The first day of Verdun | 21 Feb 1916

Battle of Verdun

Today, at long last, it is time to go back to the MSPaint map of Verdun and remind ourselves of the situation.

As ever, this is stylised like a Tube map, not accurate like an Ordnance Survey map
As ever, this is stylised like a Tube map, not accurate like an Ordnance Survey map

The weather over Verdun is far from perfect. However, it’s the best it’s been for two weeks. The Germans can’t wait forever. They’re not going to wait any longer. Shortly after dawn, the guns open up; 1,200 German guns, howitzers, mortars are massed in the Verdun sector. In some areas there is gas. The din is audible over 100 miles away, in at least the northern peaks of the Vosges. (If Robert Pelissier or Henri Desagneaux, both in the south of that mountain range, heard the bombardment, they apparently didn’t mention it on paper.)

And yet. Even at the last the Germans are keeping things ambiguous. There are more bombardments in Champagne, in Artois, in the Ypres salient. The bombardment at Verdun breaks at different times in different places. They’ve done everything possible to conceal their intentions, and General Joffre has bought the dummy as comprehensively as is possible for one man.

And yet, by the end of the day, we won’t know enough to say whether it’s worked or not. The plan is deliberately cautious, tentative, designed to look like a series of diversions. For nine hours the bombardments roll, break, lift, return. Its intensity is unparalleled. Forests are simply vanishing. From an infantry officer in the Bois de Wavrille:

By 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the section of the wood which we occupied and which, in the morning, was completely covered with bushes, looked like the timber-yard of a saw-mill; a little later, I had lost most of my men.

And that eight-mile strip on the east bank of the River Meuse is taking a concentration of fire that won’t be matched for over a year. 80,000 shells remove the Bois de Caures from the map. Here we find Emile Driant, Lt-Col Driant, resignedly watching the wood and his men disappear around him. In the afternoon he calls for a priest and waits for the end.

It never quite comes. Eventually the Germans move carefully across No Man’s Land, forging forward with grenades and flamethrowers, looking for evidence that they can push on in great force tomorrow. The advance stormtrooper parties are followed by the infantry, but time and again they find little pockets of resistance that must be dealt with. They’ve taken only 600 casualties (the French, ahem, rather more), but have had a clear warning that even the heaviest bombardment can’t completely destroy the enemy. Here, a miraculously spared house or barn. There, a small strip of trench with a strong dugout.

As for the French Chief? General Joffre remains unconcerned. Nowhere has the enemy advanced so much as a kilometre. There have been worrying attacks away from Verdun. He’s still certain that the Battle of Verdun is only a deception.

This will be an entirely atypical offensive. In every other major offensive of the war that I can think of (bar one, which we shan’t have to deal with for some time), the first day is by far the most important and telling. If it goes very well, further success might follow. If not, it invariably grinds to a horrible, bloody halt. This is different. The map at midnight.

It begins
The line has moved forward, honest.

It is still too early to pass any kind of judgement. It’ll have to be “more tomorrow”. I can’t quite believe that the first day of one of the war-defining battles is so thoroughly un-dramatic. There’s even still room to go somewhere and talk about something else.

Mesopotamia

What an odd, odd day. Never mind. So in Mesopotamia, General Aylmer has been fine-tuning his plan to relieve the Siege of Kut. When last we paid attention to him, he was planning an ambitious and original operation to cross to the west bank of the River Tigris, march off into the desert, and so bypass the Hanna chokepoint entirely. However, since then, he’s got cold feet about the idea. Perhaps that’s no bad thing. Maintaining a supply line for those men would have been, ahem, slightly ambitious. All they could have done would be to support a breakout from Kut and then retreat PDQ.

So now Aylmer and the Brains Trust are considering how they might have their cake and eat it; bypassing the chokepoint while also staying in touch with the river for supply purposes. The weather hasn’t been quite as foul recently as it was a month ago; the Tigris is lower and slower. Let’s not forget that the Hanna chokepoint on the east bank was only a chokepoint last month because of the river’s swollen, treacherous condition. Now it’s considerably more feasible to put men across and march up the west bank.

