Years before war broke out Emile Driant had retired from the Army in order to go into politics, becoming the Député for Nancy (Member of Parliament).
He used his position to chastise the Army for its inadequate preparations, and yet, on the outbreak of hostilities immediately rejoined the colours, despite being over 60.
He was given the command of two battalions of Chasseurs à pied — the 56e BCP and 59e BCP — and by the spring of 1915 found himself in the Bois des Caures to the north-east of Verdun. The wood’s name means Hazelnut Wood in the local dialect.
The 56e BCP originated from the mining areas of the north of France whilst the 59e BCP were from around St Quentin and the Meuse. Few had ever received a period of leave and many of those in the 56e BCP had homes that were now occupied by the Germans.
In August 1915 Driant sent a report predicting the fact that any blow against Verdun would fall on his men, and that preparations for the defence of Verdun were still woeful. Without more men and equipment Driant declared, he would not be able to hold the wood against a determined attack by the Germans.
This report was submitted via his old political channels. Following a visit by a working party and their report in December 1915, confirming Driant’s opinion, Joffre blew his top.
The French Commander in chief dismissed any suggestions that Verdun was vulnerable. Quite the opposite.
I consider nothing justifies the fear…
After days of delay waiting for the weather to become favourable the German bombardment opened up on the French lines at 0715 hours. The weight of shells falling on Driant’s position steadily increased as everything from field artillery to the enormous Krup naval guns poured their fire into the attack zone.
80,000 shells representing almost 10,000 tonnes of ammunition (including gas) fell into an area of less than a square kilometre.
At 1600 hours the German Infantry left their deep dugouts and prepared positions and advanced against the Chasseurs (Light Infantry).
Because of the high water table in the area, Driant had decided not to prepare a regular line of trenches, but rather a system of smaller positions with concrete (betonée) positions in support.
Despite being numbed by the deluge of shells that had fallen on them for nine hours the Chasseurs fought and hung onto every scrap of ground and shell hole that they could. Rather to the surprise of many of the attacking Germans, machine gun fire continued to pour into them, making them far more cautious.
Grimly hanging on, Driant’s men were slowly outflanked as their attackers made better headway against less prepared opposition. By nightfall Driant’s flanking units had been forced back and the remnants of his two battalions were now on their own.
Morning found Driant surrounded on three sides and despite heroic actions by his machine gunners, his soldiers were pushed back, metre by metre, by the seemingly never ceasing tides of Germans.
By 1630 hours only handfuls of the Chasseurs were still effective, and still the Germans came on in their thousands.
Eventually the Germans managed to get in behind the wood and Driant’s fate was sealed. Together with his two Battalion commanders: Renouard and Vincent he destroyed his papers and issued orders for those still alive to try and break through the encircling Germans towards Beaumont (Now one of the destroyed villages).
As Driant stopped to give aid to a wounded soldier he was hit and fell to the ground. His last words reported as being:
Oh! Là, Mon Dieu!
Only 500 of Driant’s original 1,200 soldiers (most of them wounded) managed to get back to the French lines.
The stand by Driant and his two Battalions had held up the German attack for twenty-four vital hours and made them far more wary of the defending French who were supposed to have been obliterated by the weight of shell fire.
Rather like a modern day Cassandra, Driant had warned the French and been ignored. Happily for France his own preparedness had gone some way to saving his country.