They Shall Not Pass
The caves described in the Arabian Nights are not more wonderful than
the rock citadel of Verdun; in many ways they are not so marvelous. The
old citadel is now like a deserted cave, but a cave lighted by
electricity and with a passenger elevator to carry one from the lowest
floor to the top of the rock, a hundred feet above. In former wars it
was a hive of soldiers.
Blasted out of the solid rock-hill are
rooms, great halls, passages,
hospitals, storerooms, and barracks. The heaviest shells of the enemy
fall harmless from the natural rock. Here, one would think, a few
soldiers could hold the town and the Meuse valley against greatly
superior numbers. And this would be true if it were not for the fact
that modern long-range guns can be placed by an enemy on the
surrounding hills, once they have won them, and prevent food,
ammunition, or supplies being brought to the citadel. Leaving these
guns with enough men to work them, the great body of the enemy could
then advance towards Paris, for the Meuse valley at Verdun is the
highway from Metz to Paris.
The French generals realized long ago that the city and the valley
could not, because of the increased power of big guns, be defended from
the citadel. So they built great forts several miles from the city upon
the hills which surrounded it, to halt the Germans when they should
advance, as France knew they would when they were ready.
For an army to get from Germany into France and to the plains east of
Paris, it was necessary to pass down the valley of the Meuse and
through Verdun, and for this reason France spent vast sums of money to
make these forts impregnable.
After the opening weeks of the World War had shown how easy it was for
the German big guns to destroy the finest modern forts, like those at
LiÃ©ge, Namur, and Antwerp, the French command removed the garrisons
from the forts protecting Verdun and placed them in trenches farther
away from the city and the citadel, upon the second range of hills.
There was another way for the Germans to reach the plains of Champagne
and of ChÃ¢lons, which by treaty they had agreed not to use. That way
was through Belgium. When the Huns declared this treaty only "a scrap
of paper" to be torn up whenever their plans required it, and, to the
surprise of all honorable nations, went through Belgium, they were soon
able to reach the plains east and north of Paris, and Verdun ceased to
be a key position. Verdun was about one hundred and fifty miles from
Paris, and the Germans were already less than half that distance from
the city. So when it was learned that the enemy had determined to
capture Verdun, the forts surrounding it, and the highway through the
river valley, the French command decided it was not worth holding at
the cost in lives that would be necessary. To capture it would help the
Germans very little, and to retire from it would greatly improve the
The Germans doubtless realized that this would be the decision of the
French and that they would have an easy, an almost bloodless, victory.
They also knew that all Germans and all Frenchmen had for centuries
looked upon Verdun as a second Gibraltar and as one of the chief
defenses of Paris and northern France, one which had been made--as the
French thought--impregnable by the expenditure of vast sums of money.
For this reason the Germans believed its loss would be taken as a
terrible blow by the French people, and would be considered by the
German populace as the greatest victory of the war. They hoped it might
be the last straw, or one of the last, that would break the backbone of
the French resistance. In order to give credit for this great victory
to their future Kaiser, the armies of the Crown Prince were selected
for the easy task.
The French command, it is said, had already issued the first orders
for the retreat to stronger positions, when the French civic leaders
realized Germany's game by which she hoped to win a great moral victory
and to add to the hopes and courage of the German people; and although
General Joffre believed it was a mistake, the French decided to remain
just where they were.
The Germans were so sure of everything going as they had planned that
they had advertised their coming victory in every corner of Germany and
even in the Allied countries. When they found they were to be opposed,
they brought up larger forces and when these were not strong enough to
win, they increased them, until the Battle of Verdun, in which the
Germans lost nearly half a million men in killed, wounded, and
prisoners, became probably the greatest battle in the history of the
world. It continued for six months.
Is it not strange that this, the greatest of all battles, was not a
conflict waged to secure some territory, some river crossing, some
fort, or some city absolutely necessary to win further progress, but a
battle to add strength to the German mind and soul and to weaken the
spirit of the French? Think of these modern Huns, who believe in the
force of might and of material things, fighting for a victory over the
spirit, which is never really broken by such things and is never
conquered by them, but is to be won only by justice, mercy,
friendship, love, and other spiritual forces.
And the French spirit did not flinch or weaken. The French people and
the French soldiers said, "They shall not pass," and they did not pass.
The Germans brought their big guns near enough to destroy the city, but
the citadel laughed at them. They captured Fort Douaumont and Fort
Vaux, but later had to give them up to the French.
All of Hunland rejoiced when the Brandenburgers captured Fort
Douaumont, and the disappointment of the French people made every one
realize that to have given up the city and the citadel without a fight,
even though it was wise from a military point of view, would have been
a grave mistake. But before the long battle was over, the French
soldiers made one of their most remarkable charges back of waves of
shell fire and swept the Germans from the hill upon which the fort was
built. They recaptured the fort, taking six thousand prisoners, and
sent thrills and cheers through France and the civilized world.
No, they did not pass. The soul of France with her flaming sword stood
in the way. The Huns were trained to fight things that they could see,
that they could touch, that they could measure, and especially things
that they could frighten and kill. The soul of France they could not
see, just as they could not, at the opening of the war, see or
understand the soul of Belgium, and just as they did not believe in or
comprehend the soul of America, later. But the soul of France barred
their way and they did not pass, for they could neither frighten her
nor kill her.
For though the giant ages heave the hill
And break the shore, and evermore
Make and break and work their will;
Though world on world in myriad myriads roll
Round us, each with different powers
And other forms of life than ours,
What know we greater than the soul?
* * * * *
The right is more precious than peace. We shall fight for the things
which we have always carried nearest our hearts. To such a task we
dedicate our lives.
WOODROW WILSON, 1917.