Petain’s dirty weekend
Yesterday, we found two cars leaving GQG at Chantilly on long journeys with urgent missions. The first contains General Castelnau, the commander-in-chief’s right hand, who’s speeding towards Verdun; we’ll catch up to him in a moment. The second is someone’s aide-de-camp, on a rather shorter journey to Second Army’s headquarters. He’s carrying the most urgent of messages for General Petain; report to GQG at 8am sharp to receive new orders.
General Petain is not there. Fortunately, Petain’s aide-de-camp is a man of the world; and so it’s he who carries the message on by car, to a hotel near the Gare du Nord in Paris. The general, a good Frenchman to the bottom of his boots, is taking what may well be the last opportunity for a long time to spend the night with his mistress. His young ADC interrupts him, briefly. Petain instructs him to take a room in the hotel until the morning. There is, apparently, time enough to finish the game and beat the Germans too.
You know, just in case you had any doubts at all about how French this all is. Anyway, even General Joffre isn’t getting much sleep; the Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, has arrived, demanding a personal update on the situation. In an extremely savvy move, Joffre has in turn awakened some of his staff who have been suggesting to him that perhaps Verdun might be given up. He then sits back quietly and lets them present the argument to the Prime Minister, while he himself judges the mood of the conversation.
This is not difficult; Briand is quite certain that if Verdun falls, so too does his government, and in his diary he admits to a frank exchange of views which finishes with him threatening to sack the entire room. Joffre can then speak up and point out what he’s already done to defend the east bank, and reassure the Prime Minister that of course he’ll hold out.
The sharp end at Verdun
Meanwhile, we find the blokes preparing a major retirement from the Woevre plain. Even before Briand’s arrival at GQG, Joffre had indeed made it quite clear that the east bank of the Meuse had to be defended. Conveniently, there are all these fortresses lying around that can be used as the anchors of a new defensive position around Verdun. Often referred to as the Douaumont-Vaux-Eix Line, it looks something like this.
The retirement begins as soon as messages can be sent forward, and although the Germans gain much territory today, most of it is being given up with minimal fighting. This means another retreat for the French artillery, another prolonged period when they’ll be barely able to support their infantry. Every gun available must be used, which includes the single 155mm howitzer still emplaced in Fort Douaumont.
You may remember a few days ago how we discussed that Douaumont has, until very recently, been considered surplus to requirements. The Engineers had been preparing it for demolition, but they’ve now stopped work and cleared off. However, its earmarking for demolition has caused most everyone to forget all about it. No French soldier is retreating to it. No French reinforcements are advancing to occupy it. As far as the French Army is concerned, Fort Douaumont may as well have fallen into a hole.
There is one man on all the Western Front who has a diffferent opinion. His name is Sergeant Kunze; he’s a German engineer attached to the 24th Brandenburg Regiment. (Long-time readers will remember that German combat engineers are combat engineers; our long-departed correspondent the German Sapper spent a lot of his time throwing grenades at the enemy.) The German stormtrooper leapfrogs are advancing quicker than ever as the French infantry retreats before them.
Kunze had been ordered to halt 750 metres in front of Douaumont and wait for support, but he’s German, and therefore encouraged to take advantage of local opportunities. So, in the late afternoon, he leads ten of his sappers forward, waiting for someone to shoot at them. It never happens. The 155mm gun continues firing at God knows what several kilometres away. Soon the sergeant and his men are at the walls of the fortress. One human pyramid later and Kunze has achieved what I suppose we must describe as “infiltrating” the fort.
Single-handed and armed only with a rifle, Kunze tours the fort. Whether or not he succeeded in arresting the gunners manning the 155mm gun is unclear; they may have escaped into the fort for a while. At any rate he wanders around for a time (it’s often said that he stopped to eat a meal that the French had prepared for themselves) until some more raiding parties arrive and, with the advantage of numbers, take full control of the fort. Messages are sent to the rear and the last-arriving officer, one Captain von Brandis, hurries to call for reinforcements and place himself at the centre of events.
Fort Douaumont is German. No casualties were taken, with the possibly-apocryphal exception of a scraped German knee. No shots were fired. When the local French infantry commanders see German signal rockets rising over Fort Douaumont, they immediately advance to the rear once more. Most of the civilians go with them, fleeing their homes. In Verdun one lieutenant’s nerves break and he runs through the town yelling “every man for himself” until he can be arrested.
The Germans, meanwhile, immediately begin preparing to consolidate and push on once more. When the Kaiser is told of the news, he immediately begins making plans to visit the front. The Government prepares to declare a public holiday tomorrow in celebration. And this is the situation that General Petain finds when he arrives at Souilly town hall, home of the headquarters for the Fortified Region of Verdun. The MSPaint map by midnight:
General Castelnau gives Petain further orders and then makes a quiet exit. Take over command from General Herr, hold the line, don’t fuck up.
The rest of today
Once again, for everything else that happened today, see this post.