From the Archive — From the October 2014 issue

My Two Visits to Verdun

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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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