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

Monday, October 17, 2022

Alistair Horne's Letter from Verdun

Rodin Sculpture, Verdun Today

Originally published in Prospect, 20 August 1999

[Editor's Note: Alistair Horne is the author of The Price of Glory, an essential read for anyone interested in Verdun, the Great War, or the Human Comedy / Tragedy.]

From Alistair Horne –

The first thing a visitor sees on entering this small city astride the Meuse is a sculpted figure with its mouth wide open in a terrible silent scream.

It was on 21st February 1916 that Kaiser Wilhelm launched his “limited offensive” against the French bastion of Verdun. With a strategy unprecedented in the history of warfare, he sought to lure the French army into a place it would have to defend for strategic and moral reasons. His choice fell upon the fortress town of Verdun, 150 miles east of Paris. There the French army would be “bled white,” by the Germans’ greatly superior artillery.

War, however-as Nato discovered in Kosovo-seldom turns out the way the generals expect. In the event, Verdun turned out to be an unparalleled disaster for both Germans and French. Not without reason, it has gone down as the “worst battle” in history-perhaps even worse than Stalingrad. It was certainly the longest; its sinister fame derives also from the sheer concentration of the battlefield where, over a period of ten months from February 1916, an area smaller than Manhattan was subjected to the most intensive artillery bombardment ever known.

Along a front only eight miles wide, in the initial six day bombardment, 1,200 German guns expended 2.5m shells (at Waterloo, a century earlier, Napoleon fired off only 20,000 rounds). In the course of the battle, the big guns of both sides exacted over 800,000 French and German casualties. Three-quarters of the whole French army passed, up the lifeline known ever after as the Voie Sacree, through the inferno of Verdun. Few infantrymen ever saw the enemy which was slaughtering them.

For all its horrors, Verdun was a chivalrous battle. Surrendering prisoners were not shot (as they were in Saving Private Ryan). The infantry on both sides felt compassion for each other; the invisible guns were the enemy.

Verdun, 1916

The shelling so tortured the soil around Verdun that whole sections of the countryside defied all attempts to return them to cultivation; the lunar shell-fields still remain, crater upon crater-now partially veiled by dense new woods.

Whereas the fighting elsewhere on the western front took place in trenches now all but effaced by the passage of time, at Verdun it swirled around a series of massive concrete forts which gave the locality its 1914 reputation as the world’s most powerful fortress. Two of these forts, Vaux and Douaumont, saw some of the most lethal fighting. Others, battered and crumbling, now lie concealed in the woods, confronting the occasional venturesome tourist like Shelley’s Ozymandias; half-forgotten monuments to the folly, pride and heroism which epitomised what we still call “The Great War.”

I have been to Verdun half-dozen or more times since writing a book about it, The Price of Glory. I have never failed to be haunted by the majesty of the place-and its sadness. I remember standing at the sombre 50th anniversary commemorations in 1966, within a few feet of General de Gaulle. Erect as a ramrod, he stood until the lengthy son et lumi?re presentation reached the date when he, de Gaulle, had fallen wounded in the battle and been captured. Then he turned and left.

Perhaps it was too much to bear, even for that icy titan. Two decades later it was also to Verdun that François Mitterrand came, solemnly, to seal the end of Franco-German enmity by shaking hands with Helmut Kohl on the battlefield where so many had died.

Verdun is zealous in preserving its ghosts. Yet now, revisiting it for the first time in 12 years, I felt slightly less haunted. The solemnity remains, but time seems to have taken some of the edge off the grimness. In past years there was a creepy absence of birds; now thrushes and larks have returned.

Up on the front line, little-visited by the tourists, is the poste de commandement of Colonel Driant, one of Verdun’s heroes, who died at the head of his 1,300 chasseurs in the first days of the onslaught. Now it is covered with wild strawberries. In the tranquillity it is hard to imagine the terror of the bombardment-without a CNN to record it.

In the pockmarked woods, however, dangers still lurk. Only recently, two French helicopter personnel on leave from Yugoslavia were killed attempting to remove fuses on an unexploded shell.

At Fort Douaumont, swallows nest in the deserted machine-gun cupolas. Now most of its underground chambers, with dripping stalactites-which once housed over a thousand troops-are open to the public. Trees have been allowed to grow on the superstructure, concealing apertures through which a handful of Germans crept to take the world’s most powerful fortress. (Its reconquest cost the lives of 100,000 French troops).

At neighbouring Fort Vaux, where in June 1916 attackers and defenders fought bitterly for a week in the subterranean corridors, with gas and flame-throwers, a touching little plaque from a bereaved French mother has disappeared-vandalised. It read: “? mon fils: since your eyes were closed, mine have never ceased to weep.”

German Troops atop Fort Vaux, 1916

Young Germans-“Jugendaktion 1989”-have been at work clearing and restoring the superstructure of Vaux. A transcending sense of Franco-German reconciliation permeates Verdun today. The excellent museum at Fleury (one of nine villages obliterated in the battle) is entirely non-partisan, all trace of chauvinist heroics removed. Of its 130,000 annual visitors (including many Americans), about 20 per cent are Germans, whom the director takes personal pleasure in guiding around.

But of all the thousands of epitaphs on the Battle of Verdun, the one that sticks most poignantly in my mind is that written over 40 years ago (in The Taxis of the Marne) by a Frenchman, Jean Dutourd, deploring the moral debility of his countrymen in 1940: “War is less costly than servitude,” he wrote, “The choice is always between Verdun and Dachau.”

Alistair Horne

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