Today it is simply Route Nationale 93, but 100 years ago it was ‘La Route’, and then “La Voie Sacrée” - the ‘Sacred Way’.
Only widened to allow two cars to pass before the First World War, in 1916 it suddenly became the umbilical cord linking the front line with its vital supply chain.
It snaked out from Bar-le-Duc behind the front right into the heart of a desperate battle to keep the Germans at bay.
It became so vitally important because the nearest decent railroad was in German hands, and the next nearest within range of their artillery.
Losing was unthinkable - this was a matter of national honour. France had been invaded and defeated by Germany in 1870, and had erected a line of ‘impregnable’ forts to seal the country off. Yet here the Germans were, at a site where these two European titans had battled for centuries, overrunning the very fortress complex put there to defend the country specifically from them.
Because of their scale, First World War battles, and this one in particular, had a voracious appetite for supplies.
The most obvious was shells, rushed out of factories and off to the front (production problems sometimes caused them to explode in their guns, killing the crews). Food for frontline troops, and infinitely more fodder for their pack animals, was also essential.
Co-opted by the Army, La Route was rapidly mechanised, divided into sections with makeshift workshops to repair any vehicle that needed maintenance.
An entire division maintained it, ready to pounce on any breakdown and toss it into a ditch.
The road would stay open, no matter what.
The main obstacle was the weather. In the winter, icy conditions saw cars and trucks flip over; later the rains would bog them down.
But 90,000 men, 50,000 tons of supplies, and 9,000 vehicles still manged to rumble along it every week.
One vehicle would pass a given spot every 14 seconds.
Drivers were in for the long haul, 75 hours behind the wheel not being an unusual stint.
One driver meant to do a 24-hour shift ended up going back and forth for 16 days straight, his fingers stripped raw and sticking to the steering wheel when he finally finished.
It wasn’t just vehicles. Following the road, though, when not being ferried by truck, relegated to the fields on either side to optimise traffic flow, were the “poilu”.
It meant ‘hairy’ or ‘hairy ones’, and became associated with French soldiers for the unkempt bearded look they developed while in the line.
They preferred “les bonhommes” or ‘the good old boys’.
If they fell over, the poilu were often consigned to floundering in the mud for some time before being able to get back up.
They hauled two blankets, a spare pair of boots, a sheepskin coat, a shovel, a pair of heavy scissors, mess tin, a large pail for rations, two-litres of wine, four days’ rations, 200 bullets, six hand grenades, a gasmask, and whatever personal effects they chose to bring. The total came to about 85 lbs.
As they approached the fight, they saw it in the distance: ‘the furnace,’ ‘the inferno,’ ‘the meat grinder’, or ‘place of judgement’.
World War One historian Jay Winter has said it was visible far off at night:
“Soldiers could see it for miles glowing in the distance because of the artillery bombardment… When you got there, you were in the crucible – there was no way out”.
It was Verdun, a campaign of mass slaughter that would involve 75 percent of the French Army and last almost an entire year, from February 21 to December 18, 1916.
Longer than Stalingrad, and depending on whether historians classify Aleppo as more of a drawn-out siege, Verdun may retain its infamous record as the longest battle in history.
French historian Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau has said that the Battle of Verdun was the Battle of France, and that understanding France is impossible without understanding Verdun.
When it started, it triggered a desperate scramble in the French command to get a general involved who could take charge and rally the poilu.
Commander-in-Chief General Joseph ‘Papa’ Joffre had been deaf to the mounting crisis in Verdun’s defences.
His chief of staff, General de Castelnau, an aristocrat, knew how bad things were, and lobbied Joffre to take this on board.
Pulling back and using the multiple hills beyond Verdun to mount a multilayered defence may have been an option, but Castelnau had lost three sons in this war - he wasn't about to let the Germans crack Verdun open.
They needed to get the, then in reserve, commander of Second Army involved, a general Castelnau hoped could turn things around.
That man became one of the central characters in the unfolding drama, and in time a great national, and then controversial, figure in French history. He was the ‘cold’, ‘aloof’, icy blue-eyed and peasant-born General Philippe Petain.
In The Price of Glory, Alistair Horne describes Petain as a “bachelor of sixty, with commendable vigour for his age” and a “commanding posture”:
“To have seen him and de Castelnau together, one might well have assumed that Petain was the born aristocrat, the squat and rather swarthy general (Castelnau) the peasant; though in fact it was the reverse”.
Despite his reputation, Petain was, in fact, not cold to his inferiors.
