On today's date, 21st February, in 1916, the battle of Verdun began. At 0715 on a cold, snowy day, an exceptionally heavy bombardment began to fall on French position to the north-east of the town.
One of the first German attacks fell on a brigade of chasseurs à pied commanded by Colonel Emile Driant, in positions in the Bois des Caures. On the night of the 21st, Driant was doing the rounds of his battered positions. He reached the position known as Grand'Garde no.2, where Lieutenant Auguste Robin (the CO of 6th Company, 59th Chasseurs) was in command, and where the Germans were on two sides of the French position. '"What can I do here, with my eighty men?" asked Robin. The Colonel gave him a long look, as if he was weighing the lieutenant's soul and wondering how much he could explain to such a young officer. "My poor Robin, the orders are to stay here ..." Robin understood and nodded.'
On the evening of the 24th, 'coming back in ones and twos to fall in at Vacherauville - from 56th Battalion, Captain Vincent, wounded twice, who would later find a glorious death on another field, Captain Hamel, Captain Berveiller, Lieutenant Raux, Sous-Lieutenant Grasset with about sixty chasseurs. From the 59th, Lieutenant Simon, Sous-Lieutenants Leroy and Malavault with fifty chasseurs. That's all that was left of 1,200 men.'
Within days of the German attack, General Philippe Pétain was given the command of the sector. One of his first acts was to secure his logistics by establishing a road and rail route through which he could move reinforcements and supplies in, whilst sending casualties and resting soldiers out. The rapid rotation of divisions in and out kept the French forces relatively fresh, and better able to withstand the successive German assaults. By the time the German offensive finally wound down in July, some 70% of the French Army had served at Verdun in one capacity or another.
It was not a battle of grand attacks, of the kind seen in pre-war manoeuvres, but soon degenerated into intensive small scale assaults. Behind the French front lines as the first German attack began, all was confusion. Corporal Marquot and his comrades of 156th Infantry were on the march: 'We left Charmes, marched for a day and a night to arrive at Côte du Poivre at dawn on the 25th. They said, "We don't know where the enemy is, just go forward until you meet him, then dig in."'
Verdun, thought Jacques Meyer, a lieutenant in 329th Infantry, 'was most often a war of abandoned men, a few men around a leader, a junior officer, an NCO, even a simple soldier whom circumstances had shown capable of leadership. Sometimes it was a single man reduced to leading himself. Handfuls of men or individuals, forced to act, to take the initiative of defence, or withdrawal. Failures of nerve - and there were some - generally occurred in bigger units, which were not always the most hardened but were the most shocked by the unexpectedness of the disaster. Decisive and courageous acts were mainly individual, leaving most of them unknown.'
Meyer concluded, 'When a man went up there, he felt a dim fear. When he left he no longer was afraid of being afraid. When he left for good, he carried a sense of pride away in his memory.' But later wrote, 'War, old chap, you know very well what it was like, but when we are dead, who will know anything about it? The war, old chap, it was our hidden, buried youth.'
The place of Verdun in French history ensures that it should play a central place in the centenary celebrations. The Michelin guide to the battlefield is still available here. The local tourist office suggests places to see for families with young children here, and a guided bicycle tour here. A Pass Lorraine gives you reduced price entry into a number of key sites, including the Mémoiral de Verdun museum at Fleury.