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For this Verdun offensive the Germans had begun preparations at

least a year before they made the attack. Metz, their chief base, was

conveniently near to the point selected for attack; perhaps an additional

reason why the Verdun front was selected. New roads and light rail-

ways were constructed in a circle about the Verdun salient as far west

as Montfaucon, where the Crown Prince had his headquarters, and for

many months the accumulation of munitions and material went forward.

For this attack the Germans planned to employ the methods used

in the east by themselves and in the west by the French and British,

but with certain improvements. The concentration of artillery upon a

narrow front, now become familiar in all offensives, was retained. It

was indeed expanded and not less than 1,500 guns of large calibre,

including German 42-centimetre and Austrian 380*8, were solidly

emplaced. But, as an additional detail, it was planned to make the

major portion of the concentration movable, so that the guns could fol-

low the men.

The French had failed in Champagne because they had been unable

to get their guns forward to use upon the German third line after the

first and second had been destroyed. The Germans planned to make

their infantry little more than a subsidiary arm. The artillery was to

destroy the French positions. The infantry, after careful reconnaissance,

was to advance and occupy the destroyed positions. Then the guns were 

to be moved forward and the second line reduced. Thus, the Germans

calculated that in four days, with slight loss, they could reach Verdun

itself, covering a distance of little more than eight miles. They cal-

culated that the French losses would far exceed their own, that demor-

alization such as had occurred at Morhange in the opening days of the

war would again occur when the French infantrymen found themselves

overwhelmed by enemy fire and unsupported by their own guns.

In addition the Germans counted upon the element of surprise.

And in a very large measure they counted justly. Certainly the French

were aware of the growing concentration near Verdun; unmistakably

their official documents disclose suspicion of a coming thrust in this

sector, but no less unmistakable is the fact that the blow far surpassed

any expectation; found them without an adequate counter-preparation;

temporarily paralyzed their High Command, which, in the opening

days, contemplated a retreat across the Meuse and the surrender of

Verdun; and brought them within a narrow distance of utter defeat,

for Verdun was saved by a margin so narrow as to seem, even now,


To make the attack, following the guns, the Germans drew down to

the east bank of the Meuse three crack corps, which were put through

special training and were fed with a generosity unequalled during the

war. These three corps, in addition to two which were regularly at-

tached to the Crown Prince's arm on this sector, supplied the resources

for the early phases of the attack; later, when the battle became a siege

and the casualties swelled to the hundreds of thousands, many other units

were drawn in, but at the outset rather less than three French divisions

had to deal with five German army corps. The French troops, too,

were territorials, while the Germans were the best that the Kaiser's

army possessed and, in certain stages, fought under his eye, as they

fought continuously under the observation of the Crown Prince, their

nominal commander-in-chief. The real leader, of course, was not the

Kaiser's heir, but Count von Haeseler the aged conqueror of Antwerp

who planned the whole campaign and went into retirement when it

failed, followed presently by Falkenhayn, the Chief of the Great General 

Staff, who was responsible for what proved the greatest of German de-

feats since the Marne.

For several weeks before the main attack the Germans had carried

on minor and deceptive operations on many fronts, operations which

at once warned the French of a coming blow yet gave them no clue as to

the point selected for attack, but rather, since the feints were along the

Champagne and Artois fronts, contributed to confuse them as to the

enemy's intention.

Finally, as the ultimate incentive to his troops, the Crown Prince,

in the order of the day, on February 21, thus addressed his soldiers:

"I, William, see the German Fatherland compelled to pass to the at-

tack." And this attack, all the troops who were to participate in it

had been told, was to be the brief prelude to peace, the crowning achieve-

ment of German arms.


At 7:15 on the morning of February 21, the Battle of Verdun began.

Unlike the French at Champagne and the British at Loos, the Germans

did not preface their attack by a bombardment of many days. On the

contrary, they sought to preserve the clement of surprise to the latest

possible moment and relied upon the destructive effect of the heaviest

concentration of artillery yet known in war, to accomplish in a brief

period of time that preparation which was essential to permit their

infantry to advance. Of this concentration, mainly made about the

village of Gremilly and in the Forest of Spincourt, less than two miles

from the French lines, French aviators reported, when it had been un-

masked, that the number of the guns defied their ability to indicate

them upon the map.

At the moment when they were assailed by this artillery deluge, the

French were holding a front line straight across the Heights of the

Meuse, from a point between the villages of Consenvoye and Brabant

on the river to the edge of the Woevre Plain, some seven miles to the

east, whence it ran out into the plain for a few miles and curved back

gradually to the edge of the Meuse Heights far below Verdun. But the

German storm was mainly concentrated upon the line between the river

and the plain, although there was heavy firing all the way from Mont-

faucon to St. Mihiel.

Under this avalanche the French first line collapsed and disappeared.

Before many hours trenches had practically ceased to exist, yet through

this day the French held on in some fashion over most of the front, and

the Germans at this stage, still adhering to their original idea of sparing

the infantry and making complete artillery preparation in advance of

infantry attack, attempted relatively little.

On the following day, however, the real attack began. Thence-

forth for four days the struggle is only a confused and confusing attempt

of the remnants of three French divisions of territorials shelled out of

their first and second lines, lacking any third line to keep a front to

the Germans and maintain some sort of a line between the river and the

edge of the plain. Hills, villages, woods were fought for with a bitter-

ness not yet known in the western war, save for a moment about Ypres.

At this time the weather was very bad, snow and fog" crippled the

aviation branches of both armies, the men who fell died of cold where

they lay. Scenes recalling the fighting in the Wilderness in our own

Civil War were enacted in a dozen of the little woodlands and ravines,

and all the agonies of the American conflict were accentuated by the

rigours of winter.

Under the weight of numbers and artillery the French troops were

gradually ground to powder. Save for two brigades, toward the end

they were without reinforcements; their mission was to hold to the last

and they fulfilled it. Their duty was to exact the greatest possible price

for each yard of German advance, and they exacted it. But they were

from the outset a forlorn hope; doomed, and knowing they were doomed.

After the first two days the fight became a struggle in open country,

there were no more trenches, only shell holes, and on both sides the losses

were terrific. Verdun thus instantly gained the place it was to hold

for many months as the graveyard of the contending armies.

