Ithe harvest of armageddon
Well before dawn on 21 February 1916, when powdery snow lightened the darkness shrouding the lines of trenches gashed across the face of northern France, a 15-inch Krupp naval gun fired the first shot in the battle of Verdun. Its long barrel rising through the camouflage netting of its hiding-place in a wood near Loisin, it gave a full-throated roar and vomited a huge projectile 15 miles into the fortified city. The shell burst in the courtyard of the Bishop's Palace, "knocking a corner off the cathedral."1 Others followed but not until sunrise did the main German bombardment begin. In the dead silence moments before the onslaught, French soldiers of the 56th and 59th Light Infantry Battalions, dug into a bosky hillside north of Verdun known as the Bois des Caures, saw snow fall from trembling branches. Then they were engulfed by a tornado of fire and steel. The barrage could be heard a hundred miles away in the Vosges Mountains, "an incessant rumble of drums, punctuated by the pounding of big basses."2 Close at hand its impact was tremendous. One of the earliest victims was a water carrier who, with his horse and cart, was blown to smithereens by a direct hit from one of the 1,200 German guns. His comrades expected the same fate as they clung to the earth and, Jules Romains wrote, breathed "the smell of a tormented world, a smell like that of a planet in the process of being reduced to ashes."3 The trenches of the First World War have been compared to the concentration camps of the Second. So they were, in the sense that they witnessed bestial suffering. By that analogy Verdun was Auschwitz.4
Actually Verdun was not the bloodiest battle of the war-that grisly distinction belongs to the Somme. Moreover, the carnage was so unspeakable elsewhere, notably on the Eastern Front, that governments sought refuge in censorship and lies, reporters dealt in euphemisms like "baptism of fire" and even poets felt lost for words. In every sector the combatants saw a new vision of hell, experienced an "iron nightmare."5 They occupied killing fields in which the quick and the dead were buried in the same stretch of tortured soil, men gouging holes in the ground like the rats which fed on corpses regularly exhumed by scorching metal. Amid the stench and squalor of a gigantic shambles, legions of doomed youth emerged to be scythed down by machine-guns and crucified on barbed wire. They endured an inferno of shells: shrapnel which tore flesh to pieces and high explosive which pulverised bone and stone alike. They encountered the hideous inventions of perverted technology: flame-throwers and poison gas. Even in so-called "quiet sectors" of the line, those in which (one French officer complained) generals "plague us with their visits,"6 a 2nd lieutenant's commission was, as Wyndham Lewis said, tantamount to a death warrant.
Yet, even taking Passchendaele into account, Verdun was the most terrible battle of the war. This was because of time and space: it lasted longest and was most concentrated. It continued at maximum intensity for much of 1916 and erupted sporadically until the armistice. And the kind of fighting which no one chronicled with more Zolaesque vehemence than Henri Barbusse was aimed at a single target on the narrowest of fronts:
the woods are sliced down like cornfields, the dug-outs marked and burst in even when they've three thicknesses of beams . . . all the roads blown into the air and changed into long heaps of smashed convoys and wrecked guns, corpses twisted together as though shovelled up. You could see thirty chaps laid out by one shot at the crossroads; you could see fellows whirling around as they went up, always about fifteen yards, and bits of trousers caught and stuck on the tops of the trees that were left . . . And that went on for months on end, months on end!7
Probably more soldiers were killed per square yard in defence of Verdun, symbol of French honour, than in any other conflict before or since. The figures are difficult to compute, but nearly 300,000 Frenchmen and Germans died and another 450,000 were wounded. The German commander, General Erich von Falkenhayn, thus fulfilled his ambition to bleed the enemy white. Admittedly, his own forces paid an almost equally horrifying price. But the French armies, most of which were sooner or later dragged into the charnel-house of Verdun, suffered more. They were crushed by a weight of artillery "against which courage had no resource."8 Soon hopes of glory gave way to talk of butchery. French soldiers had entered the war with sublime faith in the offensive, symbolised by their red kÃ©pis and pantaloons (where the British wore khaki and the Germans grey). Now some began to think in terms of a defensive strategy whereby casualties would be kept to a minimum. The embodiment of this philosophy was General Philippe PÃ©tain.
