Friday, February 17, 2012

Decisive Battles: Verdun 1916

Verdun Dates: 21 FEB - 18 DEC 1916Forces Engaged: IIIe République Française

Infantry and Artillery - The first day at Verdun the defenses were manned by the Third Army, roughly 34 battalions in nine divisions in four corps (II, VII, XX, XXX), approximately 150,000-180,000 troops all arms. But the French Army under Pétain was rotated through the Verdun sector as a routine; reportedly up to 75% of the French units that served on the Western Front served at least some time in the Verdun Sector.We will see that the critical military factor at Verdun was artillery, and here the French were initially outgunned. Of the roughly 300 gun systems in action on 21 FEB the vast majority, as much as three-quarters, were 75mm light field artillery.By later February the French Second Army - about 90,000 troops all arms - was ordered into the Verdun defenses, in part to relieve the battered troops of the Third Army, in part to simply replace the entire regiments that had been swallowed up in the fighting.

On average the French GQG kept roughly 10-11 divisions, the equivalent of two armies, present in the Verdun area between 1916 and the final drive forward in 1918.

Fortifications - French defense of Verdun cannot be discussed without including the fortifications. Thirty of these steel-and-concrete emplacements surrounded the town of Verdun. These included 21 large fort complexes and as many as 23 smaller emplacements and posts ("ouvrages" and "postes").After the debacle of 1870 the Third Republic had decided to use fixed fortifications as a substitute for the field armies that had lost so badly. The Séré de Rivières system was designed to ring strategic cities on the eastern frontier with forts. These are described as
"...able to provide mutual support and could fire on one another to suppress attacks. In addition to the principal forts, smaller works were provided to support the infantry in the intervals between forts. Such works provided shelter to infantry during bombardment and may contain reserve artillery." (Wikipedia)
Most of the Verdun fortifications were constructed between 1880 and 1913, and were among the better constructed of the type.The failure of the Belgian forts at Liege and Namur in 1914 had badly shaken French confidence in their fort systems, despite the respectable performance of the Verdun forts under sporadic heavy artillery bombardment in 1914. By 1916 many of the forts - most notably Fort Douaumont to the northeast of Verdun - had been reduced to caretaker garrisons and many of their weapons removed. This decision was a critical factor in the engagement, as we will see.

Commanders - The French commander probably most associated with Verdun is Marshal Pétain himself. But several other well-known officers played roles there, including General Robert Nivelle, the architect of the Chemin des Dames offensives in 1917 that nearly broke the army he commanded, and as an insignificant captain, Charles de Gaulle, who was wounded and captured there early in 1916.

Kaiserlich Deutsches Reich - The main attack on 21 FEB was made by troops from the German 5. Armee.This formation included about 70 divisions in six corps, and the strength of the formation is usually quoted at between 800,000 and 1 million all arms. But the real power of the 5. Armee in February 1916 was in its artillery.

The German Feldartillerie arm had been perhaps the most technically and tactically advanced arm of any of the combatants on the Western Front in 1914. Germany had been the only Power to appreciate the increased killing strength of heavy artillery; although the German divisions still fielded mostly the 77mm Feldkanone (FK) 96 neuer Art or the recently upgraded 7.7 cm FK 16 the Deutsches Heer was the only formation to enter the war with truly heavy cannon, including the enormous 305mm B-Gerät and 420mm M-Gerät 14 howitzers. These guns had torn through the Belgian frontier forts (partially because of the truly crappy concrete work the Belgians had performed) and had been brought to Verdun to attack the French fortresses there.Of the some 800 systems that began firing at 0715hrs, 21 FEB 1916 more than half were 150mm and above, including twenty-six of the 305mm and 420mm monsters.

The architect of the offensive was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, GEN Falkenhayn, but the immediate commander of troops for 5. Armee was the German Emperor's son, Kronprinz Frederick William Victor Augustus Ernest Hohenzollern.

A Brief Note: This edition of "Decisive Battles" will be a little different than usual, principally because of the subject.

