Trueben US soldiers are still newcomers

Verdun

I expect what is to come, simply without fear, and I ask only one more thing from Providence that it grants me this last grace: a quick death and not this terrible suffering, the result of the terrible wounds we witness every day .

Verdun, - nobody would have suspected that, that's the unbelievable.

Franz Marc, February 27, 1916, letter to his wife Maria. The painter, a volunteer with an artillery unit, dies six days later from shrapnel

Paris in spring 1916: elegantly dressed women and their cavaliers stroll through the Bois de Boulogne and the Champs-Elysées. Fresh croissants are served in the cafés, and in the evenings there is hardly a free table in the good restaurants, such as Weber’s or Bœuf à la Mode. In the Opéra Comique, “Manon” is performed in front of sold-out stands, the Mistinguett dances in the Folies-Bergères, Sarah Bernhardt's film “Jeanne Doré” celebrates its premiere. In this vortex, the men with the closed faces are hardly noticeable, who like stray ghosts roam the boulevards and squares for a few days and then suddenly disappear again. Men like Capitaine Charles Delvert, permissionaire, soldier on home leave. Delvert looks at the strollers, the illuminated theaters and the overcrowded restaurants with the stunned amazement that an absurd world triggers in a beholder - a world to which he no longer belongs and which he may never find his way into again in his life. The 37-year-old captain of the reserves knows that a hell has opened up just 240 kilometers from the Eiffel Tower, and this hell has a name: Verdun. For Delvert and for thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of French soldiers, the first stop on the road to hell is the town of Bar-le-Duc. In this provincial town on the southwestern edge of the Argonne, trains and trucks unload their human cargo. Delvert was posted to Verdun in April 1916, now, in May, for the second time. The landscape was once beautiful. The Argonne are the south-western boundary of the Eifel, a wide-ranging low mountain range: it rises west of the Rhine and as far as the Moselle, continues through Belgium, Luxembourg and northern France and finally ends on the banks of the Meuse, which flows through Verdun.

Most of the hills here are barely a few hundred meters high, the slopes steep, the valleys narrow. Oak forests and dense undergrowth cover hilltops and ravines, only a few farming villages lie like islands in between. Almost a wilderness in the middle of Europe; gloomy and rugged, wet, foggy and cold three quarters of the year, hot and dry in summer. But now this land glows and growls as if it were the inside of a huge furnace.

Hell opens up just 240 kilometers from Paris: Verdun

From Bar-le-Duc it is 75 kilometers to Verdun. Already from here Delvert hears a muffled rumble, rising and falling, never ceasing: the cacophony of the fire of more than 2000 heavy and heaviest artillery, the detonation of tens of thousands of grenades. At night the sky over Verdun shines from muzzle flashes and projectile explosions, from red, green and white flares, from fires somewhere, from searchlights. During the day it seems to have lost all color, except a pale gray-blue: dust from ground earth drifts in the air, but also smoke from artillery - and poison gas that wafts in the valleys for hours in walls of fog. A single road not yet controlled by the Germans leads to Verdun, a small country road, called la route by the soldiers. (After the war, when one tries to do justice to the horror with pathos, one will call it Voie Sacrée, "holy way".)

Delvert and his soldiers march off, around 170 men, the 6th company of the 101st French infantry regiment. You stumble through the ditch next to the seven-meter-wide lane, because the road is reserved for trucks. They rumble nonstop in both directions, bringing heavy grenades, rifles, helmets, bread and bandages to the front. Some drivers have been behind the wheel for 48 or 72 hours, and wrecked vehicles line the road. Soldiers are posted everywhere, constantly shoveling gravel onto the road so that it is not crushed under the pressure of the trucks. Delvert's soldiers are advancing slowly. Each man carries around 25 kilograms of luggage - from rifles to steel helmets, from blankets, bread and wine rations to knapsacks. Even more than the noise and the glow of the distant gunfire, the sight of their relieved comrades marching back in silence will give many newcomers a first glimpse of Verdun's horror: The men's uniforms, once blue in the horizon, are torn, encrusted with mud, covered with lice and fleas. The faces gray with tiredness, hunger and fear. The most frightening thing about the marchers, however, is their small number: of companies that have moved to Verdun with 170 men, sometimes only 20 or 30 soldiers return after a week or two. So a large stream of people flows on this pathetic country road to Verdun, a small one trickles back. The city itself, once a lovely provincial parish, has been abandoned by almost all of its 15,000 residents; only a few stayed; three older people, for example, run a canteen for the garrison. Many buildings have been damaged, walls have collapsed into piles of rubble, revealing abandoned bedrooms and kitchens.

