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HISTORY OF THE WORLD WAR

VOLUME THREE - VERDUN AND THE SOMME

 

BY FRANK H. SIMONDS


CHAPTER ONE -  NEW PERIOD


I THE TWO CONTESTS


The third period of the World War, that which is included within

the twelve months of 1916, presents a clearer and less complicated pic-

ture than the two preceding periods. In it the expectations of a sudden

decision, following a tremendous success continue to weaken have

in fact well nigh vanished by the end of the campaign. Even the

Germans, who in their attack upon Verdun at least dreamed of a new

Sedan, have laid it aside by the coming of winter and are seeking to re-

inforce military weapons by a peace offensive, while the experience of the

Allies on the defensive at Verdun, on the offensive at the Somme has

dissipated the notions common in all the earlier months of the struggle.


In this period which we are now to examine, the real interest and im-

portance of two contests dwarf all else. Verdun and the Somme are

conflicts which in turn held the stage of the world as no two military

dramas had fixed the concentrated attention of a world audience since

the last phases of the Napoleonic cycle. Unlike the great campaigns

of the previous year in the east, they were fought on ground that had, in

a measure, been familiar at all times to millions in Allied and neutral

nations alike, and in the months of the World War had been studied

and re-studied until Arras and Rheims, Amiens and Verdun, were

definite circumstances in the minds of the people of all classes in all

countries.


The result was unmistakable. While the German armies advanced

through Poland and Serbia, while Mitteleuropa was constructed by

campaigns along the Vistula, the Dniester and the Danube, the world

audience still fixed its attention upon the trenches of Flanders and

Champagne. The meaning of the eastern movements escaped it, but

when Germany renewed her assault upon France, when she sought a

decision at Verdun, and still later when the Allies in their turn took the

offensive along the Somme, the world understood at once the issues of

the contests and hung breathlessly on the details of the operations.


And these circumstances gave to the struggles which centred about

Verdun and the Somme a hold upon popular imagination which, if not

in excess of their real value, was at least disproportionate to their com-

parative importance, measured beside the later events on the eastern

front. The defeat of the Germans at Verdun was one of the great

achievements of the war, it was the preservation of that decision of the

Marne, which for four years saved western civilization from the imme-

diate threat of German domination. The Somme was the first expression 

of the true military power of an organized Britain, but the Somme and

Verdun blinded the Allied nations to what was happening in the east

and this blindness led to still another bitter awakening, when Russia

collapsed and Rumania fell.


The campaign of 1916 is interesting as one more attempt of the two

contending forces to break the western deadlock and abolish the war of

positions preparatory to crushing the enemy in a new campaign of

movement. When it opened, Germany, victorious in the east, her

Mitteleuropa all but completed, sought a decision in the west, which

should guarantee her position in the east. By midsummer, with

the German success at Verdun still postponed, the Allies took the

offensive and by concentric attacks at the Somme, before Gorizia, in

Galicia, and finally in Transylvania and in Macedonia, endeavoured to

overwhelm the Central Powers by equal pressure on all fronts.


But if subsequently German failure at Verdun was complete, inci-

dental Allied successes at Gorizia, in Galicia, in Macedonia were ren-

dered of no value, when Russia betrayed Rumania and German, Bulgarian, and Turkish troops occupied Bucharest and Constanza, and

completed the clearing of the roadway from Berlin to Constantinople.

Hopes of a decision in the campaign of 1917 were thus plainly destroyed,

as the defection of Russia became assured, while the German, despite

his successes in the east, weighed against these brilliant achievements the

terrible death lists of Verdun and the Somme and contemplated an in-

evitable retreat in the west, made necessary by the British advance over

the Albert ridge.


Thus, after a campaign in which first German and then Allied hopes

reached a high level, both coalitions were compelled to confess failure in

the pursuit of an immediate decision and concede the growing likelihood

that complete military decision would be attained, if at all, in years,

rather than in months. The logical consequence of this was the German

peace offensive of the closing weeks of 1916, which, in a measure, trans-

formed the character of the struggle and introduced a new element,

never again to be totally absent, and destined in the following year to

increase in importance with each additional month of warfare.