Verdun is and has been since the end of WW1 acknowledged as a significant event, albeit a disastrous one, in human history. Almost as many words have been expended on the subject as were shells expended in killing men at that dour town in the valley of the Meuse. There is little I can add to the military history of the struggle.

Instead I will try and briefly summarize the major events of the campaign and then discuss what I see as the major effects and lessons to be learned from the engagement. Hopefully we can use this post as a basis for a discussion of not so much the history of the combat but the larger implications it had, both for the combatants at the time and for those of us since.

The Campaign: Normally I use this space to put the engagement in the context of the larger strategic or geopolitical setting that it proceeded from. But Verdun cannot really be called a "battle"; it was itself an entire campaign which raged at its height from February to July 1916 and then continued in a more desultory form all the way until the final Armistice, with major Allied offensives in December 1916 and August 1917. As the map below shows, the positions the two sides occupied on 30 AUG 1918 were not materially different from the positions they held on 21 FEB 1916.Instead, in this space I'd like to talk about the whys; why did this dumpy little town in Lorraine come to be the charnel house for nearly one million human lives? How did this terrible grief find this utterly ordinary little town drowsing in the wooded hills of the Valley of the Meuse?Certainly it should have been nothing in the history of the place, although its location, in the corridor between the Ile-de-France and the German lands to the east meant that it had been fought over before and would be again. It was a Gaulish town, and then a Roman one, and had been both French and German before the 11th Century. In the 16th it became a French possession again, and was fortified against repossession, although Brunswick seized it briefly before the Cannonade of Valmy sent him scurrying back across the Rhine.

The principal reasons seem to have been topographic.

In the winter of 1916 Verdun seems to have presented what GEN Falkenhayn saw as an opportunity to win the war. No surprise there - every commander, Allied and Central Powers, saw his latest notion as the route to winning the war - but the reasons lay in what any real estate agent would have known; location, location, location.

First, let's get one thing out of the way.

The original tale of Verdun is that the entire fucking disaster was a plan.

Seriously. No shit. An actual plan.

The story was that GEN Falkenhayn realized after the failure of the attacks of 1914 and the increasingly obvious defensive power of the machinegun and the high explosive shell that a stalemate had developed. He is supposed to have written a memo to the German Emperor in December 1915 in which he is supposed to have said:
"A mass breakthrough — which in any case is beyond our means — is unnecessary. Within our reach there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death"
This is the basis of the story of Verdun as pointless death machine; the so-called "Christmas memo".

The wonderful thing about it is that the story fits so well with our popular image of World War I as pointless slaughter, a bottomless well of blood spilled for nothing. The notion of the commander of the German Army developing a plan that called for nothing but killing, piling a mountain of corpses on hills of corpses, just seems too right, too perfect a symbol of the Himalaya of stupid that is the Great War.

There seems to be only one teensy little problem with this story.

It seems to be a complete fabrication.

It appears to be Falkenhayn trying to find a lie that will fly.

Because the only source for this "memo" is Falkenhayn himself. No physical copy has ever been found, the only text for it is quoted in Falkenhayn's memoir, neither Emperor Wilhelm or the troop commander Crown Prince Wilhelm ever mentioned it or spoke of pure slaughter as the objective of Fall Gericht, the February attacks. There is no discussion of attrition as a strategy in any of the OHL (Oberste Heeresleitung, the German Imperial Army HQ)war diaries, or any of the order books or staff diaries for 5. Armee or any of its subordinate units.

No, when you look at the Western Front Verdun sticks out like that literal sore thumb - look at it:The Verdun defensive ring had held in the autumn of 1914 when the surrounding portions of the Meuse valley had fallen, leaving the town and fortifications as the largest salient in the Allied lines. The town was now isolated, with enemies on three sides and friends on only one. The only ways in and out were a single road and a single-track rail line. The Verdun sector had seen some fighting in 1914 but had been pretty quiet for a year; the defenses there had been reduced, many of the forts stripped of defenders and defenses.And losing Verdun would knock a troublesome hole in the French defense lines. Although the town is a good 150 miles east-northeast of Paris, once clear of the Meuse and the hilly terrain around the river valley a bold attacker might think of crossing the upper Marne around the Langres plateau. From there there is no significant geographic obstacle between the invader and Paris. Major rail routes led west from the region towards the heart of the Parisian plain.