The Germans bombard the city with long-range, heavy cannons - once designed for the emperor's battleship fleet, but now set up on the slopes across the Meuse. From now on the clock is ticking for Delvert and his soldiers: From now on every second can be the last, a deadly projectile can fall anywhere. There are still around ten kilometers to the front. Soon after Verdun, a land opens up in which all life seems to have been extinguished: the ground is pitted with shell holes. Crater after crater lie side by side and one inside the other for miles - circular troughs, some only a few centimeters, others several meters deep. Some of them have putrid water. The earth, repeatedly churned up by bullets, has become soft like quicksand.

Only the tattered, barked torsos of a few trees and grotesquely bent rolls of barbed wire still offer the eye support and orientation. But the forests have disappeared, all roads and roads and railway lines have disappeared, the surrounding villages have disappeared - so shot up that the pilots of the reconnaissance planes can only recognize them as whitish patches of mortar dust in the brown, pockmarked landscape.

And grenades all the time. They seem to be booming from everywhere, sometimes ten or twenty a minute over a few square meters. The largest German projectiles, weighing almost a ton and as high as a man, can be seen racing through the air for seconds during the day before they go down with an infernal howl. They explode in a ball of fire, pulling earth up into the air, the pressure wave of their detonations hits the lungs and eardrum. Some mountains are so hotly contested that their peaks are hidden for hours behind veils of fire and smoke - like "volcanoes", writes a French soldier. Grenades have torn apart a hill so much that it is now six meters lower. And yet, even there, people still hold out somewhere.

During the day Delvert cannot take his position on the front line - one is too defenseless in the lunar landscape. Anyone who showed up here under the dim sunlight would inevitably attract heavy shell and maybe machine gun fire. So at night. Initially, maybe three or four kilometers behind the battle line, the men still make progress in walkways - in trenches, as they are typical here. Trenches, hardly wider than a man's shoulder (so that they offer little target area for the projectiles), one and a half to over two meters deep, supported and secured with raw wooden planks and sandbags.

There is chaos in the command post. Delvert is to march to the Bois Fumin, to the Fumin forest. His position is somewhere on a steep slope on the right bank of the Meuse, only about 400 meters away from Fort Vaux, one of the most powerful fortresses in France. There is no one at headquarters who can show him the way there. He should find his way around himself. In the last evening light, the soldiers' helmets shine. Delvert makes difficult progress, because exhausted and sunk wounded are blocking the way again and again. Then the ditch ends. There is no cover any closer to the front. The soldiers have to go through the scarred land, unprotected between howling grenades. Further! Anyone who retreats, even flees, awaits death. In the first few weeks of the war, the French army set up rapid courts in which soldiers are sentenced to death by shooting even for the smallest offenses. So don't back down, just keep going!

Many have already got lost, at night, in the desert of the crater. At the first light of morning they found themselves in no man's land, without cover, as an ideal target for enemy fire. Go on!

If you fall into one of the deep, water-filled craters with your heavy luggage, you can drown in it. And if someone tries to help him, two drown. Go on! A military chaplain, also on his way to the front, later reports of a packhorse that, still harnessed to its cart, had been fighting desperately in the crater mud for two days, but was only sinking deeper and deeper. No soldier cared about the animal. Go on!

Delvert sees a soldier lying in the dirt, one leg is shattered. “Nobody helped him,” he will write later. "You felt that the men had been brutalized by trying not to leave their company and not to be in a place where death rains down." Go on!

There are dead everywhere: corpses with almost intact bodies, bodies without heads or limbs on a tree stump, indefinable scraps of meat. In all stages of putrefaction. Nobody dares to rescue the dead. And they are buried by the grenades that stir up the earth and throw them at the bodies. And then expose other corpses again. And shred it. And cover up again. And uncover it again. (An officer sees the blue uniform of a fallen French soldier in front of his dugout. A grenade strikes. Now the mutilated corpse of a fighter from the colonies lies there, recognizable by his khaki uniform. Another grenade. Another new corpse in the gruesome circle. Another officer discovers one of his men after a shell hit, his body “lay open from the shoulders to the hips like a cut piece of meat in a butcher's window.” He photographs the dead person as a souvenir.) Go on!

