From the earliest days of that blazing month of August 1914, when the clash of nations began, Fort Vaux, plying with its questions the Woevre plain on the Thionville and Metz side, was awaiting on tenterhooks the results of the first collision. At night it saw the long glittering arms of the Verdun searchlights rake the skies above its head, scanning the stars for zeppelins or Taubes. Several regiments, marching past it, had taken up their station farther eastward, in front of Jeandelize or Conflans. The hours of waiting dragged on. It heard the firing of guns, but not from the quarter where it was keeping vigil. The sound was coming from Longwy, or perhaps from Longuyon. The storm, whirling along the Lorraine border, seemed to be swooping down upon the Ardennes.
On 20 and 21 August the fort saw troops defiling past it, with laughter and song on their lips. They were marching toward Longuyon by the Ornes road. They knew nothing as yet of the rigours of this new war. With light hearts they went to it, as lovers go to a trysting place. The Third Army, massed at Verdun, was making for Virton. On the 22nd it had already come to grips with the Crown Prince’s Army.
On the 25th, the garrison was cheered by a stroke of good fortune of which it was at once informed. A German motor-car, which was carrying the General Staff orders, while running along the Étain road, went astray over the distances, and on the evening of the 24th came into our lines and was there captured. Our command, into whose hands the enemy’s plans had so luckily fallen, gave orders for a surprise assault on the left flank of the 35th Division of the Landwehr and of the 16th Corps, which formed the left wing of the Crown Prince’s Army. The former, throwing down their rifles, fled as far as St. Privat, and the latter beat a hasty retreat to Bouvillers. It is possible that this Étain fight, a little-known episode of the first battles, checkmated a rush attack upon Verdun.
Nevertheless it was necessary to give up the pursuit on the night of 25–26 August, in order to remain in close co-ordination with the movements of the neighbouring army and to pass along the left bank of the Meuse, leaving reserve divisions to guard the right bank on the line Ornes-Fromezey-Herméville.
What Fort Vaux then saw go by at the foot of its slopes is a sight which those who witnessed it will never forget. In after years they will tell it to their children and their children’s children, that the memory may be kept green in each generation.
Along the road from Étain to Verdun, seeking a haven of refuge in the old fortress which, more than once in the course of centuries, must have sheltered the inhabitants of the Meuse valley against the onrush of Germanic hordes, came a hurried throng of two-wheeled and four-wheeled vehicles, of cyclists wheeling the machines which they had no room to mount, of wheelbarrows, of pushcarts, of pedestrians, of dogs, of cattle. Each took with him his most treasured possessions or what he had hastily snatched up in his house. On the carriages many had piled mattresses, trunks, quilts, provisions, furniture, and on the top of all these were the old people, the sick, and the children. Yet these three classes could not always find room on the vehicles. Among those who trudged on foot were the blind and the halt, women carrying their babies, little ones with a doll or a bird-cage in their hands. Some of them, their legs being shaky or not long enough, were too weary to drag themselves along. Behind these terror-stricken fugitives, the villages were in flames. They turned night into day over the whole countryside. Little by little the fire drew nearer. Now it is Rouvre that flares up, now Étain.
A woman stops by the roadside and sits down; she has bared her breast to suckle a round, rosy baby which already has crisp curls and looks like those7 infant Jesuses of wax that are placed in mangers at Christmastide. Around her is a group of three youngsters. A soldier comes up and questions her. He is already well on in years, a Territorial. The rapt look in his eyes, as he gazes at the children, is so tender that one feels he must have left a similar brood of his own at home.
“Where do you come from, my poor woman?”
“From Rouvres; they have set fire to it.”
“How pretty they are!” His “they” and hers are not the same, but his meaning is not lost on her.
“One is missing,” says the woman. And she begins to cry.
“What has happened to it?”
“They killed her. She was eight years old. They fired on her as she was running in the street. This one also they tried to take from me. I pressed him to me hard enough to drive him into my flesh. One of them was going to plunge his bayonet into the poor mite, but one of his comrades turned it aside.”
The child has had its fill. The group goes on again.
