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Brian Pohanka
The Western Front:
- Belloy-en-Santerre
- Flaucourt, Bray, Albert
- Y-Sap, Lochnager
   Craters

- Memorials, Thiepval
- Ulster Tower,
   Beaumont

- The Somme
- The Fallen Soldier
- Mametz Wood
- Delville Wood, High
   Wood

- Newfoundland Park
- Hawthorne Crater
- Arras
- Proyart, Chevauchee
- Mort Homme, Fort
   Vaux
- Verdun

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Visit to the Western Front
Part 14: Mort Homme, Fort Vaux

By Brian Pohanka - November 5, 1999

This brief sketch was originally posted at a Civil War discussion group site and is reprinted here with the author's permission.

It was late in the afternoon and raining as we approached Verdun after a long day of visiting battlefields and memorials in Champagne and in the southern Argonne forest. But en route to the town, and our very nice hotel, I turned north at the sign denoting the little road that leads onto the wooded height called "Mort Homme" (Dead Man). For I wanted to show Cricket the memorial I consider one of the most powerful and horrifically appropriate monuments to war I know. I had seen it last in April of 1976, when, during "Spring Break" from my junior year of college -- attending the Dickinson/Johns Hopkins "Center for International Studies" in Bologna Italy -- I rented a car and drove to France, Verdun and the Western Front.

Mort Homme is a portion of the strategically vital ridge-line that formed the northwest bulwark of the Verdun Salient. It is on that portion of the battlefield west of the Meuse River -- an area not nearly as visited as is the better-known and more memorialized sector east of the river. During the year-long battle, the wooded crest was completely pulverized by artillery fire. And we are talking literally millions of shells. As photos so powerfully reveal, the entire perimeter of the Salient looked like the surface of the Moon. It was impossible to maintain trenches -- shell craters had to suffice for what cover there was. And Mort Homme was one of the most shell-torn and blood-soaked of an unimaginably bloody battle. To call it "Hell on Earth" would be an understatement.

We drove up the winding road to Mort Homme in the rain, and there within the circle at the summit was the Monument. Carved in granite, a skeletal figure, or rotting corpse -- right hand raised -- Death himself, cradling the flag of France in left arm. On the base of the Monument a single inscription: "ILS N'ONT PAS PASSÉ" -- "THEY DID NOT PASS." This a reference to the vow made by Petain, the admired French commander at Verdun (who would fall so tragically in the Second World War) -- the vow, "Ils ne passeront pas" -- "They shall not pass." And, thanks to the sacrifice made at Verdun, and at Mort Homme, the Germans did not pass.

We would return to Mort Homme over the next days, but somehow in the rain and the mist and the low fog that hung over the ridge -- now again wooded as it was before the War -- that haunting, horrific memorial embodied all that the word "Verdun" evokes.

Our last stop before searching out our hotel -- not easy as many of the streets in the town were being torn up so that the water mains and other pipes could be replaced, and there were a number of dead-ends and one-way streets due to the construction -- our last stop that rainy October was Fort Vaux -- one the underground concrete bastions that formed a breakwater against the German offensive on the East bank of the Meuse.

The year before, our 5th NY Zouaves had been given a short tour of some of those sites on the east bank, including Fort Douaumont. But they had not taken us to Vaux, which I recalled from my 1976 visit. Fort Douaumont had been taken by the Germans quickly, through a series of misjudgements, or blunders on the part of the French, and would cost thousands of lives before it was retaken. But the defenders of Fort Vaux put up a valiant struggle before that bastion, too, was captured. Under the command of Commandant Raynal, the outnumbered defenders continued to battle the Germans even after they had gained entry to the underground casemates and barracks and tunnels of the fort. The corridors were clogged with bodies, and lime was dumped over them to hasten decompostion and relieve the stench. The garrison was running out of water; communications were cut off; the roar of the gunfire boomed off the walls and deafened everyone. There was no time for sleep. But it was not until an even greater horror transpired -- as the Germans brought in flamethrowers and began clearing the corridors and casemates with jets of fire -- that Raynal raised the white flag.

Like its sister Fort, Douaumont, Vaux would become a symbol -- a blasted, savaged, denuded lump of concrete stone and iron rods -- set amidst the moonscape of destruction -- a symbol the Germans battled to keep, and the French to reclaim.

red poppy by DLO

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