Thursday 12 October 2023

The Battle of Verdun - The Right Bank (1916)

 In his rather intriguing memoir 'General Headquarters 1914-1916 and its critical decisions' General Von Falkenhayn articulated the logic behind Germany's decision to attack Verdun in 1916. The strain on France had already reached breaking point ... if we succeeded in opening the eyes of her people that in a military sense they had nothing more to hope for, then breaking point would be reached and England's best sword knocked out of her hand. Falkenhayn had succeeded Helmuth Von Moltke as German Chief of Staff in September 1914 following the failure of the Schlieffen Plan and remained in command until the Battle of Verdun ground to a bloody halt in late summer 1916. 

View of the Voie Sacree (Phil Curme Collection)

Armed with an original 1920s Michelin Guide we started our exploration of the battlefields at the old 2nd French Army G.H.Q. in the town of Souilly which was midway along the only real access route for reinforcements, the Voie Sacree (Sacred Road). The villa in question is now the town hall and there is a small museum adjacent to it. The Michelin Guide helpfully included an image of Generals Joffre and Petain on the steps, and I couldn't resist the opportunity of a 'then & now' comparison. Joffre is looking towards the building (probably contemplating one of his renowned lunches!) whilst Petain is looking straight to camera. 

2nd Army GHQ, Souilly
The road up to Verdun is incredibly evocative. Original post war marker stones mark the route and modern large-scale display boards show images of the men who traversed the road and the vehicles that transported them along with the huge quantities of supplies needed to keep the French Army in the field - and effective. Straying in to a ploughed field alongside the road, I picked up  a French soldier's drinking cup (subsequently verified as an original 1916 battlefield relic). I couldn't help reflecting on whether the Poulie who originally lost it, had returned to his family after the war or whether his bones rested in the huge ossuary and military cemetery a few miles to the north east. 

Our first true battlefield walk was at the extreme top end of the battlefield on the right bank of the Meuse - a river which divided the theatre of operations and drove much of the tactical thinking throughout the siege. The Bois des Caires was the spot where two battalions of Chasseurs under the command of Colonel Emile Driant fought a heroic defensive action at the very start of the battle. Driant had been a member of the French parliament prior to the start of the war, where he had voiced concerns about the state of the French Army's defensive capabilities. Despite being above the age of enlistment, Driant had pulled strings to get himself involved when war was imminent. A walk through the woods reveals Driant's original command post, the spot where he fell (see image below), his restored gravesite and a memorial to his unit. 

The spot where Colonel Driant fell (Phil Curme Collection)

After walking up Wavrille Hill to the south of the Bois de Caures in order to explore a number of old artillery positions and French bunkers, we travelled across territory that had been totally smashed during the conflict and where the destroyed villages were never rebuilt. All that remains of places like Beaumont, Ornes, Louvemont and Bezonvaux are broken buildings and post-war memorials and remembrance chapels.

The site of Bezonvaux village (Phil Curme Collection)

The German attacks on the right bank (of which there were many) were blunted and eventually stopped amongst the hills and defences which were capped by a series of forts - now synonymous with the intensity of the fighting. Denuded of effective artillery and well below strength, the forts at Douaumont and Vaux fell to the Germans in the early stages of the battle. The capture of the former came as a particular shock to the French, as it was achieved by a mere handful of German soldiers with the defending garrison putting up very little resistance. Subsequent assaults on the forts, by both sides, were hard-fought and costly in terms of human lives. Both forts are now museums and by visiting them you can get a sense of how awful it must have been, fighting in confined spaces and being concussed as massive artillery rounds landed on the casement above. 

Casement - Fort Douaumont (Phil Curme Collection)

Reverse Elevation - Fort Douaumont (Phil Curme Collection)

If one has any doubts about the ferocity of the fighting around Verdun then a visit to the National Cemetery and Ossuary at Douaumont will serve to disperse such thoughts. the site is a sombre place centred on the ossuary building itself. The enclosed tower contains articles picked up on the battlefield but these are but a distraction when it comes to absorbing the true magnitude of what the ossuary represents. The interior has a high vaulted ceiling straddling a long hall decorated with commemorative plaques and centred on a small chapel. Underneath the hall, there is a large vault containing the bones of over 130,000 combatants which one can glimpse through viewing windows at ground level on the outside of the building. 

Exterior - Verdun Ossuary (Phil Curme Collection)

Interior - Vedun Ossuary (Phil Curme Collection)

The title of Alistair Horne's outstanding history of the battle, 'The Price of Glory' sums up the meaning of this monument perfectly. to the south of the vast cemetery which frames the ossuary building, is a moving memorial to the French colonial troops who 'died for France'.  My overall impressions? The fact that the battlefield was left as it was after the battle, gives an eerie feel to the place. The destroyed villages, the cemeteries, the smashed forts - all are gradually being reclaimed by nature. The landscape may be softening, but the impact of the structures that remain tell a different, violent story. 

For my Flickr collection of images from the Verdun battlefield click here