His background made him withdrawn around superiors, contemptuous of politicians, and caring of his men.
After France’s defeat in 1870, a doctrine of attack at all costs, formulated by General de Grandmaison, had taken hold in the French Army.
The message was simple and compelling: France had lost to Prussia because the latter had a better offensive spirit.
From now on, “elan”, ‘style’ or ‘vigour’, would produce the same result for France as it unleashed Plan XVII in 1914 and dashed headlong into Germany to take back the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.
Before the war, Petain had jeopardised his career by flouting the Grandmaison school in his teaching post at the Ecole de guarre, France's staff college, insisting instead that ‘firepower kills’.
One of his students was a young Charles de Gaulle, who was impressed and requested to serve under him.
The men would end up on different sides of the Second World War, but at that time, de Gaulle’s name may have lept out at the general from casualty lists when he was informed what had happened.
He knew and cared about his men - this was the kind of man Verdun, and France, needed.
De Grandmaison had been shot down at the head of a brigade in 1914 charging into battle.
Meanwhile, the Germans had sidestepped Plan XVII, marched through Belgium and almost taken Paris, while the GQG (French high command) had then gone on to neglect Verdun.
Horne says that Castelnau must have selected the contrarian Petain to take command at least in part because he was available. It was just a cruel irony that he of all commanders would be asked to preside over a mass blood-letting in following Castelnau's strategy of not giving an inch to the Germans.
But then, maybe the thoughtful, cautious, and widely respected Petain was the best choice.
If the stubborn defence of Verdun was going to happen, if the men were to be intelligently reorganised and rallied, then Petain just so happened to be the ideal candidate.
He was the man of the hour, the man to take on the Germans, the one to put things right... and in late February 1916, he was nowhere to be found.
Fortunately for France, the general’s aide-de-camp, Staff Captain Serrigny, knew his boss and tracked him down at 3am in the Hôtel Terminus, in Paris.
Serrigny got past the proprietress in the lobby, insisting this was a ‘matter of life and death for France’.
Outside the general’s room he found what he must have expected: A pair of yellowish military boots beside some feminine Moliere slippers.
The general had been entertaining a lady, the 39-year-old ‘mistress’ Eugenie Hardon.
Serrigny knocked on the door and a conference in the hallway followed.
Petain would learn of the enormous assault and impending disaster for France.
The Germans had achieved air superiority and spent months sneaking their guns and troops into position.
Men had hidden in underground vaults, ‘stollen’, before being unleashed on the French lines after a hurricane bombardment.
The relatively narrow 8-mile front would be turned into a moonscape by the incessant shelling - 40 shells, and later 120, falling in a given sector every minute.
Verdun would go on to earn the dubious distinction of having the highest density of dead bodies of anywhere on the front.
One French soldier quoted in Hew Strachan’s 'The First World War' described being under the German bombardment:
“We were swept by a storm, a hurricane, a tempest growing ever stronger, with hail like cobblestones with the destructive force of an express train, and we (were) underneath it”.
Long-distance rail guns pounded distant targets.
And the enormous Big Bertha Krupp howitzers that had cracked open Belgium’s forts at Liege were now flinging their almost one-ton shells like freight trains through the air at Verdun’s.
The Germans had thought the forts were perfectly breachable because in a pre-war military exchange the French hadn’t returned fire after being hit.
In fact, the Germans were merely out of range of the inferior French artillery, but as luck would have it, Fort Douaumont, the keystone in the whole interlocking defensive system, was wide open.
The forts around Verdun had been stripped to supply guns to the trenches, and because of its reputed invulnerability, a garrison posting at Verdun was thought of as cushy.
This left Douaumont with few guns, and when the Germans attacked there was a mere 60-odd soldiers inside.
Therefore, obscure German pioneer sergeant named Kunze was able, after getting his section to form a human pyramid, to climb inside totally unmolested.
It seems that, in fact, Kunze had been seen from inside the fort, but French soldiers were used to picking out Germans from their spiked helmets.
The Germans had unscrewed their spikes so as not to get them caught in the undergrowth of Verdun’s forests, and while covered in mud, their field grey became indistinguishable from the horizon blue of the French uniforms.
Sergeant Kunze sneaked through Douaumont’s dark tunnels and came across a couple of gunners firing from one of the turrets.
He hustled them out at gunpoint and they were replaced by a couple more gunners who were oblivious to what had happened and thought the others had gone off duty.
Meanwhile, the comedy of errors continued as Kunze got his prisoners outside only for them to instantly run away and squeeze back into the fort.
