First-Hand Accounts of the 151e R.I.
The following is a brief account, recorded by Lieutenant Basteau, of the days leading up to the regiment's first tour of Verdun, and their first hellish days there. On February 21, 1916, the opening day of the German offensive at Verdun, Basteau is on rest 30 km to the southeast of Châlons-sur-Marne.
We are lodged in the middle of a wood, in small houses constructed of logs by territorials, who were certainly inspired by those that must still be built by the Canadian trappers of the Great North of which I had read a description of in the "Journal des Voyages" as a child. These little houses seemed to me much more preferable than the rooms, whose cleanliness was often doubtful, of the sad villages that we've passed through up till here in the course of our movements. The troop occupies large shelters constructed by the engineers and which, heated, offer a proper hospitality in the middle of winter.
We look after the physical state and training of our men by maneuvers which, in principal, must prepare them for the new type of combat. Noble and vain pretensions, for the resources which are still used by the infantry have scarcely changed. It's still the foot-soldier's war, inseparable from his pack, his haversack and his canteen, armed with his rifle and bayonet, backed-up all the more by a greater number of machine-guns. The 37 mm canon had made its appearance as well.
It's winter. The sky is gray. It rains. It snows often. The small-quarters of our log cabin are no longer appreciated. We move from one place to another. help to fill the dead times in the blond smoke of cigarettes, which are highly en vogue!...And it's easy to let the imagination run wild and forget the servitudes of trench life that we came to share with the rats on the banks of the Suippe, facing Auberive.* How deceptive this rest and calm are! Suddenly and without being the least bit prepared -- at least in our echelon -- we learned on the morning of February 22 that the Germans had launched a formidable offensive on Verdun the evening before.
*Auberive was the sector the 151st fought had occupied since the Champagne offensive during the fall of 1915.
Verdun? Up till today, we only knew Verdun from what the vets of the regiment have told us, those who had done their service at the Chevert barracks or at Faubourg Pavé, recounting their Sunday sorties on the side of the quays of the Meuse or at the Chaussée Gate, and the heated competitions that they indulged in, during the fulfillment of their service, between the 151st R.I. and the (8th and 16th) Chasseurs. But the these vets -- decimated by the battles during the retreat of '14, the Battle of the Marne, of Marais de Saint-Gond, the Argonne and Champagne -- are more and more rare, and those who remain no longer talk about anything.
Verdun, since the declaration of war, has no held a great place in the communiqués, if only to serve as a pivot for our armies to fall back on during the retreat of '14. Since then, I believe the artillery and garrison effectives which defend the forts have been pulled out. But today the reality is before us! We'll reflect on it later. Peddled along by the cooks and cyclists who maintain the liaison with the colonel or the brigade, the first information that reaches us doesn't unsettle us much. We've seen other fights! With a certain degree of self-importance that stems from the Division's reputation and the fourragère with the Croix de Guerre colors that the regiment had received after the Champagne offensive of September 25 past, we believe naively that we'll engage one or two other divisions of equal valor as the 42nd (DI) and put things in place. Our men, as is in our manner, have great pride!
March 2, the colonel receives the order to have the regiment ready to move up to the battle zone, and on the 3rd, we start moving up by short stages, via Possesses, Laheycourt, Nubecourt, Ippecourt, Lemmes...
In the billets we occupy in the course of our route, the noise of the battle feeds the conversations that the men have with each other almost exclusively. Furious bombardments by heavy artillery, incessant hammering, massive engagement of divisions, unstoppable advance by the enemy, uninterrupted chains of ambulances. Fort Douaumont has fallen. There's nothing more left to stop the Germans from reaching Verdun, save having to take the last heights of Froideterre.
The 80,000 scale map, which we consult several times a day, allows all hypotheses as to the location of our future engagement. The battalion commander, who joins us again on March 7, confirms that gravity of the situation, but doesn't seem to know anything more than us. The March 8 stage is the longest and at nightfall, we reach the Dombasle road to Verdun. At the top of Fort Regret, we see to the North (to our left) the battlefield lit up sporadically by bursting shells, flares and, more sinister still, the fires of burning villages and farms. Heavy shells fall on Verdun here and there.
