Alexander Pepys’ War Diary – February 1916

FEBRUARY 1916

Nine days ago tat the easter city of Verdun the French troops guarding the city and its fortresses were subjected to a massive artillery barrage – which continues day after day. Then the enemy began their assaults. Fort Douaumont was taken four days ago, a colossal loss as ‘Papa D’is their prestige fortress, apparently built after the Prussian victory 44 years ago to defend eastern France. A General Petain has just been given command, found off duty in Paris. Let us hope he concentrates on the duty to inspire his troops to repel the assaults.

By coincidence, at the beginning of the month I was studying the French light railways. The purpose was to see the performance of the French in bringing up supplies by small wagons from Bar-le-Duc to that front. Also how useful our British rail engineers are in helping with he construction of the 60cm gauge tracks. Though the front ws quiet, some French officers I spoke to thought it was time Verdun received German attention, being at right angles between the Champagne and St. Mihiel fronts. I was taken by Captain Roches, a young engineer, along the Decauville tracks to the city. The lines are well engineered and in this new emergency should help get men and materials into the trenches. When I returned to London the office of the President of Board of Trade asked to give my impressions of the area to the Rail Executive Committee. Naturally enough the War Office is worried as to how the French forces will fight, having suffered so many casualties last year. I was later told my assessment was illuminating. Not sure what that means.

The Turks, having moved troops from Gallipoli, are offering great resistance to the British forces pushing north to relieve Kut. Last month over four thousand became casualties at two battles. Clearly the enemy have become battle-hardened from their defence of the Dardanelles. With wintry conditions in Russia like in Mesopotamia the Eastern front is ‘quiet’ but at the expense of great hardship to those manning the trenches. Similarly for the Italian troops in the Dolomites. Avalanches are as deadly as shellfire.

As to British shells, Lloyd George is hustling their manufacture. Production has not yet risen, they will be needed for the Spring Offensive. An Eric Geddes has been livening up our colleagues by employing his commercial expertise to cut away bureaucratic tape.

I can see Natasha is gradually getting weaker. But she still comes with me to our flat during the week. When I put to her she should not she stops me by saying the young trainee nurses are keeping her going. I cannot doubt her determination. Flora is a tower of strength, keeping the household running for our children. Rose is studying hard – buoyed up by the letters from Rory. The boys are understandable about the lack of birthday celebrations, etc. They appreciate the context of war.

A letter arrived from Paris. Papa Onegin wrote to tell me how the morale of the French people is under considerable strain because of Verdun. Should the city fall, it is a straight road for the enemy to reach Paris. The casualty lists already are appalling. He confides that unfortunately the ghastly poodles of his Mere Marie are, but for one, not on the lists.