Steadily, however, the Germans pressed forward. They did not

keep to their schedule, which should have brought them to Verdun in

four days. It proved impossible for the guns to keep pace with the

infantry and little by little the Germans were compelled to lay aside

their original conception of an advance, in which the infantry soldier

was only an estort to the gun, and throw their troops into the furnace

with ever-increasing losses. But for four days the advance did go on

remorselessly and irresistibly.

On February 25, therefore, the Germans reached the last line upon

which the defenders of Verdun could stand, if they were to make any

stand. In these days the Germans had come down along the Heights

of the Meuse for more than four miles. They had set foot upon the

Douaumont Plateau, looking directly down upon Verdun, four miles

away, and they had taken the dismantled hulk of Fort Douaumont,

which had earlier deserved the name the Kaiser now bestowed upon it:

"The corner-stone of the chief defence of our principal enemy."

Verdun itself was in flames and ashes; it had been hastily evacuated

by the civil inhabitants; the town was under ever-increasing fire, and the

Germans looking down upon it, on February 25, from the Douaumont

Plateau might well have believed that one more thrust, one more day,

would tell the story. Already the price paid had far exceeded all Ger-

man calculation. German preparation in munitions, as in reserves,

gigantic as both had been, had not measured the expenditure either in

lives or in shells, but not even on the morning of the Marne did German

prospect of a supreme victory seem more brilliant than it did on the

night of February 25, 1916.

Eastward from Fort Douaumont, which they held with a firm if

still challenged grip, German troops were within a few hundred yards of

Fort de Vaux and little more than a mile before them was Fort de Sou-

ville. If these forts fell, the end would be sure and that end might

bring with it a disaster to the whole French army east of the Meuse from

Verdun to St. Mihiel. Yet, near as were these last barriers, it was not

until the end of the first week in June that the Germans reached the

ruined casemates of Vaux, and six months were insufficient to permit

them to enter Souville.

On February 26 the French counter-attacked on the Douaumont 

Plateau, all but retook, die fort and brought the German flood to a

standstill. In point of fact, although the truth was hidden alike from

Germany still celebrating the preliminary victory and preparing for

the fall of Verdun and from France at last roused to the full extent

of the Verdun danger the Battle of Verdun was over, the siege was

about to begin. Thus February 26, at Verdun, like September 9 at

the Marne, is a memorable day in all French history and in all world

history. Like Foch's thrust at Fere-Champertoise, Balfourier's counter-

attack on the Douaumont Plateau was a determinating circumstance in

one of the decisive battles of human history.





The defence of Verdun is, perhaps, the finest achievement in the two

thousand years of military history of the French race. It was like

the Marne a rally, after initial defeat; it was like the Marne the

flash of the collective genius of the race, after preliminary mistakes and

weaknesses which had jeopardized all; but unlike the Marne it was

not a sudden return to the offensive, followed by a swift and complete

victory. The German attack upon Verdun lasted from February 21

to October 23, and during six months of this time the situation of the

defenders was always precarious and frequently desperate.

It was the tenacity of the defence which amazed the world; it was

the revelation of that obstinate and unyielding spirit which made "They

Shall not Pass" the watchword of the soldier, that first amazed and

then thrilled the audience, which was the whole civilized world. It

was a resistance such as might have been expected of the Anglo-Saxon

race whose stubbornness in defence is as proverbial as the furia francese

in attack, but in the French it was the demonstration of qualities un-

suspected even after the Marne.

The description of the actual occurrences, the offensive and the

counter-offensive, can be simply told, but no power of description can

justly appraise the real achievement of Verdun, because it was the

achievement of the French soldier himself, badly led at the outset,

plunged into a contest against hopeless odds, without the protection which

ordinary care should have given him, superbly commanded in all the later

phases, but first and last victor, in the greatest battle in French history,

by his own courage, his own innate military genius above all else, by

his character, his capacity for endless endurance and unmeasured sacrifice.

At the Marne there had been a small contingent of British soldiers,

who fought gallantly but contributed little to the outcome; at Verdun

France stood alone. Hers was the whole achievement and hers the

entire sacrifice. Had she failed, Britain would have been beaten before

she was ready, Germany would have triumphed while the United States

was still unmindful of the real issues at stake on the remote European

battlefield. For the second time in the World War, France saved all

the western nations. Verdun was, then, an epilogue to the Marne, a

preservation of the decision reached on the earlier battlefield, which

must forever stand with Marathon, with Poitiers and Chalons, as one

of the supreme battles and victories of arrest, which halted barbarism

on the point of destroying western civilization.

And almost from the moment that the first German assault struck

the French lines upon the Heights of the Meuse, all France felt the great-

ness of the peril and magnitude of the crisis. Thereafter, all through the

long months of agony, when the battle had developed into a siege, when

the German troops still slowly but surely pounded their way forward,

it was as if the whole French nation had set its shoulder against this

ultimate portal by which the Barbarian was seeking to force his way

to the heart of France.

All through these long months there was a never-ending sense in

Paris, in the provinces, that the life of France was at stake; and not since

the days of the incursions of the Teutonic hordes, when Rome was fall-

ing, has any great people more consciously confronted the peril of de-

struction than did the French. To be in France in that great hour was to

feel an intensity of emotion combined with a steadfastness of purpose

which was unforgettable. In that time France, the nation, was fused

into a single purpose and a single thought. Bleeding terribly from the

tremendous wounds inflicted by a more numerous and still better-

prepared enemy, the French people, at the front and behind it, echoed

and re-echoed the words of the first defenders: "They shall not pass."

It is this fundamental fact that must be recognized and cannot be

embodied in any description of what took place about the old Lorraine

fortress. When Petain reached the broken lines, Verdun, by every law

of war, was lost; when Douaumont fell, the road to Verdun was all but

open, and the Kaiser did not go beyond probability when he forecast

the speedy entrance of his troops into the French town. To him, to

his army, it must have seemed thereafter as if the very law of gravita-

tion had been arrested to save Verdun. The defence of Verdun, like

the victory of the Marne, was a miracle; it was the same miracle the

miracle of France herself, once more revealed to an incredulous world. <


Against the storm, dimly suspected in the weeks preceding the German

attack, the French had made certain preparations which were wise

and far-seeing; by contrast, they had neglected certain essentials which

almost brought a deserved disaster and which ultimately ended the

military career of more than one French general. Indeed, as Falken-

hayn fell when Verdun held out, so Joffre went ultimately into honour-

able but unmistakable retirement because the French nation, still

grateful for his enormous service at the Marne, saw in the circumstances

of Verdun evidences of failing energy and defective foresight which

could no more be tolerated in him than those faults in his subordinates,

which, at an earlier stage, he had punished unpityingly.