In all, a promising place for a shattering blow to the Frenchmen. At least, that's my guess as to what GEN Falkenhayn really thought.

And this was also an opportunity to test or refine techniques to kill people.

Portable flamethrowers, special units trained in infiltration ("stormtroop") tactics, aeroplanes...and, of course, the massed artillery. All of this would descend on the defenders of Verdun like a hammer, smashing the defenses and breaking both the defensive lines and the heart of the French Army.It had worked at Sedan, after all, hadn't it?

[(Update 2/19): There seems to be some controversy about exactly what Falkenhayn intended. One of the commentors over at MilPub - whose military instincts I generally trust and is very familiar with the scholarship surrounding this question - said:
"Falkenhayn had a lot of enemies within OHL... There were relatively few higher officers he thought he could trust, so he kept his actual plans and strategy very close. There was also the need for secrecy since surprise was absolutely necessary for the success of Falkenhayn's plan which he hoped would bring the war to a negotiated end in 1916."
His conclusion is that although there may not have been an actual written "attrition plan" in December 1915 that the idea of using Verdun as a mangle to grind the French Army is likely to have formed a great part of Falkenhayn's thinking.

Upon consideration, I'm still not sure I buy this.

Assuming that Falkenhayn's intent - regardless of what ended up going down on the written orders - was largely attrition then the actual conduct of the battles for Verdun makes him look like the least competent combat commander on either side in 1916. The analogy would be as if Sir Alex Ferguson wanted Manchester United to play for a scoreless draw and then sat on his hands as everyone except the keeper de Gea ran around the attacking half of the pitch.

The sensible way to attrit the French would have been a series of attacks that would have been meticulously planned to quickly seize some place that the French would have to regain, have a hasty defense laid into the plan to include interlocking machinegun positions and preplotted artillery fires on all the avenues of approach, and then just sit back and kill the damn Frogs as they came on in waves. Wash, rinse, repeat.

There seems to be nothing in the Fall Gericht plan for this, anywhere, in any of the phases of the 1916 attacks.

And even if there were no written plans for a battle of attrition, once the battle began Falkenhayn did nothing as 5. Armee wasted thousands of men a day in repeated futile attacks over open ground at La Mort Homme, Hill 304, Fort Souville, and elsewhere. He does not ever seem to have communicated to any of his subordinates that his "commander's intent" was to use Verdun as a mill to grind down the French Army and to stop with the fucking attacking already, hunh?

So it seems to me that this leaves only two choices; that Falkenhayn really DID intend to fight the battle of attrition he claims to have wanted and was supremely incompetent in fighting it, or that he simply made the conventional error of many other WW1 commanders and thought he had found the combination of tactics and sector to achieve a conventional breakthrough attack and, when that failed, threw up the smokescreen of the battle of attrition.

The truth really depends on the man, and I don't have a good enough sense of Falkenhayn to guess whether he'd prefer to be assumed to be the guy who came up with a unique working plan but was too incompetent to implement it, or the guy who was just another WW1 general who hadn't figured out that his tactical and logistical implement was incapable of executing the same-old-same-old plan that everybody else couldn't make work, either.

Sadly, it didn't really matter for the poor bastard landser and poilu, did it? Either way, they paid the price, and that price was far above the gain.]


Anyway, the original date for the attack was to have been 12 FEB, but bad weather and supply problems pushed the date back, first to 16 FEB, and then another five days. But when darkness fell on 20 FEB 1916, the 5. Armee was ready and the orders went down to the troops waiting in their sodden assembly areas; the attack would start in the morning.The Sources: The usual plethora of published materials is available to the researcher, and befitting its status Verdun has had more than the usual number of chroniclers.

