With Joffre at Verdun A Story of the Western Front by Lt.Col. F. S. Brereton.
About the Author:
Promoted to Captain in 1899 and served with the Royal Army Medical Corps (R.A.M.C) as a medical officer to the 2nd Scots Guards during the Boer War.
At the outbreak of the First World War, he served with the R.A.M.C, attaining
the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. A highly decorated individual, he was awarded
the C.B.E in 1919.
This book was published in 1916, his experiences allowed him to write gripping tales, with such accuracy and attention to detail that one can almost hear the roar of guns.
Below is one chapter from With Joffre at Verdun – A Story of the Western Front
For perhaps half an hour Henri and Jules crept through the wood which they had gained from the heights of the Côte de Poivre, turning and twisting here and there as German voices warned them of the proximity of enemy parties, and sometimes stealing past a group of men from whom they were separated by only a few feet of thick undergrowth.
“There’s the edge of the wood yonder, the northern edge,” said Henri in a little while, stopping and looking upward. “It’s lighter in that direction, and without doubt we are now getting down to the road which runs from Beaumont to Vacherauville—a road likely enough to be used by the enemy in his advance on our positions. Look out that we don’t expose ourselves at the edge, and let us talk only in whispers.”
Jules gripped him a moment later by the sleeve and pulled him down forcibly to the ground, then he shot one hand out and pointed.
“See them,” he whispered; “hundreds of men sheltering at the edge of the wood. But why? What’s the reason? And listen to those guns! German—eh?”
“No. French 75’s, without a question,” answered Henri when they had listened for a few moments. “There’s nothing else on earth in the artillery line that snaps and barks quite like our soixante-quinze, and it seems to me that they are opened in this direction. Hope to goodness they won’t turn their muzzles on this wood, for they would rake it from end to end with shrapnel. Now let’s move on a little. I can see the men you have pointed out, and without a doubt they are sheltering under the trees and hiding, I should say, from our gunners. Let’s turn from the road a little and push on to the northern point of the wood, for in that direction it almost joins with the Bois des Fosses, and should give us greater opportunities.”
They turned slightly to their right, and crept through the mass of trees not yet levelled by the gun-fire of either of the combatants—different, indeed, from the Bois des Caures and the Herbebois, where gigantic German shells had sent trees and earth hurtling skywards, had severed trunks in all directions, and had left but a tangled mass of fallen tree-tops and shattered stumps, smouldering here and there, and masking the trenches and dug-outs and redoubts obliterated during the earlier fighting, masking, too, the bodies of those gallant Frenchmen who had given their lives for the cause, and of the Germans, who had fought to achieve the ambitions of their Kaiser.
Sneaking forward, and keeping well away from the direction of voices, it was not long before Henri and Jules discovered a dell—a deep depression in the ground—heavily wooded and overhung by fir-trees, at the foot of which splashed a stream, which passed from rock to rock, twisting and twining as it flowed towards the Meuse traversing the ground down below.
“Might give us an opportunity of seeing far more than if we went on in the wood,” suggested Jules, again catching Henri by the sleeve.
“Why not? Certainly! Why not?” echoed Henri. “Quite a good idea; capital! Let’s try it.”
“Then down we go! Looks like a splendid place,” declared Jules as he gained the stream and splashed into it. “I’ll lead, for a change. Suppose we’d better go cautiously?”
There was, indeed, need of caution all the while, for as they traversed that narrow gully, and descended towards the plain which stretches at the foot of the Hill of Poivre, and, crossing the foot of the Côte de Talou, reaches the River Meuse, they found themselves in the midst of a veritable army of Germans—figures in field-grey could be seen in the twilight beneath the trees, sitting on fallen branches or on the ground waiting for orders. There were figures in the same colour to the right and to the left of them in that ravine, and once, as the two halted suddenly and crouched beneath an overhanging bush, they saw a German soldier actually drinking from the stream within a few yards of them; but a guttural voice above, a sharp command, sent the man scrambling up the bank of the ravine to join his company. Then, as they boldly advanced, the voices of German troops grew less distinct, and presently, as the light increased in brightness and they gained the very edge of the wood, it was to discover that they had passed through the enemy’s lines, and were, it appeared, alone once more and almost in the open.
