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

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Voie Sacrée Memorial

Contributed by Christina Holstein

If you ever visit Verdun and wonder how a battle of such magnitude was supplied, visit the memorial to the troops who maintained the main French supply road during 1916. Today that route is known as the Voie Sacrée, or Sacred Way, but before the Battle of Verdun it was merely the winding and poorly surfaced road from Verdun to Bar-le-Duc, a city some 65 kilometers to the south. Who had ever heard of it then? 

The Voie Sacrée Memorial, Roadway Marker (insert)

This unknown road was thrown into prominence in 1914 when the Germans attempted to pinch out Verdun rather than face it head on. Although the attempt was unsuccessful, it damaged or destroyed the main rail supply lines into Verdun and left the strongest fortified city in France dependent on one narrow gauge railway and this road. Over the next few months the road was widened, but as long as the Verdun sector remained quiet, further measures to develop it were deemed unnecessary and the later shortage of labour made major work impossible. That meant that when the battle of Verdun began, the road had to be used as it was. With military needs taking precedence over everything else, a regulatory commission took control, reserving the road exclusively for motor transport. Artillery, food, and horse drawn vehicles had to use other routes. 

The Road and Rail Line in 1916

Organizing the road involved dividing it into six administrative units, each one headed by an officer responsible for keeping the traffic moving and the road repaired at all times. To prevent the road surface from breaking up, quarries were opened nearby and territorial battalions brought in to break the stone and shovel it under the trucks as they passed. Security was ensured by military police, cavalry units, and fighter planes. Every day thousands of vehicles ground their way forward in convoy; traffic jams were frequent and drivers worked for days without a break. The trucks passed along the road at the rate of one every 14 seconds in "normal" times — with one every five seconds during particularly desperate times. They were forbidden to stop or overtake, and any truck that broke down was ditched.

The Road Today, Looking South from the Monument

Between March and June 1916, when a new standard-gauge railway line began to take the pressure off the road, the monthly traffic on the Voie Sacrée exceeded half a million tons of supplies and 400,000 troops, in addition to the 200,000 wounded men evacuated by ambulances, many driven by young Americans. By December 1916 almost two and a half million men had been carried along it. Throughout the First World War, no other single route carried as much traffic for as long a period as did the Voie Sacrée and today every kilometer of the route is marked by a memorial marker stone. 

Detail from the Memorial

So if you are ever in Verdun, go and visit the memorial to this famous supply road, which you will find at Maison Brulée, a tiny hamlet some 8 kilometers south of the city. Go also to Fleury Memorial Museum on the battlefield and inspect one of the little trucks that made that journey and think about the men who drove them, grinding forward with dimmed headlights, day in and day out, whatever the weather, to supply the longest battle of the First World War.

2 comments:

  1. Nice post, Christina. Driving along the idyllic country road that the Voie Sacrée has become, one could never guess the hellish conditions that prevailed during the Verdun battle. It may interest you that the same no-delay, no-second-chance policy that governed the trucks at Verdun was used in the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49. A planes that missed its landing was not allowed to go around and try again; it had to return to its base with a full load so that the following planes, one every three minutes, had a clear path to the runway.

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  2. This could be called the"Red Ball" highway of World War One.
    That famous name from World War Two supplied General Paton's rush eastward.
    It ran from Cherbourg to his tanks and jeeps waiting just behind the fighting line.
    In '44 French highways were some of the best in the world.

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