Among the more accessible to the English-speaking reader is Alistair Horne's 1962 work, "The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916". A good work for the general interest reader Horne writes well and covers the essentials of the fight. I note that he cites Falkenhayn's "Christmas Memo" story without demur, so his account is not without its shortcomings. For those with more advanced language skills Holger Afflerbach's 1994 "Falkenhayn, Politisches Denken und Handeln im Kaiserreich" is a well-regarded study of the geopolitical and strategic thinking behind the planner of the battle, and Alain Denizot's 1996 work "Verdun, 1914–1918" provides an incredibly detailed look at the battle including details such as French troop movements and shell consumption by type by month (!). Only for the true historian.

On-line, the Wiki entry is fairly well researched and appears complete. The Verdun page at First World War.com contains a good summary of the Verdun campaign as well as numerous links to primary sources. The "Western Front Association" has a nice page on Verdun that gives a good deal of detail on the engagement itself.

Among the more entertaining on-line sources is this one, in French, showing plans, pictures, and details of the Verdun fortifications.It's worth a peek just for the map on the main page alone, which gives you an idea of what a hell of a tangle of defenses the French constructed around the place. Surely the attackers must have felt like Hell was empty because all the devils were there...

The Engagement: For the sake of both brevity and clarity, let's just go over the outlines of the fighting, which has been thoroughly covered elsewhere. We'll leave the details to the experts.

21 FEB - 29 FEB - Attack on the East Bank The Crown Prince kicked off his attack with three corps attacking south along the east bank of the Meuse. On the right his smallest and weakest element, VII Reserve-Korps, tackled the French 72nd Division near the villages of Brabant and Haumont. In the center and left two entire German armeekorps, the III and XVIII, went in against the French 51st Division holding the line between Beaumont and Ornes. The weather was still miserable, cold and wet, and the shellfire quickly churned the ground into a sea of mud.

The first week didn't go as well as planned for the German attack. Part of this bad weather, part of it was poor tactics; at this stage in the war the German battalion and company commanders were still hesitant to let their troops get too close to the artillery fire, which was not well directed to begin with. The Crown Prince has also been faulted for depending too much on the artillery; on the 21st he held his assault troops back in favor of further artillery prep of the first-line objectives. Experience would show that beyond a certain point the effect of the barrage slowed the attackers by the creation of rough going and the obliteration of landmarks more than it degraded the defenders.

But another part was the tough resistance of the French defenders, many of them refusing to give up poor positions and abandon untenable situations.

The sacrifice of the 56th and 59th Chasseurs a' Pied in the Bois des Caures - the picture to the left is their commander, LTC Driant, one of the early heroes of the battle, looking pretty much like he must have been; a cocky little bastard that you could kill but not frighten - holding the bulk of XVIII Armeekorps for the full day on 22 FEB is the best known, but all over the east bank French units, badly placed, poorly dug-in, and ill-supported by their artillery, held the German advance up and caused terrible casualties.

These little defeats were insanely costly. But they helped slow the German attack, cost the attackers time they didn't have, and helped the defenders believe that they could succeed in the face of the firestorm of artillery and the swarm of attacking infantry.

But the weight of numbers and artillery told.

Day by day the 5. Armee advanced;on 24 FEB the second line of trenches was taken and the bulk of the French 72nd Division destroyed.

The 37th (African) Division, sent forward in penny-packets to fill the gaps left by the destruction of the 72nd, was shot apart.

On 25 FEB the shocking loss of Fort Douaumont; the commander of the Verdun sector, GEN Langle de Cary suggested surrender or withdrawal and Marshal Foch sacked him and replaced him with Pétain, who issued his famous "they shall not pass" command and, more critically...

...organized a working main supply route (MSR) along the so-called "Sacred Way" (a hagiographic term coined after the battle - at the time the poilus called it simple "La Route", The Road) and the adjacent narrow-gauge railway.