The sergeant followed them, came across a room full of soldiers, and promptly locked them in.
Upon finding another French soldier to coerce into showing him where the food rations were kept, Kunze proceeded to scoff his way through much of them right in front of his new prisoner.
At some point, Kunze made contact with at least one officer who’d also got inside and in some fashion, the remaining garrison were taken prisoner.
Because he was only an NCO, Kunze’s role in the capture of the fort was not fully known for years afterwards, the fall of Douaumont becoming a legend of German military history.
Elsewhere, affairs were decidedly not funny.
Lieutenant Colonel Emile Driant had been a soldier, then a politician, then a re-enlisted soldier when the war commenced.
Once in the line again, he instantly saw what was wrong and would talk to anyone who’d listen about the inadequate defences and shortage of hands at Verdun.
A sort of French Winston Churchill, he possessed the same self-confidence and willingness to challenge authority and orthodoxy, going over Joffre’s head to warn politicians that Verdun’s reputation as a tough nut was luring generals into complacency.
Joffre likely would have court-marshalled him, but when the attack started Driant was caught with his ‘poor battalions’ (the 56 and 59 Bataillon de Chasseurs a Pied, light infantry trained for rapid action) and proved all to right.
He did the best he could with limited manpower and defences, setting up interlocking positions to catch attackers in a crossfire.
It proved a thorn in the side of the Germans, but the units bearing down on Driant, part of a 72 battalion onslaught, would always overcome him.
They swept over the hills and through the Bois des Caures, ‘Wood of Caures’ (‘wood’ became a misnomer after they were pounded into sawdust by artillery).
And, as Julian Thompson relates in The 1916 Experience, when they met too much resistance, the Germans had an ace up their sleeves:
“A German flame-thrower attack set fire to the men of the 51st Division, who, screaming in agony, with their hair and clothing on fire, withdrew in disorder”.
As the German stroomtroopers came on, Driant burnt his intelligence papers and prepared to make a last stand.
His men suffered 90 percent casualties and, while tending to a wounded man, Driant became one of them, shot through the head.
With the German advance in full swing, residents poured out of the town of Verdun and the surrounding villages, becoming a desperate trail of refugees filling the roads.
Now General Pétain had his brief, and would have to turn things around.
He raced to the front in an unheated car, and, upon his arrival, slept in his great coat in an unheated room. He contracted pneumonia and could have died, but doggedly kept the news, and himself, under wraps, issuing orders by phone under layers of blankets.
One of his first directives was to organise La Route.
It would soon be the Germans’ turn to suffer – in fact, they already had.
The attack on Verdun had been planned to start over a week before it actually did, but heavy snow obscured artillery targets.
The Stormtroopers must have cursed the ‘genius’ who thought up the layout of their stollen. The tunnels flooded in the snow (and later rain), and didn’t have enough pumps to get rid of the water.
They also didn’t have sufficient sleeping quarters, which meant that, after assembling at the jumping off point, the troops had to trudge seven miles back to sleeping quarters, night after night, when the weather caused the attack to be repeatedly delayed.
And in any case, their own success was about to work against them. They punched a hole so deep in the French line that they were now outpacing their artillery.
The huge guns, consisting of thousands of interlocking pieces that they were able to painstakingly reassemble before the opening battle, now had to be dragged through muddy ground they themselves had so thoroughly shot up.
It’s reported that even light field guns required a dozen horses to drag them through the mud.
They also came under fire from their flanks, necessitating a broadening of the front to the left as well as the right bank of the River Meuse.
This soon saw them fighting pitched battles on the ominously named Mort Homme (‘Dead Man’), a hill near Verdun.
By this point, despite taking more losses and still falling back, Petain’s forces were beginning to learn. Alistair Horne describes how the Germans’ most fearsome weapon was turned against them:
“On the Left Bank the Germans began to find themselves at an increasing tactical disadvantage. Gone were the woods and broken country where their infiltration methods could excel. The terrifying flame-throwers had now largely become suicide weapons, an immediate target the moment they appeared in the open. In horrible fascination French troops watched as the fuel cannisters, punctured by a grenade or shell, turned their bearers into writhing torches; or when, wounded, the German Pioneers spun round to hose their own companions with the hellish liquid”.
The French began clobbering their foes in front of Verdun too.
On May 8, while sheltering from a pre-attack bombardment, Bavarian units crammed into Fort Douaumont accidentally let a cooking fire get out of control. It spread to a magazine of French 155mm shells and the whole lot went up.
