Tuesday 23 February 2016

Letters from the Longest Battle, by Leslie Wilson.

French trench at Verdun: public domain

The battle of Verdun was the most drawn-out and probably the most futile battle of World War One; and it began a hundred years and two days ago, on the 21st of February, 1916, and lasted till the eighteenth of December that year.

Briefly, it represented an enormous 'push' on the part of the German army to make a significant advance, and capture the Verdun forts. Von Falkenheyn, the German commander, intended to 'bleed France dry.' To that end, the most modern instruments of death were used; poison gas, flame-throwers, advanced guns. At the Franco-German commemoration of the centenary, Germany's ambassador to Paris, Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut said Verdun, in German memory, 'was the epitome of the pointlessness and savagery of World War One.' Nine villages were obliterated.

'Long Max' , a high-tech German gun. (Bundesarchiv)

I have two connections to Verdun; on the one side, my great-uncle Leo Kolodziej fought and was killed there. His head was blown off, blown to smithereens, I guess, since only his decapitated body was found, something that gave my mother nightmares during her childhood. I know next to nothing else about him, except that he was the youngest of my grandmother's brothers, (and I think my mother said, my grandmother's favourite brother) which, since she was only fifteen in 1916, may well have meant that he had only just gone to the Front (soldiers were taken from age 17, in Germany.) But that last is only conjecture.

The other connection is via close family friends in France, the Dufours. Achille Dufour, the father of Marc, who was my parents' age, and a kind of functional uncle for me, was a private in the French army, and survived, and I have the transcripts of some letters he wrote home to his wife Félicie, which Marc, before his death, very kindly authorised me to use in any way I wanted, though this is the first time I've been able to.
photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Within a very short time, the battlefield had become a landscape of craters - which you can still see, and the woods had been turned to stumps under the unrelenting bombardment of weaponry from both sides. The entire landscape was permeated by the smell of rotting corpses, especially in the summer, as it wasn't possible to get them and bury them. Achille told his children how the men often had to drink rain water from the craters, but there was also a stream they got fresh water from. One day, they found the corpse of a German lying across the stream, and so their officer gave them bleach to add to the drinking water; this was known as 'Verdunisation', so presumably it was a common expedient. The food was dreadful (better for the officers) and Achille succumbed at least once to dysentery.

In his first letter, written from a brief spell behind the lines in May 1916, Achille says: 'I have spent seven days and a night at.. (presumably deletions by the censor) Mort Homme.' (The name, meaning 'Dead Man', derived from an unidentified corpse found there in the 16th century; a strategically important hill whose name had become horrifically appropriate by then.) 'There Bochart Robert was killed, and Léonce Dubois from St Martin disappeared, and the last brother of Mérique (Saint Sauveur) was killed… a very considerable bombardment,' he ends, rather calmly. He rejoices in being able to get clean 'I really needed it,' he says. 'I had to sleep on a plank, but it's nice and dry, and I needed to rest so much, I never noticed that was hard.' But he was pretty bullish, at that stage. 'I can assure you that we fought well, and the Boches didn't have time to sleep, we demoralised them so much. They were surrendering a trench at a time, saying they'd had enough. We found that very encouraging. Our artillery is dealing out countless shells, and inflicting ravages on the enemy lines. You can see the Boches exploding, and when we attacked, the survivors almost all surrendered. We can be optimistic.. They wanted to hit us hard, but they've got hit hard themselves.. they aren't capable of attacking us any longer… it's hard to hold the line, but when we see the situation changing like that, we're all encouraged and full of enthusiasm.'
French medal: Wikimedia Commons

How much of that was for the censor, I wonder? In July, he was less cheerful. He misses his wife terribly (there are a good deal of complaints, in his letters, about the need for more leave, because France has to be repopulated) and says 'I'm thirsty for love. How much longer will this go on? It's already been two years… At our age, when everything should be cheerful, when we should have joy and happiness in our lives, this is a dark black hole dug into our existence, an indescribable waste of our lives. And how will it end? Will we have the chance to be reunited, safe and healthy in body and in mind?' But he strikes a hopeful note. 'You are undoubtedly suffering, but since I suffer too, this common suffering can only make us happier in the future.'

