Verdun Tuesday, July 22nd, 1919.
The harbor at Brest is about the most beautiful I have ever seen. The Coast is very rugged, then a narrow opening appears with many old fortresses on both sides. The inner bay is quite roomy and was fall of shipping. The surrounding hills are high and thickly covered with woods and farms typically Breton. The "Leviathan" anchored out about a mile and a half, so we had to come ashore by launch. I saw very little of Brest itself, as I had to rush off right after dinner to catch the train for Paris.
There was no sleeping car on the train. Five other officers and I shared a "six places" first-class compartment. We were due in Paris early in the morning, bat actually got there in the afternoon - about seven hours late. All I had to sat all day were a couple of small, very inferior sandwiches and a bottle of beer. When we stopped at a large station, it seemed impossible to get any accurate information from anyone as to how long we might stay. The guard would ring his bell intermittently, as though ready to start, and, as the restaurant was always away off and crowded, I dared not risk getting left.
At Paris I checked in at G. H. Then I tried to telephone to my brother at S. O. S. Headquarters at Tours, but could not get-the connection, so I sent him a wire. I then hunted up Colonel ****, a classmate and one of General Pershing's aides. General Pershing is in London. He and his aides live in a palace loaned to him by Ogden Mills. We went there first, as I wanted to see the garden which is one of the finest in Paris. Then we motored around town and out to Longchamps. Paris, of course, I shall not try to describe, especially as you know it well. It was my first visit, I was especially struck by the beautiful plan and layout of the city. Every broad street has a statue or palace at the end to give definition to the picture. The varied detail, but uniformity of general architectural affect, of long streets of handsome buildings was especially imposing, after living in Washington where our finest streets consist of a hodge-podge of palaces, hovels, cheap restaurants, etc.
We then had a quiet little dinner at Ciri's, costing 105 francs for the two of us not including the war tax of 10%, for which we had exemption coupons. I had to leave at 9:45, just as the town was beginning to liven up. Travel by train is cheap for soldiers - about one-fourth of the regular tariff, I believe. First class tickets (premier militaire) cost about the equivalent of a cent a mile. It cost only fr. 27.50 from Brest to Verdun. Again, neither a wagon-lit, nor a couchette was obtainable; nor are there dining cars on most trains.
My train was on time and reached Verdun at 5:08 A.M. The Engineer Special was on a siding. I woke up a nigger in the kitchen car and was shown a vacant bunk in a dormitory car, where I got a twenty minute nap before breakfast. After meeting a host of friends at breakfast, several of them classmates, we walked all over the town and through the citadels. In the afternoon, we motored out to one of the detached forts. The citadel has underground accommodations for 40,000 people. We did not attempt to follow out all its ramifications, Many miles of tunnels through solid rock were built during the war. The fortification system is most elaborate and well preserved, but the town is badly shot up. Later, we are to visit several of the detached forts which are completely demolished. The Meuse Valley here is quite open and the operations easy to follow.
Verdun, although never under terrestrial observation of the Germans, suffered heavily from long range shell fire. Especially noticeable is the destruction of the buildings along the streets used by the French as a circuit road of supply through the city. One of the greatest problems in the defense of Verdun was that of supply. As the railroad communications south through St. Mihiel and west to St. Menehould were cut, all supplies for the troops in the Verdun area bad to be brought in by motor trucks from Souilly and Bar-le-Duc. The road over which these came was called, "Sacree". It was widened and kept in repair by a large force of Engineers and was organized on the block system to keep in constant motion the 1500 trucks per day that were necessary to bring up sufficient food and ammunition.
The four bridges across the Meuse in the city were continually fired at by the Germans to break up the supply circuit, but by good luck they were never hit, though all the substitute bridges that were built along side them were destroyed by the German fire.
As an example, of the completeness with which Verdun was prepared for a long siege, I might mention the bakery underground in the citadel. There we found dozens of German prisoners baking the week's supply of broad for the town and its garrison. There are also amusement balls, messes, etc., all deep underground.
While out at Fort de Marre, I got too close to an acetylene torch, while examining a machine gun position, and burned a big hole in the side of my trench coat. The coat is ruined but I shall have to wear it, as there is no chance of getting another out here in the devastated region, nor even of getting it repaired.
After a hard day's tramping around in the rain and mud I finally got my clothes off this evening for the first time since donning them on Sunday morning on board the ships I got a bath by going out on the platform behind our car and standing under the drip from the roof. My, but it was cold!
This train is taking a group of about 125 Engineer officers along the front from Nancy to Ostend. We live in hospital cars, have our meals aboard, except lunch, and have a couple carloads of automobiles to get closer to things. Tomorrow we travel entirely by auto, or on foot, and have the train join us at Dun-sur-Meuse. After sitting up two nights in crowded compartments and having three pretty busy days rushing around, I expect to sleep a bit tonight and bate to think of breakfast at 6:30.
Dun-sur-Meuse.We motored all day, visiting many points on the French, American and German fronts through most desolate country, though the roads have been repaired and would be classed as poor macadam.
Wednesday, July 23rd, 1919.
It would be impossible to describe the country and to list one's impressions. We are now fairly into it, and are simply appalled at the magnitude of the operations. Miles of wire entanglements, camouflaged roads, thousands of cave shelters, shell holes, etc! Whole villages have been completely flattened to the ground. The pictures that have been published are accurate, but they do not bring the horror of the actual conditions home to one so far any.
At Montfaucon we visited the P. C. of the Crown Prince. It is in the only house in the town not completely demolished. No had a concrete and steel wall, about three feet thick, built inside a big house on three sides and reaching to the roof. Then he went underground and had a thirty foot periscope reaching up through a hole in the roof. His cubicle was equipped with telephones and electric lights. He was certainly insulated. The periscope has been sent to the museum at West Point.
At Romagne, we visited-the "Argonne Cemetery" where over 22,000 Americans are buried. It is being fixed up in fine shape. Already flowers are blooming and a large proportion of the graves have been sodded. It will be too bad If a mistaken sentiment forces the return of any considerable number of American dead to the United States.
The town of Romagne is a fitting location for the largest of our national cemeteries, as, around it occurred, during the second and third weeks of October, some of the hottest fighting our troops encountered. The breaking of the Kriemhilde Stellung at this point was vital to the success of the American offensive. This formidable system of defenses extended from Grand Pre east along the hills of the Cote Dame Marie above Romagne and across Hill 299 to the Muse, where it joined the main line of the Hindenburg system.
There are light railway tracks and ammunition dumps everywhere; also German prisoners in barbed wire stockades. Their principal work seems to be going around and exploding the "duds", of which there seems to be an infinite number. It is dangerous work and the German Government writes nasty notes and registers formal complaints every time a few prisoners are "expended" and dropped from the returns. On the whole the prisoners seem quite contented. They do a much better day's work than the average French soldier, of whom there are also lots loafing about.
Everywhere the fields are being cultivated again. People are moving into the ruined houses, or are building shacks. Their efforts to re-establish themselves amid such utter desolation strike one as being very pathetic. It would be much better to build a new town on a different site. I suppose the complicated French land titles, etc., prevent that, and the problem is too vast even for the Government to tackle on a grand scale.
I shall not bore you with all the details. Besides, you have had most of it already from the participants. We have several officers with us to describe things from their own experiences. From Ostend we go to Brussels, then across into Germany and up the Rhine. We disband in Paris about August 10th. It promises to be a wonderful trip.
I had hoped to catch my brother before he sailed for home, but I have just received a wire from his office at Tours to the effect that he sailed for the States on July 9th, so we passed each other somewhere on the ocean.