Lord Northcliff on Verdun

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WWI Document Archive > 1916 Documents > Lord Northcliff on Verdun


4 March 1916
Verdun


By Lord Northcliffe

What is the secret motive underlying the German attempt to break the French line at Verdun, in which the Crown Prince's army is incurring such appalling losses? Is it financial, in view of the coming war loan? Is it dynastic? Or is it intended to influence doubting neutrals? From the evidence of German deserters it is known that the attack was originally intended to take place a month or two hence, when the ground was dry. Premature spring caused the Germans to accelerate their plans. There were two final delays owing to bad weather, and then came the colossal onslaught of February 21st.

The Germans made a good many of the mistakes we made at Gallipoli. They announced that something large was pending by closing the Swiss frontier. The French who were not ready, were also warned by their own astute Intelligence Department. Their avions were not idle, and, if confirmation were needed, it was given by deserters, who, surmising the horrors that were to come, crept out of the trenches at night, lay down by the edge of the Meuse till the morning, and then gave themselves up, together with information that has since proved to be accurate. Things went wrong with the Germans in other ways. A Zeppelin that was to have blown up important railway junctions on the French line of communications was brought down at Revigny, and incidentally the inhabitants of what remains of that much-bombarded town were avenged by the spectacle of the blazing dirigible crashing to the ground and the hoisting with their own petard of 30 Huns therein. It is not necessary to recapitulate that the gigantic effort of February 21st was frustrated by the coolness and tenacity of the French soldiers and the deadly curtain fire of the French gunners.

Though a great deal of calculated nonsense has been sent out in official communiques and dilated upon by dithyrambic Berlin newspaper correspondents as to the taking by storm of a long-dismantled fort at Douaumont, nothing whatever has been admitted by the Germans as to the appalling price in blood they have paid since February 21st and are still paying. The French losses are, and have been, insignificant. I know the official figure. It has been verified by conversations with members of the British, French and American Red Cross Societies, who are obviously in a position to know. The wounded who pass through their hands have, in many cases, come straight from where they have seen dead Germans, as has been described by scores of witnesses, lying as lay the Prussian Guard in the first Battle of Ypres. The evidence of one army as to another army's losses needs careful corroboration. This exists amply in the evidence of many German prisoners interrogated singly and independently at the French Headquarters.

The case of one man, belonging to the 3rd Battalion of the 12th Regiment in the 5th Division of the 3rd Army Corps, may be taken as characteristic. On the morning of February 28th this prisoner reached the fort of Douaumont and found there one battalion of the 24th Regiment, elements of the 64th Regiment and of the 3rd Battalion of Jaegers. The strength of his company had been, on February 21st, 200 rifles with four officers. On February 22nd it had fallen to 70 rifles, with one officer. The other companies had suffered similar losses. On February 23rd the prisoner's company was re-enforced by 45 men, bearing the numbers of the 12th, the 52nd, the 35th, and the 205th Regiments. These men had been drawn from various depots in the interior. The men of the 12th Regiment believed that five regiments were in reserve in the woods behind the 3rd Corps, but, as time went on and losses increased without any sign of the actual presence of these reserves, doubt spread whether they were really in existence. The prisoner declared that his comrades were no longer capable of fresh effort.

None of the prisoners questioned estimated the losses suffered by their companions at less than one-third of the total effectives. Taking into account all available indications, it may safely be assumed that, during the fighting of the first 13 days, the Germans lost in killed, wounded, and prisoners at least 100,000 men.

The profits -- as the soldier speaks of such matters -- being so small, what then were the overwhelming motives that impelled the attack on Verdun, and the chicanery of the German communiques? Was it any of the reasons I have given above, or was it an effect of economic pressure which led to the miscalculation that the possible taking over of the French line at Verdun was a means of ending the war? The Germans are so wont to misread the minds of other nations that they are quite foolish enough to make themselves believe this or any other foolish thing. It cannot be pretended that the attack had in it anything of military necessity. It was urged forward at a time of year when weather conditions might prove, as they proved, a serious handicap in such matters as the moving of big guns and the essential observation by aeroplanes.

The district of Verdun lies in one of the coldest and also the most misty sectors in the long line between Nieuport and Switzerland. Changes of temperature, too, are somewhat more frequent here than elsewhere; and so sudden are these changes that not long ago here occurred, on a part of the front, one of nature's furious and romantic reminders of her power to impose her will. The opposing French and German trenches, their parapets hard frozen, were so close that they were actually within hearing of each other. Towards dawn a rapid thaw set in. The parapets melted and subsided, and two long lines of men stood up naked, as it were, before each other, face to face with only two possibilities wholesale murder on the one side or the other, or a temporary unofficial peace for the making of fresh parapet protections.

The situation was astounding and unique in the history of trench warfare. The French and German officers, without conferring and unwilling to negotiate, turned their backs so that they might not see officially so unwarlike a scene, and the men on each side rebuilt their parapets without the firing of a single shot.

This instance serves to illustrate the precarious weather in which the Germans undertook an adventure in the quick success of which the elements play such a part. That the attack would certainly prove more costly to them than to the French the German Staff must have known. That the suffering of the wounded lying out through the long nights of icy wind in the No Man's Land between the lines would be great did not probably disturb the Crown Prince. It is one of the most grewsome facts in the history of the War that the French, peering through the moonlight at what they thought to be stealthily crawling Germans, found them to be wounded men frozen to death....

