WITH THE FRENCH ARMY AT VERDUN, Dec. 18, 1916 (UP) - A roar that rocked the earth and sky, a seething volcano of fire and smoke - and an advance of clockwork precision every man abreast his fellow soldier along a front of five miles - this was Friday's French victory at Verdun.
When the inferno of noise and fire had died down the French calculated they had wiped out two whole divisions of Germans - 40,000 men. The net result was thrusting back of the German line more than three miles from Souvelle, Verdun's last defense, from which point back in July the Germans were separated by only five hundred yards. Also, the ground taken was that over which the Germans for six weeks had worked day and night entrenching and fortifying.
I witnessed this great battle from one of the highest forts behind the French lines, a point of vantage permitting a view of the entire five miles of the front, from Vacherauville to beyond Bezonvaux. The artillery preparation, which had extended along the entire Verdun front to St. Mihiel, evidently puzzled the Germans. They expected an attack somewhere else and therefore were unable to begin their barrage fire until the French had swept up a goodly portion of Pepper Ridge.
The French assault was made with such clockwork precision that the entire advance of nearly two miles was accomplished at a uniform pre-established pace. The foot troops advanced under a perfect curtain of artillery fire, with rifle and hand grenade barrage starting at each stop. This barrage wiped out any German opposition which had escaped the artillery and the infantry never fell behind the pre-established rate of advance.
The attack was launched at 10 o'clock Friday morning. It followed a day's terrific artillery preparation culminating just before the infantry leaped from their trenches into such a steady roar that combined with the unbroken rumble of scores of aeroplanes overhead, the air and earth literally trembled and vibrated together.
When the French had swept up a goodly portion of Pepper Ridge there was a straight line of fine white smoke to be seen along the side of the ridge. There the grenade throwers were executing their barrage fire while awaiting an artillery curtain for their further advance. Then the line leaped forward and executed a second grenade barrage. All these barrage fires continued smoking in the wet, sticky air. The entire slope of the Pepper Ridge was ribbed with tiny white smoking lines, marking every advance.
As the French troops neared the summit of the height, the fury of the battle increased. Innumerable rockets shot skyward as the different sections of the French attackers signaled aeroplanes of their advance. It looked like a great pyrotechnical display - a glorified Fourth of July in America.
The German barrage, which had opened at short range opposite Pepper Ridge slope, lengthened as the French barrage ascended from the front side - and the two curtains met at the summit in a frightful intermingling of explositions that turned the entire ridge into a seething, smoking volcano.
Yet - a moment afterward - rockets shot up from the opposite side, gave notice that the French had successfully passed this curtain and were ascending on the opposite side.
Within an hour the entire ridge was captured. Then began a mad race to the rear of the French lines by the dozen or so aeroplanes that had been flying over the combatants. Every aviator flew low and as fast as he could drive his machine, intent on being the first to drop the joyful news of France's victory, over headquarters of the commanding general.
While the French troops were sweeping over Pepper Ridge, others advanced on Vacheranville, lying at the foot of the Pepper valley, on the Meuse. They progressed in hand to hand fighting with bayonets and grenades, the grenades' smoke marking the fighting line.
The fighting was so fierce in the city that the volume of smoke from hand grenades hurled by the French into cellars and houses where Germans still resisted made it appear the entire village was afire. Yet when the struggle was over, the French in control and the smoke cleared away, there was not a single house aflame.
With the loss of the Pepper Ridge, the Germans turned almost their entire artillery force loose in an effort to check the French advance. Further east they shot an almost solid barrage of projectiles over Lovemont and Chambrettes farms, Hardaumont and Bezonvaux.
That German artillery fire continued with incredible violence and persistence the entire afternoon - but it was apparent from the continued shortening of the range by the enemy that the French were advancing along the entire front unchecked.
The battle began amid intense cold and with a dark cloudy sky overhead. During the afternoon a driving, freezing rain came up which turned into snow at night. Despite this conspiracy of the elements, the French valiantly maintained their most advanced positions all through the night.
During the height of the battle on the ground a French aviator attacked a German "sausage" (balloon) in front of Douaumont. He circled about the thing in the sky - and suddenly the dark clouds were lighted up by a monstrous flash. Then came a heavy black cloud of gas and smoke flattening out about 600 feet in the air. That was all that marked the spot where the "sausage" had been. Above, the victorious aviator circled triumphantly about.
Aeroplanes contributed their part to the struggle on the ground. During the entire battle they flew low behind the German lines and gunned the fleeing enemy who sought to escape from the French attackers.
General Nivelle, new commander of the French armies in the north and northeast, witnessed Friday's battle - his troops' farewell to him. During the afternoon General Nivelle called in person to congratulate General Mangin, who executed the offensive, and who has been in charge of the preparations since October.