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BATTLE OF VERDUN ANOTHER GETTYSBURG

FAILURE OF CROWN PRINCE LIKENED BY FRENCH TO "HIGH TIDE" OF CONFEDERACY

“The parallel between Gettysburg in your Civil War and Verdun in the present contest is unmistakable and striking.” This was said to me by General Delacroix, one of Joffre’s predecessors as chief of the French General Staff and the distinguished military critic of the Paris Temps now that because of age he has passed to the retired list.

What General Delacroix meant was patent and must have already impressed many Americans. Our own Gettysburg was the final bid for decision of a South which had long been victorious on the battlefield, which still possessed the armies that seemed the better organized and the generals whose campaigns had been wonderfully successful. But it was the bid for decision of a Confederacy which was outnumbered in men, in resources, in the ultimate powers of endurance, and was already beginning to feel the growing pinch both in numbers and credit.

At Gettysburg Lee made his final effort to destroy the army which he had frequently defeated but never eliminated. Victory meant the fall of Washington, the coming of despair to the North, an end of the Civil War, which would bring independence and the prize for which they had contended to the Confederates. And Lee failed at Gettysburg, not as Napoleon failed at Waterloo or as MacMahon failed at Sedan, but he failed, and his failure was the beginning of the end. The victory of Gettysburg put new heart, new assurance into the North; it broke the long illusion of an invincible Confederacy; it gave to Europe, to London, and to Paris, even more promptly than to Washington, the unmistakable message that the North was bound to win the Civil War.

I mean in a moment to discuss the military aspects of this conflict about the Lorraine fortress, but before the military it is essential to grasp the moral consequences of Verdun to France, to the Allies, to Germany. Not since the Marne, not even then because it was only after a long delay that France really knew what had happened in this struggle has anything occurred that has so profoundly, so indescribably, heartened the French people as has the victory at Verdun. It is not too much to say that the victory has been the most immediately inspiring thing in French national life since the disaster at Sedan and that it has roused national confidence, hope, faith, as nothing else has since the present conflict began.

In this sense rather than in the military sense Verdun was a decisive battle and its consequences of far-reaching character. France as a whole, from the moment when the attack began, understood the issue; the battle was fought in the open and the whole nation watched the communiques day by day. It was accepted as a terrible if not a final test, and no Frenchman fails to recognize in all that he says the strength, the power, the military skill of Germany.

And when the advance was checked, when after the first two weeks the battle flickered out as did the French offensive in Champagne and the former German drive about Ypres a year ago, France, which had held her breath and waited, hoped, read in the results at Verdun the promise of ultimate victory, felt that all that Germany had, all that she could produce, had been put to the test and had failed to accomplish the result for which Germany had striven or any portion thereof.

War is something beyond armies and tactics, beyond strategy and even military genius, and the real meaning of Verdun is not to be found in lines held or lost, not to be found even in the ashes of the old town that France and not Germany holds. It is to be found in the spirit of France, now that the great trial is over and the lines have held.

It was Germany and not France that raised the issue of Verdun. The Germans believed, and all their published statements show this, that France was weary, disheartened, ready to quit, on fair terms. They believed that there was needed only a shining victory, a great moral demonstration of German strength to accomplish the end to bring victorious peace. In this I think, and all with whom I talked in France felt, that the Germans were wrong, that France would have endured defeat and gone on. But conversely, the Germans knew, must have known, that to try and to fail was to rouse the whole heart of France, to destroy any pessimism, and this is precisely what the failure has done.

The battle for Verdun was a battle for moral rather than military values, and the moral victory remains with the French. It was a deliberate and calculated effort to break the spirit of France, and it roused the spirit of France as perhaps nothing has raised the spirit of this people since Valmy, where other Frenchmen met and checked another German invasion, brought to a halt the army of Frederick the Great, which still preserved the prestige of its great captain who was dead, turned it back along the road that was presently to end at Jena.

