Orchard Dump
Webmatters : The Battle of Verdun 1916 : La Voie Sacrée


La Voie Sacrée

Today, the section of the Voie Sacrée as it approaches Verdun is formed by the D 1916 from Sortie 30 (Voie Sacrée) on the A 4 Autoroute as far as the junction with the D 603 at Moulin Brulé some eight kilometres short of Verdun town.

Just before the roundabout at that intersection you will see this monument on your right.

From Verdun, simply take the D 603 towards the A4.

There is a large car park with numerous panels explaining the history of this now famous road.

Decimal49.123315.29688 Map
The monument to the Voie Sacrée


Following the disastrous war against Prussia in 1870 the town of Verdun became one of the major fortifications on what was now France’s eastern frontier. That there would be another war to reclaim Alsace was never in any doubt — nor was the possibility of the newly created Germany striking first.

Should that happen Verdun was part of the eastern fortifications that would prevent the approach on Paris.

The opening of the Great War in August 1914 did not, however, go as expected for the French. Their own plans to advance straight into Alsace were thwarted by the German’s Schlieffen Plan.

The Germans swept through Belgium and came at the eastern fortifications from the rear. Fortunately for the French, they managed to rally on the Marne in September 1914 and pushed the invaders back up into Belgium. Trenches began to appear and the Western Front slowly developed into a muddy stalemate.

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

In comparison to the Allies, on the Western Front, the Germans only launched three major offensives throughout the war.

  • The gas attacks in Belgium in April 1915
  • The assault on Verdun in February 1916
  • The Spring campaign beginning in March 1918 (effectively a series of continuing offensives)

Allied plans disrupted

The Allies great plans for a joint offensive along the valley of the Somme in Picardie during the summer of 1916 were thrown into confusion by the commencement of General von Falkenhayn’s campaign against Verdun on 21st February.

The opening bombardment was infernal and the accompanying infantry assaults made enough rapid gains to put the town in serious danger of being taken.

The German artillery contained a number of 420mm naval guns, which were capable of hurling their shells up to twenty kilometres and onto the French lines of communication. Verdun was soon cut off from its supply lines.

With the main railway line constantly shelled and the major roads under observation all that was left to the beleaguered French was le Meusien a 60 cm narrow gauge railway alongside the road to Bar-le-Duc (a town some seventy-five kilometres to the south-west). Not much of a road but winding its way through the hills and valleys it was out of sight of the German observers.

The road today

The road today

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.

One of the pillars marking the route

On the roadside you will see these Voie Sacrée pillars

The daily experience

What would this have been like in mud ?

It is perhaps a sign of just how much technology was ignored by the military to discover that the French Army of 1914 had less than two hundred 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. Whilst not the battle winning stroke that was portrayed in the press it still evoked the spirit of a France with all hands to the wheel.

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

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

Unlike the German Army which kept the same Divisions in the battle throughout its ten month duration, the newly appointed French Commander Général Philippe Pétain organised a Noria so that units were constantly relieved.

A Noria (the word is Arabic via Spanish) has its origins in ancient waterwheels that used the flow of water to turn them. The wheel was fitted with buckets that would lift water and then pour it elsewhere into irrigations channels. The term was used at Verdun to allude to the constant flow of vehicles and men — in both directions.

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 three or even four tours of duty.

The Germans suffered in a different manner. For them there was never any let up in the daily horror and the hard core of experienced NCOs was slowly watered away in the endless attrition of attack and counter-attack.

Today the D 1916 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 though, it did, and the writer Maurice Barrès coined the name :

La Voie Sacrée — The Sacred Way.

Going up to the front

Serious faces, these soldiers are heading down the line

Commission de Régulation Automobile

The monument is 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 was inaugurated on 14 Mai 1967 by Général Boucaud who was the president of the Fédération du Train (FNT). The sculptor was Jean Barrois and the architect Gaston Schmitt.

It was at this point that soldiers had to get out and walk the final kilometres into Verdun. Because of its dual role as both entry and exit to the battlefield the soldiers soon nicknamed the point the tourniquet (turnstyle) and it seems fitting that it is not far from a modern roundabout.

The memorial consists of an obelisk cut in two ; representing the two directions. At its base is a semi circular wall containing friezes. You will note that the direction on the frieze is always outwards — one up the line, the other down.

At the top is a cogged, winged wheel, symbol of the Arme du Train an organisation created by Napoleon in 1807. It is the only monument to the service.

The French use of the word train is used in its sense of a line of people, animals or vehicles in a line : a wagon train. Transport, might be the best translation. In modern times the term would probably be : logistics.

Detail showing the noria

Detail on the monument

By pure chance on the 20th February 1916, the day before battle commenced, the French created the first ever specialised unit to control the flow and direction of the traffic — Commission de Régulation Automobile (CRA). This would grow into the Régiments de Circulation routière (RCR) after the Second World War, until their final demise in the early 2000s.

The organisation of the route was given to Capitaine Aimé Doumenc.

As the final inheritor of the CRA the 601e RCR based in the Citadel at Arras was responsible for many years for organising the flow of traffic for the 14th July parade in Paris. During WW2 they provided a lot of traffic control during the Allies Italian campaign and took part in the battle of Garigliano. If you visit the Arras citadel you will see a Voie Sacrée pillar which was inaugurated on the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun. A reminder of their heritage going back to 1916.

Sacred Way or Calvary

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.

Approximately 800,000 wounded men passed through this point. A small Medical post was set up that was capable of carrying out operations. The wounded were then either transported away by the returning lorries, or, if they were lucky, on one of the three journeys made by le Meusien each day. Conditions on the train were more comfortable than the lorries but there were only three hundred places available each day.

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.