The coach tour that we booked ourselves onto commenced at 14:00 and collected us from outside the Tourist Information Centre. The cost of the tour was 25.50 euros and we were informed that it would be all in French. We tried to keep up with our limited understanding of the commentary, but failed so we followed where the rest of the party were looking.
On our journey the coach stopped at several roadside locations between the major stops. One of these was an area showing some of the trenches from the period.
Our first stop was at the Tranchee des Baionnettes, Bayonet Trench, erected to the glory of the 137th Infantry Regiment.
The event itself is mingled with truth and legend. On June 12th 1916, this area was forming a salient west of Fort Douaumont, which the Germans wanted to capture before launching their main offensive on the 23rd.
Two battalions of the 137th Infantry Regiment, deployed at the front since June 10th, were the object of appalling shelling and very soon found themselves cut off. The regiment's third company had lost 94 of its 164 men by the night of the 11th. The remainder had been placed in a row of exposed trenches directly visible to the German artillery spotters. The artillery fire on the position increased in the early morning hours and the remainder of the 137th Regiment was annihilated almost to a man.
In Tony Langley's book The Price Of Glory, author Alistair Horne wrote:
It was not until after the war that French teams exploring the battlefield provided a clue as to the fate of 3 Company. The trench it had occupied was discovered completely filled in, but from a part of it at regular intervals protruded rifles, with bayonets still fixed to their twisted and rusty muzzles. On excavation, a corpse was found beneath each rifle, From that plus the testimony of survivors from nearby units, it was deduced that 3 Company had placed its rifles on the parapet ready to repel any attack and rather than abandon their trench had been buried alive to a man there by the German bombardment. When the story the Trench des Baionnettes was told it caught the world's imagination.
The monument was opened by Alexandre Millerand, President of the Republic, in the presence of the ambassador of the United States, on the 8th of December 1920. Other theories have evolved over the years about the fate of the last men of the 3rd Company. Gas or concussion from exploding shells are alternative explanations of the mass deaths of the men. This may have been followed by the Germans overrunning the position and hurriedly filling in the mass grave which would explain their unique internment. But the exact details are beside the point. As Mr Horne points out, the legend persists because whatever happened was an epic display of gallantry and sacrifice by the Poilus and the vivid documentation of the intensity of the fighting at Verdun. The Bayonet Trench Symbolizes what makes Verdun a singular event in military history.
Whatever the truth may in reality be, 3 Company. I salute you.