This is the new war, the war of frightfulness preached by Bernhardi. There was an epoch when truces were patched up for burying the dead and picking up the wounded. There was an epoch when a certain war-time chivalry held sway, to protect the weak and the innocent. That period was the barbarous Middle Ages. But civilization and culture came into being, and we now have war without pity,8 without quarter. One of the two opponents, tearing up the scraps of paper which regulate the treaties and the duties of nations, turning its plighted word into a sham, and crushing the innocent and the weak, has compelled the other to put him into a strait-waistcoat, as if he were a madman. It is a war that opens unbridgeable gulfs and leaves behind it indelible memories. It is a war of Hell, which demands the sanction of God.
Fort Vaux, from its hilltop, saw all this. It felt that its own stones were less hard than the hearts of the men who had flooded the earth with this torrent of suffering.
At last the procession came to an end. The road now resembled one of those ancient river-beds which leave a white track amid the pale foliage of the willows.
The fort, on its lonely perch, was ruminating. “My turn will come. I bide my time. That mighty Douaumont that overlooks me, will it defend itself longer than I? It has a greater need of shells. As to Souville and Tavannes, if the enemy comes from the north, I am in front of them, I shall screen them.”
An important personage, no less than the Governor of Verdun himself, came to examine its resources, to look into its physical and moral condition, to test its strength.
“Are your eyes well guarded, and can they see far enough? Are your arms and your shields tough? Have you enough ammunition, food, drink? Do you know all your instructions, above all the one that is common to all the forts: to die rather than surrender?”
With such questions as these he visited the observing stations, the transverse galleries, the casemates, the turret, the armoury, the provision stores, the cisterns, and inspected the garrison.
He had already come once before, at the beginning of August. This second visit foreboded an early attack. The enemy was not far off: he was known to be at Étain, at Billy-sous-Mangiennes, at Romagne-sous-les-Côtes, not in great masses but in small detachments. From the north, he was passing above Verdun and turning off to the Argonne. Verdun, well defended, served the French Army as a pivotal point for the immortal struggle of the Marne.
One of the neutral historians of the war, Gottlov Egelhaaf (quoted by M. Hanotaux), has written: “If the Crown Princes of Bavaria and Prussia had been in a position to seize Verdun in August-September 1914, and accordingly to force the line of the Meuse, the German armies would have burst upon Paris at one fell swoop. The two Princes, however, were held up at Verdun, and thus the German supreme command was forced to take the decision of leading back the right wing of their army. Verdun could not be captured, and for this reason it seemed essential to change the plan of campaign.” A very lame explanation of our victory on the Marne, but one that at least emphasizes the importance of the part played by Verdun in September 1914. Fate decreed that Verdun should twice attract and twice wear out or shatter the German forces.
Only by hearing the roar of the guns could Fort Vaux follow the battle fought on the left bank of the Meuse, before Rambercourt-aux-Pots, Beauzée, La Vaux-Marie. From the roar of the guns it could convince itself of the enemy’s retreat, of his withdrawal to the north.
Suddenly, however, on 17 September, it hears the guns farther to the south. The enemy hurls himself at Hattonchâtel and the Meuse Heights, bombards the Roman camp above St. Mihiel, fights in the barracks of Chauvoncourt. He has not yet abandoned the quarry that he covets. After trying to invest Verdun on the left bank, he returns by way of the right bank, but the front is fixed at Spada, Lamorville, and Combres.
It is fixed at three and a half to five miles in front of Fort Vaux on the line Trésauvaux-Boinville-Fromezey-Ornes-Caures Wood. On 18 February 1915, a red-letter day, the fort is pounded with 420mm shells. Douaumont has been favoured with some on the 15th and 17th, and it was only right that Vaux should follow Douaumont. The fort examines its wounds and is happy.
“The engineers have worked well. Only my superstructure has suffered. My casemates are of good material.”
And it will rejoice exceedingly to learn next day that the range of that famous 420mm battery has been found, that it has been shelled in its turn and destroyed. The giants have been silenced, and that promptly.
