Still Quiet On The Western Front

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The neatly paved roads—for the convenience of the numerous tourists—are the only flat surface in this area. Everywhere else the tortured land rises and dips unevenly. The topsoil has in many places simply vanished, and it is said that any man who lived through Verdun must never have stood still. For every square inch was hit, not once but dozens of times. But alone in the deserted scrub pines of Le Mort Homme or in the silent, ever-wet ruins of Poivre it requires the most intense effort to realize that this dead place was the scene of a great turning point of history. Joncherey is different; the name is not famous, nor the event that took place there. One does not expect too much. Joncherey is not in our blood and in our memories; it was not at Joncherey that perished the legendary officers of the Great War who went into battle carrying their canes and saying to their men, “My dear friends, I will ask you to join me singing ‘La Marseillaise’ as we go over the top.” That was reserved for Verdun, that and the disappearance forever of all represented by France’s glorious uniform of red pantaloons, and Germany’s wonderfully martial spiked helmets. Madelon and Germania flocked to the stations to kiss the warriors— “À Berlin!” “Nach Paris!” —and in the end the trains stopped at Verdun. After terrible Verdun, after the mules drowning in this shell hole here, after the disemboweled boys screaming in this fallen-in dug-out, the nineteenth century was over and history was back on the track for what the twentieth was meant to be.

All this happened at Verdun. And yet no drums beat and there are no bugles. You must do it all yourself. Concentrating and looking back past the France and Germany that followed Verdun, past sick France sliding downhill and sick Germany with its monocled politicians in high stiff collars and their leather-booted prostitutes, you must say to yourself, Here under my feet and within the space I see, hundreds of thousands of men died, here the entire world turned over. Nobly wooded for at least a hundred miles, the heights of the Meuse are covered here with this scrawny pine. This dreary landscape where I stand listening and waiting was the focal point of all the civilizations of the world. Here came the Negroes of France’s colonial empire; here came the Bavarians asking, “Are there any Africans opposite?” Here came the young boy friends of the grey and obsequious old maids who make the beds in your Cannes or Paris hotel but who once wrote inspiring letters and knitted mufflers.

There is a guide who lives in the city of Verdun. His name is Charles Dreyfus. He is vaguely related to the Captain Dreyfus of The Affair. He fought in the war and afterward worked to clear the heights of the live shells, dead animals, human bodies. Now he takes tourists around. For the Americans he explains in his accented English just how it was. With the Germans he is completely correct and precise. The French say, “My grandfather——my uncle——my father——O Verdun!” and there is very little that he has to explain.

LA VILLE-AUX-BOIS-PONTAVERT: NINE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-THREE. There are half a dozen stories about how the Chemin des Dames—the Ladies’ Way—got its name. One version has it that the road was constructed for the riding pleasure of two daughters of a French king. Another is that the women of nearby towns made it their favorite place for a Sunday promenade. It is some fifteen miles long and runs east-west in the center of the triangle of Reims-Laon-Soissons. Along the Chemin des Dames in the spring of 1917, General Robert Nivelle finished the destruction of France that was begun at Verdun. Promoted to commander in chief because of minor local successes at Verdun, Nivelle flung his army up the steep slopes leading to the road and into the very teeth of the enormously powerful German fortifications there. In a few quick days he threw away France’s last grand battle. Oceans of blood poured forth into the cabbage fields, and when he was finished France’s Army was in rebellion. He had placed his men, at terrible cost, in a position almost impossible to defend. It would have been better to have withdrawn to the ridge lying south, but the name Chemin des Dames held the French. They had spent too much to give it up.

The emphasis of the war shifted north and west to where the British were. The Chemin des Dames became known as a quiet sector, and after a time British troops were sent there to rest up after their battles. But in 1918, in Ludendorff’s last great offensive, the Germans suddenly came pouring south, scattering the French and the few British and heading toward Paris.