The importance of this unbroken supply chain can't be overemphasized; Verdun has been described as a "victory of French trucks over German railroads" and the truth isn't far off. Without the immense effort to keep the road and rail supply open (at one point roughly 600-700 troops in 13 pioneer battalions were busy keeping The Road maintained and working) the French must have folded; the "Gericht" plan was, in part, based on the expectation that this would happen.

The German gains were slow, slower than required to break the French defenses, and the French artillery was taking a blood price from the attackers that made the ground gains a costly mess.

By 25-26 FEB 5. Armee was beginning to run into the other recurrent problem facing WW1 attackers; the infantry had begun to outrun their supporting artillery.

This was a tactical problem that remained unsolved until the advent of close-air support, mechanized engineer units, and self-propelled artillery.

In order to shoot the infantry onto and past their objectives artillery had to tear hell out of the defenses. But the destruction was so great that the artillery - which needed level ground to displace to forward firing positions - couldn't advance until pioneer battalions using hand tools could painfully and slowly construct roads through the mess. Even riding leather personnel carriers the infantry could attack faster than the artillery and its ammunition trains could advance behind them.

Here's a heavy British piece being "prolongued" - dragged by its crew a short distance - that gives you an idea. Most WW1 cannons had narrow wood-and-steel-rims or the sort of wide block wheels you see below that did very poorly in bad ground, and the combination of man- and horse-muscle power provides very little force to overcome the combination of immense inertia and adhesive mud.After H-Hour Verdun rapidly became a gunner's nightmare for the German artillery.

As the Germans lost their fire support the French defenders, falling back on Verdun itself, gained theirs. It was an increasingly ugly situation, and the Crown Prince and his staff came up with a plan to solve it.29 FEB - 22 MAY - Attack on the West Bank One of the nasty problems that 5. Armee had faced in February was artillery fire enfilading their right flank from the high ground southwest of the Meuse, the crests of the hills named the Dead Man ("La Mort Homme") and Hill 304 (Côte 304).

The German solution was to seize the ground and use possession to lever the defenders out of Verdun. Beginning on 6 MAR and continuing through March and April the German VI and parts of VII Reserve-Korps hammered away at the French defenses.The fighting here was largely over open ground, and the artillery fire scourged both attackers and defenders. In about a month of fighting both sides lost something like 80,000 casualties each - almost 3,000 lives a day. Again the weight of numbers and the better artillery told. By late May 5. Armee held the crests of both La Mort Homme and Hill 304(...which after the war should have been renamed "Hill 300", since artillery drumfire had excavated 4 meters - 12 fucking feet - of soil and rock off the top)

But, here again, the attackers were "bled white" as well as the defenders. Entire battalions were ruined, and the mire of mud, blood, and broken bits of human debris ground the attack to a stop.And on 22 MAY the French counterattacked.

22 MAY - 12 JUL - Attack in the South - The French counterattack, designed by the local commanders GEN Nivelle and GEN Mangin, was designed the shove an assault force through a narrow attack lane and shot onto the objective - Fort Douaumont - by the heaviest artillery concentration the defenders had assembled to that point.

It succeeded, in a sense that for about half the day of 24 MAY a small group of poilus managed to get on top of the fortifications and wander about.

But it was a pointless "success", in that they couldn't breach the casernes below and were eventually picked apart by artillery and small arms. The attack gained nothing.Mangin was castigated for the failure, and Pétain decided that the "prestige" of controlling the battered wasteland that was Douaumont wasn't worth the price.

In the same month 5. Armee had shifted its main effort to the east, south of the Douaumont sector, and on 1 JUN attacked, and on 7 JUN seized, Fort Vaux.This really was an achievement for the attackers.

Where as Douaumont had been something of a gag - a bunch of Brandenburgers wandering into a nearly deserted fortress and tying up the gaggle of clueless gits parked inside - Vaux had a full complement of defenders and was held as well as a 19th Century fortress could be.