Creeping beneath a bush, the two now stared out in every direction, while, taking a pencil from a pocket, and a tattered envelope also, Henri roughly sketched in the situation before him; and, helped by the unobstructed view he could obtain from the opening of the ravine, marked spots in the near distance, where, beneath the shelter of other trees, in folds of the ground, in a farm across the road, he could discern enemy troops hiding.
“There must be thousands of them,” he told Jules after a while, “thousands of them; and look over there, to what I believe to be Samogneux, where we were yesterday, and from which the German guns literally blew us, watch the roads there and the edge of the Bois de Caures—what do you see, Jules?”
“See!” exclaimed Jules; “almost hear them, you mean. Thousands of Boches—literally thousands of them, Henri. What’s that mean? They are turning in this direction, and though it’s hard to make it out quite clearly, I should say that they are waiting for the dusk to fall, fearing our guns across the river. It looks precisely what one would expect it to be—an intended advance on Vacherauville—a descent on a line directly from the north towards Verdun—the city for which they are making.”
Without a doubt the two French poilus, sheltering there beneath that bush, had obtained information of more than ordinary importance, though it was likely enough that the movements of the enemy, in some respects at least, were already known by the French staff far behind them. Still, in a case like this, even a morsel of news might help to turn the scale against the Germans; and, having obtained it, the two at once set about the return to their comrades.
“We’ll creep up the stream again and keep to the ravine as long as possible,” said Henri; “after that we shall have to take our chances in the wood. And, seeing that we were lucky enough to miss the Germans on our way here, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be successful in returning.”
“And if we ain’t,” declared Jules, with one of those ready smiles of his, “we can’t help it; only, of course, a fellow might even then make good his escape by bolting.”
An hour later, having very cautiously crept through those men massed just within the wood and out of sight of the French gunners, and having also traversed a long stretch of thickly wooded ground where numerous parties of Germans were resting, the two drew near to that point where they had entered the wood, and behind which open country led to the French positions. By then the shadows beneath the trees had deepened, as dusk had almost fallen, so that it was almost difficult to avoid the trunks of trees, and easy enough to tumble into any person who, like themselves, might be under that cover. Thus, of a sudden, it happened that Henri and Jules plunged into a narrow patch where men were seated, and, stumbling over their legs, were brought up suddenly.
“What’s this? Who’s this? You clumsy ruffian!” a shrill voice shouted. “Get out with you! But wait! What are you doing here without permission?”
“Stop! My word! The fool’s kicked my shin and almost broken my leg. Here, one moment!”
Someone growled an oath, and, shooting out a hand, gripped Henri by the shoulder as he was rising—someone who had rapped out a German oath, let us explain, while the two voices had without a doubt borne the customary guttural accent of the Teuton.
Henri picked himself up like lightning, and, swinging the butt of his rifle round—for the weapon was hanging over his right shoulder—struck the figure he could but dimly see beside him, and heard at once a dull thud as the wooden stock rapped the man’s head violently. Then, with a dive, he gained the trees, and, pausing for a moment, shouted for his comrade.
“Jules! Here,” he called. “Here!”
“Here!” came the answer from the point which Henri had only just left, and was followed by a somewhat smothered cry and by a heavy fall, which made it appear as though Jules had been detained by the men into whose midst they had stumbled.
What was Henri to do? Desert his friend and turn and fly away to the French positions? Or go back to his friend?
“The former,” he told himself. “At any other time I would turn back and do my best for Jules, whatever it cost; but there’s information which must be handed over to my Commanding Officer, and I must go. Jules!” he shouted again in one last effort.
A second later he was enfolded in the arms of a man who had crept up behind him, and who, joined by another within an instant, soon forced Henri to the ground, and, taking him by the legs, dragged him to the spot where Jules was already a prisoner.
“Now, strike a light,” a gruff voice said, “just a match, Fritz, and let’s see whom we have captured. Oh! Oh! French soldiers—eh? Well, there’s nothing very wonderful about that, seeing that we’ve driven them from Brabant and Haumont, and there must be scores of unfortunate beggars hiding up in the hollows and woods between that position and this. Well, you,” he continued, breaking into French, “French soldiers—eh? on your way to join your own lines again. You were fighting at Brabant?”
“Yes, at Brabant!” Henri told him.
