Authors: Alistair Horne
evenings were as gay as ever before the war. The officers dining there may have looked back with some nostalgia on the peacetime fishing in clear streams and the wonderful
chasses au sanglier
among the oak woods that covered the hills beyond the Meuse, now the forward area, but otherwise life was not disagreeable. For, in fact, from October 1914 until February 1916 the Verdun sector had been one of the quietest of the whole front; true, the occasional shelling had forced Area HQ to shift from the barracks surmounting Vauban’s Citadel into its impenetrable subterranean casemates, and finally out of Verdun altogether, but then staff officers were notoriously windy. An officer arriving from the Champagne in April 1915 expressed astonishment at not hearing a single cannon; it was, he remarked, just like peacetime. Life behind the French lines at Verdun was agreeably, deceptively and dangerously calm — it may have been not unlike Singapore in the last days of 1941. And no one was more deceived than the
Grand Quartier Général.
Verdun was reputedly unassailable, the strongest fortress on earth, the Gibraltar-cum-Singapore of the First War. Its reputation had been thoroughly put to the test during the Battle of the Marne. The Crown Prince’s Army had all but encircled the fortress, and Joffre — ever mindful of the fate of Bazaine, locked up in Metz with his huge useless army in 1870 — actually ordered its abandon. Fortunately the commander of the French Third Army, Sarrail, an elderly general with an American Civil War beard, disregarded the order. Verdun stood like a rock against the Crown Prince’s repeated assaults, forming a vital anchor and pivot for the whole left wing of the French Army falling back on Paris. Had it in fact been abandoned, Joffre’s front would have been cut in two, the Miracle of the Marne could never have taken place, Paris — and probably the war — would have been lost. In 1914 the importance of Verdun was as simple as that.
After the Marne, the Germans had been forced to withdraw slightly on either side of the fortress, but surged back again to establish a bridgehead across the Meuse at St. Mihiel, embarrassingly close
to Verdun and severing one of its major railway links. Through 1915 new attempts had been made to cut off Verdun by thrusting into the salient on both flanks, at Vauquois in the Argonne and Les Eparges, culminating in some particularly savage mine warfare. By 1916, the front around Verdun still formed a bulge like a large and vulnerable hernia.
On the ground, Verdun’s defences looked dreadfully impressive. Surrounding it on all sides were the steep Meuse hills whose unusual concentric pattern itself formed an immense natural fort, with a radius of five to ten miles, the Keep at the centre of the fort being Verdun itself. In the vital northeast sector of the Right Bank there were four natural lines of defence along the ridges. Many of these were formed like the glacis of a fort, sloping gently away towards the enemy, but with steep reverse slopes, so that defenders could lie in wait in these relatively protected ravines, then move up to sweep an enemy advancing up the long glacis with withering fire. Forces trying to progress along the meandering Meuse valley would find themselves caught in enfilading fire first from the one side, then from the other, from the ridges that protruded, interlocking and overlapping, into the river bends. Little resemblance here to the featureless, open country of Flanders and the Champagne.
Moreover, the crest of each important hill or ridge in this great natural stronghold was itself studded with powerful forts, the outstanding feature of Verdun’s defences and the derivative of General de Rivière’s post-1870 line of fortifications. On the German 1914 maps alone, no less than twenty major and forty intermediary forts (or
as the French called them) were shown. The Right Bank forts lay roughly in an outer and two inner rings; the first containing Moulainville, Vaux and Douaumont; the next, Tavannes and Souville; and the innermost ring, on the heights overlooking Verdun, Belrupt, St. Michel and Belleville. On the left bank there were two similar lines, but the most important was the outer one comprising five forts along the Bois Bourrus ridge, which lay interlocking with the Douaumont and Souville lines across the river. To the south of Verdun, but unconcerned in the great approaching battle, were still further clusters of forts. Of all, the most powerful, and indeed, the cornerstone, was Douaumont; which, from its 1,200-foot elevation, dominated the terrain at every point of the compass like a scaled-down Monte Cassino.
