Verdun: a French testimony

Georges Caubet, born in Toulouse and a schoolteacher since 1908, was called up on 4 August 1914 to serve as sergeant of the 67th division of the French army. His diaries preserve the memories of the most significant moments of his military experience including his part in the initial stage of the Battle of Verdun in February-March 1916. He was captured in June 1918 and ended the war as a prisoner in Germany. On his return to France, he went back to teaching and wrote his own account of the war for posterity entitled « Mémoires d'un sergent ». The passages below taken from his notebooks give an account of the horrors of the fighting on Mort-Homme between 7 and 9 March 1916 where thirst and poor weather proved to be just as formidable adversaries as the Germans.

«Le Mort-Homme», taken from Mes souvenirs sur Verdun. Cumières-Chattancour-le Mort-Homme, by Georges Caubet, schoolteacher and sergeant.

There was nothing reassuring to us about the Mort-Homme hill, which was rightly named; to the south, a small wood lying within the boundaries of the village, chopped down and torn to shreds by machine-gun fire, failed to conceal the remains of a few French batteries: these however were to prove extremely useful to us later on; to our right, the quiet waters of the Meuse flowed by, unaware, in no way perturbed by the horrific tragedy unfolding along its banks; to the left ground flattened by shells; ahead, the Huns and, what was cruel, this damned ravine was completely devoid of trenches; no shelters, except for the ones I mentioned earlier; here there were two, one of which was filled with ammunition. […]

At daybreak, on 7 March around 6.00-6.30, the German artillery aimed their systematic fire of destruction at us; large calibre Austrian shells, 105 time fuse and 210 and 130 grenades rained down hard; our small dugouts did guarantee some cover from shrapnel, but at times a cry that was in no way human suggested that a shell had fallen on a shelter or in a dugout, killing or wounding the people in it. It was a cruel afternoon for us; the Germans rained us with asphyxiating and tear gas shells; I worked tirelessly in my half-section, helping my clumsier comrades to conceal themselves, until I felt violently sick; I coughed, sneezed, foamed copiously at the mouth, or so it seemed, in the end everything started spinning around and I fell... I don’t remember anything else. [...]

You may have noticed that I have not mentioned anything about food in this story ... and for good reason; supplies could not be delivered; we did have a few biscuits, but no one dreamed of eating: we should have drunk but we didn’t have any water; we had to put up with an enemy just as formidable as Fritz and which we had no weapons to fight against: thirst! [....]

What we saw was horrific; a line of German infantrymen a hundred metres in front of us, continuously receiving reinforcements, knocked down the rest of the 92nd and 139th brigades who were forced to withdraw, driven back by forces greatly superior to theirs; the fighting was tough but the forces far too unequal; we watched the tragedy unfold, powerless: firing would have meant exposing comrades to being killed; going to their rescue, there were five of us, would have added one weakness to another. The warrant officer had crawled away on his hands and knees in search of help; the Huns were advancing; we had to flee to avoid being killed or taken prisoner. “Back!” I ordered, and moving from one shell hole to another, under a hail of bullets, we endeavoured to increase the distance between us and the enemy. Unfortunately, at that moment a barrage fire of 77 and 105 grenades forced us to move faster: “In the wood”, I yelled! And we took shelter, my three comrades and me in the wood I mentioned at the beginning of the story after miraculously escaping almost certain death.

Bibliography:

Claude Rivals, Georges Caubet, instituteur et sergent : mémoires de guerre et de captivité, Carcassonne, Fédération Audoise des Œuvres Laïques, collection : La mémoire de 14-18 en Languedoc, 1991.