Chief among the failures of the French at Verdun had been the neg-

lect to prepare a third line of defence behind the two lines left by Sarrail

when he quitted Verdun, after his original defence in the Marne Cam-

paign. Had this third line been constructed before the Douaumont

Plateau, as it had been sketched, the worst of the suffering of the later

months would have been avoided and the German attack might have

been permanently halted at the edge of the old entrenched camp.

Because there was no such line; because, in addition, the two lines

which existed were not kept in sufficient repair; German advance, in the

first flood, reached and passed Douaumont and gave German High

Command reason for pushing the operation, despite the larger failure of

the opening week.

Exactly the same neglect had brought ruin to the Russians at the

Dunajec less than a year before. Prevision on this score had saved

the Germans at the oattle of Champagne in September, 1915,

when the French had carried the first line and pierced the second.

Equally inexcusable negligence was to lead to one more disaster to

the Allies, when Italy was broken at Caporetto on the Upper Isonzo,

in 1917.

When the German blow fell, therefore, not only were the existing

French lines on the Meuse Heights in bad condition ; not merely were their

defenders territorials and not first-line troops (a circumstance hardly to

be mentioned now, in view of the defence made by these territorials) ;

but there was lacking a solid third line to which to retire when the first

two lines were pierced.

The neglect of the railway communications is chargeable to the

French politician and not to the French army. But for the preparation

made by the General Staff, when the effort to obtain a new railway line

failed, Verdun would have been doomed at the outset. But against

such an emergency as was now to come, the Staff had completed a plan

by which an army of 250,0x30 men, with all its supplies and material,

could be moved by automobile transport to the Verdun sector. It had

reconstructed the highways, it had provided the motor transport. In

this preparation lay the salvation of the city.

Thus, on the eve of the German assault, the French were holding the

Heights of the Meuse, facing the coming tempest with barely three

divisions of territorials, occupying trenches no longer in the best state of

repair, having behind them a river in flood, supported by little or no

heavy artillery, and whatever the unrest and uneasiness in the mind

of the High Command unwarned, in any adequate measure, of what

was to come. They were occupying a sector which had been long quiet

and was reckoned impregnable by those who looked at the impressive

heights beyond the river and paid too little attention to the actual weak-

nesses of the position, viewed as a whole.

Despite all these circumstances, long established and no more to be

disputed, there grew up and persists a legend that, in attacking Ver-

dun, the Germans walked into a trap skilfully set for them by Joffre;

that from the beginning to the end of the struggle they were actually the

victims of strategy which had foreseen all and provided against all emer-

gencies. Nothing is further from the truth. The French at Verdun

were surprised at least as completely as were the Russians at the Duna-

jec. They were surprised with insufficient defences, with no proper

system of support lines behind them, their existing lines were torn to

pieces in the first four days of bombardment, and for most of the first

week the French fought in open country far behind the last line of pre-

pared trenches which had belonged to them on February 20.

The French achievement was greater in view of these handicaps at

the start, but so was the sacrifice, the sacrifice which began when Bal-

fourier's "Iron Division" was compelled to counter-attack and hold on

under annihilating artillery fire, while a new line of trenches was con-

structed and a defensive position organized. This is the tragedy of the

Verdun story, known to all France even in the earliest days, but long

hidden from the world.


When the first artillery bombardment signalled to the French High

Command the new German activity, it was impossible for Joffre and his

associates to act immediately. Time must be allowed to find out

whether the Verdun operation was a real attack or a mere feint. If it

was a feint, then to hurry an army to this point might be to leave the

real objective of the enemy unguarded. Thus, while preparations

were made to set in motion the transport machinery, which had been

prepared, no real steps were taken to relieve the troops defending the

Heights of the Meuse until February 24.

By this time there was no longer any mistaking the magnitude of

the German thrust. Indeed, the real question had^now become whether

it would be wise or even safe to defend the east bank of the Meuse at

all. Joffre, himself, inclined to the belief that it would be unwise and

even perilous. Under pressure from Paris he sent his chief adviser

General de Castelnau, the defender of Nancy to Verdun to make

the great decision. Upon Castelnau devolved the duty of deciding

whether a new French army would be thrown across the Meuse to de-

fend the eastern hills, or the whole French line drawn back from the

east bank of the river from Verdun straight down to St. Mihiel.

In the latter case Germany would justly claim a very considerable

victory. Verdun might fall, the Germans would be solidly established

on the line of the Meuse if they should later have to retreat; but the new

French position, resting on the western hills, would doubtless hold;

the German advance would be halted at the western edge of the river,

and the success would be local, not decisive. Given the extent of Ger-

man advance already achieved, to throw a great army across the flood-

ed river, whose crossings were now under German observation and fire,

might be to court disaster. Unmistakably the memory of Sedan and

that other political interference were in Joffre's mind when he inclined

to refuse the German challenge and retreat.

Paris, the politicians, the Government, on the other hand, recognized

the moral value of Verdun. They perceived the degree to which the

German public would be elated, the French nation depressed by the loss

of a city which, in the minds of both countries, was still the cornerstone

of French defence, despite the fact that contemporary war had robbed

it of this distinction. There was, then, in these days, a real crisis in

Paris as the probability of the fall of Verdun became more and more

apparent and the views of the French Generalissimo were more and

more widely known.

Once at Verdun, however, Castelnau decided for the defence. He

saw both the moral and the military significance, he recognized Verdun

to be the same problem which he had solved at Nancy. On his word

the decision to defend was made, the French High Command accepted

the battle challenge of the German. And as the first step in the de-

fence, Castelnau summoned Petain the man who had saved the sit-

uation at Soissons in the preceding winter, gained reputation at the

Artois fighting, and won real fame in the Battle of Champagne, which

had been of his planning. The next day Petain was on the spot; the

new phase was about to open.