From the time of Vauban, French engineers have led the world
in the ingenuity of their fortifications, and Verdun was no exception. Each fort was so sited that its guns could dislodge any enemy appearing on the glacis of its neighbour. The guns themselves, sometimes either a heavy 155 mm. or twin short-barrelled 75s, were housed under heavy steel carapaces in retractable turrets, and were invulnerable to all but a direct hit from the heaviest artillery. They were supplemented by equally well-protected machine-gun turrets and ingeniously placed block-houses containing flanking guns that could repel an attack on the fort from any direction. The bigger forts contained a company of infantry or more underground, and the more modern were armoured with reinforced concrete up to eight feet deep under a thick layer of earth. They were in fact like ranks of immobile, but apparently indestructible tanks, or a flotilla of unsinkable monitors. Furthermore, as the battle had receded in 1914, the outer line of the forts had been left with a protective cordon of trenches in the foothills between them and the Germans, two or three miles deep; which the French had had a relatively undisturbed fifteen months to make as impregnable as might be.
In theory, Verdun in 1916 should have been the strongest point of the whole Allied line. Yet, in practice, it was one of the weakest. Why?
In 1914 the ease with which the secret German 420s had shattered the legendary Belgian forts, and — worse still — had forced the surrender of France’s own Manonviller, her biggest and most modern, had come as a terrible shock to the French High Command. At G.Q.G., the Grandmaisonites — ignoring Sarrail’s success at Verdun — rapidly exploited these disasters to their own advantage (no doubt partly to re-establish their reputation tarnished by the Battle of the Frontiers). Forts are nothing but shell traps, they averred, and so we have always maintained; quite out of keeping with French offensive spirit. The French soldier’s place was
en rase campagne
, if absolutely necessary in a trench, but certainly not hiding under a pile of concrete. And what had happened to Bazaine and MacMahon in the vaunted fortresses of Metz and Sedan during the last war? When the Allied 1915 spring offensives failed, owing to lack of artillery, G.Q.G. had rummaged through all its arsenals for every available gun. But why not tap the vast resources of cannon installed in all those useless fortresses at Verdun, suggested some bright disciple of de Grandmaison?
In July, General Dubail, commanding the Group of Armies East,
in whose sector Verdun lay, told a visiting Army Commission delegation that, of course, G.Q.G. was quite right. The actual Governor of Verdun, General Coutanceau, disagreed and was promptly sacked for his temerity. The following month his successor, an elderly gunner called Herr, was instructed by Dubail (acting on direct orders from Joffre) that ‘Strongholds, destined to be invested, have no longer a rôle to play’. Verdun itself ‘must
under no circumstances
be defended for itself, and the General commanding there must at
allow himself to be invested there’. Meanwhile, to meet the needs of the forthcoming Champagne offensive, the Verdun forts were stripped of their guns; notably those in the flanking blockhouses, and in fact virtually all but the cannon immovably fixed in the revolving turrets. By October the equivalent of forty-three heavy (plus 128,000 rounds) and eleven field-gun batteries had been removed. At a stroke the whole defence system of France’s mightiest strongpoint was transformed; it was, in the words of one French military historian, ‘an imprudence difficult to qualify.’
Meanwhile, General Herr, under orders from a High Command contemptuous of the fortresses on the Right Bank, began to prepare a line of defence on the Left Bank, i.e.
Verdun. No sooner, however, had he asked the Corps Commander
for a defence plan than the corps was moved to the Champagne, and right up to February 1916 the unfortunate Herr was plagued by a shortage of hands, through forces being constantly withdrawn to feed other fronts. By February 10th, two days before the German attack was due to begin, the French were still pre-occupied with works on the Left Bank; yet, towards the end of January as the German threat began to filter through to G.Q.G.’s consciousness, Herr’s limited forces were called upon, in addition, to work on communications to Verdun and positions on the Right Bank. ‘Everything had been started, and nothing finished.’