But the combination of heavy artillery and infantry close assault proved, as it would in the future, that fixed fortifications were a chimera. Without a maneuver force outside to relive the pressure the attackers simply took one strongpoint after another.

And the fortress had another problem; it had no internal water source.

After a nasty five-day fight the defenders surrendered rather than die of dehydration.The rest of the month of June the attackers pressed forward.By 21 JUN units from III and VI Armeekorps took l'ouvrage de Thiaumont, opening the way to the last fortification east of Verdun - Fort Souville. This second-line fort had been hammered by heavy artillery; only the underground tunnels were left.

The fort really was key terrain; it commanded the high ground above the Meuse and the area along the east bank. Seize it and the German artillery could smash the city of Verdun, the MSR, and the bridges supplying the French forces on the east bank. Hold it, and the defenders could continue to break up attacks and counter German artillery fire and break up infantry attacks.Over three days, beginning on 10 JUL 5. Armee tried to smash through the Souville sector. This included a huge diphosgene gas attack - phosgene is perhaps the nastiest of the WW1 gas shells - while dropping more than 300,000 shells on the remains of the fort.

The actual assault on 11 JUN was a mess. The assault force of Bavarian line infantry and elite mountain troops had to approach in a narrow lane which had been a preplanned target of French artillery. The German artillery prep lifted too soon, and the Souville defenders were able to beat the attack force to their parapets, and machinegun fire further ripped the German troops apart.

Less than a company of German attackers managed to get to the superstructure of the fort the following day.The Wiki entry reads:
"From that position, they could actually see the roofs of the city of Verdun and the spire of its cathedral. But being decimated by hand grenades and by a 75 mm artillery barrage, they had to retreat to their starting lines or chose to surrender. Thus, Fort Souville, on 12 July 1916 in the morning, became the high mark of the unsuccessful German offensive against Verdun. Today, the deeply scarred superstructure of Fort Souville is only partially visible because of large water-filled shell craters and very dense vegetation. It is one of the most horrifying and most hazardous sites of the old Verdun battlefield."
And it was not only that; the failure atop Souville in July marked the end of the German assault on Verdun. The German forces never mounted a serious threat to the French defenses after that.

12 JUL - 31 DEC - French Counterattacks On 1 JUL the BEF had opened the massive assault in the Somme sector - the infamous "First Day on the Somme" that ruined the Kitchener battalions and butchered a generation of young Englishmen, and on 4 JUN the Russian Southwestern Front had smashed into the Austro-Hungarian forces in Galicia and broke them.The Imperial High Command responded by withdrawing units from Verdun to shore up the Austro-Hungarians in the East and the Somme sector in the West.

Fall Gericht was finished.

On 19 AUG GEN Falkenhayn was relieved.

Over the next two years the French forces centered around Verdun held their lines. An offensive in October and December 1916 won back much of the territory 5. Armee had seized that year, including Forts Douaumont (which was retaken in October) and Vaux (in November).1917 and 1918 The Verdun sector remained just another part of the Western Front for another two years. Something on the order of 900,000 men from the French and German ground and air forces were damaged in some way there; over 600,000 never left the place.

A French offensive in August 1917 regained La Mort Homme and Hill 304, but there the tactical movements ceased until the last months of 1918. The mountains of the dead had been heaped up for...nothing.

The Outcome: Marginal French tactical victory, although strategically the result was a stalemate for both of the powers.

The Impact: The immediate impact was, ironically, the desuetude of the French Army, the result that Falkenhayn later claimed to have been seeking, but too late and too diffuse to do Germany any good.

GEN Nivelle, the final arbiter of the French defense of Verdun, as commander-in-chief of the Army concluded like Falkenhayn that he had a key to victory. Like Falkenhayn, he concluded that this would be a combination of new tactics (the "creeping barrage") combined with a new sector for their application, the Chemin des Dames. Like Falkenhayn, he was mistaken and his troops suffered for it as the 5. Armee had at Verdun. The so-called Second Battle of the Aisne was a disaster that resulted in over 100,000 casualties in the space of several days of April, 1917.