An enormous fireball swept through the corridors, incinerating anybody in its path, before exploding out of the nearest openings.
1,800 men were injured and almost 700 killed, their bodies bricked up in a tomb, later made a memorial.
Now the momentum was swinging to the French. Later in May, they unleashed incendiary rockets from their biplanes on German observation balloons.
But German artillery, blinded and anticipating the attack, unleashed a barrage on the pre-sited French lines, slaughtering many poilu as they got ready for battle.
One French soldier recalled what it was like being under German shell fire:
“When a shell bursts a few metres away, there’s a terrible jolt, and then an indescribable chaos of smoke, of earth, of stones, of branches, and too often, alas, of limbs, flesh, a rain of blood”.
Barbusee in Le Feu, a French novel set during the period, went further in outlining just what First World War shells could do to the human body:
“Men squashed, cut in two, or divided top to bottom, blown into showers by an ordinary shell; bellies turned inside out and scattered anyhow, skulls forced bodily into the chest as if by a blow with a club…”
Shells could also bury men alive. One legend from the Battle of Verdun is the Trench of the Bayonets, a line of bayonet tips that protrude from the ground from soldiers buried beneath them.
They were forgotten during the battle, and only rediscovered after the war – left as a memorial to the shocking battlefield conditions and the poor souls who died in this way.
It’s disputed as to whether these men were actually buried alive, or were part of a common practice of putting bodies into trenches, burying them, and then leaving their bayonets protruding to mark the spot so that they could be retrieved and buried properly later.
If so, whoever left them was likely later killed themselves, and the ‘bayonet men’ forgotten in the chaos and confusion of the battle.
At this point, the French were beginning to experiment with a creeping barrage, screening their men with a protective curtain of artillery fire that slowly crept forward at a pre-arranged pace.
But on this occasion, the Germans were able to re-emerge quickly enough to wipe out the attackers with grenades and flame throwers.
As intimidating and well-organised as the German attack on Verdun must have looked at the outset, it too was the product of political backroom struggle.
The offensive was the brainchild of General Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff. He’d planned to trigger a ‘bleeding white’ of the French by using their national pride against them.
Pitched to Kaiser Wilhelm as a suitably Anglophobic way of ‘knocking England’s best sword out of her hand’ (the Kaiser despised the English more than the French), Falkenhayn said he could bait the French into suicidal assaults by biting and holding chunks of the line at Verdun.
As a sweetener, he delegated the attack to the Kaiser’s son, Crown Prince Wilhelm (“Little Willie” to the British press), commander of the German Fifth Army. But he gave as an objective the capture of the town.
William Martin reasons in Verdun 1916 that this was likely a morale booster.
He didn’t want to tell the troops outright that they were to be used as pawns in a drawn out slugging match meant to slaughter more Frenchmen as they in turn counter-attacked.
But, despite being the mastermind behind the real ‘bleeding white’ strategy, it seems that come June and July, Falkenhayn was being tempted by the seductive breakthrough himself.
After German counterattacks hammered the French around Douaumont, the Germans knew they could secure their flanks by taking Forts Vaux and Souville on their left, Thiamont Farm on their right, and Fleury village in the centre.
They realised that if they did this, they could push on to the final ridge standing between them and the capture of the town of Verdun itself. And so they rolled the dice.
Had they known that Fleury Village would change hands 15 times, or that Fort Vaux would prove far more challenging to take than Douaumont, they might have thought twice.
The former was pounded into a scrapyard of brick and mortar, then eventually reduced to mud. It was so irreparably damaged that after the war, white posts were erected to mark each building that was lost.
As for the latter, although it had been damaged by Big Bertha’s shells, Vaux’s garrison was ready and put up a savage resistance.
German soldiers got in anyway, but, according to William Martin, found the narrow corridors blocked by sandbags and “a fearful underground battle began with knives, pick-axe handles and grenades”.
But the Germans wouldn’t give up. They put four flamethrowers on the roof:
“At 8.30am the tunnel leading up from the coffer double was flooded with liquid fire. Dense black smoke poured into the central gallery… (French) Lieutenant Girard donned his gas mask and ran into the smoke and fire to re-man the machine-gun. His men followed him back into the tunnel just in time to shoot the German assault party”.
Despite the bravery of his men, the garrison commander was horrified to discover that the gage for the fort’s water supply was giving an inflated reading and they were actually almost out.
Desperately trying to hold out, his men resorted to licking moisture off the walls and drinking their own urine.