II. THE CAMPAIGN OF 1916


The campaign of 1916 is thus a turning point in the history of the

war. In it both coalitions by arms alone, seek a decisive triumph. There-

after each contending party, while carrying on the military campaign

with varying energy, throws more and more attention to diplomacy,

to intrigue, and propaganda, and to the effort to capitalize the war

weariness in the opposing nations and to break the morale of the

enemy by peace proposals, necessarily vague, since on neither side

is there yet any real willingness to compromise on the vital questions,

but designed to fasten upon the enemy the responsibility for the pro-

longation of a war, become almost intolerable to both sides.


In the period now under examination, Russia makes her last fight.

The victories of Brusiloff in Volhynia and along the Dniester are, in fact,

the expiring flicker of that Romanoff regime which, from Peter the

Great to the latest Alexander, had carried Russian armies and Slav

frontiers onward into Central Europe and Turkish Asia. While the

world still marvelled at Russian recovery and the victories before Lem-

berg seemed again to threaten the very existence of the Hapsburg

throne, the court and the Czar were passing under the fatal spell of Ger-

man influence and the Russian people were moving imperceptibly but

rapidly toward the Revolution which was to change all.


To the close of the campaign of 1916 the war is fought along lines

which had been laid down in the Nineteenth Century. Whatever

variations were introduced, the general scheme was that which had been

foreseen by the statesmen, if not by the soldiers, of previous decades.

The war, despite the moral issues involved in German actions and

German methods, despite the ever-growing evidence that democracy

and autocracy were struggling in opposite camps, was a war such as had

in some fashion been sketched in all the military writings of the years

which followed the creation of the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance.


When one passes from 1916 to 1917 there is almost a sense of cross-

ing a frontier as clearly defined as that which separates the period of

the French Revolution from that of the decades before 1789. For the

war that was fought between August, 1914, and December, 1916, Europe

had been prepared, and despite the defection of Russia in the second

half of the latter year, the struggle was, on the whole, just such a conflict

as Europe had feared and foretold for nearly a generation before it came.

But with the end of the campaign of 1916 both contestants have to

confess a measure of defeat. Neither's strategy has brought a decision,

neither group of powers, looking to the immediate future, can convinc-

ingly lay claim to a prospective decision.


The consequence of this failure in both camps is the beginning of

domestic protest and disorder on either side of the firing lines. Implicit

confidence, unquestioning patriotism, ungrudging sacrifice, these begin

to disappear. Each government finds itself daily on trial before a

public which is both suspicious and unfriendly, and each leader is

compelled to defend himself, not merely against charges of incompe-

tence in conducting military operations and diplomatic enterprises, but

against the more dangerous allegation that he is actually prolonging the

war by a refusal to recognize facts as they are and to accept conditions

which he cannot modify.


In a certain measure it is correct to say that the campaign of 1916

marks the end of the period in which unity at home expresses the will

to win of each of the peoples at war. The symptoms out of which the

Revolution developed in the Slav Empire are discoverable to a degree in

all nations, and war weariness grows apace in Britain as in France, in

Germany as in Austria, until all governments find themselves upon the

defensive before their own peoples and all statesmen are condemned

to make pacific gestures across the firing lines and utter proposals of

peace which, however impracticable, give a semblance of readiness to

end a struggle becoming intolerable for the millions.


And it was the failure of the campaign of 1916, the failure of the

Allied campaign, quite as much as the failure of the German, which led

to the profound modifications of spirit and purpose in the nations at

war in the following year. By January i, 1917, the rulers and leaders

of both coalitions could expect only cynical distrust when they forecast

a complete decision in the new year on grounds far less impressive than the foundations out of which they had based sweeping prophecies in

the preceding periods.


