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VERDUN, THE DOOR THAT LEADS NOWHERE

THE BATTLE AND THE TOPOGRAPHY OF THE BATTLEFIELD--AN ANALYSIS
OF THE ATTACK AND DEFENCE

In a preceding article I have endeavored to explain the tremendous moral “lift” that the successful defence of the city of Verdun has brought to France, a moral “lift” which has roused French confidence and expectation of ultimate victory to the highest point since the war began. I have also tried to demonstrate how utterly without value the fortress of Verdun was, because the forts were of no use in the present war, were as useless against German heavy artillery as those of Antwerp and Maubeuge, and had been evacuated by the French a full eighteen months before the present battle began. Finally I have indicated that so little military value was attached to Verdun by the French high command that it was prepared to evacuate the whole position, which is the most difficult to defend on the whole French front, and was only persuaded to give over his purpose by the arguments of the politicians, who believed that the moral effect of the evacuation would be disastrous to France and inspiriting to Germany.

I now desire to describe at some length the actual topographical circumstances of Verdun and later I shall discuss the fashion in which an automobile transport system was improvised to meet the situation created by the interruption of traffic by German artillery fire along the two considerable railroad lines. It was this system which actually saved the town and is the real “miracle of Verdun,” if one is to have miracles to explain what brave and skilful men do.

I saw Verdun on April 6th. I went through the city, which was little more than a mass of ashes, with General Dubois, the military governor of the town itself, and with him I went to Fort de la Chaume, on one of the highest hills near Verdun, and from this vantage point had the whole countryside explained to me. The day on which I visited Verdun was the first completely quiet day in weeks, and I was thus fortunate in being able to see and to go about without the disturbing or hindering circumstances which are incident to a bombardment.

The city of Verdun is situated at the bottom of the Meuse Valley on both sides of the river. But the main portion of the town is on the west bank and surrounds a low hill, crowned by the cathedral and old Vauban citadel. The town is surrounded by old ramparts, long ago deprived of military value and belonging, like the citadel, to eighteenth century warfare. The Valley of the Meuse is here several miles wide, as flat as your hand, and the river, which is small but fairly deep, a real obstacle since it cannot be forded, wanders back and forth from one side of the valley to the other. Below Verdun it is doubled, as a military obstacle, by the Canal de l’Est.

If you put a lump of sugar in a finger bowl you will pretty fairly reproduce the Verdun topography. The lump of sugar will represent Verdun, the rim of the bowl the hills around the city, the interior of the bowl the little basin in which the city stands. This rim of hills, which rise some five or six hundred feet above the town itself, is broken on the west by a deep and fairly narrow trough which comes into the Meuse Valley and connects it some thirty miles to the west with the Plain of Chalons. If you should look down upon this region from an aeroplane this furrow would look like a very deep gutter cutting far into the tangle of hills.

Now in the warfare of other centuries the value of the Verdun fortress was just this: the furrow which I have described is the one avenue available for an invading army coming from the east out of Metz or south from Luxemburg and aiming to get into the Plain of Chalons to the west. It is the way the Prussians came in 1792 and were defeated at Valmy, at the western entrance of the trough about thirty miles away. They took Verdun on their way so did the Germans in 1870.

Verdun in French hands closed this trough to the invaders.

It closed it because the low hill which bears the town was strongly fortified and was surrounded by lower ground. Such artillery as was in existence was not of a sufficiently long range to place upon the hills about Verdun which we have described as the rim of the bowl. The town of Verdun was situated on both sides of the river and commanded all the bridges. It was, in fact, the stopple in the mouth of the bottle-neck passage leading into North Central France, the passage through which ran the main road and, later, the railway from the frontier nearest Paris to the capital.

But when the modern developments of artillery came, then Verdun, the old fortress that Vauban built for Louis XIV, lost its value. It was commanded by the surrounding hills and the French moved out of the town and the Vauban fortifications and built on the surrounding hills, on the rim, to go back to our figure, the forts which were the defence of the town when the present war began, forts arranged quite like those of Liege or Antwerp and some four or five miles away from the town. But bear in mind these forts were designed, like the old fortress and fortifications of the eighteenth century, to bar the road from the Meuse and from Germany to the Plain of Chalons and the level country west of the Argonne. When the Germans came south through Belgium and got into the Plain of Chalons from the north they had turned the whole Verdun position and had got into the region it barred by another route; they had come in by the back door; Verdun was the front. Not only that, but they are there now and have been there ever since the first days of September, 1914.

When one hears about Verdun as the gateway to Paris or anything else one hears about the Verdun of the past. It was not the door to Paris but the outer door to the region around Paris, to the Plains of Champagne and Chalons. But as the Germans are already in these plains the taking of Verdun now would not bring them nearer to Paris; they are only fifty miles away at Noyon, on the Oise, and they would be 160 at Verdun if they took the city. If they took Verdun they would get control of the Paris-Metz Railway, and if they then drove the French away from the trough we have been describing they would get a short line into France, and a line coming from German territory directly, not passing through Belgium. But they would not be nearer to Paris.