The vast battle of Verdun might have been arranged for the benefit of interested spectators, were it not that the whole zone for miles around the great scene is as tightly closed to the outer world as a lodge of Freemason. Furnished with every possible kind of pass, accompanied by a member of the French Headquarters Staff in a military car driven by a chauffeur whose steel helmet marked him as a soldier, I was nevertheless held up by intractable gendarmes at a point twenty-five miles away from the great scene. Even at that distance the mournful and unceasing reverberation of the guns was insistent, and, as the gentry examined our papers and waited for telephonic instructions, I counted more than 200 of the distant voices of Kultur.

As one gets nearer and nearer the great arena on which the whole world's eyes are turned today, proofs of French efficiency and French thoroughness are countless. I do not pretend to any military knowledge other than a few scraps gathered in some half-dozen visits to the War, but the abundance of reserve shells for guns, from mighty howitzers to the graceful French mitrailleuse of the aeroplane, of rifle ammunition, of petrol stores, and of motor-wagons of every description, was remarkable. I can truly say that the volume exceeded anything in my previous experience.

As one approaches the battle the volume of sound becomes louder and at times terrific. And it is curious, the mingling of peace with war. The chocolate and the pneumatic tire advertisements on the village walls, the kilometer stone with its ten kilometers to Verdun, a village cur\'8e peacefully strolling along the village street, just as though it were March, 1914, and his congregation had not been sent away from the war zone, while their houses were filled by a swarming army of men in pale blue. Such a wonderful blue this new French invisible cloth! A squadron of cavalry in the new blue and their steel helmets passes at th e moment, and gives the impression that one is back again in what were known as the romantic days of war.

When one has arrived at the battlefield, there are a dozen vantage points from which with glasses, or, indeed, with the naked eye, one can take in much that has happened. Verdun lies in a great basin with the silvery Meuse twining in the valley. The scene is, on the whole, Scottish. Small groups of firs darken some of the hills, giving a natural resemblance to Scotland.

The town is being made into a second Ypres by the Germans. Yet, as it stands out in the sunlight, it is difficult to realize that it is a place whose people have all gone, save a few of the faithful who live below ground. The tall tower of Verdun still stands. Close by us is a hidden French battery, and it is pretty to see the promptitude with which it send its screaming shells back to the Germans within a few seconds of the dispatch of a missive from the Huns. One speedily grows accustomed to the sound and the scene, and can follow the position of the villages about which the Germans endeavor to mislead the world by wireless every morning.

We journey farther afield, and the famous fort of Douaumont is pointed out. The storming of Fort Douaumont, gunless and unmanned, was a military operation of little value. A number of the Brandenburgers climbed into the gunless fort, and some of them were still there on March 6th, supplied precariously with food by their comrades at night. They were practically surrounded by the French, whose Headquarters Staff regarded the whole incident as a simple episode in the give-and-take of war. The announcement of the fall of Fort Douaumont to the world evinces the great anxiety of the Germans to magnify anything concerning Verdun into a great event. It should also cause people to apply a grain of salt to German official communiques before swallowing them.

Who are the men who organized the great battle for the French side? Let me at once say that they are young men. General Petain, one of the discoveries of the war, till lately colonel and after this date promoted to chief command; is still in his late fifties; most of the members of his staff are much younger. One hears of luxury at Headquarters, but I have not experienced it, either at our own Headquarters or at the French. General Petain, when I enjoyed his hospitality at luncheon, drank tea. Most of his young men contented themselves with water, or the white wine of the Meuse.

In the brief meal he allowed himself the General discussed the battle as though he were merely an interested spectator. In accordance with the drastic changes that the French, like the Germans, are making in their Command, his rise has been so rapid that he is little known to the French people, though greatly trusted by General Joffre and the Government. I naturally did not ask his opinion on any matters connected with the War. We discussed the Australians, the Canadians, the great growth of the British army, and kindred matters.

At another gathering of officers some one asked whether the French would not expect the British to draw off the Germans by making an attack in the West. "It is questionable," replied one young officer, "whether such an attack would not involve disproportionate losses that would weaken the Allies." The same officer pointed out that, although the capture of Verdun would cause great regret, owing to the historic name it bears, it would not, for many reasons, be more important than the pressing back of any other similar number of miles on the front. Forts being of little account since the introduction of the big German hammers, he believed that General Sarrail had said that the question was not one merely of dismantling the forts, but of blowing them up. As it is, whenever the Germans capture a piece of land where an old fort happens to be, they will use it as an advertisement. But though the French officers are not looking to Britain, so far as I could learn, for active cooperation now, they are most certainly urging that when our new armies and their officers are trained we shall aid them by bearing our full share of the tremendous military burden they are carrying.

The present attack on the French at Verdun is by far the most violent incident of the whole Western War. As I write it is late. Yet the bombardment is continuing, and the massed guns of the Germans are of greater caliber than have ever been used in such numbers. The superb calm of the French people the efficiency of their organization, the equipment of their cheery soldiery, convince one that the men in the German machine would never be able to compare with them. Whatever may be the result of the attack on the Verdun sector, every such effort will result in adding many more thousands of corpses to those now lying in the valley of the Meuse, the numbers of which are being so carefully concealed from the neutral world and the Germans themselves; and could neutrals see the kind of men whom the Germans do not scruple to use as soldiers, their faith in Teutonic physical efficiency would receive a shock.


WWI Document Archive > 1916 Documents > Lord Northcliff on Verdun