III. OLD AND THE NEW


In the campaign of 1916 those German rulers who promised their sub-

jects to destroy France briefly and completely, not only failed, but paid

a price for the failure beyond all previous military calculation. Not only

did the attack upon Verdun fail, but the Allied offensive at the Somme

slowly but surely wore its way through the strongest German defences,

and Allied artillery exacted a toll which brought mourning to all Ger-

many. But, conversely, the Allies, whose offensive was rashly heralded

with promises of a break-through and a liberation of France and Belgium,

gained little more than six miles of shell-torn soil, on a restricted front,

while the collapse of Rumania was a final curtain to all the hopes, dreams,

and calculations of the Allies in the Balkans.


The Mitteleuropa which Germany had created in 1915 endured the

tests of 1916 and on the Rumanian side was expanded to insure not one

but three roads from the Central Powers to their Turkish ally. The

delusion that France could be forced to make a separate peace by one

more campaign in the west cost the Germans more men than Napoleon

sacrificed to reach Moscow. But the Allied belief that the German

lines in the west could be broken, was shaken in the long struggle from

Albert to the outskirts of Bapaume, and though the subsequent Ger-

man retreat from the Noyon salient, in March, 1917, established the

right of the Allies to claim the Somme as a victory, faith in the Allied

ability to break the German lines was once more demolished by the

failures of France on the Aisne and Britain in Flanders in the following

year. In a sense, one may say that the Old Europe the Europe of the

period between the Franco-Prussian War and the Second Balkan War,

the Europe of Bismarck, of Beaconsfield, the Europe of the Congress of

Berlin and all the other convocations down to the Conference of London

of 1912, the Europe founded upon the experience and history of the

latter half of the Nineteenth Century fought itself to the point of temporary

public opinion and popular emotion follow well-beaten pathways, but a

few months later the Russian Revolution is the signal for a change which fills the world with confusion and bewilders the contemporary

observer as it may puzzle the later historian.


In 1916, as in the two preceding years, the military events claim

almost exclusive attention. Verdun, the Somme, the Russian offensive

in Galicia, the Italian success at Gorizia, the swift and infinitely sad

tragedy of Rumania, these succeed each other with amazing rapidity

and give to the military history of these twelve months a variety and a

volume of operations and of battles which can hardly be paralleled

even in the first brilliant years of the Wars of the French Revolution,

while the Battle of Jutland, incomplete as it was, establishes a new

standard of measurement in the conflict of modern navies.


IV. CONSEQUENCES OF THE CAMPAIGN


Viewed in retrospect, the campaigns and battles of this year were

barren of affirmative result. They were destructive of the foundations

of all governmental systems at home, rather than of the armies or will-

power of the enemy nations. Verdun may easily survive as the most

brilliant single episode in human history, regard being had for the

magnitude of the struggle and the miracle of French resistance, yet

the Verdun epic ended almost where it began, leaving both contestants

almost equally exhausted and the victorious French, again, as at the

Marne, unable to turn an undisputed triumph into an offensive which

should liberate France much less win the war.


In 1914 the statesmen failed to prevent war. Diplomacy and states-

manship were both bankrupt as machinery to preserve international

peace. In 1916 the failure of the soldier to win the war, the incapacity

of the generals in their department, was as clearly indicated as had been

the earlier ineptitude of the rulers and leaders in their own field, and the

consequences were unmistakable before another twelve months had

passed. While the masses still preserved a confidence in the ability of

their rulers and representatives, or a faith in the skill and efficiency of

their generals, the war followed familiar highways, but in 1916 popular

distrust in both grew to the point where the failure of the regular instru-

ments of national and international action could be employed as an exhaustion in the first three campaigns of the war, its bankruptcy

was a fact, already dimly perceived, when 1916 ended, and bound to be

unmistakable before the new year had progressed far.


Issues, conditions, prospects, all submit to violent modifications

before 1917 is far advanced. But for the survival of that horror and

hatred of the German methods, disclosed in Belgium and France; but

for the reassertion of these methods in the new submarine war, declared

in January, 1917; above all, but for the intervention of the United States,

no man can be sure that the war would not have worn itself out by

midsummer and Europe have made another peace like that of West-

phalia conceding to Germany profits such as France derived from the

earlier settlements.


