makes them mad. We somehow fight on with no increased animosity. If we were ordered to retire again tomorrow, I don't believe we should lose morale. The French really are giving everything and it makes one wonder if people in England realise what the advance of an invading army over a country means.
It was because of such attitudes that when the Germans attacked Verdun in 1916 it was defended in so furious a manner. The French had yielded enough heartland already; to lose more would inflict yet more humiliation. In Balfour's phraseology, it made them mad and forced them to give everything rather than concede.
The result was what rapidly became known as the 'Hell of Verdun'. Significantly the most famous painting of the battle, by Georges Leroux, is called 'L'Enfer': 'Hell'. With its depiction of smoke, fire, mud, shattered trees, and pygmy figures in gas-masks attempting to crawl out of a flooded trench it is almost like a science-fiction version of a Gustave Doré illustration to Dante or a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Small wonder that Verdun's reputation once fixed became so enduring.
There was further fighting there in the following year, if smaller in scale; even the thought of it could act as a reminder of what had happened in the preceding one. In the late summer of 1917 a sixteen-year-old American, Julian Green (born in Paris, with French as his chief language, and a future novelist of distinction), then working as a volunteer ambulance-driver, found himself in the wooded hill country of the Argonne, not many miles from Verdun. Soon after his arrival a fellow member of his unit called him out on to the terrace of the building they were using as a headquarters and invited him to listen, to a low, distant, incessant rumbling. His first thought was that he was hearing a storm. 'No' said his colleague. 'If it were thunder the noise would stop occasionally. This noise is constant. It's Verdun.' Green would write of his reaction:
I shuddered at the mention of this sinister yet fascinating name. There, I knew I really would have been frightened. There, my intestines would certainly have turned to liquid like those of King David in the Psalms. Verdun was a hell, and the noise I heard in the distance was the ghastly rattle of death, the vast black hole where the armies of two nations were being swallowed up. I could not utter a word ...
How Verdun came to be attacked and how it was defended, and how, against the odds, it has now become a remarkable symbol of international reconciliation is the subject of this book, published at the onset of a century in which it is hoped that such massive human tragedies as those that took place at Verdun, the Somme, Ypres and Stalingrad will join the list of what the poet William Wordsworth called 'old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago'.CHAPTER 2
Verdun is a town – now more frequently referred to as a city – of the Département of Meuse, itself part of the ancient province of Lorraine. The annual Michelin guide notes its distance from other notable centres: Paris 262 kilometres, Metz 66, Châlons-sur-Marne 87, Nancy 110, Reims 119. In terms of its situation in 1916 it might have added: approximate distance from German front line, 18 kilometres.
Verdun is surrounded by a circle of hills, the Meuse Heights, with beyond them to the east the marshy Woevre Plain; Metz lies at its extreme edge. Not far to the north is the uphill country of the Ardennes (through which Hitler, to the amazement of his enemies, sent his invasion forces in 1940), while to the west are the forests of the Argonne. Further west lie the plains, and the vineyards, of Champagne. The reason for the town's existence is that it stands at the point where the main route from Metz to Paris crosses the river Meuse.
The Meuse has none of the obvious glamour of the Loire or the Seine, but its course is nevertheless a fascinating one, and one with much history. Flowing 885 kilometres from its source in the département of Haute-Marne, it passes Domrémy-la-Pucelle, famous as the birthplace of Joan of Arc, on its northward progress to Verdun. Moving on from Verdun it next claims Sedan, scene of an ignominious French surrender in 1870, before entering Belgium, where its name changes to the Flemish version, Maas. Then, in the course of a long eastward parabola towards the North Sea, it passes the Belgian towns of Namur and Liège and the Dutch town of Maastricht before linking up with the Waal, part of the supreme river of the German cultural imagination, the Rhine. Even then it manages to reach the sea in several outlets and under several aliases. Among the rivers feeding into it is the Sambre; devotees of Britain's war poets will recall that the best of them, Wilfred Owen, lost his life in November 1918 on the banks of the nearby Sambre-Oise Canal. Much of the course of the Meuse was fought over in numerous actions in both the twentieth-century's world wars.
A river's banks are labelled in relation to its progress to the sea. Thus when in the context of the Verdun battle the Meuse's right bank is mentioned, the reference is to the eastward side (at this point it flows, if with several severe loops, almost due north); its left bank, therefore, is that to the west.
Verdun has long been a bone of contention. In that huge area of northern France, Belgium and constantly changing border country which none other than General Charles de Gaulle (himself a combatant there in 1916) was to call a 'fatal avenue', Verdun was a place that was frequently in the wars.
There was a Gallic settlement here and then a Roman: Virodunum Castrum, hence, by the easiest of mutations, Verdun. Attila the Hun attacked it in 450, leaving it 'like a field ravaged by wild beasts'. In 843 a treaty signed here annexed Verdun to the ancient kingdom of Lorraine. From 870 for a time it became part of France, but in 923 it was incorporated into the then German Empire. Moving on several centuries, we find Verdun seized in 1552 by Henri II, King of France. Over time it would acquire the distinction of being subjected to at least ten sieges.
