Verdun, visions d'histoire (Verdun) (1928)
Director: Léon Poirier.
Starring: Albert Préjean (Le soldat français), Jeanne Marie-Laurent (La mère), Suzanne Bianchetti (L'épouse), Hans Brausewetter (Fritz - le soldat allemand), Thomy Bourdelle (L'officier allemand), Berthe Jalabert, Maurice Schutz (Le maréchal d'empire), Pierre Nay (Le fils), Jean Dehelly (Le jeune homme), Daniel Mendaille (Le mari), Antonin Artaud (L'intellectuel), André Nox (L'aumônier), Paul Amiot, José Davert (Le paysan), Henri Delannoy (François).
major WWI battle, Feb. 2 to December 18, 1916, in northeastern France
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
Verdun is a small city in the Meuse department in Lorraine in north-eastern France. It is located south of south eastern Belgium. It is a little south of east of Reims and a little north of west of Metz. The city is city on the river known as La Meuse.
Chasseur =light cavalry or infantry troops trained for rapid maneuvers.
In the exact locations where France suffered and victoriously fought for the world's freedom, Leon Poirier, helped by veterlans, shot this account between 1927 and 1928.
To all the martyrs to man's most terrible passion: WAR.
A door opens and troops pour through it.
First vision: MIGHT.
Ruins are shown from the area of Verdun.
February 1916, all clear on the front.
Those who left. Soldiers hop off the train.
Those who wait. The mother.
The son, a soldier, returns home with a big smile on his face.
The intellectual. Mother says: "Your brother wants to enlist."
The soldier shows his brother and mother a map of the Region of Verdun. The Caures Woods near Beaumont. The soldier says: "We've been here for 15 months in this secure area. "
Scenes of French soldiers behind their fortifications.
Intellectual brother tells his soldier brother that Russia is defeated and the Serbians crushed. And now the Hohenzollern are heading towards France. [The House of Hohenzollern is a noble family and royal dynasty of electors, kings and emperors of Prussia, Germany and Romania.]
The soldier tells his family not to worry because the troops are better off in Verdun than in Champagne.
The French Soldier. A fellow soldier shouts hello to our hero and asks him: "What are they saying in Paris?" Don't they know that the crown prince is going to attack France? On the road are refugees fleeing inland. The man says Verdun has been evacuated. Samogneux, Vacherauville, Bras, Fleury. "We're bound to move camp when we get to Vacherauville. "
Thc crown Prince, whose armies were about to attack Verdun, had his headquarters in Stenay, in the Chateau des Tilleuls. Scene of the Chateau. "An imperial visit brings serious news."
The German Officer. Comes out of the Chateau.
The German Soldier. Holds the horse for the officer. the officer tells him. "Wait for me in the mess. I'll go by foot."
The Old Marshal of the Empire. He is handed a note. Its says: "We, William the Emperor and King, announce that Germany is forced to begin an offensive. Our will of iron will bring us victory and defeat the enemy! We hereby give you the order to attack! "
The Old Marshal of the Empire goes to the mess. He tells the officers the plans and they seem quite pleased. They celebrate with a toast of drinks. The Marshal sites down at a map with three other high-ranking officers. They are going to place four "korp" around Damvillers (to the north of Verdun). These armies constituting 250,000 men head south through the Caures Woods. France has only 130,000 men.
The Marshal says: "By progressing rapidly along the right bank of the Meuse, we've taken 200,000 prisoners: the Sedan of World War !!" In no time the Germans cove the entire Meuse River in the area of Verdun down to St. Mihiel. In doing so they captured the hole in the doughnut of German troops to the east of the French at Verdun. In the hole the French people were cut off from the rest of France.
One of the German officers appears dejected. He says: "I think of those who will suffer." An officer shows the sad officer a quote from book by Nietzsche: "War and courage have done more great things than charity."
The aide to the Nietzsche fan comes up to the officer and the officer tells him: "Get everything prepared for tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. We're going in search of GLORY!"
An old French farmer has to evacuate his family. Some French soldiers hep him. The old farmer stays behind with his trusty dog. "From that moment on, the first dreadful canon blast could be heard at any moment."
February 20. Time moves on.
February 21. The Germans begin their attack. The old farmer's farm house is hit and a big part of it is ripped open. A French covered wagon is hit and destroyed. French soldiers start running for their lives.
The German officer says: "In order to leave one Frenchman standing the dead would have to rise again. "
The fire storm showered down upon the Caures woods. A shell gets a direct hit on the Colonel Driant's hideout! Lt. Petitcollot has been killed. The Colonel sends out a messenger to find on what's happening to the left flank, in the Haumont woods.
