La Voie Sacrée

The Sacred Way

By the end of the opening campaign of the war the fortress town of Verdun marked a salient in the eastern lines of the French positions.

The commencement of General von Falkenhayn's campaign to bleed France white on 21 February 1916 almost completely cut the town off from the remainder of France.

The German artillery contained a number of 420mm naval guns, which were capable of hurling their shells up to 20 kilometres and onto the French lines of communication.

All that was left to the beleaguered French was a 60cm narrow gauge railway alongside the road to Bar-le-Duc some 75 kilometres to the south-west.

In 1916 the road to Bar-le-Duc was very different from today. It is only the small marker stones with their Adrian Casques on top that bring home that this is indeed the road familiar in film with its never ending fleet of trucks slowly winding its way to the front. Rather more easily spotted are the larger markers showing the route to victory at the end of the Second World War.

The Kilometre Markers

It is perhaps a sign of just how much technology was ignored to discover that the French Army of 1914 had less than 200 trucks. To supply Verdun throughout 1916, every truck that could be found was requisitioned for use by the military. This was almost a repeat of the famous Marne Taxis during the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914 (Paris Taxis helped transport an Army to outflank the German advance and bringing the Schliefen plan to a halt).

Trucks that broke down were pushed aside to ensure that the slow trundling of one vehicle every 14 seconds never ceased. Everyday 15 to 20 000 men and 2 000 tonnes of munitions travelled the road.

To keep the roads clear the infantry were required to march in the fields.

The Drivers Monument

Unlike the German Army which kept the same Divisions in the battle throughout its ten month duration, the French Commander: Pétain organised a roulement system so that units were constantly relieved.

Each system had its advantages and disadvantages. Pétain's men got rest away from the front, but by the end of the battle two thirds of all France's soldiers had served in the mud ridden wasteland of Verdun.

In the Ossuaire at Douaumont you can read the names of the Divisions who served at the front line and the periods that they were there. For some, Verdun meant 3 or even 4 tours of duty.

The Germans suffered in another way. No let up in the daily horror and the hard core of experienced NCOs slowly watered away in the endless attrition of attack and counter-attack.

Today the N 35 is a fine metalled road. In 1916 during the spring thaw and summer rains it was often touch and go as to whether or not the dirt road would hold under the constant passage of vehicles and men.

In ten months the equivalent of a Division of soldiers threw down 700,000 tonnes of stones onto the road to try and maintain its surface.

Hold it did though and the writer Maurice Barrès coined the name:

La Voie Sacrée - The Sacred Way.

 

The Monument to Sacred Way

A monument has been erected at the junction with the old Paris Road to commemorate the legion of drivers and organisers who helped perform a feat every bit as important as that across Lake Ladoga in Leningrad twenty six years later. If Verdun had fallen, France would have fallen.

It sits on the hill on the left hand side of the road as you travel towards Bar-le-Duc. As you pass the junction with the D 903 look to your left.

Out of this Noria as it is called in French, the army was required to create specialised units to control the flow and direction of the traffic.

Given a green brassard (arm band) to show their authority the descendants of these units can now be found in the Citadelle of Arras - the Martyred Town.

Their shoulders still carry the brassard and their badge the winged wheel you see on the monument.

601è RCR: Arras 601è RCR: Arras
The monument to the drivers of the Voie Sacree

Whilst it may have been called the Sacred Way, to so many of France's youth it was more the Road to Calvary and martyrdom. When you see village memorials across France many of the names commemorated will have fallen into the abyss that was Verdun.

Von Falkenhayn was correct in his assessment that the French would bleed themselves white defending the symbol of Verdun. In allowing his men to actually try to capture the town rather than push just enough to keep the French coming on, he managed to destroy a good part of Germany's own army.

Both sides did the bleeding.