Finally - after a two-hour night march - you are in the scarred area where France ends. The Fumin Forest has disappeared here. The heavy soil is, the officer noted in his diary, "ground so much by grenades that it is crumbled like sand and the shell holes resemble dunes". His position also consists of shell holes - "R.1", Retranchement 1. He is supposed to hold it. It was recently a concrete fortified position, but artillery fire almost completely shattered it. Delvert sets up "in a niche under a slab made of special concrete that had been torn by a 38-centimeter grenade". His soldiers seek cover in shell holes as best they can. To the right of R.1, on the crest of the slope, rises a misshapen structure that could be mistaken for a quarry: Fort Vaux, a fortress behind ditches and barbed wire entanglements, with deeply dug bunkers from whose loopholes machine guns fire, with steel ones , brown corroded armor plates, which hide other gun emplacements that have since been destroyed. The grenades churned up earth and concrete on the fortress, the trenches partially buried - and yet Delvert is calmed down by this gloomy mass, because the fort is the strongest position on this section of the front. Further up the slopes, a few hundred meters away, the boche, the German enemy, has holed up.

Fearing grenades, the men dig themselves into the ground

The men, who are relieved by Delvert's soldiers, disappear backwards into the night. If they should get through, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, they will join the thin train of gray-faced soldiers on the route. Before they leave, one of them reports that they have lost 15 men in the past four days to misdirected fire from their own guns.

Delvert's men, exhausted and frightened, don't have a minute to rest. They dig deeper. Large shell holes, bumps - everything is fine to dig into them like an insect. With almost every groundbreaking ceremony, the men lift up body parts. Soon the earth around the shelters is littered with flesh and bones.

Every movement freezes at dawn. Anyone who moves now is dead. So the soldiers crouch in the trenches, sometimes they have only been able to lay them half a meter or less deep, duck their heads and hold their knapsacks protectively over them. Anyone who needs to relieve themselves can do so on the spot. So they crouch in the mud for hours, in rain and heat, surrounded by rot and dirt. And grenades keep falling from the sky (around three quarters of all mutilated people in the First World War will be their victims). Anyone who is exactly at the point of impact of a projectile disappears in a ball of fire. Nothing remains of him, but at least it is a quick death. It is more agonizing to be buried by the thrown up earth of a detonating projectile - and then to suffocate. Those who do not hear a detonation after falling grenades can suffocate, but only a full "pop" that is almost drowned in the noise. Then phosgene or other poisonous gases spread - and if you don't open your protective mask quickly enough, it corrodes your lungs. (The gas, after all, also kills the large black flies that hum in dark clouds over the carcasses.)

But even more terrible are the wounds torn by the fragments of the bursting grenades. The projectiles of the First World War are torn by their explosive devices into large, often serrated iron sickles. The fragments of the largest calibers are so heavy that two men can hardly lift them. These splinters, hissing through the air at many hundreds of kilometers per hour, tear open the soldiers' bodies or an arm or a leg or the jaw. The cries of the mutilated - those men who are lying in a funnel somewhere and bleeding to death - mingle with the thunder of the explosions. During the day, no soldier can venture to see a wounded man, even if he is only a few meters further in the next trench. You have to listen helplessly for hours to the sounds of pain. And when volunteers venture out at night, it is already too late for most of the wounded.

Capitaine Delvert and his soldiers are also lying in the fire. They haven't even fired a single shot. Whom? The enemy is invisible. Death is anonymous. Nobody breaks their position, they themselves move neither forwards nor backwards. It seems as if they were sent into nowhere for no purpose or purpose, fuel for the grenade furnace in Verdun. Verdun. The ten-month battle - the longest in modern times - became a myth during the war and has remained so ever since. The "hell", the "blood pump", the "bone mill". It has become a symbol of horror, of machine-like death for the French and Germans, the ultimate symbol for the First World War. It did not become that because it was the bloodiest slaughter in this conflict - there was worse murders elsewhere. And Verdun did not become a symbol because this battle decided anything. But because, as a chronicler will later write, Verdun, on the contrary, was the “most senseless battle in a senseless war”. Even the question of why it began in the first place has not yet been clarified beyond doubt. One thing is certain: the Germans attacked on February 21, 1916. But why there? Why the strongest fortress in France of all places? Why Verdun?