“Ah! And received a terrible drubbing. Well, now, what shall we do with them?” asked the same voice—a pleasant enough voice now that the owner of it had got over the start which the sudden incursion of Jules and Henri had caused him—the voice, indeed, of an officer; for, as it proved, this was an officers’ party into which the two who had made that daring reconnaissance had stumbled.
“Do with them? Do with them?” snapped a voice. “Shoot them! For there are no men here to hand them over to.”
The one who had spoken earlier made no reply, but Henri could hear him giggling, as though he were amused at the callous remark made by his comrade, and as though, anxious not to be a party in such disgraceful treatment of prisoners, he was purposely avoiding discussion. But a moment later the other once more interjected a question.
“What, then?” he asked. “Are we to stay, then, with these two on our knees, as it were, and wait till some of our men come along and take them over? Who knows? They might turn upon us at any moment and cut our throats, for there are only four of us. I vote for shooting them out of hand.”
It was an unpleasant voice this—a snappy, vixenish, sharp-toned voice, which appeared to come from an individual of rather diminutive size, though it was only his bare outline that was visible in the darkness beneath the trees.
“Nasty little beggar,” thought Henri; while Jules, now released, save that one of the German officers still gripped him by the sleeve, stood close to his comrade. “Nasty little beggar! Spiteful little rat! And somehow we seem to have met before, for the voice rings in a familiar way. But, pooh! it’s not possible, or, rather, hardly possible.”
A moment later there came the grating sound of a match being rubbed against the side of a box, and then a light flared beneath the trees, to be shaded instantly by the huge hand of the individual who held it, and who proved to be the other spokesman—he of the pleasant voice—who had listened to the suggestion of his comrade without answering. The reflection of the flame held in his palm lit up at first a face beaming with health and good humour, heavily moustached, and as red as was Stuart’s. There was a cigarette in his mouth, and Henri, attracted by the light, watched as this German officer puffed at the flame and then ejected a cloud of smoke. His own features, too, were illuminated by that reflected light, and those of Jules also beside him, while an instant later the face of that other officer came into view, the one with the sharp, mean voice, who was for shooting his prisoners. Then a sudden exclamation escaped the latter, and, starting forward just as the flame expired, he stared hard at Henri and his comrade.
“What’s this? What’s this?” he demanded. “Strike another light, Ernst. I have met these fellows before somewhere; I feel sure of it.”
Grumblingly the big man who had just lit his cigarette struck another light, and, sheltering the flame between his two broad palms, brought it close to the faces of the prisoners, illuminating at the same time his own features and those of the officer who had last spoken. One glance was sufficient for Henri then, and in a moment his thoughts flew back to Ruhleben, to that little hovel down in the corner of the camp—the tool-house—which the Germans had considered even too good for their unfortunate prisoners. And outside it; to that scene which he and Jules and Stuart had witnessed on that eventful evening when they made their escape. He could see the rotund figure of the Landsturm sentry being heckled; the figure of the blustering sergeant who had cross-examined him so fiercely, and had well-nigh frightened him out of his senses; and before them a third individual—a shorter, shrivelled-up officer, risen from the ranks undoubtedly—that one who had leapt into the tunnel and had gone scrambling along to discover what steps had been taken by the prisoners to break out of the camp. The selfsame individual, indeed, whom Stuart had extricated from the hole behind the entanglements and had dashed backwards into the tunnel. Similarly, in just as few seconds, the German recognized Henri and Jules.
“Those two!” he shouted—”the men who escaped from Ruhleben with an Englishman! Seize them! No, no! Let us shoot them now, for they would certainly be shot on returning to Germany.”
The match died down at that instant and was dropped to the ground, leaving the group in utter darkness, and leaving Henri and Jules in the centre wondering what to do, distressed at their discovery, and feeling that the situation was almost hopeless. Then, of a sudden, Henri slid his left hand back and caught Jules by the sleeve; pulling him towards him, he whispered a sentence in his ear; and, a moment later, plunging forward, drove his fist into the face of the officer who had recognized him, and, pushing on over his fallen figure, burst from the group into the wood outside. Following on his heels, Jules cleared a path for himself, and, hearing the crash of undergrowth in front of him, held on in that direction, heedless of the shouts which came from the group of German officers and of the shots which were fired at them. Five minutes later Jules heard panting in front of him, and, stealing forward, gave vent to a gentle whisper.
