Memoirs & Diaries - The Recapture of Fort Douaumont, Verdun, 24 October 1916
From the slopes of Souville I have seen victory climb and crown Douaumont.
Our modern battles afford no spectacle; they are cruel and mysterious. There are big empty spaces clotted with shell holes and cut with long furrows which mark the soil as the veins make marble patterns on the hands.
There are columns of smoke from bursting shells, a line of shadows that creeps close to the earth and disappears. Those who are in the battle never know anything more of it than one episode. But the victory of October 24th - I saw it before me like a living being.
Souville Hill is the only one of all the heights around Verdun which reaches the altitude of Douaumont. Between these two rival heights rises Fleury Ridge. Beyond, upon the crest, lies the Fort of Douaumont.
I so often looked at this landscape of hill and ravine that I had it in my eyes when on the morning of October 24th I took my post at Souville, but my eyes looked for it in vain. A thick fog prevented my seeing anything except the nearest tortured slope and here and there a mutilated tree trunk.
The fog, however, was by no means inert. It seemed as though it was being stirred about and laboured by the constant and invisible flight of shells. Their whistling was so continuous that instinctively I looked up as though I had expected them to form a vault of steel above my head.
Our artillery was pounding the enemy's positions, and I recalled the terrible days of the end of February when the shells were rushing upon us. This time it was the opposite impression that I got, an impression of our definite superiority.
The guns with their thousand voices gave a prodigious concert in the fog, and I tried to analyze its skilful orchestration, to identify the strident plaint of the "75's," and the big bass of our heavy howitzers.
I asked myself if we would attack in spite of the obscurity? Would it not be disastrous and prevent the guns from accompanying our advancing troops with their fire? On the other hand, might not the fog increase the elements of surprise?
Knowing the hour fixed for the attack, I looked at my watch, and while waiting I gradually grew more and more anxious with the fear of postponement of our trial and the adjournment of our hopes. I knew that the operation had been minutely arranged and that our troops had been marvellously trained, but I also knew the disproportion of the forces to be engaged and the daring of the undertaking.
Three divisions entrusted with the duty of dislodging seven divisions from formidably organized positions! It was a daring undertaking, but one conceived in the proportions of a masterpiece, and one which was to be carried out so precisely that once it had been executed it seemed quite simple.
I had upon me the Order of the Day of General de Passaga, in which he stimulated his men by recalling the prowess of the neighbouring division. I took it out of my pocket and I chewed it over and over again as a horse does his oats.
During the long wait it was to me a song accompanied by the orchestra of guns. On the positions which I knew so well I reviewed the divisions ready for attack. From Haudromont quarries on my left to Douaumont Fort in front of me lay Guyot de Salins' division with its Zouaves, its Tirailleurs, and the famous colonial regiments from Morocco which retook Fleury on August 17th.
To the right lay the Chasseurs of Passaga's division, and still further to the right, towards Vaux and Hardaumont, the fantassins of Lardemelle.
I imagined them for I could not see more than fifty yards in front of myself. I also imagined and not without anxiety, the German order of battle, the number of battalions in first and second line, the trenches, the supplementary defences, the redoubt, Thiaumont work, Haudromont quarries, and at last, and above all, Douaumont Fort.
How could our men get the better of such human and material obstacles?
Every now and again I pulled out my watch. Eleven o'clock! Eleven-twenty! Eleven-forty! The time fixed! Had the attack, which I ought to have seen rise up and roll down the ravine and then sweep over the opposing slope, had it been launched? Had the artillery lengthened its fire?
It was impossible to know. At eleven-fifty on the right I heard the tick-tick of machine guns. If machine guns were in action the attack must have been launched. If machine guns are firing our men have been seen and are meeting with resistance.
Then I heard them no more. The roar of the guns drowned everything and again I go through uncertainty and anxiety. At the command post where I went from time to time news was at last coming through.
The start was magnificent. The first objective is reported to have been reached already. The men are organizing their positions. They are going to get on the move again. They are off.
An aeroplane-motor hums over my head. The pilot is flying so low that it looks as though he is going to touch me. I see the enormous bulk of his machine loom grey through fog. He comes down still lower. I was told later on that the pilot had been able to shout out "En avant" to our men and that a conversation had thus been exchanged between heaven and earth.
Towards two o'clock a strengthening wind begins to worry the clouds, following them, chasing them away, turning on those which take their place, and finally rending them and putting them to flight just as a storm drives clouds off a mountain pass.
In the intervals of their flight first a slope, then a crest, appears. At last I begin to see. I recognize Fleury crest, the ravine of Chambitoux, the slopes of Douaumont, and then Douaumont itself.
The clouds are now flying so fast that in a second their ranks are broken and the landscape stands out with the astonishing clearness which precedes or follows bad weather.
Through my artillery glasses I could count the shell holes. They are all full of water. What a time our men must have had if they went through there! The landscape is not dead. Over there on the slopes of Douaumont earth-coloured men are moving about. To the left and to the right they are marching in Indian file.
They are advancing, climbing, and gradually getting nearer their objective. At last there is one whose silhouette stands out upon the sky as clearly as if a shadow show. Others are going down a gorge.
They are going to be seen. They will be mown down. Don't show yourselves like that. It is crazy.
They are moving, and turn, describing a vast circle around conquered Douaumont as though they were dancing a "farandole" of victory.
I want to shout. I must have shouted, but I did not hear the sound of my own voice in the noise of bursting shells, for the German riposte had not been long in coming and shells are bursting. I must have shouted, for my teeth shut upon some earth splashed up into my open mouth by a shell, which had fallen close to me.
Douaumont is ours. The formidable Douaumont, which dominates with its mass, its observation points, the two shores of the Meuse, is again French.
Photograph courtesy of Photos of the Great War website
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
In WW1 an "ace" was a pilot who scored five confirmed "kills".
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