And in May, worse; mutiny.

The French 2nd Infantry Division was the first combat refusal; on 3 MAY 1917 the soldiers would not leave their trenches to attack. The mutinies spread rapidly and widely. Within several months a total of 49 of 113 infantry divisions were in an uproar, including nine combat ineffective, fifteen disrupted, and 25 with lesser but still serious occurrences of mutiny when ordered into the lines or, if in line, to attack.

The mutinies were suppressed, but Nivelle was done, broken; he was replaced by Pétain, the man he had replaced at Verdun.

And something had broken in the French Army, as well.

Pétain took a hard look at the situation and concluded that discretion was the better part of strategy. The Americans were coming, and time was on France's side. The French Army waited in its trenches for the great offensives of 1918. France had bled enough.The longer term effects of this great heap of death are harder to assess.

Militarily, the story of the first half 20th Century should really be about the German Army learning the right lessons from its tactical mistakes and the French the wrong ones from its success and suffering.

The failure of the artillery support at Verdun in February 1916 prompted the creation of the close-support aircraft of the Luftwaffe of September 1939 and May 1940. The political story should probably be the German governments failing to learn the lessons of their geopolitical mistakes; the demands of a two-front war that continually shortstopped tactical victories in the First World War were mirrored by the disastrous choice to turn East in 1941 in the Second.

The French thought that the tough fortress-fighting of Verdun could be duplicated as a way of saving the next generation of Frenchmen from the calvary of the Western Front. The Maginot delusion, and the fear of the war that the great fortress was designed to deter, held the French Army in thrall like a cobra with a rat until the rejuvenated Heer struck again in 1940 to redeem its failures in 1914.

But while the military lessons of Verdun and the other tactical schooling the Heer received in 1916 contributed to the successes of 1939 and 1940, the larger political lessons - the disadvantage of fighting economically stronger foes, the problems with leaving a damaged enemy combat-capable - that went unlearned contributed to the defeats of 1945. The German politicians and the generals who advised them didn't seem to learn that tactical, and even grand tactical, success is nothing but dust and ashes without political consequences to close the deal.

But the truly harrowing result of Verdun went deeper into France than mere tactics or politics. I think we all understand that the blood-mill of the Meuse had an effect on the politics and the people of France; I think it takes a bit of understanding of history to really comprehend how deep and lasting that effect was.Until 1918 the French were the Huns of Western Europe. Seriously, for all the ink spilled giving the Germans a hard time, their reputation for bloodthirstiness really only goes back to just before the beginning of the 20th Century. France had been the spawning ground of killers since the days of Charles Martel.

The French armies fought in more wars, took more ground, killed, looted, raped, and burned their way across Europe from medieval times up until the middle of the 19th Century. Until then if you were looking for a good place to get killed, for a jolly little war to fight in, there was probably a Frenchman involved in it, too. Frenchmen were the Beasts of Europe for hundreds of years. Until Verdun.Verdun, and other places like it, but because of the sheer grim uselessness of it Verdun was what Frenchmen and women thought of when they thought of the hideous killing ground that their northeastern frontiers had been for four long years.