17:00 hours. The bombing seems to be subsiding.
The Germans took control of the Haumont woods. And now they are surrounding the Caures woods. The French rush into their front trenches and start to prepare for the German onslaught. They start firing and the Germans start falling.
But the trenches at Caures woods are very long and some Germans get into these trenches at the far ends. From here they get behind the French trenches and start winning the day. They throw a lot of grenades into the French trenches, killing a lot of French soldiers. The odds are five to one against the French. But the Driant chasseurs counter attack and in the night, Lt. Robin and his remaining troops succeed in reinstating their front lines.
At midnight, Lt. Col. Driant comes to see Lt. Robin.
The situation on February 21 at 22:00. The front at the beginning of the attack. From the Haumont Woods the Germans broke through the French lines on the French left flank. Lt. Robin on the right flank was pushed back, but took back the French front lines on the right flank.
Now Lt. Robin asks Driant: "What will I do with my 80 soldiers?" Driant tells the officer that he has to hold the ground where he is at.
The sacrifice of the 30th Corps of Driant chasseurs and General Herr's entire small army allowed for reinforcement to quickly arrive. Thousands of soldiers and trucks move up to the front lines.
In the early hours the Germans destroyed the Chalons-Verdun front. But from Bar-le-Duc to Verdun, the French created a new route: THE SACRED WAY.
The Young Man. Our hero arrives near the front. He asks for and is given some wine in his canteen from a woman living in one of the houses in the town. Another woman asks him the 20th Infantry and he explains that he's from the 7th, but the 20 is in the process of arriving. The women says they are from Vacherauville. Her husband is in the Caures woods. 59th Division. He asks our hero if the could give a note from her to her husband there. He takes the note. Then he has to run to jump into his truck that is leaving the town now.
Our hero and his buddy search for the husband in Caures woods. They find him wounded and start dragging him away from the fighting.
Before day, Captain Vantroys, liaison officer, brings the latest news from Lt. Col. Driant. GG1 intact, 1st and second line GG2 lost.
A counter attack? With whom? There are no more soldiers in reserve. The Driant chasseurs were left to die.
The Germans are advancing rapidly and the French are throwing hand grenade after hand grenade at the to hold them back.
One of our heroes tries to save the husband, but the German overrun his position and they take him captive. The husband is in really bad shape. He dies thinking about his wife.
On February 22 at 16:00 hours, Col. Driant had 70 men left. Lt. Simon and a few others, in charge of the retreat, withdrew. A German machine gun takes out quite a few of the withdrawing troops. Lt. Col. Driant dies amongst his chasseurs while defending France.
"he first page had been written on the shattered land of what would become, in the history of the victory of Verdun, the immortal symbol of French valor and tenacity." So wrote Lt. Col. Grasset.
The French farmer works for the French army now. He grabs our hero and asks: "And what happened to my boy?" Our hero just holds his head low not saying anything. The farmer gets his son's frienda hot drink. Our hero imagines he returns home to see his family, but then he disappears. He lays down on a bunk and goes to sleep. The farmer still has his trusty dog with him.
The front was penetrated.
On February 23 & 24, the invaders were able to tighten their grip. The crept south toward to the outskirts of Vacherauville.
An official communiqué is post of a bulletin board. In the region or North Verdun, the enemy has bombed our front from the Meuse to Fromezey. The enemy has multiplied its furious attacks leaving heaps of corpses without breaking our front. We've moved our line on both sides back from Samogneux towards Vacherauville as well as from South Ornes.
The wife of the husband who died is now very worried about her husband's fate seeing as how the Germans have passed by Caures woods. She has a little daughter with her. The thinks about her husband in better times.
Official communiqué. Our troops are holding their positions despite repeated assaults by an enemy who no longer counts its dead. In Woevre, the withdrawal of our outposts took place without trouble from the enemy. In the west of the Meuse, there was no infantry activity.
The Woevre Plain. It lies to the northeast of Verdun. The German troops takes it.
Rumors start to run wild as the Germans approach Verdun. The German cavalry at the gates of Verdun. Withdrawal on the left bank of the Meuse. Abandonment of Verdun. Paris in danger. Disaster.
General Joffre, Commander in Chief. Feb. 25, 1916 at 23:55. I gave an order to hold out on the right bank of the Meuse, in the north of Verdun. Anyone who gives an order of withdrawal shall be put before the war council.
