A Volcano in Constant Eruption: Surviving the Hell of Verdun
One hundred years ago, in May 1916, the costliest, bloodiest battle of World War I’s Western Front – Verdun – had raged for three months without slackening. French and German troops marched resignedly into what they cursed as “The Furnace.” 300,000 lives would be lost in the 300-day ordeal. One who survived was Corporal Louis Barthas (1879-1952), barrel-maker from a small town in southwestern France, ardent pacifist, unabashed socialist, and devoted firsthand chronicler of what he and his comrades were suffering, day to day. At home after the war he transcribed his saga into nineteen school notebooks, pasting in postcards and maps clipped from magazines and newspapers. His eyewitness account of more than four years of war, first published in France in 1978, appeared in English in 2014 as Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918, translated by Edward M. Strauss.
Here Barthas tells about his harrowing days and nights at Verdun:
- The Defense of Verdun. Cote [Hill] 304.
[May 12:] As day broke, I looked out upon this famous, nameless hill. Our trench lay at the foot of it. For several months the hill had been disputed as if it had diamond mines on its slopes.
Alas, all it contained now were thousands of shredded, pulverized corpses.
Nothing distinguished it from neighboring hills. It seemed to have been partly wooded at one time, but not trace of vegetation remained. The convulsed, overturned earth offered nothing but a spectacle of devastation.
All day long we stayed close to the ground, huddled in this covered trench, suffering from heat and lack of air. The Boche [German] planes hadn’t spotted us, so we weren’t bombarded by howitzer fire. We waited impatiently for nighttime, when we could walk around and breathe at our leisure. But at nightfall our company received the order to go forward and occupy a trench a couple of hundred meters ahead.
Separately, by squads, we made our way there. The terrain had been much more heavily bombarded than what we had seen farther to the rear, at the mill at Esnes. I think that the strategic necessity which brought us there was simply to provide more security and peace of mind for our colonel, whose deep dug-out was right there.
But what had the 114th and 125th Regiments of our division already done to retake Cote 304?
The official army dispatches, and even the least jingoistic newspapers, depicted the fantastic charge of these two regiments, hurling themselves forward with an irresistible élan, handing this little volcanic mountain over to tearful [French generals] Pétain and Joffre.
The truth was altogether different. After a prodigious expenditure of all sorts of projectiles, these two regiments moved forward and reconquered, or rather simply reoccupied, some positions they had previously lost, because the Germans had pulled back to their own lines without waiting for the assault.
Which isn’t to say that the losses weren’t substantial on our side.
In brief, things were as they were before May 5: the French on one side of the hill, the Germans on the other, the crest once again a neutral zone blasted by the two artilleries.
At the summit, the Germans still held a redoubt which an Algerian division hadn’t been able to take. This was very bothersome for us.
That division held the slope adjacent to the Forêt d’Avocourt, and our division held the slope facing the sinister Mort Homme [literally “Dead Man”], its grayish mass looming on our right, no less desolate than Cote 304.
Their task completed, the 114th and 125th Infantry Regiments made room for us, and headed back to breathe the fresh air of the Bois [woods] Saint-Pierre. Our regiment, the 296th, had the mission of once again consolidating and fortifying the French positions.
The trench we had just occupied was about halfway up the slope….In reality this wasn’t much more than a miserable boyau [communications trench] dug in one night by troops who were hanging on there and who, the next day, were pulverized by howitzer fire.
There, human flesh had been shredded, torn to bits. At places where the earth was soaked with blood, swarms of flies swirled and eddied. You couldn’t really see corpses, but you knew where they were, hidden in shell holes. There was all sorts of debris everywhere: broken rifles, gutted packs from which spilled out pages of tenderly written letters and other carefully guarded souvenirs from home, and which the wind scattered; crushed canteens, shredded musette bags — all labeled 125th Regiment. I was easily able to replace the munitions, rations, and tools which I had cast off during the march up to the front.
The sight of this gloomy tableau suggested to us that the next day, once the Boches spotted our presence there, they would pound us into marmalade.
All night long we were put to work, making the boyau practicable and habitable. At first light of dawn, to our great joy, the sky was covered with low-hanging clouds which enveloped Cote 304 with an opaque veil, masking us from the enemy all day long.
At any moment, with no evident pattern, the Boches fired salvoes of shells. Pressed in to the deepest recesses of the boyau, we didn’t have any wounded that day.
That night, our battalion had to go up to occupy the firing line. At the appointed hour we headed out, following the boyau, which soon was no more than a muddy ditch, collapsed in places.
Why, and how, had the order come for us to stop in this place?
Some botched-up relief schedule, no doubt. Or a designated path which was no longer there.
We were crouching down, so as not to catch a stray bullet or shell fragment passing by. And if this weren’t bad enough, a heavy rain started to fall. It didn’t take long for the water to fill the ditch and to submerge our shoes. Our helmets were transformed into drain spouts. Little waterfalls ran down our packs onto our hips, off our shoulders, and along our arms. We didn’t know why, or for whom, we were waiting for. The night was pitch black. Were they just going to leave us stuck in this sewer?
