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

Sunday, June 12, 2016

100 Years Ago: The Incident of the Tranchée des Baionnettes

At the Tranchée des Baionnettes (aka the Bayonet Trench) history intermingles with legend. On 12 June 1916, this entrenched position – part of a bigger trench complex known as the "Checkerboard" was a part of the terrain forming a salient on the upper slope of a gully known aptly as the "Ravine of Death" southwest of Fort Douaumont. The Germans wanted to secure the area before launching their renewed offensive in the Verdun "Hot Zone." 

The Original Trench of 3rd Company, 137th Infantry

Two battalions of the 137th Infantry Regiment, deployed at the front since 10 June, were the object of appalling shelling and very soon found themselves cut off. The regiment's 3rd Company had lost 94 of its 164 men by the night of the 11th. The remainder had been placed in row of exposed trenches directly observable by German artillery spotters. The artillery fire on the position increased in the early morning hours, and the remainder of 137th Regiment was annihilated almost to a man.  

Author Alistair Horne tells what subsequently transpired.

It was not until after the war that French teams exploring the battlefield provided a clue as to the fate of 3 Company. The trench it had occupied was discovered completely filled in, but from a part of it at regular intervals protruded rifles, with bayonets still fixed to their twisted and rusty muzzles, On excavation, a corpse was found beneath each rifle. From that plus the testimony of survivors from nearby units, it was deduced that 3 Company had placed its rifles on the parapet ready to repel any attack and — rather than abandon their trench — had been buried alive to a man there by the German bombardment. When the story of the Tranchée des Baionnettes was told it caught the world's imagination.

The Colonel's Original Marker

The Present Monument Alone on the Devastated Battlefield
Sometime After December 1920

Colonel De Bonnefoy, Commander of the 137th, had a small wooden monument erected there in January 1919. A generous American patron, Mr. G.F. Rand, funded the present-day trench covering with a paved path ending at the nearest road. This monument was opened by Alexandre Millerand, president of the Republic, in the presence of the ambassador of the United States, on 8 December 1920. 


Massive Canopy Over the Trench

The Trench Today:
The Bayonets Have All Disappeared Over the Years

It was the earliest major monument at Verdun and became the "must see" site of the battlefield up to the Second World War. Other theories have evolved over the years about the fate of the last men of the 3rd Company. Gas or concussion from exploding shells are alternative explanations of the mass deaths of the men. This may have been followed by Germans overrunning the position and hurriedly filling in the mass grave, which would explain their unique interment, but the exact details are beside the point. 

As Horne points out, the legend persists because whatever happened was an epic display of gallantry and sacrifice by the Poilus and a vivid documentation of the intensity of the fighting at Verdun. The Tranchée des Baionnettes symbolizes what makes Verdun a singular event in military history.

The Horne quote is from his book The Price of Glory.