And the 20th Corps marched above the German hordes on the Hauts-de-Meuse overlooking the Douaumont fort in the hills on the right as seen from Verdun.
The Germans rejoice over the news that Douaumont has fallen.
Wolff Agency. Douaumont, corner stone of the defense of Verdun, the heart of France. The Germans back home are delighted. There is talk of a separate peace agreement with France. The Crown Prince happily reviews the troops as they pass by. In eight day, the German Emperor will review the troops at the Place des Armes in Verdun, and the war will be over.
That day in the small village of Souilly, a general took command of the new French forces who were hastily gathering around Verdun. He was French GeneralPhilippe Pétain.
THEY SHALL NOT PASS. The Germans are now very close to Verdun. The French line is just below from west to east, Bras, Fort Douaumont and Vaux. What lay ahead of them was Cote de Froide Terre.
Second vision: HELL.
Yet, April came and spring brought life back to earth. The ghosts from Mort-Homme. The men get some much needed sleep. After that they wash their clothes. They have lots of good food and wine.
Our hero pole vaults over a large hedge between properties. There he sees the woman that filled his canteen with wine. They smile at each other. He asks her is she was the woman with her daughter who gave him the letter for her husband back in February. The woman says no and directs his gaze to the woman who did give him the letter.
Our hero and the wine giving woman take a real liking to each other and fall in love with each other. They go for walks among the blossoming fruit trees. He tells his girl that he's sure that the letter is still at Mort-Homme, the place where they were back in February. Our hero keeps having flashbacks to the fighting.
Mort-Homme and Hill 304 held out. These areas are northwest of Vacherauville. The German advance has stopped on the left bank of the Meuse as it had been on the right bank.
The French army blocked the road to the Germans. GeneralPhilippe Pétain was called to a superior position and named General Nivelle on May 2nd Commander in Chief of the Verdun Army continuously replaced in the endless cycle: "Noria".
Rest Area and the Regrouping of Forces. The rest area was behind the front lines in a semi-circle from Amiens on the left and Bar-le-Duc on the right. Divisions were removed from combat after a loss of 70% percent.
The last battle of the War of 1870 took place in Paris. The present war will end in Verdun. Verdun will be a major victory.
(Emperor William II harangues the 18th Corps: April 16, 1916.) The Commander in Chief says: "These French are appallingly stubborn in their resistance! What are our men doing? Where is the old army?"
He tells our Nietzsche-spouting officer: "I was flag-bearer in 1870. What a war! A victory per day! But we had Moltke!"
Nietzsche-lover says: "Your Excellence, today we have our Hindenburg!" In the field Hindenburg reviews his troops on the eastern front.
The Commander-in-Chief takes his boots off and has a little conference with his high-ranking officers. He tells them: "Still six more army Corps and Verdun will falls without fail." He wants to take Ouvrage de Thiaumont, Fleury, Forl de Souville, St. Michel and hit east of Belleville. But: "First take Fort Vaux."
Fort Vaux is shelled. Under the command of Commander Raynal, the fort was occupied by 7th Company of the 101st IR and 5th, 7th and 8th of the 142nd IR. [IR is infantry regiment.]
On June 2, 1916 at 2 a.m. the German troops start to move on the fort. The 7th Company is alerted in front of the fort. They start firing at the Germans. The Germans snap the barbed wire in places and get behind the French forces. They then bombard the French with hand grenades. The Germans than overrun the French trenches.
That day, the 7th Company of the 143nd IR is annihilated and its Commander, Captain Tabourot, was brought back fatally wounded to the block house.
German troops go on top of the roof of the fort. Then they ran a hose through an opening in the fort and poured poison gas into the chamber. Many of the defenders were overcome by the gas andthe Germans enter the fort.
The fort was surrounded. News arrives on June 3rd at the Verdun Citadel. A message was sent by passenger pigeons. "We're hanging on but are attacked by dangerous gases. Imperative to move. Get news to Souville. This is my last pigeon. Raynal."
The only means of communication with the fort is by optical Morse code. Fort Souville saw it. "Im almost out of water. " The water had to be shared equally by all. The defenders are hit by poison gas again. The men try to hurry and put on their gas masks. Men try to go out onto the field of the fort but are mowed down by German machine guns.
The French make another attempt to escape. At night, they start to go out a back way. The Germans fire off a flare and the German machine guns open up on the French. The German barrage restarts. Some French men were able to get through. The French front lines are 200 meters away. Those who escaped bring precious information to the troops preparing a counter attack. The fort's garrison could be useful in this operation. But they must be informed. Officer cadet Buffet says: "I'm going back." Sergeant Frette joins in: "So am I."