Actually, the war was not supposed to last longer than a few weeks, but at most until Christmas 1914. At least that was what the plans of the generals - the German as well as the French - provided for.

While the mobilized armies in the German Reich gathered on the Belgian border in order to then march into the neutral country according to the Schlieffen Plan and from there to advance into the heart of France, their opponents did them a favor and behaved exactly as von Schlieffen had calculated in advance. L'attaque à outrance is France's military doctrine: "Attack to the extreme".Heavy artillery? "Thank God we don't have them," an officer of the General Staff told French politicians in 1910. Machine guns? "Have no influence on anything," announced the Inspector General of the Infantry. Planes? "Good for sport, useless for the army," says Colonel Ferdinand Foch, who in 1918 will become commander in chief of all allied armies. The foot soldier alone should decide the war in the attack, the rifle with attached bayonet must be enough. The officers even reject camouflage uniforms and despise the field gray of their German opponents. The uniforms are bright blue and bright red, from kepi (in the army, as with all allies and opponents, there is no steel helmet in 1914) to bright red trousers, so that the enemy can see the soldiers early enough and be frightened of them. “What the enemy plans has no consequences,” proclaims the official doctrine. France's answer to the Schlieffen Plan is called Plan XVII. Four of the country's five armies - 800,000 men - are in the French part of Lorraine and are to advance quickly from there to the Rhine. In August 1914 the German army rolled through Belgium and then invaded France after just a few days - to the boundless surprise of the French general staff. Because while the Germans are advancing in the north of the front, a debacle is taking place in the south. Instead of defending their country, the French attack Germany in Lorraine. In terms of numbers, they are far superior, and their units are often only opposed to reservists, farmers, merchants, employees, artists who have been hastily called up. But they fire with machine guns and artillery at the unprotected charging French. After two weeks, France lost 300,000 soldiers: dead, wounded, missing. And instead of rushing to the Rhine, they turn to retreat. They can only hold out again at the forts of Verdun. In the end, France was saved by Russia in the summer of 1914. Because the tsarist empire, despised by the German generals, can mobilize its masses of soldiers much faster than Berlin expected, the whole of East Prussia threatens to fall in September. Two German army corps are hastily relocated from the west to the east. In France, the German high command now lacks the soldiers to carry out the decisive final blow. In the battle of the Marne, barely 50 kilometers from Paris, the attack finally got stuck in autumn 1914. In a 750-kilometer front, from the Belgian North Sea coast to the Swiss border, German, French and British soldiers are now entrenching themselves in increasingly complex trenches, which are being expanded into a deeply staggered system to accommodate the artillery and machine-gun fire of each to escape the other side. The soldiers are too exhausted to be able to rush forward, the generals are at a loss as to what to do next. Movement has turned into positional warfare. Both the Schlieffen Plan and Plan XVII failed: in 1914 alone Germany lost 750,000 soldiers (dead, wounded, missing), France around 900,000 men. In no subsequent year of the war will the losses ever be as high as in these first five months. Reason enough, one would think, to replace the generals responsible for this debacle. The opposite is happening.

France was the only republic among those involved in the war in the summer of 1914. But nowhere does a civil government discredit itself as in Paris. When the Germans advance against the capital, ministers and members of parliament flee to Bordeaux - a disgrace that costs them a lot of authority, even when they return to the Seine after the Battle of the Marne. From now on, the Grand Quartier Général (the Great Headquarters) determined all important decisions of the republic - a secret military dictatorship, not unlike that of the Wilhelmine Empire. The Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre resides in Chantilly Castle. A general of mediocre military talent at best, but imperturbable calm. Even in the turbulent days when Germany's armies penetrated Belgium and France's soldiers bleeding to death in Lorraine, unlike the politicians and many of his officers, he never panicked. "Because of him France almost lost the war, without him it would have definitely lost the war," a British military historian will later judge.

