In preparation for the battle all French civilians in the occupied zone of the battlefield area were evacuated, buildings were requisitioned and thousands of kilometres of telephone cable were laid. Hundreds of additional Artillery pieces were brought up, thousands of tons of ammunition and rations were stored under cover and camouflaged. Ten new rail lines with twenty stations were built and vast underground shelters, "Stollen," were dug. These were between 4.5 and 14 m (15 and 46 ft) deep, and each was capable of accommodating up to 1,200 German infantrymen.
The German III Armeekorps [GE III KORPS], the German VII Reserve Armeekorps [GE VII RES KORPS] and German XVIII Armeekorps [GE XVIII KORPS] were transferred to the German Fifth Army [GE FIFTH ARMY] commanded by Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, and each Korps was reinforced by 2,400 experienced troops and 2,000 trained recruits. The German V Armeekorps [GE V KORPS] was placed behind the frontline, ready to advance if necessary when the assault divisions were moving up and the German XV Armeekorps [GE XV KORPS], with two additional divisions, formed the GE FIFTH ARMY reserve and was ready to advance to mop up as soon as the French defence collapsed.
Special arrangements were made to maintain a high rate of artillery fire during the offensive, 33½ munitions trains per day delivered sufficient ammunition for 2,000,000 rounds to be fired in the first six days and another 2,000,000 rounds in the next twelve. Five repair workshops were built close to the front to reduce delays for maintenance and the factories in Germany were made ready to rapidly refurbish the artillery that needed more extensive repairs. A redeployment plan for the artillery was devised, to facilitate the bringing forward of field guns and mobile heavy artillery under the covering fire of mortars and the super-heavy artillery. A total of 1,201 guns were massed on the VERDUN front, two thirds of which were heavy and super-heavy artillery, which had been obtained by stripping the modern German artillery from the rest of the Western Front and substituting it with older types and captured Russian guns. The German artillery could fire into the VERDUN salient from three directions whilst remaining dispersed.
The Germans also employed their new terror weapon, the flame-thrower, for the first time in an offensive role during the initial attacks against VERDUN.
The GE FIFTH ARMY plan for the assault was for the GE VII RES KORPS to advance in the BOIS D'HAUMONT, the GE XVIII KORPS to advance in the BOIS DES CAURES, the GE III KORPS to advance in the BOIS DE L'HERBEBOIS and the GE XV KORPS to advance on the WOEVRE PLAIN. The preliminary artillery bombardment was to begin in the morning of 12 February 1916 and at 1700 hours the infantry in the woods would begin their advance in open order, supported by grenade and flame-thrower detachments. Wherever possible, the French advanced trenches were to be occupied and the second position reconnoitred, for the artillery fire on the second day. The emphasis was placed on limiting German casualties, by sending them to follow up destructive bombardments by the artillery, which was to carry the burden of the offensive in a series of large attacks with limited objectives, in order to maintain a relentless pressure on the French. The initial objectives were the MEUSE HEIGHTS, on a line from FORT FROIDE TERRE, through FORT SOUVILLE, to FORT TAVANNES. This would provide the Germans with a secure defensive position from which to repel French counterattacks and allow their artillery to be brought sufficiently far forward to dominate the city itself.
The Germans expected to find that any resistance by the French troops in the area would be nonexistent and all signs of human life would have all but disappeared.
The German 81st Infantrie Regiment [GE 81 INF REGT] and German 87th Infantrie Regiment [GE 87 INF REGT] were assigned the task of assaulting in the BOIS DES CAURES sector. In the French frontline trenches facing them were the 2,200 men commanded by 61 year old Lieutenant Colonel Émile Driant.
Lieutenant Colonel Émile Driant
On 10 February 1916 the Germans assemble in their frontline ready for the attack. At that very moment a small group of 40 Alsatians from the German 134th Infanterie Regiment [GE 134 INF REGT] deserted. These deserters made it to the French trenches in Lieutenant Colonel Driant's sector and alert the French soldiers of the impending assault. Émile Driant immediately grasps the seriousness of the situation and evacuated all non-essential personnel, but an unexpected storm blew up and delayed the German offensive giving Lieutenant Colonel Driant's Chasseurs, and all who are defending the French trenches, a temporary reprieve. Émile Driant told his men: "Tomorrow a massive German assault is likely to be launched. We must be prepared to die where we stand." After a series of unheeded warnings, General Joffre finally decided to react and ordered all available French units to be sent to the frontline in the VERDUN sector.