Both men get back into the fort despite being fired at by German machine guns.
A few hours later, the walled-in men heard some "75's" give a blast of hope.
6:00. No news of attack.
6:20. The fort speaks without achieving its goal. The attack had failed.
June 6th. 3:50. A message comes ins: "Hold the line." These were the last words. The fort surrenders to the Germans. The mostly wounded men come out of the fort. The prisoners are marched away.
The German Commander-in-Chief learns the good news. He responds: "Today Vaux, tomorrow Thiaumont, in eight days: Verdun!"
The capture of Fort Vaux allowed the Germans to attack the Ouvrage of Thiaumont, blocking them from Souville, the last of Verdun's ramparts.
In the ruins of Verdun, the French divisions prepare themselves for the shock. Our French hero is among them. He meets the French farmer again and shakes his hand. Vacherauville, the Caures woods. You were Sergeant. The farmer says: "I say, if they haven't come back yet, they won't be coming today."
An artillery shell bursts over the area and the sergeant yells for everyone to get to the Citadel!
Sector Number 1! Our hero looks over the shoulder of a man writing a letter to his mother telling her that they are heading out. "It'll be my first battle. It's a joy to know I'm fighting, to stop suffering, not spread it. I've enlisted to defend the country which has shaped my thoughts. But I want to fight without hatred. " Our hero thinks about his own mother and how he misses her.
The chaplain. Our hero asks the chaplain to watch over the letter writer for Mother will be sorrowful. A soldier comes up to our lieutenant and says that reinforcements have just arrived.
The lieutenant sees an old friend. It's back to Germany via Holland, a round trip! A soldier writes in his diary that death won't comes to those who stare it in its eyes.
The news arrives that Thiaumont is taken. The lieutenant is still there badly wounded. The chaplain and our lieutenant go out into no man's land along with two stretcher bearers. The lieutenant is hit by shrapnel from a shell explosion. The chaplain looks over him and draws a cross with his hands over the body. But the lieutenant is not dead.
The lieutenant struggles to get to a puddle where he takes a drink of water. There he sees a wounded German soldier still alive. The German soldier calls out for his mother. The lieutenant imagines the two mothers picking up the bodies of the two men and putting them on the same stretcher and then carrying their bodies away up to heaven.
The lieutenant is put on a stretcher and taken back to behind the front lines where men are being treated. He is placed in an ambulance. The ambulance pulls away and has to try to avoid behind hit by enemy artillery.
The ambulance driver is killed by shrapnel. One of the men in the ambulance gets out of the back and pushes the ambulance downhill to get it away from the shelling. The men are placed in hospital beds.
Third vision: Fate.
The chaplain looks at a stone with writing on it. It says Today Me, Tomorrow You. A cannon can destroy Hours, but it can't stop of hand of Fate from ruling Time.
The lieutenant's buddy goes over to another ward to check on our lieutenant. The lieutenant's mother is there and the buddy shakes hands with her. In the newspaper the headlines is thatthe Russians Invade Bukovine. A Massive Roundup. Marching in Czernowitz. The Conqueror.
Meanwhile, near Artois, the echo of the Cossaks' horses is heard.
The battle of the Somme was drawing near.
The King of England and Mr. Poincare, President of the French Republic, review the troops. who will be fighting for a common purpose. But the enemy was waiting near by. And as of June 15th, the attacks against Verdun multiplied ferociously.
In endangered Verdun, the Territorial Armies prepared their defensive "a la Saragosse". The French farmer continues to work amongst the soldiers.
A German plane flies over the French troops and drops leaflets. "French citizens, happy are those who return alive from the Hell of Verdun. The old man gives a letter to one of the soldiers and asks him to read it out loud to the fellows: "The moment is crucial. Feeling hunted on all sides, the Germans launch attacks on our front in hope of reaching Verdun before being attacked themselves by the allied forces. You will not let them pass, my comrades! " General Nivelle.
The soldiers head out again for the front lines. The girl friend of our hero lieutenant gives him a special cross to keep him safe.
July 1st, 1916. The French-British Armies. They have attacked the front of the Somme.
The German Commander-in-Chief won't be deflected from his goal: Verdun! Sizable reserves of men can be put into play! A large-scale operation will be launched against the last line of defense of Verdun. The first objective: Souville Fort. They will continue to advance until the outskirts of Verdun on the right bank of the Meuse.
Forces engaged: the 1st and 2nd Bavarian Corps, 15th Corps, Alpine Corps, 19th, 1st and 2nd Division. The commander opens a window and lightning strikes and the winds blow so much that it blows the German plans off his desk.