PÃ©tain was given command at Verdun when a German breakthrough seemed imminent. A peasant's son with a patrician's air, he looked every inch a general-always an important consideration with the military. He was a large, impassive man with icy blue eyes, a sweeping white moustache and pale, marmoreal features. As PÃ©tain himself acknowledged, "I have a chilling mask."9 Coldness, indeed, was the characteristic which this stoical soldier presented to the world: he treated politicians with glacial disdain and adopted a frigid formality with his staff. But passions seethed beneath PÃ©tain's arctic exterior. He had many love affairs, often with other men's wives and once with a woman apparently procured for him by the Germans. When summoned to Verdun he was nowhere to be found; his
ADC finally tracked him down in the Hotel Terminus at the Gare du Nord in Paris. Outside a bedroom door he was able to identify "the great
commander's yellowish boots with the long leggings, which, however,
on that evening were agreeably accompanied by some charming little moliÃ¨re slippers, utterly feminine."10 Being, as a friend once said, more of a slave to his flesh than to his duty, PÃ©tain insisted on finishing the business of the night. But once at Verdun he showed a stern regard for the flesh of the French poilu. He limited losses, relying on matÃ©riel rather than men. He acted defensively, reorganising the artillery and keeping it well supplied with ammunition. He constantly sent fresh troops to relieve those exhausted by the attrition of the firing line. He visited casualty clearing stations-unlike the British Commander-in-Chief, Douglas Haig, who felt it his duty not to sicken himself by such experiences. Eventually PÃ©tain became the "saviour of Verdun." He thus earned himself lasting fame and popularity. In 1935 he came top of a newspaper poll conducted to find a dictator for France.
However, PÃ©tain's methods were anathema to the offensive-minded high command. So, in April 1917, General Robert Nivelle was permitted to launch another frontal attack, this time against well-protected German lines on the Aisne. It was a disaster. Though incurring a modest loss compared to the hecatombs of Verdun, it broke the fighting spirit of the French armies. Two-thirds of their units were now affected by mutinies. These ranged from minor acts of indiscipline to violent disturbances. Some troops sang the "Internationale" and proposed to march on Paris. But most were protesting against the slaughter caused by futile assaults on heavily fortified positions. The authorities effectively hushed up the mutinies, punishing the ring-leaders (50 of whom were executed) and making concessions (more leave, better food) to the rest. But this spontaneous insurrection terrified the leaders of France, because it raised the twin ghouls
of defeat and revolution. PÃ©tain himself, infected by a pessimism that amounted to defeatism, muttered that France should begin peace negotiations. As it happened, all belligerent nations experienced mutinies or considered peace proposals in 1917. But it was in France, whose poignant war memorials would record the loss of 1.3 million soldiers (over a quarter of all men aged between 18 and 27), that the mood of war-weariness was overwhelming.
That mood was prophetically expressed by a character in Barbusse's Under Fire who exclaimed:
The future, the future! The work of the future will be to wipe out the present, to wipe it out more than we can imagine, to wipe it out like something abominable and shameful . . . Shame on military glory, shame on armies, shame on the soldier's calling that changes men by turns into stupid victims and ignoble brutes.11
Looking forward to the arrival of the Americans, French poilus were for the present prepared at least to defend the motherland. And defence was later to be elevated to the status of a cult, its fetish being the Maginot Line, modelled on the fortresses which had protected Verdun. But hostility to war and, by extension, to the military, became so widespread during the 1920s and '30s that cadets at St. Cyr were advised to doff their uniforms and go out wearing civilian clothes. Verdun spawned a feeling in France, so passionate as to be palpable, that this must be the war to end war. As a young lieutenant wrote in his diary just before his death in that battle, "They will not be able to make us do it again."12
The Great War invaded the mind of mankind, becoming "the essential condition of consciousness in the twentieth century."13 The pain and grief of Verdun, in particular, seared the French psyche like phosgene gas in a soldier's lungs. People had their own recurring nightmares: of men drowning in shell-holes; or walking on corpses during an attack; or going mad in the underground fighting in Forts Vaux and Douaumont; or being more anguished by their horses' suffering than by their own; or collapsing from hunger, thirst and exhaustion when supplies failed to reach the front line; or weeping just because they could no longer bear the mud, the lice and the squalor. Despite horrors best captured in Otto Dix's grotesque paintings of mutilated war victims, or perhaps because of those horrors, Verdun exercised such a fascination that during the 1930s survivors constantly returned to it. They visited the grim ossuary of Douaumont, formally inaugurated in 1932. It was said to contain the bones of 130,000 soldiers, but they were not arranged in ornamental patterns like the frieze of skulls and the tracery of tibias that imposed a macabre retrospective order on battle in the ossuary at Solferino; instead they were heaped together