One of the most famous was that of 1792, during the wars that broke out subsequent to the French Revolution. The siege produced one of those ringing exhortations at which the French have always been adept, when Danton, then supreme revolutionary leader, urged the town's populace to hold out against the investing Prussians with the message: 'il nous faut de l'audace, encore de l'audace, toujours de l'audace': 'we need audacity, more audacity, always audacity'. It was not enough, for the town capitulated, but it started a trend. There would be more such slogans when Verdun was under siege once again in 1916.
Verdun came well out of the disastrous Franco–Prussian War of 1870–71. At a time of deep national disgrace, it refused to open its gates to the victorious armies of Kaiser Wilhelm I, spiritedly repelling an attack in August 1870 and only conceding in November, when its garrison was allowed to surrender with the honours of war. Paris had been under siege for months before Verdun gave in. In the harsh political settlement that followed, while Alsace and most of Lorraine were annexed to Germany, Verdun was excepted. It thus became in effect a frontier town, with the new border barely a day's march away. As a result it could easily have been an early victim in 1914, when the impetuous French advance into Alsace-Lorraine was brushed aside by the superbly trained forces of Kaiser Wilhelm II. But the troops of the Crown Prince Wilhelm's Fifth Army were held up before it by fierce resistance and so when the lines congealed and trench warfare began, it remained in French hands, if with the Germans ominously close.
Verdun had another distinction. It was a town exceptionally well-defended in the style associated with one of the great masters of seventeenth century warfare, Marshal Sebastian de Vauban.
Vauban (1633–1707) is a key figure in the history of modern Europe but one whose name is relatively unknown, largely because his speciality, fortifications, makes for less exciting reading than that other matter which dominates the writing of history, fighting. Everybody knows who lost and won the siege of Troy, but who were the superb military architects who made that city so impregnable that it could only be seized after ten years through the basically unsporting ruse of the wooden horse? Vauban's stock in trade was the creation of a Trojan-style security: in effect, walls to forestall wars.
His principal role was that of specialist military adviser to one of the most bellicose leaders of the last millennium, King Louis XIV of France. Famous now most of all for his splendid palace, Versailles, and secondarily for his mistresses, the so-called 'Sun King' was in his lifetime seen above all as a human Mars, a bringer of war. This he himself acknowledged when on his deathbed in 1715 he confessed to his young successor, Louis XV, that he had 'loved war too much'.
Under Louis XIV's almost quixotic lust for glory was a need for security. What drove him to almost constant warfare was the fear that the alternative might lead to defeat and therefore disgrace. In such circumstances Vauban might easily have been a compliant toady, but on the contrary he presented him with what has been described as 'a method of waging war elegantly and with a minimum of bloodshed'. Vauban proposed, in effect, a frontier of interconnected and brilliantly designed strongholds which an enemy would find virtually impossible to penetrate. Thus was begun a philosophy of defence which links Vauban directly across the centuries with that supreme icon of the 1930s (alas, also to be dubbed a supreme white elephant), the Maginot Line.
Vauban's creations can be seen far and wide today: at Mont-Louis in the Pyrenees, at St Malo in Brittany, where the Fort National offers a Vauban 'first' to visitors from Britain, in the great Citadels of Lille and Arras, and at numerous other places along the northern and eastern frontier such as Montmédy, whose 'majestic citadel' (as described by the historian Richard Holmes in his tour de force celebration of this crucial zone of Europe, rightly called Fatal Avenue), 'scrapes the skyline long before the town itself is visible'. There is even one of his creations, more a forward bastion than part of any obvious plan of defence, at Neuf-Brisach on the left bank of the Rhine. Verdun was of course bound to be included high in his list, as is evident from the town's massive Citadel, which bears the master's unmistakable hallmark.
The experience of 1870, however, had left the French with the feeling that Vauban's legacy along their eastern frontier was not enough. Thus an expert in fortification of a similar school, General Seré de Rivières, was entrusted with the construction of a whole new defence system which effectively created a series of 'entrenched camps'. Each consisted of a town and an outlying ring of forts. Belfort, Toul, Épinal and Verdun made up, as it were, the front line, while Langres, Dijon and Besançon lay in reserve. Between Épinal and Toul a gap was deliberately left, in the hope that in the case of another invasion it might act as a kind of mouse-trap, to lure an unwary enemy to come in and be destroyed. There was a similar, much less developed system along the Belgian border, though there was less urgency over this sector, as it was not perceived as a main point of danger. In the region of Verdun, the scheme was at its most sophisticated. Thus when the Germans began to plan their assault there in 1916 they found their maps marked with no fewer than twenty major and forty minor obstacles in the way of their possible lines of attack.
Excerpted from Verdun 1916 by Malcolm Brown. Copyright © 2014 Malcolm Brown. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 The Name,
2 The Background,
3 The Plan,
4 The Preparations,
5 The Battle: First Phase,
6 The Seizure of Fort Douaumont,
7 The Nights of the Generals,
8 The Holding of the Line,
9 The Battle: Second Phase,
10 The Sacred Way,
11 The Helping Hand,
12 'The Mill on the Meuse',
13 The Heroic Defence of Fort Vaux,
14 The Martyr City,
15 The Turning-Point,
16 The Continuing Battle,
17 The Recapture of Fort Douaumont,
18 The Closedown,
19 The Experience,
20 The Legacy,
Postscript: Verdun Revisited,
List of Illustrations,
By the Same Author,