Always, therefore, in viewing the events of 1916, one must keep in

mind the fact that an old world of ideas and of ambitions, of diplomacy

and of statesmanship, is crumbling under an ordeal by fire, and giving

way for the unknown, which is coming. Had the Allies won at the

Somme, or the Germans at Verdun; had 1916 seen a decision of the war,

or even, had it seen an old-fashioned settlement, after the German peace

proposal, the ancient landmarks would probably have survived; the

Europe which emerged from the storm would have been recognizable,

in all respects, as the Europe of 1914, and of all times since the unifica-

tion of Germany and Italy in the previous century.


Unmistakably 1916, owing to the events of this momentous year,

represents a final effort of the old order and the old system to save itself,

first, by successful military operations; second, by settlement around the

green table in advance of the destruction of the existing European

hierarchy, incident alike to popular discontent due to its continued

failure to save mankind from the greatest of all known afflictions and

to the outburst of that Bolshevik storm which was temporarily at least

to transform conceptions and conditions in all the Allied countries.

Straight through this year the reins of government remain fairly securely

in the hands of statesmen well known when the World War opened,

public opinion and popular emotion follow well-beaten pathways, but a

few months later the Russian Revolution is the signal for a change which fills the world with confusion and bewilders the contemporary

observer as it may puzzle the later historian.


In 1916, as in the two preceding years, the military events claim

almost exclusive attention. Verdun, the Somme, the Russian offensive

in Galicia, the Italian success at Gorizia, the swift and infinitely sad

tragedy of Rumania, these succeed each other with amazing rapidity

and give to the military history of these twelve months a variety and a

volume of operations and of battles which can hardly be paralleled

even in the first brilliant years of the Wars of the French Revolution,

while the Battle of Jutland, incomplete as it was, establishes a new

standard of measurement in the conflict of modern navies.


Viewed in retrospect, the campaigns and battles of this year were

barren of affirmative result. They were destructive of the foundations

of all governmental systems at home, rather than of the armies or will-

power of the enemy nations. Verdun may easily survive as the most

brilliant single episode in human history, regard being had for the

magnitude of the struggle and the miracle of French resistance, yet

the Verdun epic ended almost where it began, leaving both contestants

almost equally exhausted and the victorious French, again, as at the

Marne, unable to turn an undisputed triumph into an offensive which

should liberate France much less win the war.


In 1914 the statesmen failed to prevent war. Diplomacy and states-

manship were both bankrupt as machinery to preserve international

peace. In 1916 the failure of the soldier to win the war, the incapacity

of the generals in their department, was as clearly indicated as had been

the earlier ineptitude of the rulers and leaders in their own field, and the

consequences were unmistakable before another twelve months had

passed. While the masses still preserved a confidence in the ability of

their rulers and representatives, or a faith in the skill and efficiency of

their generals, the war followed familiar highways, but in 1916 popular

distrust in both grew to the point where the failure of the regular instru-

ments of national and international action could be employed as an argument for the substitution of the orator of the soap-box for the

chief minister of the Czar, or the commander of a platoon for the ever-

victorious Brusiloff.


All this was hidden from the world of 1916. We lived from day to day

upon the reports of the fighting on the Heights of the Meuse or of

the thrust upward toward the crest of the Albert ridge. Allied depres-

sion in the opening days of Verdun, heightened by the British disaster

at Kut-el-Amara, intensified by the earlier narratives of the Battle of

Jutland, changed to a full cry of optimism in July and August, when,

with Verdun saved, German defeat in France and Austrian disaster in

Galicia and on the Isonzo seemed assured.


No one who lived through 1916 in an allied nation can forget the

rapidly changing emotions, now of confidence, now of despair, until the

final disaster the destruction of betrayed Rumania abolished all

hopes of swift success and ushered in the German peace proposal, which

first bewildered and then angered the Allied world, but even though

rejected, profoundly altered all subsequent discussion and opinion.