When the French saw, in the opening days of the war, that forts were of no permanent value against the German guns they left the forts on the hills above Verdun as they had abandoned the Vauban works and moved north for a few miles. Here they dug trenches, mounted their guns in concealed positions, and stood on the defensive, as they were standing elsewhere from Belgium to Switzerland. There was now no fortress of Verdun, and Verdun city was nothing but a point behind the lines of trenches, a point like Rheims, or Arras. The forts of the rim were equally of no more importance and were now empty of guns or garrisons. If the Germans, by a sudden attack, broke all the way through the French trenches here it would be quite as serious as if they broke through at other points, but no more so. There was no fortress of Verdun and the Verdun position commanded nothing.

The Battle of Verdun, as it is disclosed to an observer who stands on Fort de la Chaume, a mile or two west and above Verdun and in the mouth of the trough we have described, was this: On the west bank of the Meuse, four or five miles northwest of the town, there is a steep ridge going east and west and perhaps 1,100 feet high. This is the crest of Charny, and it rises sharply from the flat valley and marches to the west without a break for some miles. On it are the old forts of the rim.

Three or four miles still to the north is a line of hills which are separated from each other by deep ravines leading north and south. Two of these hills, Le Mort Homme (Dead Man’s Hill) and Hill 304, have been steadily in the reports for many weeks. They are the present front of the French. Between one and two miles still to the north are other confused and tangled hills facing north, and it was here that the French lines ran when the great attack began in the third week of February. On this side the Germans have advanced rather less than two miles; they have not reached the Charny Ridge, which is the true and last line of defence of the Verdun position, and they have not captured the two hills to the north, which are the advanced position, now the first line.

When I was in Paris before I went to Verdun there was a general belief that the French might ultimately abandon the two outer hills, Dead Man’s and 304, and come back to the Charny Ridge, which is a wall running from the river west without a break for miles. Apparently this has not been found necessary, but what is worth noting is that if these hills were evacuated it would not mean the withdrawal from Verdun but only to the best line of defence (the last line, to be sure), which includes the town itself.

Now, east of the river the situation is materially different. Between the Meuse and the level plateau, which appears in the dispatches from the front as the Woevre, is a long, narrow ridge, running from north to south for perhaps thirty-five or forty miles. This is the Cote de Meuse, or, translated, the Hills of the Meuse. The range is never more than ten miles wide and at many points less than half as wide. On the west it rises very sharply from the Meuse and on the east it breaks down quite as abruptly into the Woevre Plain. It cannot be effectively approached from the Woevre, because the Woevre is an exceedingly marshy plain, with much sub-surface water and in spring a mass of liquid clay.

Now the French, when the German drive began, stood on this ridge some eight miles, rather less, perhaps, to the north of the town of Verdun; their line ran from the Meuse straight east along this ridge and then turned at right angles and came south along the eastern edge of the Meuse Hills and the shore of the Woevre Plain until it touched the river again at St. Mihiel, twenty miles to the south, where the Germans had broken through the Meuse Hills and reached the river. The German attack came south along the crest of this ridge because the German heavy artillery could not be brought over the Woevre.

About halfway between the French front and Verdun, on a little crest somewhat higher than the main ridge, the French had erected a line of forts, just as they had on the Charny Ridge, Forts Douaumont and Vaux, familiar names now, were the forts most distant from Verdun. But the French here, as on the other side of the river, had come out of these forts, abandoned and dismantled them, and taken to trenches much to the north. It was upon these trenches that the main German attack fell, and in the first days the French were pushed back until their trench line followed the crests that bear the old forts, and at one point, at Douaumont, the Germans had actually got possession of one of the old forts; but the French trenches pass in front of this fort at a distance of but a few hundred yards.

Now, in the first days of the battle the position of the French on the east bank of the Meuse was just this: the troops facing north were meeting and slowly yielding to a terrific drive coming south and southwest; the rest of the troops that faced east toward the Woevre were not attacked severely. But as the Germans came south, and when they took Douaumont, they were able to reach the bridges across the Meuse behind the French troops on the Meuse Hills and to destroy them by indirect fire, and these French troops, more than a hundred thousand probably, were fighting with their backs to a deep river and exposed to destruction in case their lines did not hold.

In this situation Joffre proposed to take his troops behind the Meuse and on the hills to the west and above the city, leaving the city to the Germans. The French line would thus come north behind the Meuse from St. Mihiel and then turn west above Verdun, following either the Charny Ridge or else the Hills of Regret and Chaume, on either side of the trough, described above, which the road to Paris follows.

If Verdun were a fortress actually; if either the old town or the circle of forts outside had been of value, Joffre would not have proposed this thing. But they were of no value. Verdun was once a fortress barring the way to the Plain of Chalons, but the Germans were in the plain, having come through Belgium by the back door, as it were. The forts outside the city on the rim of the basin had already been abandoned because they could have been destroyed by German heavy artillery, as were those of Liege and Antwerp. Verdun was just a position; but it was a difficult position to defend because of the river, which cut off one-half the army and could be crossed only by bridges, which were under indirect fire.