We cross long files of farmers making off to the south, taking away their families and some of their belongings, hastily stacked up, on horse-drawn carts. Sad and poignant procession! The news we get off these "flow backs," as we call them, is rather disturbing. It's true that they've left their farms or villages before the arrival of the Germans, otherwise they wouldn't be here. But they didn't see them. The information that they give -- which is done in a rush, besides -- on the [German] advance and conduct must be taken with caution. These brave people have suffered such a moral shock that they are certainly excusable from exaggerating their stories, which we catch in passing.
We begin to feel and understand that the affaire is graver than we had first imagined. A new mood grabs us and changes us. We still don't know anything about the battle that is unfolding so close to us. It doesn't seem like the ones we've gone through before. We all feel infinitely small without being able to say why. The column silently follows its route, now down a paved street leading into town between black, blinded houses.
A halt. We are in the heart of Verdun. My battalion spends the night in the vicinity of a large seminary emptied of all human presence. By lantern and candle light, we take up halls assigned to us by company. As soon as the men ground their packs, they collapse on the straw laid on the floor and sleep, undisturbed by the rolling of the canon and the falling of the shells on the town, which carries on without letup all night. At reveille, the coffee, drank very hot and not cooled down as usual...
Although the troop had been confined to its billets, 3 or 4 men, eluding the vigilance of the sentinels, succeeded in making a sortie into the neighborhood and bring back with them a few bottles of good wine, along with some news which only confirm what we already knew. But those who couldn't get out are eager to learn more. Improvised strategies fill the minds of their comrades. The Battle of Verdun plays out in our billets.
The bugle sounding the soup time (as during peace time) -- the noise of which is amplified in the labyrinth of corridors -- brings an end to the chattering and coffee-strategizing. But each man's thoughts remain forefront in his mind. Without having yet been engaged, Verdun already has possession over us. It won't let us go.
At 3:00 am, General Deville, commanding the 42nd Division and the old colonel of the 151st R.I., makes a reconnaissance of the sector and meets back up with the officers of the regiment at the town hall. Passing through the porch and courtyard, we enter the Counsel Hall, emptied of all furniture. Next to an unexploded heavy shell that had been stood vertically up on the floor, the general waited for us, holding himself erect, stroking his goatee nervously. The gravity of his face expressed the painful impression that he took away from his visit in the sector, and quickly, with words that tragically embellished and amplified the silence of the hall, he described what he had seen:
No trenches, nothing but [shell] holes...Dead bodies that will have to be buried...No wire, no entanglements, no shelters...nothing, nothing, nothing. Gentlemen, don't ask me for anything, I will have nothing to give you. You'll have your rifles to defend yourselves, your bayonets to repulse the enemy and your hearts to hold on under the gunfire. You'll have to endure attacks. You will fight where you stand. I have it that the 151st will hold the most danger corner of the sector. It will hold. This honor has fallen to the regiment. Gentlemen, I thank you.
With a quick movement, the general shakes hands with Colonel Moisson, looking him straight in the eyes, and we leave the hall in silence, strongly affected. The general's words had immediately set the mood: we line up, his gaze rests successively on each of us, we've all understood what he expects from us. That same evening -- the night of March 9-10 -- the regiment goes up into line. My battalion, II/151, by way of Belleville, Froidterre, takes the Haudromont Quarries, 1,500 meters southeast of the Côte du Poivre.
After an exhausting march, punctuated with numerous "hit the dirts," my company, the 7th, relieves about 50 Algerian tirailleurs who seem to have suffered greatly. We occupy a line of holes more or less deep, situated 100 meters in front of the edge of a steep bank which, behind us, drops off 20 meters to the bottom of the quarry. In front of us, 150 meters away, the edge of a wood hides the enemy that we can't see but who can see us, for he has concealed in certain trees (though stripped of foliage), elite marksmen who do us harm. Behind us, the German artillery of Fort Douaumont, which is no longer ours, keeps up a fire on the quarry and the access routes. Thus, for us lost children, death in front of us, death above us, death behind us. We can only hold on or perish! And we hold on.