Dut on February 24, when Castelnau advised the defence, there were

still no reserves available and Petain was not yet come. For two days

more the survivors of the territorials, who had met the first rush, were

asked to hold on. That they did this may be reckoned for them as well

nigh the finest achievement of the whole war. But during these two

days their sacrifices were tremendous. And despite all their heroism

and devotion, the Germans were able to set foot upon the last defensive

line of Verdun, the positions which should have been fortified by the

French and were not; and when Petain at last began to throw his

advance guards across the Meuse, Douaumont had fallen, the French

line was broken on the Douaumont Plateau, and, for the moment, the

road to Verdun was open.

It was this situation "delicate," to borrow from the official phrase

later published which Petain restored by throwing the Twentieth Army

Corps across the river and against the victorious Brandenburgers, who

had taken Douaumont. While the Iron Corps, the most famous in the

French Army, counter-attacked, held the German advance, and rewon

considerable ground, new trenches were dug behind them, new gun

positions were selected and prepared; the men of Lorraine and Brittany,

who made up the Iron Corps, opposed their bodies as a living wall to

the German artillery and infantry, until the new army arrived and the

new positions had been prepared. Magnificent this was, undeniably;

but it was a sacrifice made necessary by the negligence which had

gone before.


The Battle of Verdun may be said to have ended with February 26.

To be sure there was no real termination, no pause between the battle

and the siege, and by many military observers the great struggles of

March 9 and even of April 9 are considered portions of the opening

contest. They were, however, variations of the original German plan,

modifications of the first scheme, which envisaged a swift, deadly thrust

to Verdun through French lines broken by artillery bombardment. By

the close of February the German had been compelled to alter his plan,

and his alteration was the first step in the protracted siege, which lasted

until October.

On Friday, February 25, when the Brandenburgers took Fort Douau-

mont, the German flood reached its high tide. The fort was not taken

by storm, as the Kaiser's sonorous declaration affirmed; it was taken

without resistance, and by surprise. In fact, so torn and broken had

the French line become, that the few men who occupied this fort, now

only a dismantled hulk, believed that they were far behind an existing

French line and were surprised by troops which had penetrated a gap

in French defence.

By contrast, on February 26, the French counter-attack Bal-

fourier's thrust out to the Ravine of Death on the edge of the Douau-

mont Plateau brought the whole German rush to a dead halt. ID

fact, the storm had worn itself out. The French territorials, whose

mission it was to hold on until the reserves could come up, had just man-

aged to perform their task. They had inflicted losses so tremendous,

they had opposed a barrier so obstinate, that the German reserves in

men and munitions had been exhausted before the final blow could be


In a word, the whole German conception had broken down; it had

not been possible for the guns to keep pace with the men. It had not

been possible, even where the guns did keep up, to destroy the surviving

French troops, who had been driven from their ruined trenches. In

shell holes, in ditches, in the ruins of villages, they had found shelter

and exacted an incredible toll of casualties from their foes. Lacking in

heavy artillery they had used their "75 V with fatal effect and sacrificed

guns freely that the artillery fire might be maintained to the last possible


French High Command had drawn the thing fine. Had the new

forces arrived one day later, Verdun would have been indefensible; had

they come a day earlier, Douaumont and all the priceless gun positions

toward Louvemont would have been saved. As it was, the last defen-

sive position had been pierced and thenceforth the French were obliged

to fight facing uphill, with their backs to the flooded river, while the

Germans had direct observation upon Verdun and all the communica-

tions and bridges of their foe.

Yet defensible the position the French now occupied manifestly

was, as the next months were to prove. Only one of the old forts, but

the most important of the outer circle, had been captured, only on a

narrow front had the old limits of the entrenched camp of Verdun been

passed, and the thin wedge which the Germans had driven in offered no

immediate opening for a final push to Verdun. On the contrary, the

French flanks on the Charny Ridge and Le Mort Homme west of the

Meuse and on the Vaux Plateau south and east of Fort Douaumont

offered admirable opportunity to sweep the German centre about

Douaumont with a converging artillery fire and forbade any further

attempt to break the French centre until the French flanks had been

disposed of.

As for the French, moreover, a new army had arrived, an army com-

posed of first-line corps splendidly organized and well commanded.

The momentary disorganization which was noted in Verdun in the first

days of the attack when terrified refugees, driven from the city by the

bombardment, choked the roads, and every wounded man coming from

the battlefield was a messenger bearing evil tidings had disappeared.

Above and beyond all else, for the second time in the war, and in her

second great crisis, France had found a man. More and more, in the suc-

ceeding months, Petain was to grow in stature until, with but a brief

delay while his Verdun-trained subordinate, Nivelle, was to have his

chance and fail he was to succeed to the honours and the authority

of Joffre. And in history as Joffre will live as the victor of the Marne,

Petain's fame s assured as the defender of Verdun.




On February 24 the French High Command represented.on the spot

by General de Castelnau had to make the momentous decision whether

France would accept or decline battle on the Meuse Heights. To

decline meant to abandon all of the French positions east of the Meuse,

probably to evacuate the ruined town of Verdun itself, and above all

else to confess a defeat and a defeat which would bulk large in the

eyes of the world, given the value which time and tradition had earned

for Verdun. It meant to risk a disaster in a retreat across a flooded

valley, but, all things considered, the chances of great disaster in this

retreat were probably small.

On the other hand, to accept battle meant to throw a force of 250,000

piecemeal across the swollen Meuse, to face huge numbers now en-

thused by great successes and expecting decisive victory. The first

French divisions to arrive must face this oncoming flood in the open

field, without any but the most summary trenches to shelter them

against the most important concentration of heavy artillery yet known in

war. This was the challenge which Castelnau accepted on February 24;

this was the "delicate" situation which Petain partially restored on

February 26. France deliberately chose to accept battle, to engage

Germany until Russian armies should be restored and British armies

ready. Once more France bore the burden.

By March I, the situation had materially changed. The great Ger-

man advance, the drive down the Meuse Heights on a narrow front and

behind a huge artillery fire, had come to an abrupt halt, had indeed

in some slight measure recoiled. Further advance was no longer pos-

sible in the centre, while from the flanks the French fire swept the com-

munications and rear of the Germans. Until these flank positions of

the French on the Vaux Plateau and west of the Meuse were reduced,

the main thrust must be postponed, and to postpone this operation in

the centre was to give the French time to prepare against any new

attack. The element of surprise, the advantage of overwhelming num-

bers, of incomparably superior artillery would have disappeared, when

next the push was resumed on the Douaumont Plateau.