April and May were months of hope. Would they bring victory with the spring? The guns thundered daily at Marcheville and at Les Éparges, which had been gained. The Woevre was smoking as if weeds had been heaped up there for burning. Then the cannonade slackened off. Decidedly the war would be a long one against an enemy who stuck to our countryside like a leech. It needed patience, staying-power, will, organization, munitions. All these would be forthcoming.
So the troops got accustomed to war as well as to garrison life. The Territorials billeted in the villages of Vaux and Damloup, when they were off duty, played games of chance in the street or used the cemetery as a place for sleeping. They helped the country folk in their haymaking. They looked for mushrooms or strawberries in the woods of Vaux-Chapître and Hardaumont, after first looking for lilies of the valley. In the trenches their life, so full of thrills the previous winter, glided along in a calm that was no doubt relative—but what is there that is not relative?—and in monotony. On the summer evenings, on the escarp of the fort, the little garrison sat down with legs dangling, and watched night rising from the Woevre plain. Now and then a distant rocket would end in a shower of stars.
All this went on till one day, at the end of August 1915, the fort was sharply taken to task:
“You are not so important as you make out—or rather the whole land of France is as important as you. Did she not open out lines from one end of the country to another to shelter her defenders? It can no longer be denied that the enemy may be made to respect us at any point whatsoever of the national soil. Berry-au-Bac is an isolated salient on the right bank of the Aisne, and Berry-au-Bac has not yielded. It can no longer be denied that with artillery and determination one can capture any redoubt. Les Éparges formed a natural fortress, and we have taken Les Éparges. The fortified places have been unlucky during this war. They offer too easy a target for the big howitzers. Antwerp, Maubeuge, Warsaw, Lemberg, Przemysl, surrendered with their war material, their magazines, their troops. Verdun will no longer be a fortified place. Verdun will offer no resources, no booty to the enemy. Verdun will be nothing but a pivotal point for an army. You will no longer be anything but a look-out post and a shelter....”
“That may be,” the fort admitted. “In any case, I am only a soldier, and it is my business to obey. But my loins are strong. It will need much steel to crush them. You will see what I am capable of, if ever I am attacked.”
The fort, now shrunken, became enveloped in the mists of winter. It heard less and less of the guns. Its diminished garrison grew bored in the almost deserted corridors. The news which came from the rear contained mysterious hints of a great Allied offensive which was slowly preparing and would develop when the time was ripe, perhaps not before the summer of 1916: England would methodically complete her gigantic new military machine, and Russia would need time to heal the wounds inflicted on her during the 1915 campaign. It is flattering, when one lives on the border of the Woevre, to have such distant and important friends, even if they need a certain amount of time for settling their affairs.
In January and February 1916 the fort felt certain qualms:
“I don’t like being left so quiet as this. We know nothing here, but we have intuitions. Things are moving on the other side. Surely something is brewing.”
Things were moving indeed in the forest of Spincourt and in that of Mangiennes. Our aviators must have some inkling of it, for they make more and more frequent flights. But the soil is ill-fitted for observation, with its countless dips and its undergrowth. Even where there are no leaves, the brushwood defends itself against aerial photographers.
Information comes that the railway of Spincourt, Muzeray, Billy-sous-Mangiennes, is working in unaccustomed fashion. It seems that the big calibre guns have been detrained.
We are assured that new German corps have been brought into the district, among them the 3rd, which is returning from Serbia.
Finally, the belfries of Rouvres, Mangiennes, Grémilly, Foameix—how had they been spared till then?—were overthrown by the Germans: no doubt they might have served as guiding marks for our artillery!
Whence come these vague rumours and these definite reports? There is no chance of finding out for certain. The soldiers who come back from Verdun bring them back and retail them. Silence is not a French virtue. There is uneasiness in the air. Yet the weather is so appalling—squalls of wind and snowstorms—that the attack seems unlikely, or at any rate postponed.
“To-morrow,” thinks the fort, which has faith in the strength of its walls. “Or the day after.”
On 20 February the weather takes a turn for the better. On the 21st, at seven o’clock in the morning, the first shell falls on Verdun, near the cathedral. The greatest battle of the greatest war is beginning.
From: The Last Days of Fort Vaux, March 9–June 7, 1916
By Henry Bordeaux