Battle of Verdun
Here we go again. It’s time once more for the Germans to move hell and high water outside Verdun. The map again.
We’ll go first to Lieutenant Henri Desagneaux at Bras, right on the edge of the offensive.
I get a shell splinter in my lip. Nothing serious, fortunately, as the wounded have to wait until evening to get their wounds dressed. One cannot leave this shell-hole even by crawling on one’s stomach. The Boches attack, they are driven back by our return of fire. In the direction of Hill 321, a huge attack which lasts three hours with wave upon wave of them. The heat is oppressive. The stench of the corpses is nauseating. We have to live, eat, and wait in it. It’s six days since we’ve had a moment of rest or sleep.
The Boches have succeeded in advancing towards Hill 321 and are occupying a part of the ravine behind us, where our reinforcements are. The shelling has completely destroyed the trench where we were yesterday. The dead and the wounded are too numerous to count.
He’s lucky; he’s not taken the brunt of the German push towards Fleury. It started in the early hours with a major gas bombardment. The Germans have been working on methods of delivering gas inside shells, rather than having to release it from cylinders their own trenches. And this means that the first target of the phosgene gas bombardment is not the infantry in what’s left of the front line. This initial gas release is being aimed at the French artillery. Their horses stampede and then collapse, freezing the guns in place. The men run for their gas masks, but of course the masks have been designed to neutralise chlorine, not phosgene…
By midday, with German infiltration teams pushing hard towards Thiaumont and Fleury, the citadel at Verdun is on alert to prepare for a siege. There are two catchphrases which the French language gained from this battle. The first is Petain’s “On les aura!”, “We will get them”, from immediately after he took command. The second is issued today, as General Nivelle desperately tries to shore up the situation, to defend Fleury, to keep the enemy out of Fort Souville. After a little cleaning up for posterity’s sake, it reaches its final form. “Ils ne passeront pas!” “They shall not pass!” The French need to get the guns firing again.
If only Nivelle were a wizard. As it is, here’s the map at nightfall.
The Germans have bitten a chunk out of the decreasing salient around Verdun, in the furthest advance since the first few days of the battle. In the night, Petain has a long telephone discussion with GQG, the meaning of which is slightly debatable. He’s quite clear that the Line of Panic south of Fleury is almost certainly indefensible if Fort Souville falls. Souville sits atop a hill, and German observers on top of Souville would be able to see with no further obstruction all the way to Verdun. It is, of course, possible that he may have been exaggerating the seriousness of the situation to screw as many fresh men out of GQG as he can.
But this is an important moment in the war. Militarily, it would be all but impossible to re-cross the River Meuse if the French are forced to withdraw behind it. Politically, a failure to defend Verdun will certainly bring down the government, and General Joffre with it, and very probably the officers who failed to defend it along with them. A-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down!
We hada before-going-into-action parade service, which Laurie conducted. It was very impressive. So was his short sermon, all of it almost too impressive, and I was most awfully moved by it all. I always find Church Parade a very moving affair. At the same time it seems awfully odd, reconciling all this with Christianity; almost using Christianity as a weapon. For while the Church out here, to all appearances, makes an appeal to the individual soul, yet it is felt by all to be an item in the training. All the most warlike similes of St. Paul are made to apply, and “Fight the good Fight” is of a certainty this Fight against the Boches, and little else.
The guns are getting more active. In the after noon Fraser, Fagan, and I rode over to Bertrancourt to see a raised relief model of the Divisional attack area. While we were waiting to start, a most terrific thunderstorm, with violent wind and rain. The sort of thing which they write about in the tropics, and of which there will be a kind of imitation beginning to-morrow.
Thousands of variants on that sermon will be preached to the men in this next week.
This was “T” Day. After lunch, [two other battery commanders and I] went to meet Lt-Col Poyntz of the 2nd Bedfords, in order to inspect certain Hun machine-guns which he wished us to remove before his raid on “V” night. I suggested that he should point them out from my Observation Post. As luck would have it, just as we were going the Huns started firing right onto it. However, by making rushes between the salvoes we reached my tunnel entrance, and all seven of us crawled in.
The next salvo came, one shell blew in the mouth of the emergency exit, and the blast sent Macdonald onto me, and me backwards onto the Colonel. At the same time, another shell exploded near the main entrance, causing the last two officers to make desperate efforts to push further up. Those in front cried “forward!”, etc, with a vengeance. By this time I was helpless with laughter. Imagine seven of us on our hands and knees in a narrow tunnel, rather damp and very dark, all pushing towards the centre!
The next salvo blew in the top of the OP, which let in more light. By this time all evinced quite an uncalled-for dislike of my OP, so we all backed out singly and escaped in rushes down the trench. We then proceeded to the comparative security of the front line, and planned the destruction of the many Hun machine-gun emplacements.
