(They will not pass)
That famous quotation spoken by General Robert Nivelle in 1916, is arguably one of the most famous of the great war. It was said at a time of absolute crisis and yet that quotation gave belief and a glimmer of hope to a nation that was literally fighting to stay alive against the attacker who was determined to destroy it.
In a month’s time, myself and my father are visiting a new area of the western front, it is for me a new experience and a brand new challenge, a new battlefield, a new area to learn and study, another great chance to understand the story of over a century ago. The unbelievable and titanic struggle, the unending human suffering. The epic struggle of 2 nations, France and Germany, Gaul and Teuton, one with the intention of bleeding another one white, the other side merely holding on for survival, locked in a do or die duel that lasted longer than any other battle in the great War. This is one of the definitive and notorious battlefields of all time and the 20th century, Verdun.
However the decision to move the focus away from Flanders and the Somme for the year was a extremely difficult one. I love visiting the Ypres Salient and the Somme, but after 3 years its time to explore further south, past Picardy, towards the region of the River Meuse. If anything the events at Verdun in February 1916 above everything else, had massive implications to the lives of thousands of British and Commonwealth Soldiers in the summer of that year, engaged in battle on the Somme.
In December 1915 at Chantilly, the French and British high command discussed the strategy for 1916, they both agreed on a combined summer offensive on the Somme, however the German High Command under General Falkenhayn had also created a plan that was to strike at the very heart of France’s spiritual soul. Verdun.
The operation was called “Gericht” Judgement or place of execution. Falkenhayn believed that if the German Army attacked Verdun, he would put the French army into a position where they, out of duty and obligation would throw every available soldier into the battle to avoid the city’s capture. In his words he would attempt to make France “bleed to death”, under the weight of heavy artillery shelling, flamethrowers and infantry attacks. Verdun would become what Ypres had become to the British, a place of absolute determination.
Verdun, a town on the banks of the Meuse in early 1916, was in most respects a quiet sector for French soldiers, Most of the fighting had been conducted further north in Flanders and Artois, notably north of Arras near Vimy Ridge. Verdun was surrounded and protected by mighty fortresses, and dense woodland. Many of the forts were built and modified after the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The main fort and lynchpin in the Verdun defensive area was Douaumont, but there was also the Forts of Vaux and Souville which mutually protected each other. In the eyes of the French Public, these forts alone had the ability to repel the German attack towards Verdun and Paris. In February 1916, the French were tested to a new more extreme and extreme limit. The combined offensive on the Somme would now have to become a predominantly British operation, the French high command did commit troops to the offensive on the Somme. But not on the scale that had originally been planned.
Events around Verdun possibly and probably hurried British plans in the attack on the Somme, the fight for survival at Verdun was becoming so severe that Joffre, the French commander in chief begged his ally, the British General Sir Douglas Haig to begin the offensive earlier as he possibly could. Haig, as a result of pressure switched his attack plan from August to late June. The following events in Verdun although ending in overall victory, were not only to haunt France but would also hinder and effect the mental psyche of France for years to come. The failed Nivelle offensive of April 1917 on the Chemin de Dames led to mutiny within the French Army, which had had enough of poor food, poor wages and the French High Command, who were seemingly willing to lose men in poorly co-ordinated operations. General Petain was brought in to retrieve the situation. He did but it would take time for the French army to recover.
It also ensured that Britain and her Empire would be the only force on the western front with the capability to take on the Germans in the remainder of 1917, resulting in the offensives on Messines and Passchendaele. The mutinies made France switch to defensive operations and it took a year for France to recover. Luckily the Germans opposite had no idea of what was going on, and never fortunately capitalised on the opportunity.
20 years later when France was again asked to rise to face Germany in a feat of arms, tactics that had been used in 1914, were now deemed null and void, the forces of the Wehrmacht used new modern and devastating tactics using tanks and aircraft, which led to a catastrophic and humiliating defeat in May-June 1940.
Planning has been long and hard, its going to be a hard 4 hour drive from Zeebrugge to Verdun, but there are a couple of sites im thinking of stopping off near the Chemin de Dames, either the Commonwealth Cemeteries at Vendresse or the villages of Soupir and Pont-Arcy on the banks of the river Aisne. It is going to be difficult for me and most especially for Father, we are going out of the comfort zone but we are certainly looking forward to embracing this new and historic battlefield.
And the Earth Abideth Forever