Henceforth, until the return of the German offensive in the west in

March, 1918, brought the Allied nations again to the edge of ruin,

despite the rejection of the German proposal, the world talked of peace,

even when the necessity for more war and greater sacrifice was still

perceived on all sides.


And with the close of the campaign of 1916, at least for a time, we

cross the frontier between the clarity of Nineteenth Century ideas and

conceptions and the confused and, to the contemporary world, incom-

prehensible doctrines and formulae which the Russian Revolution

evolved but the radical elements in many other nations in some degree

echoed. Even that statement of democratic war aims and peace terms

which satisfied the convictions and conscience of the Allied nations of

1916 was destined in a few months to assume a colour of reaction

which would move the Russian Bolsheviki to couple the Kaiser and

the President of the United States in the same indictment and American

and German governmental systems in one contemptuous death sentence.


Finally, with the campaign of 1916, we come to the end of the period

in which the military events claim first attention or attract most interest.

Henceforth, for many months, the soldiers fight and the statesmen talk

with equal interest for the world audience, and the audience itself, with

ever-growing frequency, takes up the word itself. Up to the very end

of the year the battle lines of the Allies survive apparently unshaken,

the nations united against Germany seem still bound to each other by

enduring bonds and agreed on a common programme but hardly

had the new year come when the whole Allied situation was profoundly

modified, first by the external consequences of the Russian Revolution

and then by the repercussion of Russian revolutionary doctrines in all

other Allied countries. Between August i, 1914, and January I, 1917,

events move logically and with little departure from the anticipated

course, but between January i, 1917, and New Year, 1918, there is a

gulf hardly to be measured.


In every sense, therefore, the Third Phase of the World War is

one of commanding interest and, viewed in the contemporary light, one

likely to have enduring meaning as marking the frontier between an old

world and a new, between the Europe of the Marne and Verdun and the

world of the Russian Revolution and of America's entrance into, the

conflict.


CHAPTER TWO

VERDUNTHE GERMAN ATTACK


I - THE GRAND STRATEGY


The opening of the new year saw the Germans in a military position

not greatly different from that which they had occupied in the first days

of the war and in certain respects, more satisfactory. In August, 1914,

they had misjudged the Russians, both with respect to the rapidity of

Russian mobilization and to Russian ability to destroy the Austrian

armies. But now, thanks to the victories of the preceding campaign,

there could be no immediate prospect of a Russian offensive, if, indeed,

Russia were able again to make any attack. In 1914 Germany had,

somewhat rashly, counted upon six weeks of immunity from eastern

complications and she had calculated that in this time she could dispose

of France. Now, for at least six months, she could hope for a free hand

in the west.


As for the British, while the slender numbers which Field-Marshal

French was able to concentrate in France for the first struggle had ex-

panded to an army of at least half a million and was rapidly becoming

a menace to the German western flank, in Flanders and Artois it was

still lacking in guns and training to bring off a successful offensive, and

the British failure at Loos was a reassuring circumstance for German

High Command. Any British attack before midsummer would be

bound to end badly, given the contemporary state of the British army,

which was still in the early stages of reconstruction as a volunteer force,

in large part officered by, and composed of, men newly withdrawn from

civil life and necessarily lacking military training.


Once more, as in the days of the Marne campaign, the Germans had

to deal with France, the one enemy inferior in numbers but equal in

all else that made a nation strong in war. As in 1914, the German

problem was to dispose of France before Russia could become danger-

ous, but now the problem was to a degree complicated by the fact that

Great Britain, as well as Russia, was bound, in a time which could be

calculated, to become a real menace and that, once the first British

armies were ready, a well-nigh inexhaustible reservoir of men and mu-

nitions would supply them for future campaigns.