Finally we moved out again. Soon, no more boyau. We had to cross over an entanglement of barbed wire, fence posts, shredded sandbags, dead bodies, all sorts of debris. Some of us got lost, or got stuck on the prickly barbed wire which you couldn’t see in the dark of night, which grew even darker after each shell burst.
Our company split up. One section stayed in reserve, as honor guard for our commander “Quinze Grammes” [“half-pint,” slang for Commandant Leblanc] and the “Kronprinz” [slang for Captain Cros-Mayrevielle], who had gone into a fairly deep shelter dug by the Germans.
Two other companies went up to reinforce other companies on the firing line. The 4th Section, to which I belonged, was sent to observe on the slope of Cote 304 facing the Mort Homme.
Everything was sinister in these places, but this place was even worse, if that’s possible. At the bottom of the ravine, where the ruisseau [stream] des Forges flowed, shells of every caliber, fired by both sides, fell without respite. This dark abyss seemed like a volcano in constant eruption, and there we were, hanging right on its rim.
Our mission consisted of maintaining liaison, by patrols, with the troops who held the facing slopes. But these patrols took place only on paper, in fictional reports. In reality, the patrols had ceased after three days – there was no one to send out on patrol.
The morning after our arrival, curiosity led me to inspect the immediate surroundings of our emplacements. We were still protected by a veil of fog which the May sun would soon dissipate. Just then, in a shell hole, I saw the body of a soldier, thickly encrusted from head to toe in dried mud.
“Well,” I said, “here’s a dead one already.” And I poked him with my foot, to make sure he was no longer among the living but had entered the realm of Pluto.
The reply was a protest: “Leave me alone!” And in this grumbling I recognized the voice of my fellow Peryacois [from Peyriac-Minervois, Barthas’ hometown], Edouard Durand, who was in the 4th Section with me.
Stupefied, I asked him how he had gotten into this comatose state.
He told me how, tangled up in a jumble of barbed wire, he couldn’t get himself loose until nightfall, after much trouble, and then he couldn’t rejoin our section, which had disappeared in the darkness.
After having wandered around for hours, he finally was able to rejoin his squad at daybreak.
“But,” I told him, “don’t stay there, immobile, all soaked on the damp ground. Get up, and shake yourself off!”
Overcome with fatigue, he didn’t budge.
“One way of croaking is just as good as another,” he said. And I wasn’t able to pull him out of this state.
Besides, his half-section had left us, to go who knows where, and I didn’t see my comrade again.
Only two squads of us stayed, to cover a gap in our lines of several hundred meters. It’s true that, right above us, a French machine gun section was installed a rather solid, well-hidden dugout. But one morning we saw, to our horror, that this emplacement had been completely destroyed in an avalanche of big shells. Machine guns, and machine gunners, had disappeared!
We were alone, quite alone – thirty men with Sublieutenant Lorius, abandoned, sacrificed in this den of cutthroats.
Our firing line was broken, with gaps of as much as four hundred meters between sections and companies. No one really knew whether we had Germans or Frenchmen in front of us. Some of the gaps were heavily bombarded, and no one could hold them.
That evening, Sergeant Fontès got the mission from Sublieutenant Lorius to take with him a “courageous” fellow and, that night, to reconnoiter and to find out who was up ahead of us: subjects of the Kaiser, or of [French prime minister] Poincaré.
Sergeant Fontès couldn’t find one volunteer in the section who sought to earn the label of “courageous.”
Each one had a perfectly good reason to invoke: One had blisters on his feet, another had rheumatism, yet another could prove that he had been in the latest patrol. Young men begged off because of weakness, old men out of exhaustion.
Finally, reluctantly, Sergeant Fontès turned to me – the ex-corporal who had been busted in rank for his advanced socialist ideas and his pacifism. He spoke to me not as a superior, but as a comrade and even as a friend.
I accepted, but with conditions that took a lot of the shine off my apparent zeal. I demanded to be exempt from three nights of outpost duty, patrols, and chores.
With nothing more than a rifle, a bayonet, and two packs of cartridges in our pockets, the two of us headed out. A sliver of moonlight shone the way for us, across a terrain as pockmarked as a kitchen strainer. In some places the ground was worked over, slashed and overturned as if by a recent earthquake. Any living thing had been snuffed out.
After covering a few hundred meters of this chaotic terrain, our senses were able to discern the limits of this immeasurable horizon of nothingness. We thought we were lost in the middle of an immense desert. It was impossible for us to tell from where we had come and where we were going. Crouched in a shell crater, we sought in vain to orient ourselves by flares, or by the sound of artillery batteries firing.
All of a sudden the jumbled sound of voices reached us. Anxiously we listened. A German patrol? A French work detail?
