Petain | Defence in depth | 27 Feb 1916

Douaumont village

Douaumont village is still holding out. Every hour it holds is another hour for French reinforcements to arrive, for artillery to emplace on the east bank and find the range of the German rear. Having advanced so far so quickly, the Germans no longer have any communication trenches to protect the men as they move forward. Just getting to the front lines can often be a major achievement.

And doubly, triply so on the western edge of the offensive. General von Falkenhayn’s decision not to attack the high ground west of the River Meuse is now beginning to tell. Let’s have the map again, to which I have added some poetry by one Private S. Baldrick.

Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map
Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map

If ever the world needed a definition of the word “enfilade”, firing on the enemy from one side, then there it is. The attack on the east bank of the Meuse will very soon have been shelled to a standstill, often by French gunners pouring direct fire down over open sights onto German infantry caught in the open without cover. A growing stream of messages is heading back to General von Falkenhayn, arguing and pleading in ever more strident terms to attack the west bank.

For the time being, he says no. As he does, the French rear is kicking into life. For one thing, General Petain’s arrival at headquarters had been badly delayed by a gigantic traffic jam on that single two-lane road linking Verdun with the rest of France. His staff are already devising measures to improve the traffic flow, of which more soon. Up at the front, it’s interesting to see how Petain’s stated intent not to concede any more ground measures up to what he’s actually doing.

After all, this is the man who’s spent his winter training the rest of the Army in defence in depth doctrines. Each line of defence is to have an advance trench, lightly garrisoned, to act mostly as a tripwire. When attacked they’re to fall back a few hundred metres to a deep, solid “principal line of resistance” and invite the enemy to attack again, being shelled heavily all the way. Once the attack is blunted and seen off, only then should the French counter-attack and take back their advance trenches. This is what he in fact means by “no more ground shall be given up”.

This is a major shift in thinking, and it’s by no means easy for anyone brought up to attack and attack again at all costs to hold their nerve while trying to adapt to the new, more subtle doctrine. Petain himself, no cultist of the offensive, described it as like balancing on a tightrope. The battle continues.


Meanwhile, you may remember that earlier in the month, General Haig was being rather smug about how he’d agreed “in principle” to relieve the French 10th Army, but not until next winter. Well, since that masterful manoeuvre (cough cough), the strategic situation has changed slightly. Against the backdrop of the Battle of Verdun there is no room for smugness. The relief begins tomorrow.

This is not good news for Louis Barthas. His regiment is part of that 10th Army, and if they’re going to be moved to a different part of the front…

Cadorna and Zupelli

Time to drop in on the Italians once more, where matters have come to a head. After nearly a month of a relentless offensive in the Italian newspapers, General Cadorna is now going on the offensive against the rebellious minister of war General Zupelli, who’s dared to question his methods. Like Jan Smuts, Cadorna is congenitally incapable of accepting any kind of dissent of criticism.

Therefore, he goes to the Prime Minister, Alessandro Salandra, with a simple ultimatum: it’s me or Zupelli. Salandra will toy for a while with the idea of calling Cadorna’s bluff. Unfortunately, the Chief not only has the support of the louder newspapers, he also has the ear of King Victor Emmanuel II. After a little cautious manoeuvring, Salandra’s offered his own resignation to the King (which has been refused), General Zupelli has been banished to the front and replaced by General Paolo Morrone (a pliable man happy to agree with whatever Cadorna says), and things briefly quieten down again. Not for long.

Sykes-Picot Agreement

Work on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which continues to poison world affairs in 2016 and beyond, continues. Mark Sykes has travelled to Russia for a jolly good chat with foreign minister Sazonov, to ensure that the proposed carve-up will be acceptable to Russia. Such things generally don’t happen without someone making some minor change, to prove that they were paying attention, but there’s not much to talk about. More on the agreement once it’s finalised.

Grigoris Balakian

Back to that jolly old Armenian genocide and your host, Grigoris Balakian. They’ve won over their Jandarma escort with the judicious application of money, and in return he shows them his orders. The number of deportees is identified; their official destination is Kayseri, and the officer must send telegrams to Cankiri and Constantinople when they arrive. Apparently this is a highly unusual order; the officer claims that most deportation orders aren’t concerned with whether the deportees get to where they’re going.

After walking for hours, we reached the banks of the [River Halys], which even in winter had overflowed. It roared and rushed, churning with tree-trunks, branches, and whole uprooted trees. The water was murky, but we were slowly leaving behind human customs. Like animals, we found ourselves drinking from it.

The marching continues.

Herbert Sulzbach

Herbert Sulzbach, the German artilleryman, breaks his silence as they hear good news.

The wireless reported that several villages and one fort near Verdun had been taken by assault. The Woevre Line has been broken, and a general advance begun.

I get promoted to Lance-Sergeant.

He also says that they can hear the sound of the guns at Verdun; looking at the distances involved, that might be an exaggeration. For him, though, things remain mostly quiet.

Robert Pelissier

Reading between the lines of his latest letter, Robert Pelissier is extremely thankful that he’s up on the Hartmannswillerkopf and not at Verdun.

We have been for nearly seven weeks in the mountain and the longer it lasts, the less enjoyable it is, for in the Vosges, February and March are accompanied by sudden storms of snow, rain and wind. Moreover, as we are on the firing line we are always eight where there is only room for six. A move is as complicated as in the game of chess. Our section is on duty; half the men are at the loopholes, and the rest are asleep.

Even then I am partly sitting on one of the corporals.

We were to be relieved from duty this week and we were looking forward to going down into the valley, but how could we go now? With what is going on at Verdun there is no possibility of a let-up for us. We have to bear it patiently.

Mate, you are so much better off up there.

E.S. Thompson

Something extremely annoying happens to E.S. Thompson and the South Africans in Kenya.

During the night some Germans blew up our boreholes at Vuria from where we get our water, so we marched out 12 miles north of the camp leaving 2 long lines of men all the way, so that if the Germans passed that way we would intercept them. I hope our water supply won’t be interrupted. At about 3 pm we were told that we had to stay the night in the bush so each man dug himself a little trench to sleep in.

If they can’t see off the enemy and restore the water supply, bang goes half of General Smuts’s grand offensive.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

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One thought on “Petain | Defence in depth | 27 Feb 1916

  1. Blaming the Sykes-Picot agreement for world affairs in 2016 seems to me to be somewhat like complaining about the person who sold you a second-hand car which broke down after you used it for 10 years, and every time it sounded a bit funny you hit it with a hammer.

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