He had no choice but to surrender the fort, and was taken prisoner, being congratulated personally for his bravery when he was introduced to the Crown Prince.
But as the Somme and the Brusilov Offensive, and then declarations of war from Romania and Italy started pressing the Germans from the outside, Verdun slipped down the priority list. German objectives began to centre on Falkenhayn’s original objective of holding what had been taken.
But they were to discover that being on the defensive at Verdun was little better than the attack. One German soldier recalled what it was like being in a fort blanketed with poison gas:
“Suddenly, I heard the cry poison gas! I saw people around me putting on their gas masks. Soon many were dying and the bunks and floors were filled with bodies over which the living stepped and stumbled in search of air. It was as if the souls of the dead Frenchmen who were gassed and lay under the very mound on which I was standing had demanded and were receiving their revenge. (My comrade) said to me: ‘Remember… we must not hate the French for using gas. We used it first’”.
In the background, the French were also gaining on the Germans in the war of production, rivalling them in shell output.
And because of La Route, they were also able to get them to the front efficiently. By this point, when the French used the shells, they’d learnt to keep their troops out of the line when the German guns replied.
In a final well-coordinated push, Douaumont was retaken, and the threat of collapse on the Verdun frontier averted.
On the German side, Falkenhayn was removed and replaced by Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who would engineer the next big German attack, in the spring of 1918.
For the French, their final assaults at Verdun had been very successful, but in the end, they took the wrong lessons to heart.
They concluded, by comparing their slog at Verdun with their comparatively easy success in their joint offensive with the British at the Somme, that defence was more costly than attack.
The Price of Glory points out that this was difficult (and might we infer, dubious?) accounting as records of the period weren’t meticulous enough to be reliable.
French losses are thought to range from 377,231 (with 162,308 dead) to as much as 469,000, while German ones are thought to be from 337,000 to 373,000.
To be sure, the politicians did get the message about Joffre.
He’d replaced Petain by promoting him upstairs to command Army Group Centre when he proved too careful with his men’s lives for Joffre’s liking. (Sacking the ‘saviour of Verdun’ outright would have been a public relations disaster).
Now the C-in-C himself would be promoted out of the way and made Marshal of France.
But disastrously for the French, the void was filled by General Robert Nivelle, Petain’s replacement at Verdun, who seems to have failed to learn from the details.
As noted, in the very last Douaumont attacks, after firing their initial barrage, the French poilu were kept very smartly out of the way of German artillery retaliation.
But rather than combining the value of keeping troops alive to inflict more damage on the enemy with Petain’s maxim of ‘firepower kills’, Nivelle seems to have became emboldened by the idea that attack in general was desirable.
In 1917, he promised a breakthrough, the pride that goeth before the fall of pretty much every First World War general. When his offensive resulted instead in vast numbers of slaughtered soldiers, widespread mutiny broke out.
The soldiers said they would defend their line, but no longer attack, hoping instead for a negotiated end to the war.
French soldiers were already blighted by relatively poor medical care, a larger number of wounded dying than in either the British or German Armies.
And their discipline was Spartan. Any act deemed to be dereliction of duty would be punished within 24 hours by lashing a man to a post or standing him before a wall and executing him by firing squad.
This happened at least once at Verdun without any due process.
The authorities came down, key mutineers being executed, but Petain was brought back to play saviour again. He improved conditions in the Army and kept it together until the end of the war.
Come World War Two, the ‘Lion of Verdun’ would surface again, this time as the Chief of State of Vichy France.
He worked with Nazi Germany, and let the Japanese take French Indo-China.
Accused of collaborating, he fell into disrepute and was sentenced to death after the war.
But his former student Charles de Gaulle, leader of France at that point, commuted his sentence to life imprisonment.
It wasn’t a long spell – Petain died in 1951.
Upon his death, arguments about where his remains could be laid raged for decades, before his family’s request to lay them where he most wanted, at Verdun, were honoured.
In the succeeding years, Verdun became a place of political pilgrimage.
In 1984, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl went to Verdun and met with French President Francois Mitterrand.
They met at the Douaumont Ossuary, which contains the remains of over 130,000 soldiers, and sits behind the largest French First World War cemetery, containing 16,142 graves.
The leaders of both countries have remained committed to peace, as evidenced by the joint solid opposition of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac to the 2003 Iraq War.
Cover image flag: George Hodan
For more information about the battle, read Verdun 1916 'They Shall Not Pass' by William Martin; for more on French soldiers, read French Poilu 1914-18 by Ian Sumner; and for more military history, visit Osprey Publishing.