Instead of six weeks, the Germans could reckon on well nigh six

months in which to dispose of France, but failure to accomplish this

would have even more serious consequences than the Marne defeat, for

henceforth France was bound to be supported by British numbers,

guns, and munitions, and any considerable German superiority in any

field of military resources was unlikely ever to return save in the event

of a Russian surrender not yet to be counted upon. But if France could

be put out, then the British would be unable to be a menace to the Ger-

mans on the Continent for the duration of the war.


Germany had created her Mitteleuropa; she had undermined the

military power of Russia; she had, in fact although this was not yet

plainly visible dealt a death blow to the Russian Empire and insured

the Revolution and collapse which were to follow. She had opened the

road to the East and any peace, following that French defeat which was

now to be sought, would confirm her mastery, not alone in the Balkans,

not merely in Constantinople, but in Mesopotamia and in Palestine, on

the road to India and at the gates of Egypt.


Under one more colossal blow the Germans might expect that France

would collapse, or, even if she did not collapse, lose heart and abandon

a struggle in which she had to stand alone, for neither of her greater

allies could help her, and the cost to invaded France was bound to be

tremendous. A great success, even though it were not a complete

triumph a success which should win more territory and at least one of

the great fortresses of France might lead the French to consent to a

separate peace, provided that the terms were not made too onerous and

that the German military achievement had been sufficiently shining.


All German comment, before it went to the discussion of the strategy

of the next campaign, rested upon the declaration that this campaign




VERDUN-THE GERMAN ATTACK


was to be a colossal and ultimate attempt to crush France, to break the

spirit of the French people, a blow "aimed at the heart of France."

To spend half a million casualties in such an undertaking, were it suc-

cessful, would be a sound investment. That it could fail to succeed

never entered the heads of German leaders or the German people, once

more intoxicated by the wine of victory in the east and in the Balkans.


Having the initiative, as Germany unmistakably possessed it; hav-

ing the advantage of men and of guns, since Russia was temporarily out

and Britain still unready; it was obviously necessary to strike, to strike

hard and successfully before either could enter. And this, to a degree,

was the old problem of the Marne campaign of 1914, which had failed

but by only a narrow margin.


II. WHY VERDUN?


The selection of Verdun as the objective of this great German attack

which was aimed primarily at the heart of France, not at any single

military target was made as a result of many conditions, which were

little understood at the time and were long in gaining popular attention.

In the first place, despite the strength of the old entrenched camp of

Verdun; despite the great defences which had been constructed after

1871 and had made Verdun, alike in the military and in the popular

mind, one of the greatest fortresses in the whole world; the actual

achievement of German and Austrian artillery in August and September,

1914, had demonstrated that, for the moment, the gun had mastered the

fort and the great strongholds, yesterday reckoned impregnable, had

become well nigh indefensible.


The French had realized this before the Marne, and Sarrail had

moved the mobile defenders of the fortress of Verdun well out beyond

the fixed forts and into trenches. But the Marne campaign and the

later German operations had combined to make the Verdun position

not merely a salient, but a salient with many peculiar defects, viewed

from the defender's angle. The successful thrust of the Metz garrison

up the valley of the little Rupt de Mad, from Metz in September, 1914,

had enabled the Germans to seize St. Mihiel and thus to cut the

Commercy- Verdun railway, one of the two lines serving the fortress.

In their retreat from the Marne the Germans had halted about

Montfaucon in positions from which their heavy artillery could

interrupt the use of the Paris- Chalons-Verdun railroad, the other

and more important line of com- munication.


Actually, Verdun was isolated from the rest of France, so far as 

railway communication was concerned. The little narrow-gauge line,

which wanders up from the valley of the Ornain, near Bar-le-Duc, was

quite inadequate for the task of munitioning a great army, if Verdun

should be made the objective of a major German attack, and the French

Parliament had turned a deaf ear to all the appeals of the army for the

construction of a strategic railway to meet the necessities of the situation.

Verdun was thus dependent almost entirely upon road communication

for its supplies, as it remained dependent until the decisive phase of the

attack was over.