But we soon picked out a few emphatic Macarels and Noun de Diou and other sonorous curses which could only come from natives of the banks of the Garonne [river in southwestern France] and the Mediterranean.
It was a providential ration detail from my old company, the 21st, Captain Hudelle’s, which was just passing by us.
These men gave us precious information, and told us that a segment of the French front line was about two hundred meters ahead of us.
“So,” I said, “Any losses today?”
“Well, we’re starting out nicely,” they said. “Cabanel the barber got killed. Sergeant Laflorencie is mortally wounded. Some others, too.”
The most terrible accident had befallen my former section. Three of my old pals, fooled by either a moment of calm or their own bravado, decided to make up a game of manille [cards], without finding a fourth hand. No sooner had the cards been dealt than a 105 mm shell fell right in their midst, blasting them to bits. Only Corporal Larche was able to cry out, “Oh my God, my God!” The other two unfortunates were Corporal Peyre and Private Courtauly.
If I had been with them, wouldn’t I have been tempted to take up the fourth hand of this fatal manille game? And right now wouldn’t I be blown to pieces, like my luckless comrades? It gives me chills just to think about it.
Our buddies told us that two or three hundred meters in front of us we’d find scattered remnants of the 22nd Company. To cover this distance we had to tumble into a crevasse, a kind of twisted corridor which linked one shell hole to the next. This was the front-line trench, or rather a segment of it, which the soldiers, silent shadows, dug out and extended while others, flattened against the slope, immobile, seeming to sleep with rifles at hand, burrowed into the darkness.
Right when we arrived, bullets whistled around our ears, and a cry and a death rattle were heard in the trench. A fellow just had his skull shattered by one of those bullets fired from a machine gun on the slopes of the Mort Homme.
Sergeant Fontès got our patrol order countersigned by Lieutenant Cordier, who commanded this company [the 22nd]. The command post was no more than a shell hole half-covered by a wooden plank. This done, we made our way back to our own emplacement, guided only by the instinct developed in us after long months of nervous tension – the same instinct which leads a wild beast back to its lair.
We had hardly gotten back, at about 9 p.m., when bursts of machine gun fire were unleashed upon Cote 304, which was thrown into turmoil. Our little corner wasn’t too badly pounded. To the sound of this infernal music, dead tired, crouched in the trench, I fell asleep as easily as in my own bed at home when I drifted off to the sound of raindrops on the gutters.
At dawn, I awoke to a cold and damp sensation on my knees, which stuck out from the little excavation I had dug in the side of the trench, my little bedchamber. It was the rain which was coming down in buckets, and which would fall all day long.
But far from complaining, we rejoiced. No sun meant no German airplanes overhead – no “sausages” – it was a truce, a rest. We were free to walk around, to chat, to stick our noses out of our holes, to get some food brought up from the rear. This was a blessed rain. We would have been happy to spend all our time on the firing line in water up to our necks. But on the morning of May 16 a cool breeze swept the sky clean of clouds, and a bright sun rose.
It didn’t take long for several enemy airplanes to make their bothersome droning heard, and they circled over Cote 304 and the Mort Homme all day long, like birds of ill fortune foretelling a great storm.
Naïvely we thought that our own aviators would arrive and chase these interlopers away. But no such luck. Today, and every day after, they came with impunity, in total freedom, swooping back and forth at low altitude, scouting out and scrutinizing the emplacement of our positions.
This reminded our Colonel Douce: “When we were in Artois, they told us that German airplanes were being shot down every day over Verdun. Now that we’re here, the daily communiqués say that’s what happening in Artois.”
As a result, were condemned to complete immobility. We had to conceal anything that would reveal our positions: tools, arms, mess kits, packs, everything had to disappear, and ourselves, too, under penalty of receiving an unannounced avalanche of shellfire.
In the afternoon, the German batteries – well briefed, no doubt, by their aviators – opened a rolling fire on Cote 304, lasting at least two hours.
How many tons of projectiles fell on this hill?
Our brains were shaken by the nearby explosions. Stunned, we expected to be pulverized at any minute. It was just a matter of being caught in a salvo.
Finally, the hurricane of iron and fire gradually let up. Then came intermittent but almost regular barrages which landed haphazardly.
Heartened by this relative calm, five or six of us gathered under a thin sheet of corrugated metal, which would protect us from only the smallest shell fragments, but which gave us the illusion of perfect security.
We talked about our next furlough coming up, the overdue relief we were waiting for, our homes where our loved ones would shudder to know what a hell we were living through. Sometimes, when the storm raged too loudly, we had to interrupt our conversation, and pick it up again where a nearby explosion had cut short a sentence.
Suddenly a shell, with a harsh and brutal hiss, cut right through our sheet of metal as if it were a sheet of paper, and burrowed into the slope of the trench without bursting.
Did we faint dead away? No. Once the first few seconds of shock passed, there was an outburst of laughter all around. Why the laughter? Who can explain the reason for it?