"Papa" is the nickname of the mustached man. Nothing could be more misleading. Even in his memoir, published in 1932, there is no pity, no word of regret, no real sign of sympathy for the fate of the men in the trenches (as in almost all the memoirs of the senior officers on both sides). For him soldiers are columns of numbers, like guns or grenades. If the digits are high enough, there is an attack.

The soldiers attack, even in hopeless situations

L’attaque à outrance is still doctrine in Chantilly, with Joffre and with almost all of his officers. A general is called “the butcher” - not by the enemy, but by his own soldiers, because he orders particularly costly attacks. And when officers made the proposal to Joffre in November 1914 that soldiers should finally be equipped with steel helmets for their own protection, he initially refused because the helmets would be too late: “Before two months have passed, I'll have broken the boche's neck. “Production is only released later, when blue-gray uniforms are issued, which at least camouflage the soldiers a little. Throughout 1915 the French attacks were unsuccessful. They attack over and over again. The soldiers go to their deaths "as if on a parade," writes a bitter officer. At the end of the year the French and British lost 250,000 men, around 100,000 more than the Germans. The only success of one of these offensives was the recapture of a cemetery.

In 1916 the decision should finally be made. The British allies, initially with only a few units on the continent, have now set up a veritable army. The French plan to break up the German front on the Somme together with the British in the summer of 1916. For this great offensive, Joffre pulls together everything he can spare in terms of soldiers and artillery on other sectors of the front. In Verdun, too, regiments are withdrawn and cannons dismantled. In the winter of 1915/16 there was increasing evidence that the Germans were planning something threatening in the Argonne. But still applies to the French: "What the enemy plans, has no consequences."

What exactly Joffres opponent Erich von Falkenhayn is planning is still a mystery today, 90 years later. After the debacle on the Marne, the general replaced the commander-in-chief Helmuth Graf von Moltke. Falkenhayn - stiff posture, cold look, rasping voice - is the archetype of the Junker and Prussian officer: dashing, arrogant, ruthless. But its icy facade hides two fatal weaknesses. Falkenhayn is basically a procrastinator who always protects himself. And he is downright manic reticence. Falkenhayn does not consult with anyone and does not reveal his true goals to anyone. The Austrian chief of staff, his closest ally, is not even informed by Falkenhayn about major offensives. His own generals, including the Crown Prince, have vague or even wrong ideas about their superior's plans. Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg is an opponent of the general who intrigues against him in Berlin.

And the emperor? Wilhelm II is entertained by Falkenhayn with anecdotes from the trenches and with a few, well-dosed dossiers. Falkenhayn decides alone and without advice on the operations of what is arguably the strongest army in the world at the time. He decides on the “court” plan: the attack on Verdun. And nobody knows exactly why. Verdun is the strongest fortress on the other side. When the French armies retreated in Lorraine in the summer of 1914, they clawed their way here. The city, three-quarters of which is surrounded by German units, is like a dent in the front.

Since 1871, after the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, Verdun has been expanded into a fortress. The rugged, wooded argonnas all around are ideal as a defensive position. In addition, the now German Metz, also an important fortress, is only a good 60 kilometers away. To the west and south of the city, on the other hand, the country is relatively flat. There are no mountain ranges, no large rivers between Verdun and Paris. If Verdun falls, the way to the capital is open. That is why French fortress engineers have built a wall of modern castles around the city for three decades: 19 forts dominate the heights. Each of them is several hundred square meters, buried deep in the earth, covered by masonry and layers of earth and concrete up to 7.5 meters thick. The defenders of the forts can sweep the surrounding area with retractable armored artillery and machine guns. Several hundred soldiers are stationed in each fortress. Huge cisterns provide drinking water, and bread can be made in their own bakeries in some places.

Between the large forts, well camouflaged in forests and on hills, there are dozens of smaller positions, also reinforced with concrete, equipped with machine guns and partly prepared for longer sieges thanks to cisterns.

Position R.1, into which Capitaine Delvert moves, is one of them. The fortresses cover each other, which means that every attack on a position can be taken under fire from the neighboring positions: a murderous, densely staggered ring of barriers in which every advance of foot soldiers will get stuck. The Germans have never seriously tried to attack here. Until February 1916. In Falkenhayn's 1919 memoirs - perhaps the coldest of all the military's unemotional books of justification - the commander-in-chief claims to have put the plan for the attack on Verdun in writing to the emperor "around Christmas 1915". But to this day nobody has found this “Christmas memorandum”.