“Is that you, Henri?” he asked.
“Yes, Jules,” came back the panting answer; whereat Jules joined him, and the two sat for a while at the base of a big tree, resting and recovering their breath, and wondering what they were to do now that their presence in the wood had been discovered.
“A pretty kettle of fish,” said Henri at last. “But what luck to have escaped from those fellows; and how mad that German officer will be to know that we have twice slipped through his clutches! A nasty little fellow, Jules! The sort of man who would shoot us out of hand if he had the opportunity.”
“Then the sooner we get out of this and back to our friends the better. Besides, there’s that news we have got for our commander. Let’s make tracks now,” said Jules. “By creeping along carefully, and listening for voices, we may be able to steer clear of the Germans and reach the open.”
“Listen to them!” whispered Henri. “It’s evident they’ve no fear of the French overhearing them, and that they are searching the woods for us. That’s all the better for us, Jules, as you suggest, and by listening carefully we ought to be able to creep past them.”
As it proved, the attempt to extricate themselves from their awkward position was not by any means easy; for the discovery made by that officer, and the anger it induced, caused him to call up a number of men who were resting in the woods within easy distance. Sentries were at once thrown out, so as to place a barrier between the two French soldiers so recently discovered and the open country lying between the woods and the French positions. Then other soldiers were set to work to search the woods, a few of them even producing lanterns. Yet, by dint of crawling, of hiding in hollows and under brushwood, and by steering a course away from approaching voices, Henri and Jules at length managed to place themselves beyond the barrier of sentries, and, rising then to their feet, ran on through the wood till they gained its edge and emerged into the open.
Then commenced the final stage of their journey. Crawling over the flat plain which swept gently down to the River Meuse, on the far side of which lay the Goose Hill, Caurette Wood, Crow’s Wood, the Mort Homme, and Hill 304—positions to win unending fame in this warfare in the neighbourhood of Verdun—they gained at length the ground which ascended on their left towards the Poivre Hill, and beyond that again, giving access to the plateau of Douaumont, a plateau destined to see some of the most tremendous fighting in this conflict. Here, anticipating easy going and a country free from the enemy, the two stood upright—for they had been crouching and creeping along before—and marched rapidly towards their destination. But if that slope had been free of Germans during the daytime—as indeed it was, for the guns of the French lining the crests of Poivre Hill commanded it completely—the darkness which had now fallen and hidden all objects had made a most decided difference.
There was the loud tramp of feet on the road which led from Beaumont to Vacherauville, and, as the two drew nearer to that village, they could hear columns of men approaching along the road from Samogneux. A lull in the terrific bombardment, which had now been going on continuously since the 19th February, allowed them even to hear the voices of the Kaiser’s soldiers as they closed in upon the French positions—upon that base-line to which we have referred, the line of the Meuse, beyond which lay the Verdun salient.
“There’s not a doubt about it,” said Henri in a whisper, as he and Jules shrank into a hole behind a bush and waited for a column of troops to pass along the road, “the enemy is preparing for an attack in force to-morrow, via Vacherauville; and, with what we have already seen in the wood, and what we hear now, we have information of the utmost importance. There must have been hundreds of men in the wood.”
“Thousands!” Jules corrected him. “Thousands of them! And there are thousands here, too, marching along this road. Listen, now, to those guns being hauled behind the troops. One can only guess that there are many of them by the noise they make, and it surprises me that our men on the far side of the river haven’t heard the sounds and opened fire upon the enemy. Wait! What’s that?”
The “that” to which Jules referred proved to be a detachment of German troops from the road along which they had been marching, and presently figures could be seen stealing across the grass, steadily streaming past, between them and their friends, struggling forward to take up a position for an attack on the morrow. Orders were given in low gruff tones by officers accompanying those men, while now and again there came the click of accoutrements and the metallic ring of entrenching-tools carried with the parties. Nor was that all; for presently, when the stream of figures had poured past for some minutes, till hundreds had gone by, in fact, and the last of the column had halted, there came to the ears of Henri and his friend the dull blow of picks, the scrape of spades against flints and stones, and the rattle of earth as it was thrown out of an excavation.
“Digging trenches—digging themselves in! Preparing for our counter-attack to-morrow! And digging themselves in between us and our positions! Now, that’s very awkward!” reflected Henri.