Accordingly, in the first days of March, the German High Command

had to make its own decision, hardly less momentous than that of the

French, less than ten days earlier. Should it continue the Verdun

operation? The possibility of a supreme victory was unquestionably

gone. The chance to break the French line, to drive a wedge between

the armies of the centre and the right, and resume the march on Paris,

between the Oise and the Meuse, had disappeared. Verdun might,

now be taken, but it could only be taken after long siege operations, and

taking it would have little more than a moral value if it were captured

only after weeks or even months of effort. For when it did fall, granted

that Germany finally triumphed, the French were sure to have prepared

endless lines behind it on the admirably defensible hills that rise to the

west of the Meuse Valley.

Puzzling as the problem must have seemed, the Germans, in reality,

had no choice. They did not vainly throw away thousands and hun-

dreds of thousands of good troops in obstinacy or blindness, as the con-

temporary reports loudly asserted. Their failure to win their first and

greatest objective was not long in becoming apparent to them, but they

had so committed themselves that they now had no real alternative but

to continue. An offensive of the proportions of the Verdun attack in

this present-day war requires months of preparation, the concentra-

tion of guns and munitions is a matter of many, many weeks. Rail-

roads have to be rebuilt, roads constructed, light railways provided.

Before the first gun is fired in a great attack, thousands of men may

have laboured for six months, for a year, in preparing the way. And

in the case of the Verdun operation, German preparation began fifteen

months before the battle.

And once the offence has begun, the attacking High Command has

but one of two possibilities before it, it may stop the attack or it may

pursue it, but it cannot transfer its attack to any other sector on the

battle front, not in weeks, not in months. Thus the Germans, when

they could not force the Verdun positions in February and early March,

could have abandoned the offensive but they could not have begun a new

attack either in Champagne or in Flanders, because all their preparations

had been made in Lorraine, and to prepare a new attack on another front

would mean postponing all attack, accepting the defensive, sacrificing

the initiative for six months at least, perhaps for the whole of the cam-

paign of 1916.

This the Germans could not do, because within six months the

British army would be ready to attack, the Russians would have re-

covered from the effects of their defeats of the previous year. Italy

would be on the move, and France, unexhausted by any long campaign

about Verdun, would be ready to support the British in the offensive

already preparing along the Somme, as the Germans well knew.

Thus, while modifying her expectations, Germany had to continue

her Verdun offensive. Her new calculations must be far more modest

than her previous reckonings. She could expect, at most, only the

capture of Verdun after a defence which would enable the French to

assure the connection between their centre and eastern armies. She

could expect a victory only at the cost of tremendous sacrifices, now

that the French were alert and would soon be prepared. But she might

hope that, together with the moral advantage of a victory a limited

victory, which would not pass beyond the possession of the ruins of

Verdun she would be able to inflict such losses upon the French as to

preclude their participation in the summer offensive. She might, in

fact, as her own statements presently forecast, "bleed France white"

while the battle lines remained with little change.

In addition, German High Command might calculate that the sac-

rifices of France would arouse French protest and that this protest would

lead the British to make a premature offensive, against which the Ger-

mans were at all times prepared, Such a premature offensive would

end all the peril of a summer attack. The whole scheme of an Anglo-

French offensive in Picardy would go off at half cock and Germany would

be able to preserve her Mitteleuropa without any other serious threat

during 1916, in the latter half of which she might complete her opera-

tions against Russia and aid Austria against Italy. Finally, while

possession of Verdun would mean little, viewed in the light of the situa-

tion as it existed, if Germany were ever compelled to retire behind the

line of the Meuse, Verdun in her hands would mean the possession of a

valuable bridgehead, while, in French hands, the whole position of the

Heights of the Meuse would serve as a French bridgehead, threatening

that new line, making it at all times dangerous, if not actually untenable,

and preserving a threat to the invaluable Briey iron district only a

few miles to the east, from which Germany derived the larger part of

the iron ore used in her war industries.

Germany had to go on, she was committed to theVerdun sector, and

the general situation imposed upon her the necessity to make some

major attack. Her objectives had changed, her hope of a swift and

decisive victory had gone by the end of February, but henceforth, on the

only line on which she could conduct an offensive at the moment, she

sought to cripple her French opponent by the infliction of heavy

casualties and to avert a joint attack of her enemies in the sum-

mer by inducing Britain to make a premature assault in the early

spring. Finally since her Balkan work was not yet completed

and the Salonica army a growing menace she might calculate by

her threat in Lorraine to persuade her enemies to withhold troops from


Of all these objectives the Germans, at the most, realized only the

negative purposes. The French blow at the Somme was, probably, less

powerful than it would have been had there been no long-drawn-out

killing on the Heights of the Meuse. The army at Salonica was not

sufficiently reinforced to enable it to cooperate when Rumania entered

the war. But for this lessening of future menaces, Germany paid a

tremendous immediate price. And it may be questioned whether any

victory that would have been possible at the Somme could have had a

greater moral or material consequence than the final French achievement

about Verdun in October and December, when the lost forts were re-

taken and in a few hours the Germans were thrown out of all their

conquests, with a loss of prisoners and guns beyond even Napoleonic


As for the British, they did promptly and gladly volunteer to make

the attack, which the Germans hoped for and expected. But Joffre

wisely forbade this, and the British, at his direction, were compelled

to limit their contribution to the French to taking over one more sector

of the French front, which brought the British lines well down toward

the Somme and released at least one more French army for service

elsewhere on the line, either at Verdun or at some other point, from

which other units had been withdrawn to reinforce Petain.

From February to August the Verdun siege was, first of all, a strug-

gle to inflict losses, not to achieve any local decision or gain any position

which had decisive military value. It was a battle fought in Lorraine

by the French and by the Germans, the former seeking to give the

British time to organize the Somme offensive, the latter endeavouring

to make that offensive impossible by wasting French forces and thus

forcing British attack. When the Battle of the Somme began, Verdun

was in deadly peril, and the peril of Verdun slightly hastened the Somme

stroke, but it is hardly to be conceived now, in the face of the evidence

we possess, that the Somme could have led to decisive victory had there

been no Siege of Verdun or that materially greater results could have

been realized at the Somme than were realized along the Meuse had the

French refused battle and retreated behind Verdun.