Was it the relief at escaping great danger? Was it what someone was saying, that was interrupted? Was it a kind of nervous reaction?
At midnight, with three comrades under the orders of Corporal Cazelles, we went out to occupy the outpost which was almost at the bottom of the heavily bombarded ravine.
While two men kept watch, the others went to work clearing away the many landslides caused by the latest bombardment of the boyau, or remnant of a boyau, which linked the outpost to the position occupied by our half-section.
Did the Boches hear the sounds of our tools? Or the noise of our irrepressible southern voices which we couldn’t muffle? Had our outpost been found out?
Whatever the reason, all of a sudden a volley of small-caliber shellfire fell all around us with a crackling like fireworks. What kind of devilish device was this, which we hadn’t encountered before – and never did again afterward? Doubtless it was some new kind of rapid-firing cannon which the Germans never used again (too bad for them). The firing lasted about thirty seconds, which seemed interminable, then started up again. These packets of shells tore up the earth all around us, whistled, farted, shot off showers of sparks and flames, and stirred up a storm of iron fragments, chunks of dirt, and stones.
Flat on our bellies with our noses in the dirt, we were terrified, disconcerted by this new way of scaring and killing people.
To tell the truth, these shells did not turn out to be excessively murderous. We realized it when, once things calmed down, we discovered that none of us had suffered the slightest scratch. But it’s certain that these shells would have had a much more fatal effect on troops in the open.
We thought we were through with this vexing alert and we were laughing at our earlier fright when, click-clack, here is that satanic farting again, forcing us once again to dig our noses into the dirt. This time it didn’t let up, which led us to think that they had chosen our listening post as a testing ground for this new device.
Here we are, prostrate on the earth like a bunch of Mohammedans. When our southern nerves – quickly enraged, but just as quickly calmed – restored our capability to speak, our good Corporal Cazelles, behind me, his head between my legs, made it clear that we should probably come to some sort of decision.
Corporal Cazelles held me in high regard, no doubt because of the prestige of my former corporal’s stripes. He asked me, ahead of anyone else, what opinion our precarious situation brought to mind. I advised him that we should flee these inhospitable confines without further delay. The others, consulted as a formality, agreed, and we set off on a slow crawl, like a troop of slugs. But our mothers had taught us to walk on two legs, so it took us an hour to cover the hundred meters which separated us from our half-section. Our elbows, knees, and bellies were sorely afflicted by the disagreeable crawling on the damp earth soaked by the preceding day’s rain.
Looking ahead to the next war-to-end-all-wars, they should train the school-kids, every day, to crawl on their bellies. Some day, or some night, the knowledge might come in handy.
We finally got out of the test-firing range of these new devices. A sonorous snoring that could come only from our buddy Sabatier told us that we were back among our comrades.
But once we were out of danger, Corporal Cazelles was suddenly overcome with scruples. He had abandoned the listening post under his charge, while everywhere else at Verdun the order was to resist without ever taking one step back.
In this massive, frightening void of gloom, where now no French soldier stood guard, he could see the whole army of the German Crown Prince rushing to the attack. I reassured him that as long as the Germans were firing into the ravine they wouldn’t be taking a stroll there. Let’s look after our own comrades. That’s what’s important.
At this moment, our ration teams arrived. Each night they went to pick up our meals, our letters and packages from home, not without risk, on the road between Vigneville and Esnes.
A shot of hooch could set aside our little nighttime cares. Right then the snoring of Sabatier ceased. A 420mm shell falling right next to him might not have awakened him, but the one word “hooch,” or just the smell of it, got him up right away.
The ration teams gave us the comforting news that our relief would come up the following night. Soon the first glimmers of dawn scattered the protective shadow which surrounded Cote 304, and like owls we sought shelter in holes scraped out of the slopes of the trench. We brought our comrades up to date about our nighttime adventures. They burst out laughing at our fright, but they didn’t laugh for long. On several occasions our trench was assaulted by the same diabolical devices we had encountered. One of us saw his mess bag disappear. Another had his canteen half-melted. A howitzer shell exploded right beside the parapet. My neighbor, who had piled his cartridges in a mound right beside him, saw them scattered as if blown away by a demon, and several of them went off.
And that happened without the slightest warning. You only heard these little shells being fired, and their snakelike hissing, after they had already exploded and their black smoke was already dissipating.
This was an ordeal. We would have preferred a violent bombardment, which would eventually come to an end, to this rain of little farting shells which fell on us indiscriminately, seeming to come right out of the earth.
And to make matters worse, as I have already described, all of us, one after the other, suffered from an epidemic of intestinal disorders. The resulting diarrhea sure cleaned us out, but inopportunely. As soon as one of us got over it, his next-door neighbor was afflicted by it, and had the bad luck to have to climb out of the trench and head for the shell hole which served as a latrine. Of course we did this only as a last resort, at the last moment of agony, stretching our guts until they were about to burst.
