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[From the Archive]

My Two Visits to Verdun

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A clear, gusty sky and a golden early morning glow over the deserted streets sped me out of Paris on my second visit to Verdun. I was going to a town that has risen above its peaceful, commonplace existence of a few years ago and become a symbol for all that is heroic and self-sacrificing in the greatest disaster that has befallen mankind. Our expedition on this occasion comprised the private motor of the director-general of the American Relief Clearing-House in Paris and a second car carrying Lieutenant C — of the section cinéma of the French Army and his assistants. With the approval of the general staff, our object was to make certain motion pictures of the devastated district of Verdun, to be used in furthering relief work in America.

A cold mid-October wind swept us across the wide-open spaces of the Champagne district. It gave way to a drizzle as we left behind one by one the battlefields of the Marne — Sézanne, Fère-Champenoise, Vitry-le-François. The blanket of mist enveloped us completely as we drove on toward Bar-le-Duc, and held us in its embrace until we reached our journey’s end. The filmy curtain lifted from time to time long enough to disclose evidences of unusual military activity in the small towns through which we passed. Long trains were pulling into small stations, battalions and regiments of reserves were piling out of the carriages or were being herded into enclosures or were loading themselves into mud-stained camions pulled up in long lines close to the depot platforms. Heavy equipment of all kinds — knapsacks, mitrailleuses, metal gun-screens, cookstoves — was being thrown into other trucks. Ammunition-carts and Red Cross ambulances were receiving supplies at a distributing station. Again, we overtook commissary-carts on the road, or batteries of artillery, or soldiers in motortrucks, and occasionally reserves on a practice hike who sloshed through the mud at the roadside. All seemed to be headed in the same direction. On this rainy Sunday evening someone appeared to have touched a button that had set into motion all the complicated machinery that is the mainstay of an army in the field. No one worked feverishly; it was all done with the quiet, efficient haste of long experience.

I went out into the streets of Bar-le-Duc before dinner. There is no blackness so uncompromising as the blackness of the French towns in the war zone after nightfall. Out of the inky pall figures in uniform appeared, took shape, and then faded away. On a siding near the railway station a few lights concealed from above by shades showed through the mist. I stood near the siding in the rain. Artillerymen were preparing the runways for a battery of “75s” that had just arrived on flatcars. The nose of each gun leaned over the breech of the one ahead like the bristling quills of a porcupine.

Early morning found us on the Voie Sacrée. This was the road over which the young blood of France, high in a hope and full of splendid courage, had marched or rode to the front at the time the German offensive commenced in February. It was over the Voie Sacrée that the gallant Twentieth Corps — the corps d’attaque that has been used as the drivingwedge in every big assault since the Marne — was rushed to check the Crown Prince’s army at Fort Douaumont. This was the road over which, night and day, a steady trail of motortrucks passed like a series of never-ending freight trains during the early weeks of the German thrust at Paris through Verdun.

Colonel Bunau-Varilla — one of the engineers of the French Panama Canal, and now in charge of the system of aqueducts that supplies a million gallons of water daily to the Verdun army — had been added to our expedition. To his presence was due the constant ceremonial that marked our onward progress. One respectful salute came from an unexpected source: a squad of German prisoners. They were marching in double column and were mud-stained and weary. As they passed us a voice from their midst gave the command, “Augen links!” and with some eighty eyes fixed at us steadily, we breezed ahead. Their tattered uniforms were faded to a butternut gray, a few wore the skull-cap with a red band, others the new German trench helmet that is shaped like a medieval casque. They looked thin and poorly nourished, and from the dead look in their faces, kultur seemed to have drilled the souls out of them.

Soon after leaving headquarters we were halted by a sentry. German artillery had been active over the road ahead during the night, he said, and we were advised to take the fork to the right. As if to emphasize this point, I heard the warning screech of an oncoming shell. We stood transfixed until it had hurtled overhead and blown a hole in the fields behind us — it was a high-explosive shell. Then we turned about and took the fork to the right.

From an essay published in the February 1917 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 164-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.


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October 2014