Many men find themselves hopelessly lost in no man's land

Falkenhayn's plan is, if it ever existed, the lowest point in human contempt: he wants France, as he explains to the emperor, to "bleed to death". Since Verdun is so strategically important, the enemy must hold this fortress at all costs. “Behind the French sector of the Western Front, there are targets within reach that the French leadership is forced to use the last man to maintain. If she does, France's forces will bleed to death, since there is no evasion. "

So the German army must attack this point with limited offensives that can be controlled at any time. The French would be forced to sacrifice more and more soldiers for Verdun - until, exhausted by the immense loss, they saw the futility of the war and stopped fighting. According to this logic, Verdun must not fall quickly - because then the opposing side would not lose enough soldiers. Falkenhayn even goes a step further: "It would be," he wrote to his emperor, "regardless of whether we achieve the goal ourselves or not."

So should Verdun only be attacked so that as many French as possible are killed? This consideration would suit Falkenhayn's character, his ruthlessness as well as his fear of betting all on one card. Because whether the conquest succeeds or not would be irrelevant - the attack would definitely have to be portrayed as a success. But this memorandum may only exist in the general's memoir. It has never been found in an archive, neither Wilhelm II nor any of the other senior officers involved mention it in their memoirs. Perhaps the closed Falkenhayn intended to "bleed" the enemy to death, but announced this to no one, not even his supreme warlord. Only in retrospect, after 1918, as a justification, did Falkenhayn apparently set this strategy in writing.

What is clear, however, is that his subordinates believe that Verdun should be conquered as a strategic goal - and as quickly as possible. Who would risk their life for a goal that the Commander-in-Chief had previously declared "indifferent"? There is therefore much to suggest that Falkenhayn misled his own soldiers about the plans with Verdun in the winter of 1915/16. What is certain is that he will also deceive his opponents. In January 1916 the Germans prepared the attack. In the forests of the Argonne they set up a total of 1225 guns. The most powerful are the 42-centimeter mortars from Krupp, officially a gamma device, but only called "Big Berta" after the Krupp heiress by soldiers on both sides of the front. A gun weighs 140 tons, it has to be transported on freight wagons and assembled on site. It takes four days. Stormtroopers are moved close to the French lines: German elite units whose equipment is lighter so that the soldiers are more agile. Instead of chunky boots, they wear half-height sturdy shoes.

And instead of the spiked hoods - the tips of which have long been removed by experienced fighters because they easily get caught in the undergrowth or barbed wire - steel helmets with neck protection pulled down protect the heads. For the first time in the Battle of Verdun, soldiers wear the helmet, the shape of which became the hallmark of the German infantryman for almost three decades. For the first time, pioneers are also preparing large barrel-shaped canisters that are filled with highly flammable oil. These “flamethrowers” ​​can throw a jet of fire 15 or 20 meters from a nozzle. So that the French have no idea of ​​the preparations, the Germans are driving tunnels into the ground: underground passages, the exit openings of which are sometimes only a few dozen meters from the enemy positions.

Everything is ready in February: More than 500,000 German soldiers are waiting for the order to attack. The storm on Verdun is supposed to begin on February 12, 1916 - but the harsh Argonne weather gives the French a respite. It is snowing so hard that nothing can be seen in the white storm. So wait for the weather to calm down. The icy water is ankle-high in the tunnels. It is far too narrow for the men to rest, even to lie down. Many of them have to sneak backwards for miles through the woods at night, then return before dawn - and are sent back because of the snowfall after staying in the tunnel for a day. The days of waiting wear down the soldiers. Anything is better than this unbearable uncertainty in the wet and cold. Soon more and more men with severe colds or diarrhea will have to be sent to the hospital. Then the morning of February 21st dawned. It's icy - but clear. “Court” plan begins.

The first heavy German gun fired at 7:12 a.m. - the shell exploded in the middle of Verdun, near the Bishop's Palace. Then the artillery fired on French positions for eleven hours. The grenades are intended to destroy enemy positions and tear the barbed wire entanglements. At the end of the fire attack, your own infantry should be able to cross the no man's land as quickly as possible and occupy the enemy's positions. At first everything is going according to plan. When the first storm troops rush out of their tunnels at 6 p.m., there is confusion on the other front. All French telephone lines were destroyed just an hour after the artillery attack. Commands and messages now have to be transmitted by light signal (which is becoming more and more difficult in the increasingly smoke-laden air) or by carrier pigeon.