One of us was surprised in the latrine by one of these sudden fusillades, and collapsed into his own excrement.
So as not to expose oneself to similar incidents, some used sardine or “monkey-meat” cans as chamber pots, so as not to have to leave one’s hole in the ground. One even sacrificed his cast-iron dinner plate.
We soon had other pressing reasons not to move. On that day, May 17, from noon to four in the afternoon, the Boches unleashed upon Cote 304 one of the most terrible bombardments that I heard or saw throughout the whole war.
A thick cloud of smoke mixed with dust, marked with black smudges or by the vivid green left by bursting flares against the sun’s rays, burned our eyes and parched our gullets, while the stench of sulfur or of I don’t know what, mixed with the lingering smell of rotting flesh, grabbed us by the throat.
Like the waves of a raging ocean, the salvoes of iron and fire marched forward, retreated, advanced again, submerging Cote 304 in a torrent of shellfire.
And to think that we were only one small link in Verdun’s chain of defense. To our right, at Avocourt, and to our left towards Chattancourt, the cannonade went wild.
And on the other side of the Meuse, at Damloup, Fleury, the fort of Vaux, it was even worse.
Behind us, did our own artillery respond? I cannot say. In this immense cacophony, we couldn’t even tell whether our trench was being assailed by these little shells which caused so much comical fright. In a noisy concert performance it is always the brasses which drown out the sound of a little flute.
The boyau leading to the command post, still in rather good shape in the morning, had been razed, almost completely leveled. Of the other one that led down to the outpost in the ravine there was no longer a trace. Just our little corner, where we cowered, terrified, seemed to be protected by an all-powerful, invisible hand. We still hadn’t had any wounded or killed.
I was by myself, at the far end of our little stretch of boyau, crouched in a little hole, when a big shell landed like a thunderbolt just three or four meters in front of me. The violence of the blast tore away the tent cloth which I had arranged in front of my hole, to keep out the sun and the flies, and tossed it who knows where. As for me, I had the sense of being knocked flat, and for a few seconds I couldn’t get my breath. I had just felt the death wind . Some say it’s chilly; I found it hot and burning. It coursed through my whole body, from my rattled brain, to my heavy heart and lungs, all the way down to my rubbery legs.
Cheating death one more time, I scrambled out of my shell hole and sought refuge in the dugout of our section chief, Sublieutenant Lorius, twenty meters away. He welcomed us as comrades, but going there was admitting to being scared, which is tougher than one might think for a native of the Aude or the Garonne [départements of France] to admit, even when, like me, you feel you’ve already got one foot in the grave.
The collapse of my shell hole was an excuse which safeguarded my reputation for courage. Sublieutenant Lorius, seated philosophically in his shelter like Diogenes in his barrel, smoked cigarette after cigarette. To calm me down, he offered me a Valda pastille – a lozenge to heal colds and bronchitis – which was better than nothing.
The dugout of our amiable section chief was a bit of tunnel entrance dug one day by the Germans when they had taken or retaken this part of Cote 304. Unfortunately they didn’t have time to finish it, and it had only four steps going down.
Other soldiers nearby, emboldened by our presence and fearful of being buried alive in their own foxholes, came to the shelter. I remember Corporal S…., each time a shell whistled overhead, dipping his head and his shoulder in an instinctive movement, like a condemned man who sees the executioner brandishing an axe over his head.
Our sublieutenant finally told him that it wasn’t worth the trouble to scrunch his head down each time, as if the shell was coming right down on us. “We don’t need you to scare us all stiff,” he said.
Sublieutenant Lorius wasn’t one to stay put. Forced immobility at the bottom of a dugout wasn’t for him. He often headed out to visit other section chiefs, sometimes quite far away, or Lieutenant Breton, who commanded the company. He came and went, all alone, with an extraordinary insouciance and an absolute scorn for danger. In an instant, he took off, abandoning his shelter to us.
This bombardment cost us three wounded – two in the head, one in the legs. At nightfall there was a moment of calm, and we profited from it by getting our gear ready for the long-awaited relief. But when the lieutenant returned he told us that the relief was postponed by twenty-four hours. The reason was that at 2 a.m. the Moroccan division on our left was supposed to attack an outcropping of Cote 304 that the enemy had transformed into a fortified stronghold. They didn’t want our attack’s preliminary bombardment to fall on the columns en route to relieve us.
The delay of our relief, as justified as it was, made us grimace with irritation. Wasn’t this a death warrant for some of us who had already undergone bombardments every day? And it was with much apprehension that we awaited the hour of the attack.
It seems that the commander of the Moroccan Zouaves, leading the attack, gave his men an odious order. “My friends, I have no orders to give, but you already know what I expect you to do in an attack….” He meant taking no prisoners. This was reported to me by eyewitnesses. The language was unworthy of a Frenchman. And the Germans, when they would advance and see the fate reserved for those who fell into our hands, would resist to the end when they saw themselves surrounded. Or they would massacre those of us who fell into their hands. That’s the way they killed those who were at one of our first-aid stations: the medical officers, the orderlies, the wounded, some of them finished off with blows from rifle-butts.
