The bombardment started on the morning of the 21st at precisely 7:12 am with a shell landing on the cathedral in Verdun.
The whole hotel building where I stayed in a room on the second floor shook mightily, causing my window to shatter inwardly, spraying glass all over.
I shrieked loudly as I dove under my bed covers. The next salvo came only moments later, landing on the main train station. Since then it has been an almost constant bombardment of the city with fire crews hopelessly overwhelmed and the town’s inhabitants scrambling for any form of protection from the massive German guns, which I’m told are about twenty miles away.
It’s very hard to describe the awful, teeth rattling sound of those guns. It’s as if gigantic marching drums were being played by some ancient, angry war god gleefully pounding out his hellish cadence.
Sleep is impossible. Fatigue and panic make for truly terrible companions.
This morning I was asked by the director of a nearby orphanage to transport eight children and their caretakers out of the city and south to Chaumont-sur-Aire.
At first I was unsure of the reason why I in particular was asked to do this but then I was told that word had spread of my rather daring night time drive to Beauvais a few months ago.
We set out in a motorized lorry at dawn during a short break in the shelling. Though, as we neared the city limits, a few shells dropped uncomfortably close, landing on the spot where we had just passed. At one point the lorry swayed violently to the right from the force of a shell blast landing on a nearby factory. Screams from the children were almost as deafening as the explosion, as bricks and splintered wood flew through the air just behind the Lorry covering the street in rubble. Thank God I had a good grip on the steering wheel. If the shell would have dropped one second sooner we would have been buried. I prayed no one was inside of that building.
“Quelle horreur!” Madame Drouet, one of the chaperones, yelled with her hands covering her ears. She had the misfortune of sitting up front with me as we careened through the streets of Verdun.
“We’ll make it!” I yelled back at her in French. The lorry hit a snowy section, causing the end to fishtail. “Hang on children!” I glanced in my rearview mirror to see the children, most of them crying and hanging on to each other in terror.
Then, just as we’d passed through the town’s southern gate, the engine suddenly died. My passengers went silent with fear as I coasted the truck to a stop. The pounding sound of the shelling continued as I jumped out of the vehicle and popped the hood.
I pushed aside my growing panic, and firmly gripped the engine crank, gathering my strength to turn it. The engine caught once, ran roughly for a few seconds and then died again. I knew we had plenty of fuel for the journey so that wasn’t the problem. I tried again, but it was no use.
I quickly opened the driver’s side engine cowl to look inside. I had a hunch that whatever it was, it was likely related to the big blast we had just received on the left side of the vehicle from the German shell. The mechanic in charge of this vehicle had told me that he had examined the engine just the night before and deemed it to be in perfect working order, therefore it was reasonable to suspect that something had happened just a few moments ago. I received basic auto repair back in the early days of my training, so I prayed it would be something obvious, and not too serious.
Madame Drouet jumped out of the vehicle and rushed over to me. “Vous ne voulez pas dire que vous êtes mécanicien?” She was amazed that I would even know the first thing about engines.
The first thing we were taught about motors is that the electrical components are often the first to fail. In fact, some of the rubber coating on the wiring can be chewed off by small animals mistaking it for food when they huddle into the engine compartments for warmth. This leaves bare wire open and exposed to corrosion, especially in the winter.
I didn’t see any signs of that, but after frantically searching the engine for signs of something amiss, I found a dangling cable that seemed out of place. I recognized it as an electrical lead for one of the sparking plugs. The clip had slipped off the tip. I hurriedly re-attached it and, lacking any tools, tightened it as best I could by hand as Madame Drouet looked on in amazement.
I quickly closed the cowl and turned the engine crank handle and motioned for Madame Drouet to get back in the front seat. The engine caught immediately, and the children, capable of so much resilience, cheered. Just as I settled back in behind the wheel and shifted into first gear another shell hit about seventy feet away. Fortunately it didn’t hit any structures, but we were suddenly showered with snow mud as I urged the lorry forward.
Finally, we made it to an old dirt road in a little known route through the forest, the sound of the shelling fading behind us. After about half an hour of slowly making our way through the dense woods we came to an open field. I pulled the lorry off the road and left the engine running.
“J’ai juste besoin de m’arrêter un instant.” I said to the children. Most of them had stopped crying and were staring at me with wide eyes, not saying a word.
I loosened the grip I had on the steering wheel realizing that I had been squeezing it with all my strength. My hands were shaking. My mouth was dry. I took a gulp of water from my canteen and for a brief moment I thought I might be ill, but I swallowed hard and put the vehicle back in gear. The rest of the journey took two hours. I had to stop only once more to re-attach the sparking plug wire. We reached the village of Chaumont-sur-Aire by mid-afternoon, and I delivered the children to a convent there.
I will stay with them overnight, and then try to contact my superiors for further orders. I doubt very much they will send me back to Verdun. There’s no telling how long the Germans will keep up their attack on the city.