Beside the moral value of Verdun the military is just nothing. To appreciate its meaning you must understand what it has meant to the French, and you must understand it by recalling what Gettysburg meant to the North, invaded as is France, defeated at half a dozen struggles in Virginia as France has been defeated in the past months of this war. Gettysburg was and remains the decisive battle of our Civil War, although the conflict lasted for nearly two years more. For France Verdun is exactly the same thing. Having accepted the moral likeness, you may find much that is instructive and suggestive in the military, but this is of relatively minor importance.

Now, on the military side it is necessary to know first of all that when the Germans began their gigantic attack upon Verdun the French high command decided not to defend the city. Joffre and those who with him direct the French armies were agreed that the city of Verdun was without military value comparable with the cost of defending it, and that the wisest and best thing to do was to draw back the lines to the hills above the city and west of the Meuse. Had their will prevailed there would have been no real battle at Verdun and the Germans would long ago have occupied the ashes of the town.

Joffre’s view was easily explicable, and it was hardly possible to quarrel with the military judgment it discloses. To the world Verdun is a great fortress, a second Gibraltar, encircled by great forts, furnished with huge guns, the gateway to Paris and the key to the French eastern frontier. And this is just what Verdun was until the coming of the present war, when the German and Austrian siege guns levelled the forts of Antwerp, of Maubeuge, of Liege. But after that Verdun ceased to be anything, because all fortresses lost their value with the revelation that they had failed to keep pace with the gun.

After the Battle of the Marne, when the trench war began, the French took all their guns out of the forts of Verdun, pushed out before the forts, and Verdun became just a sector in the long trench line from the sea to Switzerland. It was defended by trenches, not forts. It was neither of more importance nor less than any other point in the line and it was a place of trenches, not of forts. The forts were empty and remain empty, monuments to the past of war, quite as useless as the walls of Rome would be against modern artillery.

The decline of Verdun was even more complete. From the strongest point in French defence it became the weakest. When the Germans took St. Mihiel in September, 1914, they cut the north and south railroad that binds Verdun to the Paris-Nancy Railroad. When they retreated from the Marne they halted at Varennes and Montfaucon, and from these points they command the Paris-Verdun-Metz Railroad. Apart from a single narrow-gauge railroad of minor value, which wanders among the hills, climbing at prohibitive grades, Verdun is isolated from the rest of France. Consider what this means in modern war when the amount of ammunition consumed in a day almost staggers belief. Consider what it means when there are a quarter of a million men to be fed and munitioned in this sector.

More than all this, when the lines came down to the trench condition Verdun was a salient, it was a narrow curve bulging out into the German front. It was precisely the same sort of military position as Ypres, which the Germans have twice before selected as the point for a great attack. In the Verdun sector the French are exposed to a converging fire; they are inside the German semicircle. Moreover, the salient is so narrow that the effect of converging fire is not to be exaggerated.

When the French attacked the Germans in Champagne last fall they advanced on a wide front from a line parallel to the German line. As they pierced the first German lines they were exposed to the converging fire of the Germans, because they were pushing a wedge in. Ultimately they got one brigade through all the German lines, but it was destroyed beyond by this converging fire. But as the Germans advanced upon Verdun they were breaking down a salient and possessed the advantage they had had on the defensive in Champagne.

Finally, one-half the French army of Verdun fought with its back to a deep river, connected with the other half only by bridges, some of which presently came under German fire, and there was every possibility that these troops might be cut off and captured if the German advance were pushed home far enough on the west bank of the Meuse and the German artillery was successful in interrupting the passage of the river. It was a perilous position and there were some days when the situation seemed critical.

Accordingly, when the German drive at Verdun was at last disclosed in its real magnitude Joffre prepared to evacuate the town and the east bank of the river, to straighten his line and abolish the salient and give over to the Germans the wreck of Verdun. The position behind the river was next to impregnable; the lines would then be parallel; there would be no salient, and in the new position the French could concentrate their heavy artillery while the Germans were moving up the guns that they had fixed to the north of the old front.

But at this point the French politician interfered. He recognized the wisdom of the merely military view of Joffre, but he saw also the moral value. He recognized that the French and the German public alike would not see Verdun as a mere point in a trench line and a point almost impossible to defend and destitute of military value. He saw that the French and German publics would think of Verdun as it had been thought of before the present war changed all the conditions of conflict. He recognized that the German people would be roused to new hope and confidence by the capture of a great fortress, and that the French would be equally depressed by losing what they believed was a great fortress.