On both sides they fought like cannibals, with a cruelty perhaps greater than in the long-ago times of the barbarian invasions. Vae Victis! [“Woe to the conquered!” cried by victorious Gauls sacking ancient Rome]. It was bad luck for anyone who fell, still alive, into enemy hands. All human sentiment was banished. I myself saw a lieutenant fire on to German stretcher-bearers carrying a wounded man. To a soldier who had the courage to criticize this misdeed, the officer replied, “Aw, hell, the Germans would have done the same.”
At the appointed hour the attack was launched, and, by surprise, the [Moroccan] Zouaves seized the outcropping without much resistance from the enemy. But the red rockets traced their bloody furrows across the night sky, and here is Cote 304 once again transformed into an erupting volcano, with high-caliber batteries zeroing in on the point of attack and, at the same time, sowing destruction everywhere, except in our little corner, intact like an island in the middle of a stormy sea.
The bombardment rendered the strongpoint untenable for the Zouaves, who had to pull back with heavy losses. Their commander and all the captains of the battalion of Zouaves were put hors de combat. It was Captain Barbier of the 23rd Company of our regiment who took under his command the remnants of this battalion.
Captain Barbier was built like Hercules. Professor of something or other in civilian life, he had, despite his teacher’s degree, like so many other officers, a narrow and singular conception of his role as chief – a warped conception, which made them see in the soldier an inferior to be treated without respect, like a shepherd treats his sheep, a huntsman his pack of dogs.
This Captain Barbier wasn’t liked by his men, whom he led rudely, cursing them scornfully, insulting them and punishing them for anything and everything. In the regiment he was nicknamed “The Brute.”
At the same time we couldn’t reproach him for any lack of courage. He was right up at the front line, tossing grenades with remarkable strength and skill.
In fact it was he who organized all the front lines, filled in the gaps, installed outposts, established a more or less continuous front. Our commandant, Quinze-Grammes, and the Kronprinz, both cowering in a shelter a few hundred meters to the rear, had left the command of the battalion to him.
On the morning of May 18, when Captain Barbier saw the Germans batter the Zouaves and retake the outcropping, he got really excited. He sent men and work details out in every direction, looking for boxes of grenades, cartridges, flares, et cetera.
Around 10 a.m. a few groups of enemy soldiers probed our lines. They were quickly halted by a couple of fusillades, but Captain Barbier lost his head and demanded reinforcements from the commandant.
The latter had only three sections from our company at his disposal, and he sent up one of them. A half-hour later they had to send up another one. Only one half-section remained, now completely isolated and linked up with the commandant’s C.P. [command post]. But the men were ready, packs hoisted, all set to march at the first call of Captain Barbier, which wouldn’t be long coming.
The colonel, much impressed, sent us a company from the reserve battalion. All this took place in broad daylight, right under the nose of the Germans. The smoke from the thickly falling shells prevented them from seeing what was going on as they destroyed, in the blink of an eye, anything that was moving on the earth’s surface.
To make things worse, a battery of our 75’s, firing too short, dropped shells onto our own front line. Signals, flares, phone calls, nothing worked. This was really irritating, just like some other times since we had arrived in the sector. Our artillery couldn’t succeed in regulating its fire, and cost us victims almost daily.
This day, a [French] 75 shell fell right on top of Captain Barbier’s precarious shelter, killing outright a Zouave officer.
The captain, brandishing a revolver, cursed and swore that he wanted to kill the first artilleryman who came into his sight.
As for our half-section, it was lying flattened out in a section of boyau, ready to spring forward across open country to reinforce our front line – a prospect that hardly gave us any pleasure.
Suddenly here is a big 105 shell which explodes so close that the boyau collapses, burying Jalabert and Sabatier, who didn’t like this game at all and waved their arms and legs like a couple of devils in a chapel, to try to get out of there.
After a minute of stupor we started to go to their help when, boom!, here’s a second big shell coming along, which by a singular fate blasts away the big chunk of earth which had smothered our two comrades, freeing them and leaving them without a scratch.
Jalabert rushed off like a madman, but Sabatier, shaking himself off like a wet dog, declares in a cheerful voice, “What do you know – my pipe is busted!” To appreciate this you had to know that Sabatier’s pipe was stuck in his mouth eleven hours out of twelve. The commission evaluating reparations for wartime damages will have to include Sabatier’s pipe on the lists it draws up.
But here’s an orderly running up. Sublieutenant Lorius must immediately assign someone to serve as liaison with the command post.
Liaison duty on Cote 304, the day of an attack – that’s no sinecure. But I volunteered immediately. I wasn’t ignorant of the dangers I would be running, but if I had to be there I would a hundred times rather die with a dispatch in my hand than with a rifle which had just killed a fellow workingman like me, a brother in misery and suffering. No, I’m not going to perish with that on my humanitarian, socialist conscience.
