Monday, 11 April 2016

Postcards from France

I'm just home from a 2 day trip to France which packed in a lot of WW1 viewing. The main reason was to visit Verdun during the centenary and I spent most time there. On the way down I stopped at the Aisne and the Chemin des Dames, and on the way back at Vimy Ridge and Notre Dame de Lorette.
I wanted also to insert a video, showing a tour of the destroyed village of Haumont, obliterated during the opening German assault on Verdun. My main reason for trying it was to capture the birdsong that gives these places such an ethereal quality, but the technology defeated me. Trust me, the birdsong was wondrous.

Battle of the Aisne 1914

 (See Blogs Battle of the Aisne 1 and 2, 27/12/14 and 30/12/14)
Visited two of the BEF's crossing points in the pursuit that followed the Marne victory, Conde and Vailly.  Advances came to a halt against new German defensive positions on the high ground that rises steeply from the north bank of the Aisne to the plain along which runs the famous Chemin des Dames.
The Aisne in full and rapid flow.
I saw a kingfisher, made my morning
Lovely scenery, wonderful views from the top of the escarpment. A beautiful military cemetery is at Vailly sur-Aisne with British and Commonwealth graves numbering nearly 400 and a similar number of French graves.
The French half of the Vailly cemetery with the ridge in the background.
Panoramic view of the plain north of the Aisne, taken from Chemin des Dames

Verdun 1916

This was my fourth visit to Verdun, and still have much to see. I visited all parts of the initial line on 21/2/16., and came upon six of the nine Villages Detruit - 'Mort pour la France' - Haumont, Ornes, Louvemont, Douaumont, Cumieres and Vaux.
The town on the Meuse is both charming and foreboding. The sense of history is pervasive.

Avocourt National Cemetery with Avocourt Wood beyond
In a 12 miles crescent to the north of the town lies the front line, as was on 21st February 1916 when the Germans launched their assault. From Avocourt in the west to Damloups in the east the scars remain amid beautiful rural settings.

Haumont in the Bois
de Haumont
Louvremont memorial on
Cote de Poivre
Vaux devant Damloup

At the eastern end of the salient the ground slopes down steeply from Fort Vaux, to the village itself a short distance for the next Village of Damloup.
In the area shown enormous German losses occurred in their attempts to take Fort Vaux. The single route to the Fort became completely blocked with corpses

Vimy Ridge and Notre Dame de Lorette

The imposing Canadian memorial
The Douai plain from Vimy Ridge.
The slag heaps of Loos are prominent
The Canadians' capture of Vimy Ridge in 1917 followed several unsuccessful attempts by French troops through 1914 and 1915. It's easy to see why it was such important high ground, and the views out over the Douai plain overlook other scenes of carnage including Loos, Aubers Ridge and Lens.

The Necropole de Notre Dame de Lorette
Within view to the north west is another famous hill, now the site of national and international memorials, Notre Dame de Lorette. The struggles for possession of that equally impressive high ground produced many thousands of casualties, the majority of them French. Another very moving visit.

The new NDdeL Memorial

Since I was last there, a new monument has been opened. It reminds me of the Vietnam memorial in Washington. It lists, in alphabetical order, without rank, the names of all troops from both sides killed in the Nord and Pas de Calais of France 1914-18. Astounding  - 580,000 names.
View through the memorial window on NDdeL. The white speck on the horizon is
the Vimy Ridge memorial. The value of high ground.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Verdun 6: France holds - "Ils ne passerons"

A poilu's helmet sits on top
of each milestone on the
Voie sacree
This blog post comes from 'on site'. Spending a couple of days at this historic, evocative place, and as I drove up the Voie Sacree from the motorway, it was easy to imagine the scale of the operation needed to keep Verdun supplied. The river Meuse is in flood now, as it probably was 100 years ago at this time. On either bank wholesale slaughter was continuing, as increasingly desperate German efforts sought to make the breakthrough. 
Frustrated through March and April on both banks, the Germans repeatedly changed tactics, testing out French defences with explosive attacks at many different parts of the line. The French resisted determinedly, and tried a few small counter-attacks of their own. The Germans were beginning to lose impetus. 

From the beginning of May to 25th, having tested other parts of the front in the interim, the Germans launched renewed and focused attacks on Mort-Homme. Hill 304, immediately to the west was their greatest success, but they could not reach beyond the lower slopes of Mort-Homme itself. Switching again to the eastern bank, they attacked and carried Hardaumont and Thiaumont farm near the Douaumont and Vaux forts on the 1st June. On 8th June they succeeded in taking Vaux fort and built up to perhaps their biggest effort against the remaining Thiaumont redoubt on 23rd June, which - in typical to and fro combat - they secured one week later. This was the epicentre of a titanic combat through June and early July. The Germans launched 17 Divisions (approx 200,000 men) simultaneously against the line Thiaumont-Fleury-Souville on the right bank. They took Thiaumont, and gained a foothold in Fleury, but not in Souville.

Fleury epitomised the savagery of Verdun. Pre war a sleepy village of around 500 people it became the centre of this phase of the campaign. Already close to destruction from artillery bombardments in March and April, it became the crossroads of numerous mini-campaigns. To visit Fleury today is to find a few foundations and some street signs that indicate the previous layout of the village. Fleury and eight other villages ruined by the battle have not been rebuilt, and are officially designated as "Mort pour la France"

The Germans were almost within sight of the Verdun citadel itself, but following their failure to break the French here, a sense of exhaustion came into their efforts. Nevertheless, they continued with probing attacks until mid-August, including more as far south as les Eparges, but they had reached their furthest advance. They had not taken Mort-Homme, their key objective on the west bank, and had reached only just beyond Douaumont and Vaux on the east, where they were held on a line between Souville and Tavanne forts. From the 1st July the Battle of the Somme dictated the removal of men and materiel to support the outnumbered German lines there.

The battle would continue for a further six months, but not at the same intensity. The French hero of Verdun, Petain, promoted to command the central group of French armies, was removed from the front line in May. His successor, General Nivelle, was a very different kettle of fish and he would oversee near disaster in 1917. He and his deputy, Mangin, reverted to the 'advance at all costs' approach, with high casualty counter-attacks that tested the men's morale to the very limits.

Buchan says of the action to August:

“The result had been a signal French victory. If Verdun represented a less critical moment than the Marne, it was a far more deadly struggle, and it bit deeper into the enemy’s strength”

A Pyrrhic victory - the losses to both sides had been horrific, approaching one million dead, injured or missing. The stench of rotting corpses pervaded the whole area for months. Some poilus had re-designated the Voie sacree as 'le Chemin de l'Abattoir'.
German recriminations began. Marshall von Haesler, the Crown Prince’s Chief of staff and mentor was recalled to Berlin, along with other corps commanders. Falkenhayn’s days were numbered.

We will revisit Verdun before the end of the year.