You had therefore in France for some hours, perhaps for several days, something that approximated a crisis growing out of the division of opinion between the civil and the military authorities, a division of opinion based upon two wholly different but not impossible equally correct appraisals. Joffre did not believe it was worth the men or the risk to hold a few square miles of French territory, since to evacuate would strengthen, not weaken, the line. The French politicians recognized that to lose Verdun was to suffer a moral defeat which would almost infallibly bring down the Ministry, might call into existence a new Committee of Public Safety, and would fire the German heart and depress the French.

In the end the politicians had their way and Castelnau, Joffre’s second in command, came over to their view and set out for Verdun to organize the defence for the position at the eleventh hour. He had with him Petain, the man who had commanded the French army in the Battle of Champagne and henceforth commanded the army that was hurried to the Verdun sector. France now took up definitely the gage of battle as Germany had laid it down. Verdun now became a battle in the decisive sense of the word, although still on the moral side. Nothing is more preposterous than to believe that there ever was any chance of a German advance through Verdun to Paris. One has only to go to Verdun and see the country and the lines behind the city and miles back of the present front to realize how foolish such talk is.

Meantime the German advance had been steady and considerable. All these attacks follow the same course Ypres, Artois, Champagne, Dunajec. There is first the tremendous artillery concentration of the assailant; then the bombardment which abolishes the first and second line trenches of the defenders; then the infantry attack which takes these ruined trenches and almost invariably many thousands of prisoners and scores of guns. But now the situation changes. The assailant has passed beyond the effective range of his own heavy artillery, which cannot be immediately advanced because of its weight; he encounters a line of trenches that has not been levelled, he has come under the concentrated fire of his foe’s heavy and light artillery without the support of his own heavy artillery, and all the advantage of surprise has gone.

What happened at Verdun is what happened in the Champagne. The German advance was quite as successful rather more successful than the French last September; it covered three or four miles on a considerable front, and it even reached Douaumont, one of the old forts and the fort which was placed on the highest hill in the environs of Verdun. Thousands of prisoners had been captured and many guns taken. But at this point the French resistance stiffened, as had the German last year. French reserves and artillery arrived. Petain and Castelnau arrived. There was an end of the rapid advance and there began the pounding, grinding attack in which the advantage passed to the defender. It was just what happened at Neuve Chapelle so long ago when we first saw this kind of fighting exemplified completely.

In the new attacks the Germans still gained ground, but they gained ground because the French withdrew from positions made untenable through the original German advance at other points. They consolidated their line, organized their new front. Ten days after the attack had begun it had ceased to be a question of Verdun, just as in a shorter time the French had realized last September that they could not break the German line in Champagne. But like the French in Champagne, like the British at Neuve Chapelle, the Germans persevered, and in consequence suffered colossal losses, exactly as the French and British had.

To understand the German tactics you must recognize two things. The Germans had expected to take Verdun, and they had unquestionably known that the French military command did not intend at the outset to hold the town. They had advertised the coming victory far and wide over the world; they had staked much upon it. Moreover, in the first days, when they had taken much ground, when they had got Douaumont and could look down into Verdun, they had every reason to believe that they possessed the key to the city and that the French high command was slowly but steadily drawing back its lines and would presently evacuate the city.

Knowing these things you can understand why the Germans were so confident. They did not invent stories of coming victory which they did not believe. They believed that Verdun was to fall because they knew, and the same thing was known and mentioned in London. I heard it there when the battle was in its earlier stages that the French high command intended to evacuate Verdun. What they did not know and could not know was that the French politicians, perhaps one should say statesmen this time, had interfered, that the French high command had yielded and that Verdun was to be defended to the last ditch.