When the French High Command perceived that the Germans were

fully committed to the Verdun operation, they deliberately accepted the

challenge and all that happened thereafter was in accordance with

French calculation. The French High Command very frankly accepted

a risk considerable at the outset, because of the chaotic condition of

French defence beyond the Meuse in the belief that it could ruin

German strategic combinations; defend Verdun, which had only moral

and local value; inflict upon the Germans a terrific if not a deadly loss

in casualties, and give the British and Russians time to prepare their

new offensives.

And in the main the French High Command realized all its objec-

tives. The Germans lost far more heavily than the French, although

the losses of both were probably exaggerated at the time. They finally

surrendered all the positions which they had gained, together with many

guns and prisoners. The world steadily fixed its eyes upon the geo-

graphical entity, which was the city and the old forts of Verdun. It

measured the situation by the approach of Germany to the Vauban

citadel and the French victory by the subsequent expulsion of the Ger-

mans from all the area of the entrenched camp. But neither French

nor German strategy after the opening days concerned itself with these

details, save only in bulletins addressed to the uncomprehending


One more circumstance needs clarification. The world spoke of the

Siege of Verdun, but it was merely a figure of speech, for Verdun was

never invested. The road from Bar-le-Duc to Verdun was open at all

times and little troubled by artillery fire, despite occasional barrages.

The narrow-gauge line coming up from Bar-le-Duc was also in operation

but its capacity was slight. By contrast, 300 officers, 30,000 men, and

3,900 cars were occupied in the automobile service, which was the real

transport system. This system saved Verdun; the guns and divisions

east of the Meuse never ran short of munitions or food, while the regular

relief of the troops at the front took place without delay or hindrance.

In reality the Siege of Verdun was no more a siege than the Battle

of the Somme was a siege of Bapaume or Peronne. It was one more

incident in trench warfare, differing little, except as the nature of the

country differed, from the later battles of the Somme and of the Flan-

ders campaign of 1917. In Champagne in 1915 the French had

been able to cut their losses and terminate their offensive whenever the

cost became out of proportion to the immediate or prospective profit.

They could do this because the general Allied situation did not then

require a major offensive at some point in the line. At Verdun the

Germans could not follow this course because they were bound tc

attack, and thus to prevent, or modify, the weight of attacks which were

gathering at the Somme on the Russian front and at Salonica.


In this Siege of Verdun, which lasted with little real interruption

from March to the end of August and did not really come to a close until

the December offensive of the French had cleared the whole area of the

entrenched camp, a new order of fighting was promptly disclosed. In

all earlier battles the concentration of artillery had abolished the first

and even the second line defences, and thereafter the assailant had either

advanced to victory or been halted at a third line, and the struggle had

quickly fallen back to the old familiar routine of trench warfare.

At Verdun the bombardment, which had hitherto been merely the

prelude to infantry attack, endured for days and even weeks. Eight

thousand shells fell daily for nearly three months upon Fort de Vaux v

Trenches, dugouts, communication trenches; all these were soon abolish-

ed and never could be restored. Men fought in defences supplied by

chance, chiefly in shell holes joined by some mere suggestion of a trench.

The forest-clad hills of the Meuse Heights were soon swept clear of every

vestige of tree or plant. The whole area was pockmarked with shell-

craters, until looking down from an aeroplane, one might believe oneself

examining the surface of the Sahara.

Organized lines and ways of communication were blotted out and

roads reduced to mere trails; to step off one of these was to fall into a

shell-crater and many men were drowned in such craters. In the fog

and snows of the severe weather of February and March, 1916, the suf-

fering of the troops on either side was indescribable. In France as in

Germany, Verdun became a name of evil ometi and it is probable that

well nigh a quarter of a million of men perished in French and German

armies combined, in the first ten months of the fighting; that is,

through the period in which the Verdun sector was actively engaged.

No pen can describe and no brush paint the horrors of this siege,

whether during the spring, the summer, or the autumn. The misery

of those who fought is beyond all realization, the desolation of the coun-

try hardly believable, even for those who have looked out upon it. As

for Verdun itself, it melted into dust and ashes as Arras had, as

Rheims was to disappear. Yet the cathedral survived, and to the very

end there were houses, and even quarters in which houses remained

standing, in which the troops lived.

All the romance of the war of movement, the old-fashioned war; all

the relative comfort which long months of experience had made possible

in the trench-lines elsewhere, were absent from Verdun. Men lived in

mud and ruins, they fought without shelter other than the shell-crater

half filled with water which was frequently partially frozen. They

were shelled for hours and for days without interruption. Ground was

won only when it had been pulverized and the men who held it blown to

fragments, and the smallest gain was frequently purchased at a cost

beyond that paid by the victor in many of the considerable struggles of

our own Civil War. In this contest the rifle played a relatively minor

part. Apart from the artillery, bombs, liquid fire, asphyxiating gas,

machine guns and the bayonet were the chief weapons of defence. In

sum, the Siege of Verdun was a scientific butchery not equalled before in

all the history of war. It was a butchery by artillery, primarily, but to

artillery were added all the weapons that human ingenuity could fashion.

And to the horrors of war were added the tortures of a relentless climate

and a hostile countryside. Forests, swamps, and marshes even fogs,

rains, and blizzards were details in the history, the horror, of Verdun.

This long-drawn-out agony was repeated at the Somme; it was at

some moments surpassed by the horrors of the British and the French

floundering in the mud and muck of the Third Battle of Ypres; but for

concentrated agony and misery, for human sacrifice and human en-

durance, Verdun was, when it occurred and still remains a page

unchallenged in human records. Indeed Death was perhaps the kind-

est friend the soldiers of Verdun knew, and that they welcomed it, scores

of letters of German and French soldiers alike demonstrate.

And with the Siege of Verdun we enter a new phase of war. The

Battle of Champagne, the Battle of the Aisne, these were but transitions

from the Nineteenth- to the Twentieth-Century method, while First

Ypres was far more closely related to Waterloo than to the Allied offen-

sive of 1917. But even the war of trenches had well nigh disappeared

when the Verdun contest closes and it has become a war of shell holes,

with the bomb, the machine gun, and the bayonet as aids to that artillery

which now rules all and destroys all.