This is a mighty helpful entry. For one thing, it’s a further clue for exactly where Fraser-Tytler’s battery was firing. For another, it’s a great prompt to mention that during the prepatory barrage, there will be several night-time lifts to allow raiders to cross No Man’s Land and investigate first-hand what damage is being caused. Of course, the barrage and the raids will be replicated in several other sectors, so that this does not give away where the real attack is coming.
From one artilleryman to another. Herbert Sulzbach is in philosophical mood. He’s nowhere near either of the two hot sectors; the Somme is off to the north, and Verdun is off to the east of his position near the apex of the Noyon salient.
This area has become very dear to me, and I’m beginning to think of Evricourt and its surroundings as a second home. The summer is coming on, they’re beginning to make the hay, you can smell the scent past the deadly cannon, and at night the nightingales sing. General Linsingen is attacking on the River Styr, Hindenburg at Dunaburg, and the Russians on the River Sereth; and at Verdun the gigantic battle of heavy weapons rages on, without our being able to take Verdun itself.
Certain small attacking operations which we put on are now being given code names, so that the French can’t listen in to the telephone messages, or at least can’t understand them. A little one like this called [Feast of violets] was mounted yesterday. The French counter-attacked, but once again we took quite a few prisoners, who supplied under interrogation the information we were looking for.
Salandra has resigned.
Job done, Oskar Teichman heads back home, for a given value of “home”.
We left Oghratina at 3 p.m. and marched on a compass bearing of 260°, leaving Katia on our left. Here some squadrons of the Worcester and Gloucester Yeomanry had been attacked by 3,000 Turks and Germans with artillery. The bodies had been properly interred a day or two after the engagement, but it was now almost impossible to approach, on account of the very large number of dead horses and camels. As we approached the sandhills which protect Romani to the eastward, we noticed how strongly the latter place was defended with trenches, wire, guns and strong posts.
Passing through a narrow gap in the sandhills, we arrived at the water-troughs at 6 am; after resting in the heat of the day we rode straight back on a compass bearing of 240° through Hills 70 and 40 to Kantara, where we arrived at 9.30 pm, having done about 40 miles since three o’clock in the morning.
That’s a lot of riding. The men on the Suez Canal continue waiting to be attacked.
At Demir Kapu we finished the most strenuous march I have ever done. It was a dry, waterless stretch of forty kilometres over parched ground with not even salt springs en route. Again and again we had nothing left but the will to go on. My donkey collapsed, and with difficulty I got him to a swamp of foul slime in which, besides many bones, were the half-picked skeletons of two donkeys that had apparently been drowned in their attempt to get water. So dry and thirsty were the animals that most of them rushed into the slimy pool up to their backs and then subsided, kit and all, into the mud.
We extricated them, and having drunk our fill also of slime, we set out for the last few miles. This water was green and filled with germs, but one’s experience had pretty well inoculated one by this time. Our thirst was not to be denied. One’s soul was hot within one and one’s tongue dry and hard. With our limit of transport there was no alternative, and most of us had had no money wherewith to buy waterskins. The column reached out for miles. Even our guard were quite done.
At our next halting-place a dust-storm descended on our camp in the night. With a roar like thunder a deluge of sand fell upon us, travelling terrifically fast. It tore down bivouacs, carried off tents and valises, pulled up picketing pegs, and rolled even heavy pots hundreds of yards off, where they were buried in the sand and many lost. We could not stand against it any more than against an incoming tide. It lasted for some minutes. One buried one’s head and lay with all one’s weight on one’s kit. I understand how people are often suffocated in these storms, as even this was quite long enough.
And the march goes on.
E.S. Thompson has a visitor in hospital.
Mr Parsons came to the hospital to see me. Told me De Bruin had come back, also Wackrill, and explained to me where the different forces were. He thinks it won’t be long before the campaign will be finished. Some more papers were given to us to read. Chilly wind blowing all the morning. Truly starvation rations. Tobacco, matches and cigarettes handed out. (4 cigarettes per man, 1 box of matches and 4 ounces of tobacco.) Wrote a letter to Bibby.
A good bit of officering there from Lieutenant Parsons. Thompson also takes the chance to complain about the lack of food.
There is a schoolmaster, B.A. London. Quietly spoken and still gifted with the enthusiasm of the young lover of Wisdom, who woos her for her own sake. May he never turn into a mediocre machine or a vile hypocrite who treats his former idol as a slave-girl! Amongst the other boys we have a butcher, a tailor and a journalist. The only men in the hut who are not conscientious objectors are the hut-corporal Hart and myself.
Hart is a good old soul. A London County Council road-mender by trade, he is brusque and jolly by turns. His ready wit confirms my suspicion of his Irish descent, though he denies it. Like a father he treats his COs. and he is quite proud of his clever charges, despite the confidential criticism about NCCs in general he pours into my ears when he is cross. At 5 am he thunders out: “Show a leg milads, arise and shine!” and at 9:45 pm he turns off the “glim”.
There’s always going to be another ship to load, and another form to sign and file. Is this his lot for the rest of the war?
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