If the French had come back to the Charny Ridge, or even to the Regret Hills south of the trough followed by the Paris-Metz road, they would have stood on hills of patent military value; the trough is a natural ditch in front. These hills are all trenched and prepared for defence. The French would merely have shortened their lines and taken an easy position to defend, instead of holding a bad position. But ultimately this would have meant the relinquishing of Verdun, the little town down in the valley below, now become a heap of ruins and having lost its military value thirty years earlier, when heavy artillery began its decisive success over the old fortifications.

The French did not retire, because the civil government overruled the military; decided that the moral effect of the withdrawal from Verdun would be disastrous to the French and advantageous to the Germans. Instead of retiring, the French stood and held the hills beyond the Charny Ridge, Dead Man’s and 304; they hold them still and seem determined to keep them. But remember that they can still retire to the Charny Ridge if they choose, and only then find their best line west of the Meuse, if they mean to hold on to the city of Verdun.

On the other hand, east of the River Meuse the French are approximately in their last line. The hills and crests they hold upon the Meuse Hills are some three or four miles from Verdun, but if the French retired far they would begin to come down hill, with a deep river at their backs. In consequence, whenever you hear that the Germans have made some slight gain, taken a trench about Douaumont or Vaux, you are certain to hear at once that the French have counter attacked and retaken the lost ground.

The essential thing to remember is that the defence of Verdun is not the defence of a position that has a great military value. The French would be better off, would lose fewer men and run smaller risk of considerable losses if they should quit the east bank of the Meuse and occupy the hills back of Verdun on the west bank. On the west bank the Germans have never made any material gain, and they have not come within reach of the hills that bear the old forts. But the French Government has decided that for political reason, for reasons that affect the moral, not the military, situation, Verdun must not be surrendered; hence the army is holding it at a cost of men less than the Germans are paying to take it, but at a far greater cost than would be necessary to hold the better positions west of the river.

The Germans have not made any gain of importance in nearly two months. The French are very sure they will not come farther south. They are as confident as men could be. But if the Germans should come farther south and at last force the French to come back behind the river and to the hills above the town, they would only win a moral victory. The military situation would not be changed, unless they should also pierce the French lines on the west of the river, and this is absolutely unthinkable now.

If you think of Verdun city as a fortress you will put yourself in the eighteenth century. It is just an abandoned town, mostly ashes and completely ruined by a useless bombardment after the main German advance had been checked. If you think of Verdun as a fortified position, like Liege, which, if it fell, would bring disaster, as did the fall of Liege, you are thinking in terms of the situation before the war. The forts of this position have all been abandoned and the French are fighting in trenches in all points save one outside this circle of forts. If you think of Verdun as the gateway to anything, you are thinking of something that doesn’t exist. It was a gateway to Central France, to the Plain of Chalons, from the German frontier before the Germans came down into the Plain of Chalons from the north through Belgium.

But if you think of Verdun as a place which has a great sentimental value for both the French and the Germans; if you think of it as a place which by reason of its importance in other days still preserves a value in the minds of the mass of the French and German publics, a town the taking of which would as a result of this wholly false appraisal be reckoned in Germany as a great victory, which would vastly encourage German masses and would be accepted in France as a great defeat which would equally depress the French public, you will think of the battle for Verdun as it is.

If you go to Verdun you will see that the estimate that the world has placed upon it is illusory. You will see it is an abandoned town. You will see, as I did, that great and famous forts are without guns, and you will see, as I did, that the positions which the French have prepared behind the Meuse and above the town are vastly stronger than those which they have held successfully, in Lorraine or any other place where the attacks have been bitter, for nearly two years.

There are no forts, fortifications, fortresses, in this war. There are just trenches, and the Verdun sector is no exception. Verdun is not surrounded; it is not invested. I went to the town from Bar-le-Duc in an automobile without difficulty, and I ran back to Paris by another road, through Chalons, with equal ease. The Germans have never got within three miles of the town on any side; to the west of the River Meuse they are not within six miles of it. They are not gaining, and have not been gaining for weeks; they are merely fighting a desperate trench campaign, and the French are fighting back, retaking trenches on the east of the river, because they are in their last line on this bank of the river, but paying less attention to German trench gains on the west because the Germans are still far from the Charny Ridge, their main position.

If Verdun falls, that is, if the French are compelled under pressure or as a result of the cost of holding their present awkward position to go back behind the river, they will lose fifty or a hundred square miles of French territory, they will lose all the tremendous value of the moral “lift” which the successful defence has brought, but they will lose nothing else; and when the Germans have taken Verdun, the ashes, the ruins, they will stop, because there is no object or value in further attack. They are fighting for moral values, and the French politician has overruled the French soldier and compelled him to accept battle on unfavorable ground for this same moral value, but against his military judgment. He has done it successfully. He expects and France expects that he will continue to do it successfully, but in the wholly remote contingency that he failed (I can only say that it is a contingency no longer considered in France), a loss in moral advantage would be the only consequence.