By the first of March the German advance on the Heights of the

Meuse had definitely halted, and while in the next few days there were

spasmodic efforts to gain ground on the Douaumont Plateau, the conflict,

after several interludes, shifted from the centre to the flanks, from the

Douaumont Plateau to the westward, to the left bank of the river

north of Verdun; to the eastward to the Vaux Plateau, south and east

of Fort Douaumont.

This second phase of the Verdun contest, which lasted until the last

week of May on their left flank and until the end of the first week of

June on their right, is called by the French the " Battle of the Wings."

For the Germans a shift in operations was made necessary by the posi-

tion in which they found themselves when the brusque attack had failed

to capture Verdun and the first rush had been beaten down. At this

moment the French lines were shaped like a crescent, with the horns

facing the German lines; and from these horns formed by Le Mort

Homme ("Dead Man's Hill") and by Fort de Vaux, on the Vaux Plat-

eau the French directed a converging fire upon the enemy's centre

within the curve of the crescent.

Before they could push farther forward in the centre, therefore, the

Germans had to deal with the French flanks with the left wing at

Dead Man's Hill and the right at Fort de Vaux. In the end they were

bound to reach Verdun, if at all, through the breach they had opened in

the French centre, because there they were nearest to their objective

and there the ground was most favourable to their attack. But French

artillery on both wings swept this breach and until it had been silenced

and the horns of the crescent seized, no further advance in the centre

was possible.

The two operations that make up the Battle of the Wings went on

not simultaneously, but alternately, during nearly three months. First

on the French left and then on the right the Germans attacked. New

artillery concentrations and new infantry divisions and corps were

brought up; German losses mounted rapidly, while the French, holding

the unessential positions lightly and counter-attacking only when some

vital trench or redoubt was temporarily lost, paid a far smaller price for

their resistance. In point of fact, there was nothing more costly to the

Germans in the whole conflict than the struggles on the west bank of

the river during March and April, save possibly the brusque attack upon

Vaux that assault which failed on March 9.

Important as was the place which these struggles for Dead Man's

Hill and the adjoining summit, Hill 304, occupied in contemporary

reports, they had no direct importance; they did not represent an effort

of the Germans to get Verdun by moving up the left bank of the river.

The total meaning of their effort was comprehended in the necessity to

push the French guns and infantry off two hills on the left bank of the

river, from which French fire commanded the western side of the

Douaumont Plateau, and held up German advance in the centre.

When the Germans began their attack on the left bank the French

there were still holding the line occupied when the Battle of Verdun

opened. This line ran westward from the Meuse along the south bank

of the little Forges Brook, which enters the Meuse just opposite the

village of Samogneux, lost by the French in the first days, the stream

which our own Americans crossed in the first stage of their offensive

between the Argonne and the Meuse more than two years later. A

branch of this brook coming down at right angles to the main stream

and parallel to the Meuse, separates Hill 304 from Dead Man's Hill and

the various German efforts aimed at taking these two isolated hills,

first by frontal attack, then by a push up the south branch of the

Forges Brook, and finally by an attack from the west up the slopes of

Hill 304, which commanded Dead Man's Hill.

The main French defensive position on the left bank of the river was

not along the crest of the two contested hills, but a couple of miles south

of them, along the Charny Ridge, which was higher than either and ex-

tended in an unbroken line westward from the Meuse and more than

four miles north of Verdun. Dead Man's Hill and Hill 304 were far

outside the old area of the entrenched camp of Verdun. The French

held on to them as long as they could without too great losses and sur-

rendered them finally, when the attack became too fierce and the price

exacted satisfied their commander, only to retake them a year later, with

little cost, when they had regained the offensive.

This battle on the left wing lasted from the first week of March to

the last week of May. When it ended the French had been driven

south and off of both hills; they had lost their power to assail the Ger-

mans on the Douaumont Plateau by a flanking fire. Thus the Ger-

mans obtained the result which they had sought, but at a tremendous

cost in casualties and not until after three months of intense fighting.

When they had attained their objectives they contented themselves with

occupying and fortifying the captured hills, and the fighting on the left

bank was over.


The fighting on the right wing attracted more attention, and will

probably enjoy more lasting fame, because it had a single, clearly dis-

tinguishable objective, Fort de Vaux, and because the defence of this

fort later described in one of the memorable books of the war con-

stitutes an epitome of the whole Verdun epic and one of the finest and

most appealing chapters in the history of warfare.

Vaux itself, stood on a broad, fairly level plateau, facing east over the

edge of the Woevre Plateau and north fronting Fort Douaumont across

the deep ravine carrying the brook of Vaux. Little watercourses have

here bitten so deeply into the clayey soil that Vaux is really almost

surrounded by ravines and thus practically isolated from the mass of

the Heights of the Meuse behind it, which bear the inner line of old,

forts, Tavannes and Souville, among them.

The Germans, who attacked Vaux from the north, advanced out of

the valley at its feet, having taken the little village of Vaux-devant-

Damloup, just under the fort. As they advanced the contour 01 the (

hills gave them a protected sector right under the fort, the slope being

too sharp to permit the guns of the Vaux position to reach them. Tak-

ing advantage of this circumstance, the Germans endeavoured to repeat

their achievement at Douaumont and on March 9 announced that they

had taken Vaux by a brusque attack. This was utterly untrue and com-

pelled them to invent a successful French counter-attack the next day

to explain why the French were still in Vaux. Rarely hitherto in war

has a combatant been obliged to bestow an imaginary victory upon his

foe merely to cover the falsity of his own claims of an earlier success.

From March 9 onward the battle for Vaux went forward with un-

ending severity. Little by little the Germans crept up the Vaux Pla-

teau, more and more closely their trench lines drew about the doomed

fort, which was now nothing but a heap of shattered masonry and

crumbling brick. By the first of June the investment was complete.

Only a little garrison of some 600 men still held out; and this garrison,

swollen by the survivors of other units who had taken refuge there, was

beyond the resources of the fort to feed or furnish with water.