Five minutes later, I was in front of the liaison shelter, fifty meters from that of our two old friends Quinze-Grammes and the Kronprinz. It was a lousy shelter, a simple staircase with a dozen steps around which stretcher-bearers and orderlies were already crowded. At the bottom, a little square of ground where four crazy cardplayers were busy in a game of manille.
The medics and stretcher-bearers were idle until nighttime, when they could go out and bring back the wounded.
With not even a square inch of space available on the steps, I had to stay on the threshold between the shelter and the boyau which led to it. Right then a reinforcing company passed by, the men’s eyes haggard, their dirty faces dripping sweat, sunburned, dropping to the ground at each passing shell which rained down sixty or eighty meters away, beyond the emplacement to which they were headed.
Where were the journalists who cynically affirm that our soldiers stormed up Cote 304 and the Mort Homme furiously, enthusiastically, singing, men whose chiefs couldn’t hold them back? They weren’t there that afternoon to see the lamentable parade of human wrecks, a flock of sheep headed for the slaughter. But at least sheep are unaware of their fate. Right up to the moment of their death they ‘re probably thinking that they’re heading out to pasture, in a nice meadow.
The men passed by, singly or in little groups, stopping, hiding, terrified of entering the fiery furnace. Some of them stayed until nightfall at the shelter’s threshold. Nobody bothered about them. Others hid away in a half-collapsed shelter right next to the commandant’s C.P.
But at one point Capitaine-Major Cros, sticking his nose out, noticed the latter and ordered them to rejoin their company. But they categorically refused. “We won’t move up to rejoin them until nightfall,” they said.
The captain, not disposing of any means to make them move out – gendarmes didn’t venture this far forward – rapidly disappeared back down his hole.
Two little signalmen, seated next to me on the first steps of the shelter, hearing the capitaine-adjutant-major’s voice, couldn’t keep from expressing themselves at his expense: “Christ almighty, what an idiot!”
“What’s he done to you, then?” I asked them.
“No sooner is the telephone line broken, which happens twenty times a day, and he sends us out to fix it, no matter how violent the bombardment. He won’t allow the slightest objection, but with the coldest tone sends us away with an impatient ‘Get going!” which won’t permit a reply.”
Understandably, the signalmen had disappeared from the commandant’s dugout and instead came to hide in our “liaison” shelter, waiting for a moment of calm.
When, order in hand, an orderly or the battalion adjutant (Calvet from Peyriac) appeared at the shelter’s entrance, there was a poignant silence. What company’s number was being called? Wasn’t this a death sentence for him who was leaving, alone, for the front lines, a deadly assignment on its own?
He who was called sometimes went pale, but without hesitation plunged ahead and sometimes never came back.
Later I read a book by Captain Henry Bordeaux, an Academician, The Last Days of the Fort de Vaux where there is plenty of whitewashed nonsense. He wrote about liaison runners; if one fell, another took his place. Those who were left were always at the ready; they even offered their services before their turns came along. In other words, this Academician would say that they would be happy to go get themselves killed. In ordinary times a liaison’s job was a lucky one, and no one turned it down. In a nasty sector they still had to do their jobs. But to say that they jumped to the head of the line – that’s too much.
I found my countryman, the Peyriacois Julien Chiffre, haggard, his features drawn, who by a miracle had escaped certain death at least ten times. “Today,” he said, “was the worst ever.” He confided to me that, in despair of getting out alive, he had just said confession to a stretcher-bearing priest, and then stayed on his knees in prayer. I tried to boost his morale, affirming my own good hope of leaving this place alive. “The relief will be here tomorrow night; have courage, hold on until then,” I told him.
At this moment any hope seemed like an illusion, the cannonade reaching a new level of violence. The dispatches reported that this afternoon the aviators flying over Cote 304 couldn’t see it through the thick cover of smoke, pierced by flashes of lightning.
As for me, no one asked for me or bothered with me. I still wonder why they had made me come here.
At nightfall, a signalman informed us that the colonel, comfortable in his shelter, wanted to let our battalion have twenty-four hours more, but, he said, the commandant and the capitaine-adjutant-major cried out, on the telephone, that it was impossible, that the exhausted men couldn’t hold on anymore, et cetera. In the face of such energetic protests, the colonel granted our relief for the next night.
The order of relief stated that, once replaced, each unit had to make its way immediately back on its own to the Bois Saint-Pierre, the battalion’s assembly point.
At 11 at night, the liaison from the relief unit arrived. We could now head out, but we had to await our bosses, Quinze-Grammes and the Kronprinz, who didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get out of their holes while the cannonade still raged.
Crouched around the shelter, making ourselves as small as we could, we were eager to go but no one dared to leave.
