Weaponry would constitute the key to the battles. This included:
Firepower that had “never been seen before”. Enemy equipment was mainly dedicated to artillery. Across a 13 kilometer-wide area, 1,400 pieces of ordnance – nearly 700 pieces of which were cannons and heavy mortars – were supposed to allow the German infantry to easily cross the French lines. This artillery came from Russia and the Balkans. Pitted against this German weaponry were only 280 small-caliber French pieces, including the famous 75 Cannons. It was estimated that more than 60 million shells were fired on the battlefield.
On February 21, 1916, within the narrow triangle formed by Brabant, Ornes and Verdun, one million shells exploded in a few hours. The bombing was so violent that the shaking of the earth was clearly felt up to 200 kilometers away in the Vosges Mountains, near Black Lake.
First-Hand Account of Reserve Col. Jean Créhange:
« You can’t begin to visualize how it really was. The atmosphere, the smoke, the shells of every imaginable caliber, day and night, the shell holes, the lone bunkers, flooded with water and filled with mud, the dead bodies, the injured men, the madness. When barrier fire occurred, each cannon was shooting at a speed of 15 rounds a minute for three or four minutes. No longer than that, to avoid melting the cannons, which were sprayed with water. You became crazy, 24 hours at this rate of downtime, only 300 meters behind us. One day I went up to the gun battery, hidden behind a hill. The torrent of German gas shells flying overhead was so unrelenting, in one continuous air burst, that I had the feeling I could simply lift my arm to lose it.».
These were new automatic weapons that arrived at the battlefield. They fired more than 300 rounds per minute and mowed down enemy soldiers as if they were stalks of wheat in a field.
Widely employed for attacks and for “cleaning out” the trenches, flame-throwers incinerated men who died after atrocious suffering.
The first use of poisonous gases took place on April 23, 1915, in the region of Ypres. The German army sent a cloud of chlorine into the French lines, utilizing bottles connected to tubes. The attack resulted in 5,000 fatalities and the poisoning of 15,000 men.
Afterwards, the process was perfected (using gas shells and bombs). It is estimated that gas victimized 1,360,000 people (of which 91,000 died) during WWI. Those who were poisoned by gas suffered for a long time after the consequences of gassing (respiratory and cardiac insufficiencies ...). At first, soldiers wore just simple compresses, since the gas mask only appeared officially in February of 1916.
First-Hand Account of L. Lapouge
« On the evening of June 22, near the shelter of the four shafts, I was surprised by an unusual semi-silence, so I climbed up the shelter’s steps ... Thousands of shells slipped over our head and burst softly with a faint sound ... The Germans were showering us with diphosgene. Some lookouts shouted the gas alert. Onto my legs rolled an infantryman who was struggling and screaming in heart-rending fits. This poisonous attack lasted six hours while we remained silent and oppressed under our masks. Resigned to our fate, we waited, anxiously wondering if our masks would maintain their effectiveness for much longer. We kept firing toward the base of the hills to drive out the gas attacks. I’ll never, ever, forget the scenario of gloomy persons, with ludicrous faces reminiscent of deep-sea divers, tossing and turning, appearing larger in the faint glow of the flames ... their muffled voices seemed to arrive from far away, as if coming from beyond the grave.
Some men who had been taken by surprise en route had to stop and wait for many long hours ... All of the seriously injured who were stretched out in the bunker had been poisoned ... those poor men who, either through carelessness or panic, had adjusted their masks incorrectly and died after undergoing unspeakable torture. Nothing was more harrowing than those death-throes! I saw mottled faces and mouths dribbling with pinkish foam, twisted with intense convulsions, and men with clenched fingers beating their chests. I heard dreadful fits of coughing, heaving and hoarse screaming that carried streams of blood to the soldiers’ bleached lips. »
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