In addition, the position itself had obvious defects which held out to

the enemy the hope of achieving a great victory. While the trenches

held by the French east of the Meuse were along hills admirably adapted

to defence, the force holding them stood with its back to the stream,

which in late winter and early spring invariably overflows its banks,

and the position of an army with its rearward communications menaced

by a river in flood, once its lines were threatened, would be extremely

hazardous.


To reinforce an army in this position, with the bridges over the river

under artillery fire, to munition it sufficiently, would be a difficult task,

and were the troops on the east bank ever defeated, their retreat might

degenerate into a rout and into a real disaster. It was to avoid

such a possibility that the French had withdrawn from the north

bank of the Aisne near Soissons the previous winter, and it was the

accidental destruction of a bridge at Leipzig, during Napoleon's retreat,

after the battle, which made that defeat so costly to the great

Emperor.


Verdun, itself, was without value. Vauban's old citadel was inde-

fensible, although providing a good shellproof cover for certain depart-

ments of the defence. To capture Verdun, except as a detail in the

defeat and rout of the French armies beyond the Meuse, would be of

little permanent meaning, however great the moral effect of the success

upon the publics, both German and Allied. But if, following a gigantic

thrust, the Germans were able to insert a wedge between the French

armies of the right, in Lorraine, and those of the centre, in Champagne,

the war of movement might be resumed, the trench deadlock abolished,

and the Germans might again take the road for Paris.


A successful wedge thus driven in at Verdun would conceivably

compel the French to quit all their positions from Toul to Rheims,

enable the Germans to cut the Paris-Nancy railway, and might com-

pel the abandonment of all of northern and eastern Lorraine and the

line of fortresses and bases from Chalons right down to Belfort. Actual

possession of Verdun meant nothing, all depended upon the circum-

stances attending its capture, all was conditioned upon the success or

failure of the Germans in crushing the French troops beyond the Meuse,

for if these troops were able to make an orderly retreat behind the

Meuse, they would still maintain the whole French front intact; there

would be no break through, only a local gain.


III. VERDUN TOPOGRAPHY


Verdun, then, was a weak point in the French line, the weakest

probably in the whole stretch from the Somme to Switzerland, and this

inevitable weakness had been increased by the neglect of the French to

prepare and maintain their defences beyond the Meuse. This circum-

stance, known to the Germans in advance, almost led to disaster and

made the task of defending Verdun infinitely difficult, and perhaps in

the long run impossible, for Verdun was actually saved at the Somme,

although not until the French defence had been maintained to a point

where the fall of the city would have had only moral value.


Having decided to attack the Verdun sector for reasons which are

beyond criticism, the German General Staff had to consider the point

at which the attack could best be made. It had also to decide the

character of the attack; that is, whether it should be, like the French

effort in Champagne the previous autumn, a thrust on a wide front,

which would have meant an attack upon both sides of the river, or a

drive on a narrow front, which involved an assault upon the eastern

bank. It might have elected to attack upon_ both banks at once, but

this would have called for a concentration of men and guns now beyond

German resource.


To understand the German plans, it is necessary to grasp the salient

details of the Verdun country. The town itself lies in a wide valley

through which flows the Meuse. Seen from any of the surrounding

hills, it rather suggests a lump of sugar in a saucer, and the lump stands

for the mass of the town, rising about the slopes of the citadel and

crowned by the twin spires of the cathedral, the single conspicuous

landmark in the town, while the rim of the saucer represents the sur-

rounding hills occupied by the now useless forts. On the west bank of

the river these hills, which draw back from the river, are divided by a

deep, open furrow, through which comes the Paris-Verdun railway.


In the old days, Verdun, with its rocky citadel guarding the bridge

across the Meuse, was the key to the main road from Metz to the capital,

that is from Germany to France. Taking Verdun, which surrendered

without resistance, the Prussians had penetrated through the Argonne

into the outskirts of the Plain of Chalons only to be defeated in the

Cannonade of Valmy, in the wars of the French Revolution. In 1870,

Verdun had held out manfully and German invasion had been deflected

southward although the town ultimately fell to German artillery.


