Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Frenchman's View of Verdun

French Major Roman, 358th RI 


July 7th — Under a terrible bombardment I arrive at my command post in the bois Fumin at 2 am, followed by my battalion. We left at 22:30 and had only 3 kilometers to go. We marched for 3 and a half hour without stopping, except at the end of the route, when pesky Very lights obliged us to wait for a few seconds. We marched so hard and even ran at times, that we are literally exhausted.

Frontline Trench at Verdun

If you haven't been to Verdun, it's hard to believe you can only do one kilometer an hour. That's why officers who've never been on relief duty know nothing of one of the war's worst torments. That's also why headquarters make such awful mistakes in their calculations.

July 10th — This is the 5th day I've been in battle (since this can rightfully be called an unending battle), three in the front lines, in contact with the Boche.  Without let-up, heavy ordinance is falling all over, everywhere you look; at its worst, you can make out up to 12 explosions per minute: at other times it's less, but there are periods of 12 hour-long non-stop shelling. The earth trembles, ears roar. Everything shakes and trembles, isn't this hell?

The earth in front of my shelter has been shattered and tossed about. Entering, I see a cadaverous-looking infantryman crawling out from the mixture of earth, stones and rubble. But after a few hours he's no longer the same; he's gone away and a tirailleur in khaki lies in his place. Then other cadavers and uniforms replace him. The  shell that buries one seems to unearth another; and yet one gets used to these sights; you ignore the indescribable stench of the slaughter-house in which we live, but any joy  in life will certainly be poisoned forever when the war is over.

As far as you can see, and that is long way indeed, for I have a splendid panoramic view of Fort Douaumont and the surrounding heights, everything has been burnt, shattered, mixed up pell-mell with earth, rocks, debris, and bodies.

French Troops Under Fire Near Tavannes

Can you imagine the heavy artillery concentration the Germans had to build up around Verdun before they could so thoroughly grind up the terrain occupied by the French, by  day and by night; every ridge, every ravine, every fort, every strong-point, every trench, every shelter a target for their special ordnance.

(Major Roman is quoted in works by Alistair Horne and Jacques PĂ©ricard, but I've not found many details about him.)

4 comments:

  1. Powerful excerpt.
    "isn't this hell?" indeed.

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  2. The rudimentary fighting positions depicted in the photos underscore the intensity of the barrages. There wasn't time to build anything better.

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  3. I went on a tour of Verdun with a group of officers from SHAPE. We had a French Capitan as a guide through Duoauamont which is considered a grave site because there are d bodies still entombed under the ruins. He cautioned us to observe la Voie Sacre as we pussyfooted over the ruins. At the end of the tour, we decided to pose for a group photo in front of the ruins and looked for the Capitan to pose with us. He was not to be seen until one of the group noticed him off to the side of Duoauamont rellieving himself on a pile of the ruins. So much for Voie Sacre.! Tant pis as the French say.
    T. Morgan

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  4. Anonymous, there is a gift shop inside the fort but no bathrooms. And, as far as I know, there are no bathrooms near the fort either. I won't tell you where I ended up relieving myself.

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