higgledy-piggledy to represent the chaos of conflict. The Verdun ossuary remains the most extraordinary monument commemorating the First World War: a long, rounded chamber resembling the casemate of a fort, surmounted by a "funerary stela"14 less like an obelisk than an enormous high-explosive shell. This and the other war memorials, notably the one to the Unknown Soldier (carefully exhumed from an area of Verdun deemed free of Jewish and Negro corpses) at the Arc de Triomphe, reinforced French feelings that such an immense sacrifice "must never be allowed to happen again."15 So did the still-shattered landscape of Verdun, to which the ancient combatants were drawn. There they would reminisce and explore, trying to find the location of this dugout or that battery. "I was
in Death Ravine . . ." "Which one?" Some of these pilgrims camped
amid the mounds and craters, occasionally "getting their heads blown off when their fire heated up an explosive shell."16 At Verdun the iron entered into the Gallic soul.
According to a myth much propagated by writers, a kind of camaraderie had existed between soldiers facing each other across No Man's Land. They were supposed to be united in mutual respect, and in common contempt for staff officers safely behind the lines who could blithely order them to fight to the last man. The myth was not without foundation, but anyone who reads the unpublished diaries and letters of poilus or tommies will be more impressed by their violent hatred of the foe. The hatred was compounded by an abiding fear, which was particularly pervasive in France, where the war produced a disastrous fall in the number of births. In 1928 Charles Lambert warned that "the demographic peril" was "as formidable as the German army."17 Population stasis, which occurred in the 1930s, weakened the nation's capacity in every way, helping to make the Depression France's "economic Sedan."18 France won in 1918. But Falkenhayn, whose own hair turned white during the months of Verdun, had succeeded in bleeding it white. As the politician Georges Mandel said in 1940, France's people believed that it "could not stand another bleeding like that."19
Another such bloodbath was a frightful prospect. But as France tasted the sweets of victory, there were many in Germany who were consumed by the bitterness of defeat. They vowed to reverse the verdict and to exact vengeance at whatever cost. And they believed that Verdun had forged a new Teutonic cadre: ruthless, mechanised, steel-helmeted "proletarians of destruction" for whom, Arnold Zweig wrote, there "is no truth, and everything is permitted."20 The most fanatical of these nationalists was, of course, a young Austrian corporal named Adolf Hitler. As a down-and-out artist in Munich he had welcomed the war with rapture, thanking God for having matched him with this hour. Though said to be lacking in leadership qualities, he had conducted himself bravely. He had been wounded and had won the Iron Cross, first class, allegedly for capturing single-handed more than a dozen French soldiers-cynics later suggested that
he had surrounded them. Writing from the trenches he had expressed a fervent hope that a new, purer Germany would emerge from the crucible of war,
so that by the sacrifice and agony which so many hundreds of thousands of us endure every day, that by the river of blood which flows here
daily . . . not only will Germany's enemies from the outside be smashed, but also our domestic internationalism [a euphemism for Jewry] will be
Pale-faced, with intense, staring eyes and a much fuller moustache than he later wore, Hitler oscillated between moods of lethargic day-dreaming and daemonic enthusiasm. His fellows regarded him as a Bohemian and an eccentric. But Hitler was far from alone in finding a kind of fulfilment in the war. It gave him comradeship, discipline, the excitement of taking part in an heroic adventure and the sense of purpose which stemmed from proving that he and his race were fittest to survive. This social-Darwinist destiny was abruptly denied him in 1918. On 13 October Hitler was temporarily blinded in a British gas attack south of Ypres. He was sent to Pasewalk hospital in Pomerania. It was here, a month later, that the chaplain gave him the news of the armistice.
Excerpted from The Dark Valley by Piers Brendon. Copyright © 2002 by Piers Brendon. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.