*The year 2014 is coming: the centenary of the Great War.
*We’ll be hearing rather a lot about the Great War for the next four years. Horrible things, because World War One was horrible.
"Peering through a narrow slit in one of its armored observatoires, I was able to view the whole field of the world’s greatest battle — a battle which lasted a year and cost a million men — as from the gallery of a theatre one might look down upon the stage, the boxes, and the orchestra-stalls.
"Below me, rising from the meadows beside the Meuse, were the shattered roofs and fire-blackened walls of Verdun, dominated by the stately tower of the cathedral and by the great bulk of the citadel. The environs of the town and the hill slopes beyond the river were constantly pricked by sudden scarlet jets as the flame leaped from the mouths of the carefully concealed French guns, which seemed to be literally everywhere, while countless geyser-like irruptions of the earth, succeeded by drifting patches of white vapor, showed where the German shells were bursting.
"Sweeping the landscape with my field-glasses, a long column of motor-trucks laden with ammunition came within my field of vision. As I looked there suddenly appeared, squarely in the path of the foremost vehicle, a splotch of yellow smoke shot through with red. When the smoke and dust had cleared away, the motor-truck had disappeared. The artillery officer who accompanied me directed my gaze across the level valley to where, beyond the river, rose the great brown ridge known as the Heights of the Meuse.
"Do you appreciate," he asked, "that on three miles of that ridge a million men — 400,000 French and 600,000 Germans — have already fallen?"
"Beyond the ridge, but hidden by it, were Hill 304 and Le Mort Homme of bloody memory, while on the horizon, looking like low, round-topped hillocks, were Forts Douaumont and de Vaux (what a thrill those names must give to every Frenchman!) and farther down the slope and a little nearer me were Fleury and Tavannes. The fountains of earth and smoke which leaped upward from each of them at the rate of half a dozen to the minute, showed us that they were enduring a particularly vicious hammering by the Germans.
"There are no words between the covers of the dictionary which can bring home to one who has not witnessed them the awful violence of the shell-storms which have desolated these hills about Verdun. In one week’s attack to the north of the city the Germans threw five million shells, the total weight of which was forty-seven thousand tons. Eighty thousand shells rained upon one shallow sector of a thousand yards, and these were so marvellously placed that the crater of one cut into that of its neighbor, pulverizing everything that lived and turning the man-filled trenches into tombs.
"Hence there is no longer any such thing as a continuous line of trenches. Indeed, there are no longer any trenches at all, nor entanglements either, but only a series of craters. It is these craters which the French infantry has held with such unparalleled heroism.
"The men holding the craters are kept supplied with food and ammunition from the chain of little forts — Vaux, Douaumont, and the others — and the forts, themselves battered almost to pieces by the torrents of steel which have been poured upon them, have relied in turn on the citadel back in Verdun for their reinforcements, their ammunition, and their provisions, all of which have had to be sent out at night, the latter on the backs of men.
"So violent and long-continued have been the hurricanes of steel which have swept these slopes, that the surface of the earth has been literally blasted away, leaving a treacherous and incredibly tenacious quagmire in which horses and even soldiers have lost their lives. General Dubois told me that, only a few days before my visit to Verdun, one of his staff-officers, returning alone and afoot from an errand to Vaux, had fallen into a shell-crater and had drowned in the mud.
"Indeed, the whole terrain is pitted with shell-holes as is pitted the face of a man who has had the small-pox. So terrible is the condition of the country that it often takes a soldier an hour to cover a mile. What was once a smiling and prosperous countryside has been rendered, by human agency, as barren and worthless as the slopes of Vesuvius…."