“Beastly awkward!” agreed Jules. “But there’s one thing about it—it’s dark, and, seeing that we have already escaped from the very midst of these same fellows, it seems to me that we may hope to do that again anywhere. Anyway, we must try.”
“Certainly, we must try! We must get through them without further delay, for every moment now is of increasing importance.”
Stealing forward from the bush, they slowly approached the line which the Germans were then preparing with entrenchments, and could now hear from those portions closest at hand the thud of busy picks and the ring of spades as the men employed them. Here and there a figure was to be seen standing up in the open, while everywhere else that column of men which had filed past them had, as it were, disappeared, or almost so; for already, thanks to the soft nature of the ground and to the rain which had fallen, the men had dug almost two feet down, and were partially hidden.
“Halt! Who are you? Why are you not working in the trenches?”
The question was bellowed at them by one of those figures standing out above the trenches, and, obedient to the order, losing their heads, indeed, for just one brief moment, Henri and Jules halted.
“Run for it!” whispered Henri; “straight through the line and on into the darkness! Come, Jules!”
Without a pause, without venturing to answer the question shouted at them, the two at once took to their heels, and, darting in between the men labouring at the trenches, sped on into the darkness. Nor was there any great attempt to arrest them; for, indeed, the men had already thrown off their tunics and had piled their arms, so that the only individuals carrying weapons were the officers superintending the operations. Half a dozen revolver-shots, therefore, were all that were fired at them, and those went wide in the darkness. Within a few minutes, in fact, the two were secure from all pursuit, and, provided there were no advance-parties thrown out in front of the Germans, might hope to reach their friends without further incident.
“But it is more than likely that pickets will have been posted, so as to avoid a French surprise,” said Henri, “and, although I cannot claim much acquaintance with German methods as yet, one can imagine that sentries also have been sent towards our positions. Let’s go on in silence, listening every now and again.”
Stealing on through the darkness, they passed on more than one occasion a ghostly figure standing erect and motionless, keeping guard against the surprise of his comrades digging those trenches lower down the slope. Once, also, a figure suddenly sprang up before them—the figure of a German scout—a diminutive individual, who, not unnaturally, took them for comrades instantly.
“What now?” he said, standing within five feet of them. “Reliefs, or an advance-party in front of the main force? Surely not that, for it’s time for us all to have a little rest, after the fighting we have experienced.”
“Reliefs!” Henri told him instantly. “You are to return and report at the trenches. Go now, for we have fed, and no doubt you are hungry.”
“Hungry?” The man almost exploded at the words. “Hungry? I am as empty as a drum,” he told them. “But there, you have come to relieve me, so good-bye!”
He swung off at once into the darkness, and, waiting till he had gained perhaps a hundred yards, Henri and Jules sped on again towards the French lines, and, clambering up the steeper slopes of the Côte du Poivre, were finally challenged.
“Halte! Qui va la?”
“Friends!” they answered.
“Then advance one—without arms.”
It was with a shout of joy that their comrades welcomed them back to the trenches, and almost immediately they were sent along to report to the Commander, receiving his congratulations on their safe return.
“This is information of the greatest importance,” he told the two when he had listened to their story; “though, to tell the truth, the movement the enemy are making has been expected and even anticipated. Go and get a meal at once, while I report what is passing. But let me say that you have behaved wonderfully well, my Jules and my Henri, and your Commander will not forget to mention the matter. Adieu! To-morrow we shall see something more of those movements.”
Yes, to-morrow! For as the 24th February dawned, and the grey light broke over the slopes of the Côte du Poivre, the Hill of Talou, and the winding Meuse gliding along between the hills which formed the main French positions to the west and to the east of it, the enemy guns, which had not rested for many hours since the outbreak of this gigantic conflict, broke out with terrific energy and commenced to deluge the French positions. Then, down on the lower slopes, on that plain and in the hollows, thousands and thousands of Germans sprang to their feet and dashed forward.
Henri and Jules and their comrades were, indeed, on this day, and upon those which followed, to experience fighting beside which that which had taken place on the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd February had been almost child’s play—a grim, furious struggle was about to open, in which hand-to-hand contests were to be almost general, and in which that sturdy handful of poilus were to be called upon to make yet again the most gallant efforts.