to the Western Front
Part 14: Mort Homme, Fort Vaux
Brian Pohanka - November 5, 1999
brief sketch was originally posted at a Civil War discussion
group site and is reprinted here with the author's permission.
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
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
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