Up until then the notion of war had had something of adventure, of attraction, of glory and honor and excitement to it.After Verdun it was all hell.France, and the French Army, lost something in the mire of the Meuse valley that year that it has never regained or wanted to regain; some lingering idiot love of fighting, some puerile illusion about "honor" and "glory" was killed there along with half a million sons, brothers, fathers, and lovers. The France that emerged still remembers the sickening miasma that lingered above the ossuaries of Verdun, and still has little wish to add to the heaps of bones still growing, by less than a random rib or flake of skull now, but still, even now in the wooded hills and quiet valleys above the old cathedral town of Verdun.Touchline Tattles: There really ARE no lighthearted stories about Verdun; the grim aura of hopeless death still hangs over it like a Gothic shroud. Instead, let me tell you the story of the village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont.In August 1914 the village was just another little farming town in the wooded hills east of Verdun. The census of 1913 had recorded 422 inhabitants: Three innkeepers, a baker-confectioner, M. Simon, who was carpenter, cartwright AND cabinetmaker, a shoemaker, three seamstresses, a builder, a tinsmith, five masons, a blacksmith, a baker, M. Tardivat the "inspector of works", a tobacconist (who may also have been the baker, the grocer, and one of the innkeepers or the brother of one of them), and six farmers who owned the land they farmed. And, of course, their wives, daughters, sons, and the various landless laborers who worked for them.The village lived like the others around it; from farming and vinticulture, and timbering from the wooded hills where the lean gray wolves still watched from the shadows under the trees as they had in Merovingian times.

The fighting of 1792, 1814, and 1870 had passed Fleury by; all that touched it were the sons who returned with tales of battles far away...or never returned at all and were mourned in the old stone church.

Even the battles of 1914 were fought to the north and east, and the families continued to sow and harvest with, perhaps, no more than a nervous glance to where the night-horizon was lit with gunfire.All of that ended on 21 FEB 1916.

It was snowing that morning. The horizon lit with gunfire as the order came from the military district to evacuate. The villagers piled what belongings they could into carts and wagons and walked or rode southwest as the sky between the louring cloud and the frosted hills burned behind them.

They never saw their homes again.

The site of the village - since by mid-summer all that remained were rubbled heaps where the houses and shops had been - changed hands 16 times altogether. The "powder magazine" (La Poudrière, described as "...an advanced artillery munitions dump to more quickly supply the field and fortress batteries between Douaumont, Thiaumont, Froideterre and Fleury-devant-Douaumont as well as some secondary munitions dumps...") located near the village was fought over again and again.The village site was finally retaken on 18 AUG, when after ten days of hard fighting Moroccan infantry went in singing the Marseillaise and held.As you can see, the ruins of the little town have almost disappeared in the succeeding 100 years; only the shellholes remain. The debris of warfare, particularly the massive amounts of unexploded ordnance including phosgene and chlorine gas shells, had made the entire area next to uninhabitable and certainly unfarmable.

It was included in what was called the Zone Rouge, the “Red Zone”, that portion of northeastern France too badly battered in war for human habitation.After initial attempts to clear away the mess the Third Republic made the decision to let the Red Zone return to wilderness. Tree plantations were established, and the area let slowly regress into forest and meadow. The grass grew long in the cratered fields, the young poplars and maples formed doghair copses that welcomed back foxes and coneys.Fleury, and eight other small villages around Verdun, were designated casualties of war – “villages that died for France” – and were honored by a representative in the Chamber of Deputies in Paris that served the memory of a place that no longer existed save for as scattered stones in a tormented woodlot. It is managed by a municipal council of three members appointed by the prefect of the Meuse department.

Much of the rest of the old Western Front has recovered from the wounds inflicted in the Great War. Even areas within the old Red Zone have slowly been reclaimed, becoming farms and homes, towns and even parts of cities as the old frontline towns of St. Quentin, Soissons, and Loos slowly grow with the new 21st Century.

The old days still take their toll, however; the occasional buried round - the "iron harvest" - is encountered by a disk harrow with unpleasant results, or, less violently, is seen placed carefully alongside the road verge to await the arrival of the Département du Déminage disposal teams.The old border is a peaceful sort of place where the business of human life seems never to have paused. The old wars seem hard to imagine as lorries full of German machine parts roar west to Brest or French artisan cheese north to Brussels.But Fleury-devant-Douaumont has never been rebuilt. The village is tenanted only by the past, the only dweller the silent sleekness of the marten, the only passersby the ghosting wings of the thrushes, the rustling passage of the hedgehog recalling the lumbering walk of M. Body the grocer and the owl-eyes the hooded glance of Mlle. Alpert the seamstress, gone these hundred years never to return.

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