Memoirs & Diaries - Account of the Assaults Upon Fort Vaux, Verdun, June 1916
We had scarcely arrived at the right of Fort de Vaux, on the slope of the ravine, when there came an unprecedented bombardment of twelve hours.
Alone, in a sort of dugout without walls, I pass twelve hours of agony, believing that it is the end. The soil is torn up, covered with fresh earth by enormous explosions.
In front of us are not less than 1,200 guns of 240, 305, 380, and 420 calibre, which spit ceaselessly and all together, in these days of preparation for attack. These explosions stupefy the brain; you feel as if your entrails were being torn out, your heart twisted and wrenched; the shock seems to dismember your whole body And then the wounded, the corpses!
Never had I seen such horror, such hell. I felt that I would give everything if only this would stop long enough to clear my brain. Twelve hours alone, motionless, exposed, and no chance to risk a leap to another place, so closely did the fragments of shell and rock fall in hail all day long.
At last, with night, this diminished a little. I can go on into the woods! The shells still burst all around us, but their infernal din no longer makes any impression on me - a queer trait of the human temperament.
After that we are lodged in fortified caves where we pass five days in seclusion, piled on top of each other, without being able to lie down.
I bury three comrades in a shell-hole. We are without water, and, with hands that have just touched the poor mangled limbs, we eat as if nothing were wrong.
We are taken back for two days into a tunnel where the lachrymal shells make us weep. Swiftly we put on our masks. The next day, at the moment of taking supper and retiring to rest, we are hastily called into rank; that's it - we are going to the motion-picture show.
We pass through an infernal barrage fire that cracks red all around in the dark. We run with all speed, in spite of our knapsacks, into the smother of broken branches that used to be a forest. Scarcely have we left a hole or a ditch when shells as big as a frying pan fall on the spot.
We are laid flat by one that bursts a few yards away. So many of them fall at one time that we no longer pay any attention to them. We tumble into a ravine which we have named Death Ravine. That race over shell-swept, open country, without trenches, we shall long remember.
At last we enter the village - without suspecting that the Germans are there! The commanding officer scatters us along the steep hill to the left and says : "Dig holes, quickly; the Boches are forty yards away!"
We laugh and do not believe him; immediately, cries, rifle shots in the village; our men are freeing our Colonel and Captain, who were already prisoners. Impossible! Then there are no more Frenchmen there? In two minutes the village is surrounded, while the German batteries get a rude jolt.
It was time! All night long you hear tools digging from one end to the other; trenches are being made in haste, but secretly. After that there is a wall, and the Germans will advance no further.
The next morning a formidable rumour - the Boches are coming up to assault Fort de Vaux. The newspapers have told the facts; our 75's firing for six hours, the German bodies piling up in heaps. Horrible! but we applauded. Everybody went out of the trenches to look. The Yser, said the veterans, was nothing beside this massacre.
That time I saw Germans fleeing like madmen. The next day, the same thing over again; they have the cynicism to mount a battery on the slope; the German chiefs must be hangmen to hurl their troops to death that way in masses and in broad daylight.
All afternoon, a maximum bombardment; a wood is razed, a hill ravaged with shell-holes.
It is maddening; continuous salvos of "big chariots"; one sees the 380's and 420's falling; a continuous cloud of smoke everywhere. Trees leap into air like wisps of straw; it is an unheard-of spectacle. It is enough to make you lose your head, yet we patiently wait for the outcome.
The barrage fire cuts our communication with the rear, literally barring off the isthmus of Death Ravine. If the attacks on our wings succeed, our two regiments are prisoners, hemmed in, but the veterans (fathers of families) declare that we shall not be taken alive, that we will all fight till we die. It is sublime.
"Keep up your courage, coolness, and morale, boys, and we will drive them back in good time."
It is magnificent to see that our last recourse is a matter of sheer will; despite this monstrous machinery of modern war, a little moral effort, a will twenty years old that refuses to weaken, suffices to frustrate the offensive!
The rifles do not shoot enough, but we have machine guns, the bayonet, and we have vowed that they shall not pass. Twenty times the alarm is given; along the hillside one sees the hands gripping the rifles; the eyes are a little wild, but show an energy that refuses to give way.
Suddenly it is already night. A sentinel runs up to the outposts: "There they are! Shoot!"
A whole section shoots. But are the outposts driven in? Nobody knows. I take my rifle to go and see. I do not catch a ball. I find the sentinels flat on their faces in their holes, and run to the rear gesticulating and crying out orders to cease firing.
The men obey. I return to the front, and soon, a hundred yards away, I see a bush scintillate with a rapid line of fire. This time it is they. Ta-ca-ta-ca, bzzibzzi.
I hold my fire until they approach, but the welcome evidently does not please them, for they tumble back over the ridge, leaving some men behind. One wounded cries, "Frantchmen!"
I am drunk, mad. Something moves in the bushes to the right; I bound forward with set bayonet. It is my brave sergeant, who has been out to see whether the Boches have all run away.
These are truly the most interesting moments of war; no longer the waiting, the anguish of bombardment, but the thrill of a free march into a glorious unknown - oh, that intoxication! I sing the "Marseillaise," the boys jubilate, all the successive attacks have failed. After this evening the offensive is going to slacken for several days.
The next day we are relieved at last. Another race with death, this time with broad daylight shining upon the horrible chaos, the innumerable dead, and a few wounded here and there.
Oh! those mangled bodies, still unburied, abandoned for the moment. The danger excites us. A shell falls squarely among us, jarring us and bathing us in flame. My knapsack gets a sliver of shell; I am not touched; it is a miracle.
In the evening we arrive at the river ford, and have another race. The next day, at Verdun, the Germans are still shelling us at the moment when we mount the auto trucks.
In the course of all these actions our losses certainly have been high, but they are nothing compared with the frightful and unimaginable hecatomb of Germans I have witnessed.
Photograph courtesy of Photos of the Great War website
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
A 'Toasting Fork' was a bayonet, often used for the named purpose.
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