Immured in the underground passages of the ruined fort, the gallant

garrison still hung on. All direct communication with the French forces

outside ceased. Carrier pigeons supplied the lack for the moment, but

soon the last pigeon was released. Then for a day or two messages were

flashed by heliograph. But by June 3 the end was in sight, for the Ger-

mans were now pushing up and occupying the ground over the ruins of

the fort and the troops of the little garrison had to defend themselves

against an attack from above, as the Germans following their bombs

down the narrow staircases poured into the underground passages


Still Vaux held out, its garrison, defending the passages and the

inner stairways from gallery to gallery by bombs, enduring several gas

attacks. The Germans poured the gas down into the hideous cav-

erns, in which the atmosphere was already mephiticjeven liquid fire

failed to tame the spirits of the defenders. It held out until food and

water were both gone. Then, and only then, Major Raynal whose

last message from his commander had been the announcement of his

decoration for supreme bravery yielded his sword to a conqueror, who,

for once, honoured himself by honouring the brave man who had de-

fended his post to the final moment of possibility.

The last resistance in the ashes of Vaux ended on June 7 and with

this date the Battle of the Wings also ends. For more than a hundred

days the Germans had been occupied in preparing the way for a renewal

of their advance by the centre. These hundred days had been gained

for the Russian preparations, which were already revealing themselves

in a new offensive in Volhynia; they had been gained for the British,

now approaching the point at which they might take the offensive with

a reasonable chance of success.

Now in June the final problem was posed. Verdun had done its

real work, its defence had achieved the primary purpose of the French

High Command. Its fall now would only mean a moral defeat, the

military purpose of the defence had been realized. But could the moral

as well as the material victory be achieved? Could Verdun itself be

held until that moment, now to be foreseen, when the Russian pressure

in the east and the Anglo-French attack in the west would compel the

Germans to abandon the struggle on the Meuse and transfer their guns

and men to the Somme and the Styr? The Germans had planned to

take Verdun in four days, and only now as the fourth month was ending,

were they within sight of victory; only now was Verdun at last in ex-

tremis; could it hold for two months more ?


While the battle had raged on the flanks, the lines in the centre had

changed but little. There had been a slight but immaterial German

advance, while the French, on their side, had by a brilliant counter-

attack designed to relieve the pressure upon Vaux stormed the ruins

of Fort Douaumont and held them for one long May day, only to retire

in the face of new German concentrations of artillery and men and this

counter-offensive was to be the last ray of light for the defenders for

many days.

When the final German thrust for Verdun began, the positions of the

two contending forces were something like this: No longer facing south,

but west, the Germans were endeavouring to advance from the Douau-

mont Plateau downhill toward the Meuse Valley and Verdun, four

miles before them and in plain view. They and the French occupied

halves of a gigantic letter " H>" on e of the sides representing the Douau-

mont Plateau, the other the parallel ridge which carried Fort Tavannes,

and between these two sides ran the German route to Verdun. The

cross stroke represents the narrow ridge connecting the two longer ridges

and, itself carrying Fort de Sou ville. On this connecting ridge the French

and German lines faced each other with only a few feet separating them

and the whole German problem was by frontal attacks to force the

French off this ridge, seizing first the Thiaumont redoubt and the village

of Fleury in their immediate front and then Fort de Souville. If they

could take Souville they would then isolate and capture Tavannes and

advance upon Verdun along the three valleys which were followed re-

spectively by (a) the light railway coming east from the village of Vaux;

(b) the main Paris- Verdun-Metz railway, which between Vaux and

Tavannes passes from the Meuse Valley to the Woevre by a tunnel

rather more than a mile long, and (c) the Metz-Verdun highway which

borrows the least considerable of these depressions to cross the Heights

of the Meuse.

As they thus advanced, the Germans would drive the French down-

hill, and, once Souville and Tavannes had fallen, the French would

have only St. Michel and Belleville, forts which stand on the first slopes

east of the Meuse and which, in the nature of things, could only be held

lightly and for a brief time, since the retreat of their garrisons would

be practically impossible and their destruction by German batteries on

the higher ground to the east was bound to be only a matter of time.

Forts, moreover, had long lost their old importance and even Tavannes

and Souville were important only because of gun positions about them

and the cover their underground galleries gave for reserves and for sup-

plies of munitions and food.

June 8 to August 8 saw the final phase of the Verdun offensive

of the Germans. In this time the German line was pushed forward a

little more than a mile, on the right it thrust the French off the Douau-

mont Plateau altogether and back upon the subsidiary and lower ele-

vation of Froide Terre. Here the German advance was marked by the

capture of Thiaumont Farm and redoubt. In the centre the German

flood reached and passed .the village of Fleury, attained the Chapelle

St. Fine beyond, and halted exactly at the ditch of Fort de Souville,

the extreme highwater mark. On their left, the Germans advanced

from Fort de Vaux rather more than a mile, thus covering half the dis-

tance separating Vaux from Tavannes.

On August 8 the German line between the Meuse and the Vaux

Plateau curved inward toward Verdun and then bent back to the

Vaux Plateau; it was, in fact, a gigantic wedge driven toward Verdun,

penetrating most deeply southwest of Douaumont. The Germans were

now on the downward slope, less than four miles from the old Vauban

citadel. They had flung back both wings of the French army defend-

ing Verdun, they had opened a breach in the centre. Souville, nothing

but a shapeless mass of blackened ashes, was the single fragile bar-

rier between them and an advance which would carry them to the


But this advance was not to come. The Anglo-French offensive in

Picardy was now five weeks old and it was no longer possible for the

Germans to find reserves and munitions for two great operations. They

had, in fact, lost the initiative. Had they been able to reach Fleury in

March, there would have been no siege of Verdun, since an immediate

French retreat beyond the river would have been inevitable. Had they

arrived in May or June, there still would have been time to make the

last leap. But in August the opportunity came too late. The Verdun

game had been played out; Verdun had served the Allies' purpose; it

had performed its full duty. In battle and in siege it had held for nearly

six months. The military end had been attained in June, the moral

objective was now realized in August ; Verdun had not merely held out

long enough to serve the purposes of Allied strategy, it had also sup-

plied the moral victory, which was almost beyond calculation, given

the condition which Petain had found when he came to Verdun on

February 25. To the glory of Thermopylae, Verdun had added the

achievement of Plataea. "They shall not pass," the Poilu had said

in February, and in August the Germans had not passed the challenge

had become a prophecy and the prophecy was already fulfilled.