Sadly, this has not gone unnoticed on the other side of the hill. Under German direction, the Ottomans have been building another defensive position on the west bank. While the Royal Flying Corps has been doing its best, they’ve only found out that something is going on near a depression at Dujaila. They can’t be sure what it is. Aylmer can’t know that it’s an extensive defensive position (ahem), and that it’s about ten days from completion. It includes as its centrepiece an artificial hill that at its peak is 25 feet high, offering vital observation of the surrounding plain. (This all is painfully obvious from ground level, but rather less so when seen from two thousand feet, with a superior German aeroplane and pilot giving the observer a hard time.)

So, the new plan. Again, cross the river in force; but then, under cover of darkness, march out into the desert and then loop back to fall on Dujaila from an unexpected angle. Whatever the Ottomans are trying to do there can then be dealt with, and this will open the way to move quickly up to Kut and support the garrison as it breaks out; the combined force will at all times outnumber the enemy at Hanna (or so they think) and prevent any funny business in the rear while Kut is being relieved.

This is far from a mature plan. To work, it needs a ten-mile approach march in pitch dark by men marching to compass bearings. Aylmer’s boss, General Lake, is far from convinced. We’ll be back.

Malcolm White & Evelyn Southwell

Malcolm White is reunited with his friend.

It is true about the Man, and I went over to a village 1 km away and found him. I was awfully disappointed not to take him more by surprise. An officer gave me away by telling him there was an officer of the 1st Rifle Brigade, a Shrewsbury Master, waiting to see him. …

Two Men have met, not by arrangement of their own, but by the inscrutable designs of the British Army Staff. Not at a Base camp, but in the War Area. … The Man is [a company commander], and is a BIG MAN. I have heard him giving his routine orders to his Company Sergeant-Major, and it is a very wonderful thing. The Man has secured a bottle of whisky for his Mess, so that’s all right.

Their battalions are resting right next to each other; Southwell points out that it’s entirely possible that they now have the chance to spend a lot of time together. Riding every day for a week, bigads! Which is just about the only thing he apparently chose to say of their meeting, although it’s not impossible that here we may be the victims of later editing (or careful selection) of his letters and diaries. (White appears to have done all the writing to their many mutual friends.) Let’s just consider their friendship for a moment.

They both began teaching at Shrewsbury School in 1910 and became immediate friends. After a year, they moved into a house together, where they did no gardening or housework at all and kept a cat; and they lived together until going off to war. They wrote frequent letters to each other, barely decipherable, forever calling back to old jokes and previous correspondence. They were both accomplished rowers and musicians (Southwell on the piano, White on the violin) and frequently played together. The list of things they did in each other’s company goes on and on.

In fact, just about the only thing they didn’t do together (apart from teaching lessons) appears to have been to go on holiday; Southwell preferred to remain in England, White would go to Wales, Scotland, or Europe. They seem never to have had any thoughts of marriage, or women. (Compare to JRR Tolkien, who has been engaged for three years and will soon marry.) There are many different ways of interpreting all this.

There’s a circumstantial case to be made that Southwell and White were in a relationship. Without comprehensive access to their personal papers, it’s impossible to say for sure, only to speculate and to nudge and to wink. The urge to nudge and wink is often quite strong, but I’ll resist. Anyway. Back to the war.

Louis Barthas

Louis Barthas’s biggest concern at the moment is that he’s being moved again. If we were only to look at dates, we might surmise that when a battalion is being moved on the opening day of the Battle of Verdun, this must mean it’s going straight into the fire. But we know now that there is very little concern at GQG. Indeed, this is just a short trip to Bethonsart for our friend, and he even gets to be carried in a truck instead of marching. They’re just moving to a different part of the Vimy sector, which since last autumn has been a very quiet one.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive
Battle of Verdun

Further Reading

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