Memoirs & Diaries - Account of the German Attacks on Le Mort Homme (Verdun), 20-24 May 1916

Morte-Homme and Hill 287, May 1916 Nothing that the manuals say, nothing that the technicians have foreseen, is true today.

Even under a hail of shells troops can fight on, and beneath the most terrific bombardment it is still the spirit of the combatants which counts.  The German bombardments outdid all previsions.

When my battalion was called up as reinforcements on May 10th, the dugouts and trenches of the first French line were already completely destroyed.  The curtain fire of the Germans, which had succeeded their bombardment of the front lines, fell on the road more than two kilometres behind these.

Now and then the heavy long-distance guns of Germans lengthened their fire in an attempt to reach our batteries and their communications.  At eight o'clock in the evening, when we arrived in auto-buses behind the second or third lines, several shells reached our wagons, and killed men.

The excellent spirit of the battalion suffered not at all, and this is the more to be noted, since it is far easier to keep one's dash and spirit in the heat of actual battle than when one is just approaching it.

I have read a good many stories of battle, and some of their embroideries appear to me rather exaggerated; the truth is quite good enough by itself.  Although they were bombarded beforehand, my men went very firmly into action.  The cannonade worked on the ears and the nerves, getting louder with every step nearer the front, till the very earth shook, and our hearts jumped in our breasts.

Where we were there were hardly any trenches or communication trenches left.  Every half-hour the appearance of the earth was changed by the unflagging shell fire.  It was a perfect cataract of fire.  We went forward by fits and starts, taking cover in shell-holes, and sometimes we saw a shell drop in the very hole we had chosen for our next leap forwards.

A hundred men of the battalion were half buried, and we had scarcely the time to stop and help them to get themselves out.  Suddenly we arrived at what remained of our first-line trenches, just as the Boches arrived at our barbed wire entanglements - or, rather, at the caterpillar-like remains of our barbed wire.

At this moment the German curtain fire lengthened, and most of our men buried in shell-holes were able to get out and rejoin us.  The Germans attacked in massed formation, by big columns of five or six hundred men, preceded by two waves of sharpshooters.  We had only our rifles and our machine guns, because the 75's could not get to work.

Fortunately the flank batteries succeeded in catching the Boches on the right.  It is absolutely impossible to convey what losses the Germans must suffer in these attacks.  Nothing can give an idea of it.  Whole ranks are mowed down, and those that follow them suffer the same fate.  Under the storm of machine gun, rifle and 75 fire, the German columns were ploughed into furrows of death.  Imagine if you can what it would be like to rake water.  Those gaps filled up again at once.  That is enough to show with what disdain of human life the German attacks are planned and carried out.

In these circumstances German advances are sure.  They startle the public, but at the front nobody attaches any importance to them.  As a matter of fact, our trenches are so near those of the Germans that once the barbed wire is destroyed the distance between them can be covered in a few minutes.  Thus, if one is willing to suffer a loss of life corresponding to the number of men necessary to cover the space between the lines, the other trench can always be reached.

By sacrificing thousands of men, after a formidable bombardment, an enemy trench can always be taken.

There are slopes on Hill 304 where the level of the ground is raised several metres by mounds of German corpses.  Sometimes it happens that the third German wave uses the dead of the second wave as ramparts and shelters.  It was behind ramparts of the dead left by the first five attacks, on May 24th, that we saw the Boches take shelter while they organized their next rush.

We make prisoners among these dead during our counterattacks.  They are men who have received no hurt, but have been knocked down by the falling of the human wall of their killed and wounded neighbours.

They say very little.  They are for the most part dazed with fear and alcohol, and it is several days before they recover.

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

In WW1 an "ace" was a pilot who scored five confirmed "kills".

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