When this decision was made the end of the real German advance was almost instantaneous. All that has happened since has been nothing but active trench war, violent fighting, desperate charge and counter charge, a material shortening of the French line at certain points, the abolition of minor salients, but of actual progress not the smallest. The advance stopped before lines on which Petain elected to make his stand when he came with his army to defend Verdun. The Germans are still several miles outside of Verdun itself, and only at Douaumont have they touched the line of the exterior forts, which before the war were expected to defend the city.

In Paris and elsewhere you will be told that Douaumont was occupied without resistance and that it was abandoned under orders before there had been a decision to hold Verdun. I do not pretend to know whether this is true or not, although I heard it on authority that was wholly credible, but the fact that the map discloses, that I saw for myself at Verdun, is that, save for Douaumont, none of the old forts have been taken and that the Germans have never been able to advance a foot from Douaumont or reach the other forts at any other point. And this is nothing more or less than the French experience at Champagne, the German experience about Ypres in 1915.

In a later chapter I hope to discuss the situation at Verdun as I saw it on April 6th, and also the miracle of motor transport which played so great a part in the successful defence of the position. But the military details are wholly subordinate to the moral. All France was roused by a successful defence of a position attacked by Germany with the advertised purpose of breaking the spirit of the French people. The battle was fought in the plain daylight without the smallest concealment, and the least-informed reader of the official reports could grasp the issue which was the fate of the city of Verdun.

ThThe fact, known to a certain number of Frenchmen only, that the defence was improvised after the decision had been made to evacuate the whole salient, serves for them to increase the meaning of the victory as it increases the real extent of the French exploit. But this is a detail. The Germans openly, deliberately, after long preparation, announced their purpose, used every conceivable bit of strength they could bring to bear to take Verdun, and told their own people not merely that Verdun would fall, but at one moment that it had fallen. They did this with the firm conviction that it would fall was falling.

The French were steadily aware that Verdun might be lost. They knew from letters coming daily from the front how terrible the struggle was, and it is impossible to exaggerate the tension of the early days, although it was not a tension of panic or fear. Paris did not expect to see the invader, and there was nothing of this sort of moonshine abroad. But it was plain that the fall of the town would bring a tremendous wave of depression and if not despair yet a real reduction of hope. Instead, Verdun defended itself, the lines were maintained several miles on the other side of the town and all substantial advance came to an end in the first two weeks. The army itself, the military observers, were convinced that all danger was over as early as the second week in March, when correspondents of French newspapers were being taken to Verdun to see the situation and tell the people the facts.

All over Northern France, and I was in many towns and cities, the “lift” that Verdun had brought was unmistakable and French confidence was everywhere evident. It showed itself in a spontaneous welcome to Alexander of Serbia in Paris, which, I am told, was the first thing of the sort in the war period. Frenchmen did not say that Verdun was the beginning of the end, and they did not forecast the prompt collapse of Germany. They did not even forecast the immediate end of the fighting about Verdun. They did not regard the victory as a Waterloo or a Sedan or any other foolish thing. But they did rather coolly and quite calmly appraise the thing and see in it the biggest German failure since the Marne, and a failure in a fight which the Germans had laid down all the conditions in advance and advertised the victory that they did not achieve as promising the collapse of French endurance and spirit.

The Battle of Verdun was a battle for moral values, and the possession of the town itself was never of any real military value. Verdun commands nothing, and behind it lie well-prepared fortifications on dominating heights, positions that are ten times as easy to defend as those which the French have defended. It was not a battle for Paris, and there was never a prospect of the piercing of the French line; Germany was never as near a great military success as she was at Ypres after the first gas attack a year ago. The French army leaders judged the Verdun position as not worth the cost of defending. They were overruled by the politicians and they defended it successfully. But their first decision is the best evidence of the wholly illusory value that has been attached to the possession of Verdun itself.

The politicians were unquestionably right as to the moral value, and it is possible if not probable that the relinquishment of the city voluntarily might have precipitated the fall of the Briand Ministry and the creation of a Committee of Public Safety not to make peace, but to make war successfully. The will to defend Verdun came from the French people, it imposed itself upon the army and it resulted in a moral victory the consequences of which cannot be exaggerated and have given new heart and confidence to a people whose courage and determination must make an enduring impression on any one who sees France in the present terrible but glorious time.