Still Quiet On The Western Front

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O VERDUN! All along the dull road up from Bar-le-Duc there are concrete posts with concrete helmets on top and raised lettering saying that this is La Voie Sacrée, the Sacred Road. At Souilly, Pétain’s headquarters building is unchanged from the way it looks in the pictures that show him standing on the steps to watch the youth of a nation go northward to its fate. Seventy per cent of the French Army went up this road. Night and day the trucks went grinding by; battalions of men stood and flung crushed rock under the tires so that they would not sink into the mud. This was the only road leading into Verdun that the Germans were unable to shell.

Today it is strangely silent, however much one strains to hear the sound of motors and sloshing boots and the mumbled throbbing of the distant places where for months on end the guns were never quiet. But the visible signs of battle are still present. Here are the long trenches, twelve feet deep then, six feet now that nature has half filled them up; here are the craters with cows scrambling up their sides; here is the metal plate used for protection against the shells and now used to roof sheds and support garden walls. In these fields it is impossible to walk for long without seeing rusted metal protruding up through the wet moss; here if you leave the road and go past the signs warning of Danger de Mort —“Danger of Death”—you will soon lose yourself in the scrub pine planted in the thirties when experts finally decided the soil was too gas- and shell-corrupted to reclaim for agriculture. Under trees or in stream beds are rusted grenades and shells, as terrifying as coiled snakes. Dig and you will find bullets, shell fragments, broken rifles, sardine tins, decayed canteens, unidentifiable bits of metal. It requires but a few minutes of work to hold in your hand what was last seen two generations ago by a boy in field gray or horizon blue. Now he is an old man in Leipzig or Nancy or, more likely, he is known as the grandfather or great-uncle who perished at Verdun.

The name on the signpost, seen from a moving car, catches the eye and holds it as the car sweeps past. Verdun. In the city itself, in one of the long, deep galleries of the citadel where the French troops found rest during their infrequent respites from the ever-wet trenches (it always rains here), there is a one-eyed veteran. His glass eye never moves. He gives foreigners a piece of paper typed in their language which asks that they not forget to tip him. Inside the gallery there are eight coffins covered with oilcloth flags. (No cotton or silk would last long in this dank wet place.) On the wall there is a great sign, “They Shall Not Pass.” By the third coffin from the rear a mannequin stands. It wears the uniform of the 132nd Regiment of Infantry, complete with helmet and cartridge cases. The hand holds a bouquet of plastic flowers resting on the coffin. All is as it was when, on November 10, 1920, a young soldier from the regiment’s honor guard selected for France her Unknown Soldier from among eight Unknowns. When he had placed his flowers on the third coffin from the rear, it was taken out and with the great and the mighty looking on, carried to Paris, and buried beneath the Arc de Triomphe. The other seven were taken to a cemetery just outside the city, where they lie in a semicircle with the information on a plaque above them that among these could be your father, your son, brother, husband, friend.