But since the Germans had forced the northern gates to France and

come south through Belgium, Verdun was no longer an outwork of the

capital. About Noyon the Germans were, in fact, little more than fifty

miles from Paris, while Verdun was one hundred and forty. It is

necessary, therefore, to dismiss all idea that Verdun was a gateway to

anything. It was a position back of the French front, a useful base;

its dismantled forts served to furnish cover for reinforcements and

depots for munitions, but the town itself was no more important than a

score of others similarly placed behind the firing line. The Germans

did not attack the fortress of Verdun, which had become a figure of

speech; they attempted to break the French line before Verdun, the

trench line, as the French had endeavoured to break the German line

in Champagne in the previous September. And like the French, they

came near succeeding.


The real military value of the Verdun position was derived from the

range of hills rising sharply from the east bank of the Meuse and marked

on all maps as the Heights of the Meuse (cotes de Meuse). This range

of hills, some six hundred feet above the river, separated the Meuse from

the peculiar Plain of the Woevre. They were, in fact, a sort of hog's

back between two depressions. Both on the Meuse and on the Woevre

side these hills which, in reality, constitute a plateau upward of six

miles wide on the average break down sharply. Looking out upon

the Woevre, from the crest about Fort de Vaux, in the early morning

light, one could imagine oneself standing upon a cliff overlooking the sea,

so sharp is the fall to the marshy plain, at that hour, hidden in mist.


While this plateau appears fairly regular upon the map, it is cut and

seamed by an endless number of ravines, which descend rapidly, either

to the Meuse or the Woevre Plain, ravines worn in the clayey soil

by little brooks. There is thus an infinite number of hills, not much

above the general level, but separated from each other. Each of these

hills was the prize of a combat and upon the more important stood the

old forts of Verdun. Most of the slopes, too, were covered by little

woodlands, all of which were marked with names upon the military maps

and all of which, before they disappeared under the avalanche of shells,

were the scenes of desperate fighting.


When the German blow fell, the French were holding the crest of

the Heights of the Meuse straight across from the Meuse to the Woevre

Plain, some eight or nine miles north of Verdun and about four miles

north of the outer circle of old forts. To advance upon Verdun the

Germans could only move along the top of this range, that is along the

crest of the plateau, because the Woevre Plain is absolutely impassable

for all transport and even for foot soldiers during the winter and spring

owing to its marshy character. Thus the German advance was in

reality a push south on a front of from six to seven miles, varying in

width as the Heights of the Meuse varied, between the Meuse and the

Woevre. The fighting was for the separate hills, which rose a little

above the general elevation, and the woods and ravines were obstacles

which gave a local character to the entire campaign.


Had the Germans been able to push south as quickly as they had

expected to do, they would have cleared the French off all the plateau

as far south as the city, driven them into the Meuse valley east of that

river and below the hills, and the enforced French retreat across the

river, under direct observation and fire, would have been extremely

difficult. Here was the one possibility of disaster, which disappeared

after the first week. But the main German operation was in this

period always southward along the plateau, never westward up out of

the Woevre, and the chief operative front was never much over seven

miles wide.


West of the Meuse and north of Verdun there is a considerable ridge

running east and west, that is at right angles to the river and the Heights

of the Meuse; this ridge marked the line of the old forts on the left

bank, but north of it are several detached hills, of commanding eleva-

tion, notably Hill 304 and Le Mort Homme. These hills were held

by the French when the battle opened, and after the French line on the

east bank had temporarily collapsed the Germans were still held up

on the east bank by the flank fire directed across the river at the Ger-

mans on the Heights of the Meuse. In the second phase of the battle

the Germans were obliged to halt their operations on the east bank,

while they pushed the French off these elevations, but having done this,

they resumed their advance on the Heights of the Meuse and the fight-

ing on the west bank did not again rise to any magnitude.