The breathing space caused by the unexpected snow storm lasted eleven days and it was on 21 February 1916 that the Germans launched their assault. In the BOIS DES CAURES the French 56th Chasseurs à Pied Battalion [FR 56 CHAS BN] and French 59th Chasseurs à Pied Battalion [FR 59 CHAS BN] of Lieutenant Colonel Driant's Brigade mounted a desperate defence as their trenches crumbled around them. Corporal Maurice Brassard, one of the handful of survivors from the FR 56 CHAS BN, later said that of every five riflemen "two are buried alive in their shattered dug-outs, two are wounded and the fifth waits."
The German Artillery batteries and Trench Mortars fired an estimated 80,000 rounds into this area of wood, which was about 1,300 x 800 metres in size. Trees were uprooted and those that remained standing were shredded, and the trenches and dug-outs collapsed and caved-in. How many of the defenders survived this storm of steel will never be known, but when the bombardment ceased at 1600 hours on 21 February 1916 mere handfuls of French riflemen emerged from their shelters to do battle. They were red-eyed, deafened and many were injured. Most of their machine guns were smashed, some men had only grenades and bayonets. The German guns continued to pound the area behind the wood when, in the dying light of the afternoon, the German flamethrower squads and grenade parties led their small assault columns into the shattered remnants of the BOIS DES CAURES.
Émile Driant's Chasseurs were attacked by elements of the 42nd Brigade of the German 21st Division [GE 21 INF DIV], who were spearheaded by five pioneer detachments and flamethrower teams. The bulk of their infantry remained in their Stollen during these initial attacks, while the Pioneers led company-sized assault groups in among the French positions.
In places there was no resistance. In others, such as abris 17, a bunker close by, a machine gun stuttered into life and the Germans were pinned down. Sergeant Léger and five Chasseurs kept the gun in action until they ran out of ammunition. Léger then used up his store of 40 hand-grenades before being wounded and passing out. Nearby, Sergeant Legrand and six Chasseurs found they had only two working rifles between them, but they fought on. Only one, Corporal Hutin survived and he was wounded when he was captured. As a matter of interest Corporal Hutin became a member of the French Resistance in the Second World War and he was subsequently deported and executed in 1944 for his activities.
Émile Driant during the 1914-18 Great War
Despite being hopelessly outnumbered, the French battalions launched frequent counterattacks. Many of their number collapsed in bloody ruin, shot to pieces by German artillery, but others achieved results out of proportion to the number of men involved. The attacking Germans found it difficult to establish and retain control of their units in the tangled wreckage of these woods. At 2000 hours Lieutenant Robin led a spirited counterattack in the midst of a snow-shower, he literally caught the Germans napping in strongpoint S7. By midnight the Chasseurs still held a large part of their original positions, but there were precious few men left on their feet. During the night Lieutenant Colonel Émile Driant made his rounds and visited each post.
The following day the Germans renewed their attacks and in the afternoon Émile Driant's luck ran out. With strongpoint after strongpoint being overwhelmed, the dwindling groups of survivors began conducting a fighting retreat. Lieutenant Colonel Driant burned all his papers, evacuated his command post and split the survivors of his battalions into three groups. As he withdrew from the area he stopped off at the Regimental Aid Post, which was being defended by Lieutenant Simon and Sergeant-Major Savart, and wish them luck. They continued the defence after the others had left holding off a large number of Germans with deadly accurate rifle fire until they were eventually overrun and those still alive taken captive.
After two-days of fighting the remnants of Émile Driant's two Battalions conducted a fighting withdrawal and picked their way back through the shattered tree stumps. During the withdrawal, Lieutenant Colonel Driant paused to give a field dressing to a wounded soldier, Chasseur Papin. Nearby Pioneer Sergeant Jules Hacquin leapt into a shell-hole just ahead when he heard the colonel cry out, "Oh La! Mon Dieu." Hacquin quickly went back to where the Colonel had fallen, but Émile Driant was already dead.
Émile Driant sacrificed himself and his battalions to gain that time and is deservedly dubbed a 'Hero of France.' It is worth noting that Émile Driant's Chasseurs were not the only ones to resist the German onslaught and several other regiments fought with the same dogged determination and the Germans made little progress that day or the next day.
Follow in the footsteps of Lieutenant Colonel Émile Driant and his Chasseurs on a tour of the Verdun battlefields with In The Footseps. To book your tour click the button below and complete our on-line enquiry form.