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1914,on the outskirts of Verdun

1914, on the outskirts of Verdun

« Sous Verdun » (During Verdun)

The title of this article has been borrowed from the work by Maurice Genevoix, first published in 1916, which describes the fighting which took place to the north-west and south-east of Verdun in 1914 to protect the stronghold that would become a salient into German lines in the wake of the Battle of the Marne.

During the first few weeks of the war, the Germans, in keeping with the Schlieffen Plan, invaded Luxembourg before attacking Longwy. In just a few weeks, the battle of the borders had been lost. They had now arrived in the north of the Meuse department. The French Army evacuated the Montmédy outpost on 27th August after having destroyed the access routes and any possibilities for bringing in provisions. The few civilians that had decided to stay in the northern Meuse region would now experience a four-year period of occupation.

The Germans would continue to advance as far as the line running roughly from Revigny-sur-Ornain to Verdun via Vaubécourt and Beauzée and at the peak of the German offensive Verdun found itself in something of a precarious situation. All that mattered to Generalissimo Joffre was that Paris had to be defended at all costs. During the Battle of the Marne, the fighting between Souilly and Vaux Marie (near Rembercourt), the 9th and 10th September 1914 were particularly bloody but they did mark the halt of the German advance in the sector and its later decline right across the front of the Battle of the Marne.

The taking of St. Mihiel et Vauquois

Vauquois Hill today

In the aftermath of the Battle of the Marne, which marked the halting of the German offensive and their withdrawal along the banks of the Aisne, the front line stabilised and would barely falter again until the end of the war some 4 years later. On the outskirts of Verdun, which, thanks to its location, had become a salient into enemy lines, the fighting continued steadfastly and virulently. St. Mihiel and Vauquois were taken on 24th September 1914. The French tried to recapture their positions in the hills above Les Eparges and Vauquois, which had been taken by the Germans, as these positions were particularly important in controlling access to the strongholds. Vauquois Hill also enabled them to monitor the Chalons-Verdun line whilst Les Eparges Crest overlooked the Commercy line.

On 17th February 1915 an offensive was launched by the French army to recapture the land taken by the Germans both in Les Eparges and Vauquois. Others would follow, these, too, at great human cost. This battle, which took place up in the hills, would also paradoxically be one fought underground. In fact, both the French and the Germans dug tunnels and set up mines that they would blow up under their enemies’ footsteps for the purposes of controlling access to Vauquois Hill and Les Eparges Crest. Mile after mile of tunnels, passages and shafts went deeper and deeper underground, with increasingly powerful explosive charges used, resulting in increasingly devastating damage, the scars of which can still be seen today in the form of mine craters in areas where this war technique was used.

Nevertheless, the fighting on the surface continued. The French partially besieged Vauquois Hill again on 4th March 1915 and, despite German resistance, managed to establish a presence in the southern sector of the village. A position war ensued. The village would be rebuilt at the foot of the hill in better times. The fighting that took place on 10th and 11th April enabled the Germans to recapture point X, the highest point of the Les Eparges Crest, though they were not able to drive them out from the hills entirely.

The landscape of the Les Eparges sector