Some time-fuse shells exploded above our heads, and a piece of shrapnel hit my helmet. Those shells generally announced the imminent arrival of even more dangerous armor-piercing shells. The fear of this caused a couple of shadowy figures to break off from our group and disappear into the darkness.
I suggested to my friend Chiffre, sprawled beside me in the same shell hole, that I had had it with the company of the commandant and his partner-in-crime, and was ready to head out myself. Together we took off with all the speed that our heavy loads and our state of exhaustion would allow. By following the regular route of the relief units and the work details, in ten minutes one could be at the base of the hill, at the mill of Esnes. But at this moment all was madness. A veritable curtain of steel and fire blocked the road.
The only way through was to make a long detour to avoid this monstrous avalanche of metal. My comrade [Chiffre], worn out and sick, let me lead the way through the darkness and obscurity, across all sorts of obstacles which blocked our way. Tree trunks, branches, shattered weapons, barbed-wire defense lines, half-deserted and three-quarters-filled trenches, and dead bodies everywhere. A frightful solitude reigned in these places where twenty savage combats had been contested, an unthinkable human charnel house. But we were indifferent to these horrors, thinking only of getting out of this macabre place. That wasn’t easy, because we had to scramble over big bunches of barbed wire which grabbed our trousers and the tails of our greatcoats, like invisible hands grabbing us and holding us back in this hell. Sometimes we had to crawl along on our hands and our bellies to make our way through.
My friend Chiffre, afflicted with chronic bronchitis and incipient asthma, huffed and puffed behind and had to stop every now and then. I used these pauses to reconnoiter a pathway ahead. Bothered by this, he called my name, fearing that I would abandon him.
Of course the howitzer shells rained down on these slopes, forcing us to throw ourselves to the ground as soon as the violent, sinister whistling announced that they were headed in our direction.
To guide us in our flight, we turned our backs on the flares and rockets which marked our front line. Each step forward took us farther to the rear. There was no need for a map or compass. It didn’t matter where we ended up.
Here and there appeared other shadowy figures, fugitives like ourselves seeking the road to safety. All of a sudden an imperious voice behind us called on us to halt. And at just the right time! In the middle of a salvo of gunfire, a minute lost could be fatal, so we played deaf. After a second summons which we also ignored, we heard the jumble of footsteps coming toward us and suddenly someone jammed the barrel of a big revolver right under my nose, crying out in a terrible voice that if I took one more step I’d be a dead man. Another stranger was shaking Chiffre by the collar as if to strangle him.
Christ, had we run into a couple of madmen? There were plenty of examples of those who had lost their wits altogether in places like Cote 304.
But I soon recognized that I had in front of me the young Sublieutenant Roques of the 23rd Company – that of “the brute,” the terrible Captain Barbier.
Sublieutenant Roques represented a common type of young officer: brave, courageous, well-trained, but immature, play-acting, filled with pride, treating the men like children, sometimes having fun with them but, in a quick mood swing, capable of meanness and petty vexations. In a word, just as likely to commit dramatic acts of egotism and cowardice as acts of heroism, depending on the circumstances (and the amount of hooch consumed).
Outraged by this highly impolite way of stopping people, I hoisted my Lebel rifle and replied to him, “You’ve got your revolver, I’ve got my rifle, so what do you want to do now?”
Seeing us moving downhill at all deliberate speed, he had figured that we knew where we were going, and he had wanted us to wait for him and his orderly so that we could guide them along, too. He swore, besides, that he had no intention of using his revolver on us, but just like Captain Barbier he wanted to shoot down the first artilleryman he ran into – which he didn’t do, nor would he have.
Soon after that, we me up with a poilu completely draped in armor made of platters, canteens, and cooking pots and pans. It was a conscientious rationer, transporting all of his cooking equipment. We were joyfully surprised to discover that this peaceable warrior was none other than our fellow Peyriacois, Paul Alpech.
Finally we reached a road. We hadn’t yet put quite enough space between the mouths of German cannons and our worthy shelves, but here we felt at least we could breathe a little.
At the end of our strength, we collapsed against the slope alongside the road. The night before we hadn’t gotten rations, and our mess kits, our canteens, and our stomachs were absolutely empty. Exhausted and famished, we wondered if we’d be able to pick up the march again, when all of a sudden we sniffed the tempting aromas of coffee, of bouillon, of garlic wafting their way into our nostrils.
The darkness had kept up us from seeing, a short distance away, some field kitchens, awaiting in complete silence the arrival of ration teams. I immediately headed for these providential food carts.
As Imperial War Museum historian Peter Hart notes, “[French commanding General Pétain’s] staff were ordered to ensure that the troops were constantly rotated so that no unit spent too long on the front. This meant that most of the French Army would gradually be introduced to the hell of Verdun, but not for long enough to break their morale or grind them to nothing.” (The Great War: A Combat History).
Louis Barthas (1879–1952) was a cooper in a small town in southern France. Edward M. Strauss is a fundraising director in higher education and former publisher of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. He lives in New York City.