The French are digging trenches.
In the morning, the living disappear into chaos. Artillery barrages begin again.
A note is delivered at the French front lines: "Send exact position of the German front-lines between the Vaux-Chapitre woods and the chemin de fer Meusien. Information requested by the division.
The guy receiving the note looks around the area and wonders where is the Vaux-Chapitre woods [lies southeast of Thiaumont] and the chemin de fer meusien? Two French soldier go out to see the lay of the land. The lieutenant is one of the men.
German troops receive a similar message: "Send sketch immediately of the French positions between the Vaux-Chapitre woods and the chemin de fer Meusien [the railway line between Bar-le-Duc and Verdun]." Three mengo up the ridge to see the lay of the land.
One of the French soldiers looking at the land is hit by artillery. The other French soldier, the lieutenant, gets caught in the mud. The three German soldier pull him out of the mud. Our hero has go to with the Germans now. Two of the German soldier go ahead of the other two men and they get themselves killed by artillery fire. The lieutenant makes a break for it to return to his lines.
July 12, 1916. The Germans attack Souville Fort and the last Verdun defense line. The French are holding the line. Gas is being used and the French put on their gas masks. Around 15:00 hours the Germans reach the slopes of the Souville Fort. A German shouts: "Onward and upward for the Emperor and the Empire!"
The German now reach the top of the slopes and a fellow with binoculars takes a look, shouting out: "Verdun!" He can see the city before them. The Germans stands and to tells his men to come on and he is hit by machine gun fire.
The French launch a counter-attack with their artillery blazing away. French soldiers throw lots of grenades at the Germans as they run forward. The Germans that were once at the top of the slope are now retreating.
On July 12, the Crown Prince's last Imperial troops were annihilated as they attempted to conquer Verdun.
Forced to face the French-British advance, on the Somme Front, the enemy had to stop its advance. Action at the Somme was northwest of Verdun. A road ran from the Somme by Soissons, Reims and then to Verdun. The Allied forces make a breakthrough and the German have to transfer forces from Verdun to the Somme. The Germans are able to stop the breakthrough after the Allied advance.
The Crown Prince's attack fails at the heroic citadel.
Hail the soldiers of Verdun. The wings of victory start to open. Navarre appears in the dark Verdun sky. Planes take off from airfields. The storks are leaving!
The aide to the Nietzsche-loving officer says: "That means a storm is brewing!" A bomb explodes near the aide.
October came. After eight months of efforts, the French cannons are ready to fight back. Now the Germans are running for their lives.
October, 24th, 1916. The upper reaches of the Meuse River is covered in thick fog. The French launch an attack on the Germans.
At 13:00 hours, the fog clears, blown away by a west wind that passed through all of France's provinces. The heroes of the Colonial Infantry asre the frit to reach the Douaumont Fort. The liberators' enthusiasm was fueled by the man who had led them into battle: General Mangin. Officers, NCO's of Mangin's task force, in just four hours in one glorious attack, you had taken away from your powerful enemy, the land bristling with obstacles and fortresses from the north-east of Verdun, that took them eight long months to take from you. France is proud of its sons. So writes General Nivelle.
There are lots of German prisoners takes from the captured fort. In the recapture of Douaumont Fort - November 2nd, 1916 - Day of the Dead. Church services are held for the men. Pray for them. They'll always be alive in our thoughts.
Under the pressure of Lardemelle's division, the Germans evacuate the Vaux Fort on November 2nd. In truth, it should be given back to the dead. (Captain Henry Bordeaux)
1918. Foch. I herewith renounce for all time claims to the throne of Prussia and to the German Imperial throne connected therewith.
Amerongnen, November 28th, 1918. Signed William.
The aide to the Nietzsche lover feels like he has been freed from his chains.
Peace. And from city to city and from steeple to steeple. Our hero lieutenant starts walking home. He meets up with his girl friend and they kiss.
Our hero now sows seeds on his farm.
Most of the story is taken directly from the subtitles with some comments based on the silent film part. Despite the lack of sound, it is fairly easy to follow the action in the story. This is aided by a number of good maps presented in the film. There was a lot of footage used that was actually taken in World War I. The acting is okay, but it's limited without the use of the voice. And there were literally thousands of extras in the film. Following the characters was complicated by the fact that no names were used for the main characters. There are lots of historical names used, but these are not the main characters of the film. So now I know what happened at the Battle of Verdun.
Patrick L. Cooney, Ph. D.
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