At 0715 on Feb. 21, 1916, German artillery started a nine-hour preparatory bombardment of the French fortress city of Verdun. When the shelling ended, lead elements of the VII Reserve Corps and the XVIII Army Corps quickly reached the forwardmost French positions in the Bois d’Haumont to the west, the Bois des Caures in the center and the Bois de l’Herbebois to the east. The mission of the attacking troops was to roll over the French forward lines within hours and press on to the ring of major fortifications guarding Verdun, anchored by Fort Douaumont. But the Germans hadn’t figured on the stubborn, brilliant defense put up by Lt. Col. Émile Augustin Cyprien Driant, commander of the 56th and 59th Bataillons de chasseuers à pied, which held the Bois des Caures.
Sixty-year-old Driant was a most unusual soldier. A deep thinker who had written several books on military matters, Driant left the French army after having been repeatedly passed over for promotion, likely for political reasons. Driant then won election to the Chamber of Deputies, where he gained a reputation as both a leading expert on national defense and a strong critic of French prewar military leadership and preparedness.
When the war started, Driant rejoined the army as a reserve officer but retained his status as a deputy. By 1915 he was commanding the two chasseurs’ battalions, which secured the primary northern approaches to Verdun on the right bank of the Marne River. But Driant repeatedly protested to his commanders that he had neither the troops nor the resources to stop any determined German attack.
In August 1915 Driant, using his political connections, wrote a letter to the president of the Chamber of Deputies about the terrible state of the Verdun defenses. A subsequent parliamentary investigation confirmed everything Driant claimed, earning him the permanent enmity of General Joseph Joffre, the French commander in chief. But the resulting uproar gave Driant the time to establish an innovative and deep defensive system in his sector that made optimal use of the terrain and the troops available.
Driant was in Redoubt 2 (R2), his forward command post in the Bois des Caures, when the first shells fell. When the German infantry attacked at 1700, they used flamethrowers for the first time in the war. Driant’s troops put up a fierce resistance from their forward strongpoints along the support line (S line) forcing the advancing Germans to deploy prematurely into attack formations. By the end of that first day almost half of Driant’s 1,300 men were dead or wounded, but his battalions had stopped the German XVIII Corps in its tracks.
On February 22 the Germans designated XVIII Army Corps’ attack into the Bois des Caures as the main effort, ordering VII Reserve Corps on the right flank and III Army Corps on the left to support XVIII Corps in pinching out the stubborn French position. By 1300 the Germans had overrun the S line and Redoubt 1 to Driant’s right. The German troops then massed to rush R2. From an exposed position on the roof of the redoubt Driant coolly directed artillery fire on the Germans, inflicting huge casualties on the attackers. Finally, the Germans managed to infiltrate around Redoubt 3 on Driant’s left and attacked R2 from the rear.
Though surrounded, Driant and about 80 survivors fended off two more large-scale attacks. Finally, late in the afternoon the Germans maneuvered two field guns behind R2 and engaged it with direct fire. With his position now untenable, Driant had no choice but to withdraw. The chasseurs tried to evade in three groups, with Driant personally leading the second. Amid the intense small-arms fire, Driant stopped in a shell hole to render aid to one of his wounded troops. Just then one of his sergeants saw him throw up his arms and fall over. Driant was dead before he hit the ground, shot through the temple.
Driant’s tenacious defense of the Bois des Caures disrupted the entire German attack timetable and held up the advance for more than one day. He became the first hero of Verdun, as well as its first senior officer casualty. People on either side of the Rhine acclaimed Driant’s gallantry and leadership. The German officer who recovered Driant’s personal effects had them returned to his widow through Switzerland.
The Bois des Caures today is on the northern edge of the national battlefield park at Verdun [eng.verdun.fr]. The woods and open areas look very much as they did in 1916, making it possible to walk the ground and retrace the flow of the battle in some detail. The ground remains heavily pocked with shell craters. The S line strongpoints are little more than piles of rubble, but their positions are identifiable. Driant’s R2 command post is well preserved and easy to find. Several hundred yards behind R2 Driant himself lies buried beneath a monument to the soldiers of the 56th and 59th Bataillons de chasseuers à pied. It’s exactly where he would want to be.
Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.