Most messages, however, are delivered by notifiers. Your missions are among the most dangerous of all. Detectors have to somehow find their way from the trenches to headquarters in the rain of shells. After just a few days of the battle, the most important of these connecting routes will be marked with macabre signposts - with dead detectors.

Many never get their messages to their destination, others get lost and end up with the enemy; if you can do it, it sometimes takes six or eight hours to cover two kilometers. During this time, some of the units to which they are supposed to deliver orders have long since ceased to exist. The Germans' successes in the first four days of the battle were great: great by the standards of the war. After heavy fighting - several thousand men have already fallen on both sides - they advanced several kilometers. A few forests that slowly vanish in shell fire, several devastated villages, some hilltops are now in their hands.

And the Fort Douaumont, the strongest fortress in the ring around Verdun. The fort is captured on their own by German units who, according to the order, should have fought their way through elsewhere. It almost seems as if Verdun could be conquered in a few days.

Almost at the same time, decisions are made in both headquarters for which several hundred thousand men have to pay with death or terrible mutilation.

I expect what is to come, simply without fear, and I ask only one more thing from Providence that it grants me this last grace: a quick death and not this terrible suffering, the result of the terrible wounds we witness every day .

Gaston Biron, April 18, 1916, letter to his mother. Biron was wounded on September 8, 1916 and died after a three-day agony.

On February 25, General Philippe Pétain was appointed the new commander-in-chief of Verdun - an officer who was often overlooked for promotions before the war: Pétain was one of the few who recognized the doctrine of attaque à outrance for what it was : suicidal. He realized earlier than other officers what a terrible effect massed artillery must have. “Firepower kills” is his maxim. Pétain only made a career during the war. He was successful at the front, and no general was as popular with the common soldiers as he was. He, too, demands of his men that they hold every position - but as the only high-ranking officer he refrains from the hopeless, people-devouring assaults. He does not want to attack until his artillery has shot through the enemy's positions. And this is exactly what happened from March 1916 onwards. The enemy attack was carried out on the eastern bank of the Meuse. As the Germans advance, they are shot at by French cannons from the hills on the west bank. The shells hit their flanks and even their back. The advance finally gets stuck in this concentrated fire. Verdun is saved for the time being. Because this is the second decision in a headquarters: The German generals are aware of how important the west bank is. Even before the attack, they urged Falkenhayn to proceed on both banks. The soldiers necessary for this are ready. But Falkenhayn refuses and orders that the troops be kept in reserve. Why? The fact that the French guns on the west bank can be extremely dangerous to them is so obvious that the refusal to attack them could hardly have been due to a lack of military insight - but possibly the typical hesitation of the commander-in-chief: his reluctance to put everything on one card , his need to always secure himself with as many reserves as possible. Perhaps, however, Falkenhayn has a completely different consideration, which he is hiding from his highest generals: If the Germans also advance on the west bank, Verdun might fall in the first week of the attack - much too early for the surprised French to have large parts of their army there can station. The enemy would not “bleed to death”. So he blocks what would be necessary for rapid success so that the opponent has time to build up in full strength.

And indeed: Now the French are bleeding to death - but so are the Germans. Both opponents ran into hopeless positions in March. The Germans can barely hold the terrain they have won. They lie almost unprotected in the French artillery fire that falls on them from the as yet unconquered forts, the hills of the west bank and the heights around Verdun. Your own guns first have to be laboriously dismantled, dragged after the advancing soldiers and then rebuilt. Even the supply of bread and water to the soldiers in the front line collapses at times. If the Germans wanted to avoid the hail of shells, they would have to retreat to their starting positions - unthinkable for Falkenhayn, the Crown Prince or one of the other generals - or keep attacking until all of the opponent's positions have been conquered. This is exactly the order: attack! And now, after two weeks of hesitation, also on the west bank of the Meuse. But the French know that they have lost so much land in the first four days that any further retreat would endanger Verdun. Even more: In order to be able to hold one's own weakened position in the long term, the lost terrain must be recaptured. So here too the watchword is: attack!

The worst phase of the battle begins in June