Not only were the numbers for the job grossly lacking, but the spirit was too. In contrast to both the British and the Germans, the French soldier has never been renowned for ‘digging-in’. Then, the troops available to Herr were also either weary from the Champagne offensives, looking forward to a ‘cushy’ life on a quiet front, or else ‘old sweats’ who had been too long in the calm of Verdun to see any point in getting their hands blistered for the whims of some new general. A visiting officer, querying a soldier about the lack of communication trenches up to the front-line — those vital, life-saving
arteries — was told: ‘It doesn’t matter. One can pass very easily, the Germans don’t shoot.’ The rot of the ‘phony war’ at Verdun had apparently spread to high levels; ‘In the Verdun zone of battle there was not a communication trench, not one underground telephone line, no barbed wire. But huge entanglements had been placed around the ramparts of the city itself… for the benefit of visitors.’ It was indeed ‘
un terrain à catastrophe
’; such was the immediate reaction on taking up his command of General Chrétien, the man whose corps was to bear the brunt of the German onslaught a few weeks later.
General Herr, perhaps a little too mild-mannered and ineffectual, cannot be absolved for the lethargy of those under his command, but he at least was alert to Verdun’s terrible weakness. Repeatedly he pleaded in vain for reinforcements to carry out the essential works. The poor man’s despair is reflected in his remark to an aide of Pétain in the autumn of 1915: ‘Every day I tremble; if I were attacked I could not hold; I’ve told the G.Q.G., and they refuse to listen to me.’ And later, to Galliéni, the Minister of Defence: ‘What was most terrible for me, was the Young Turks of G.Q.G. At every demand I addressed them for reinforcement in artillery, they replied with the
of two batteries or two and a half batteries; “you will not be attacked. Verdun is not the point of the attack. The Germans don’t know that Verdun has been disarmed.” ’
So G.Q.G. remained blind to the danger threatening Verdun and deaf to Herr’s appeals, until, quite unexpectedly Joffre’s Olympian calm was shaken by a mere Lieutenant-Colonel.
Emile Driant, however, was no ordinary colonel. Early in his army career (at the time of Verdun he was over sixty), he had been ADC to General Boulanger, subsequently marrying his daughter. A brilliant soldier, he had published several books on war, including one called
La Guerre de Forteresse
, but, probably on account of his political connections more than any other reason, he found himself passed over for promotion in five consecutive years. He finally decided to resign from the army, and became Deputy for a constituency close to Verdun. During the pre-war years he had repeatedly attacked the weaknesses in the French Army, and the German manoeuvres he attended in 1906 so alarmed him that he wrote an article for
predicting ‘we would be beaten as in 1870, but even more completely than in 1870…’ In 1914 he at once rejoined his old unit, the
as a reserve officer. He was
attached to the staff of the Verdun garrison, but, despite his age, requested an active command and was given two battalions of Chasseurs.
After the Marne, his Chasseurs, the 56th and 59th, had been given the task of clearing the Bois des Caures to the northeast of Verdun, and there they had remained ever since.
The Bois des Caures was a wood about two miles long and half a mile wide, running northeast to southwest atop a small but dominant rise. In 1916 it comprised the centre of the Verdun first line on the Right Bank, and lay right across the axis of any direct German assault on the fortress. Thus Driant found himself entrusted with the defence of a key position of the first importance.
Like most of his rapid-marching, hard-fighting
, Driant was a smallish man, but his fiercely aquiline, mustachioed face (a sub-specie of the race that by 1918 seemed to have become virtually extinct) radiated will-power. In a letter of January 1915, Driant declared the Germans ‘will not make one further step forward; they will never penetrate to Verdun, even if they bring up all their 420s.’ By July, obviously uneasy, he was complaining to his Brigade Commander that he would be unable to carry out the works ordered, while at the same time adequately manning the front line. On August 22nd he was writing to his friend Paul Deschanel, President of the Chamber of Deputies, predicting:
The sledge-hammer blow will be delivered on the line Verdun-Nancy. What moral effect would be created by the capture of one of these cities!… we are doing everything, day and night, to make our front inviolable… but there is one thing about which one can do nothing;
the shortage of hands
. And it is to this that I beg you to call the attention of the Minister (of Defence). If our first line is carried by a massive attack, our second line is inadequate and we are not succeeding in establishing it;
lack of workers
and I add:
lack of barbed wire.