Leave was certainly a problem, since the constant bombardment often made it near-impossible to bring in new troops to relieve the front line. Often companies lost half their men just on the way to the battle. 'I fear,' Achille wrote in September to Félicie, 'that I shan't be able to come home this winter to warm your feet up… How long this cursed war is, that's keeping us apart for such a long time,' and ends up: 'My treasure, have the tenderest kisses that my loving heart can contain.'

'Humanity is mad,' wrote a French officer, less optimistically than Achille. 'It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible.'
German medal: my grandfather's

Achille wrote to Félicie in October: 'You have no idea how much hatred I feel for the bandits (and he does mean the Germans) who have been depriving me of happiness and your tenderness for two years now.' At the end of December, when the battle was over, he wrote: 'Let us hope that the good times will return. But alas! What a terrible trial, how much we have suffered, and what sufferings are still to come? I wish I could forget, in the circle of your arms, these sad episodes of my life. This happiness, lost forever, stolen from us by the determination of imperious bandits.. tomorrow - 1917 - will we be successful? Shall we see the happiest day of our lives?'

Achille did survive, and was reunited with Félicie at last. But this is the estimated toll of Verdun; on the French side, between 315,00 and 542,00 dead and wounded; 156,000 to 162,000 killed. On the German side, 281,000 -434,000 dead and wounded; about 143,000 killed. (I don't understand why the massive uncertainty - perhaps someone can tell me?) One of the dead was my great-uncle. 
German war graves. Photo, Julian Nizsche, Wikimedia Commons.

At the end of those terrible months, the front line had barely moved at all. It was simply an exercise in mutual slaughter. To quote Tolstoy, in 'War and Peace,' it was 'an event counter to all the laws of human reason.'

And the 'war to end all wars' only brought forth a second world war, in which Achille's son Marc became part of the Resistance, and one day found himself obliged to shoot a German soldier who wanted to know what he had on his bicycle (it was full of rifles). And yet Verdun has since become a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation, and in the Sixties Achille's son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren formed an enduring and loving friendship with the daughter of a German officer, her husband and her children. In our two families at least, peace was truly made.

In memoriam: Leo Kolodziej, and all the thousands of others whose lives were thrown away at Verdun. And with grateful thanks to dear Marc Dufour.


Sue Purkiss said...

What a lovely and interesting piece. I suppose the numbers are so uncertain because many men disappeared into the mud, or were simply obliterated. Yet surely they must have had records of which companies were involved, and how many of them survived.

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, I 'd have thought so, too.

Gavin McL said...

I read up a little about the casualty figures and the main difference seems to be the definition of "wounded" some of the figures exclude the lightly wounded, I.e. Those that Could be treated at the front and did not need to be hospitalised. There is also a lack of agreement over the exact area of the battle.

Miranda Miller said...

Fascinating, Leslie. And so many survivors had to go through another war only 21 years later.

Leslie Wilson said...

There was a letter in the Guardian yesterday (I think) saying that NATO, rather than the EU, had kept the peace in Europe for all these years. I can see that the common enemy in the Cold War had something to do with it, but one must be aware of the importance, for peace-keeping, of international bonds. The enmity between Germany and France, each having invaded the others' territory and committed atrocities there at different times in history, was certainly a key factor in both world wars (one doesn't need to subscribe to the story that Hitler had a key part of his masculinity shot off there, and wanted to find it). but after WW1 all France wanted was revenge, whereas after WW2 they acknowledged that bridges had to be built, and went on a long journey of peace-making with Germany, cultural and educational exchanges, etc, all carried out through the EU. It has worked. In my experience, most of the post-war generation, and also people like dear Marc Dufour, see Germans as fellow Europeans, and valued ones at that.