Hero of Verdun (Part 1)

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Émile Augustin Cyprien Driant

(11th September 1855 – 22th February 1916) 

On the eve of the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Verdun I wanted to introduce a hero of mine. This man would sacrifice himself and his two regiments at the start of the battle and would help to buy time for the beleaguered defenders of that sector. This is not a Norfolk story but I wanted to introduce this man to others because I have visited and guided his action for many years now.

Émile Augustin Cyprien Driant was born on 11th September 1855 at Neufchâtel-sur-Aisne and graduated from the Saint-Cyr military academy and became an Army officer in 1877. He was appointed to the infantry, where he joined the 4th Regiment of Zouaves in North Africa as a Captain in 1886. In 1888 Driant married the daughter of nationalist General Boulanger. He spent four as an instructer at the Saint-Cyr military academy, and between 1899–1905 he commanded the 1st Battalion of Chasseurs. He resigned his commission in 1906 and devoted his time to journalism and politics where was elected to the Chamber of Deputies as a representative for Nancy in 1910.

Soon after the beginning of World War I in 1914 Driant was recalled to the Army as a Captain but was soon promoted to lieutenant colonel and given command of two infantry battalions, the 56th and 59th Chasseurs à Pied (BCP), both of which were reservist battalions. He still kept his seat in Parliament and was, among other things, involved in the drafting of the legislation to create the Croix de Guerre. In December 1915 he criticised Joseph Joffre for removing artillery guns and infantry from fortresses around Toul and Verdun, something that would have a bearing on the Battle of Verdun, in order to strengthen other areas of the now-deadlocked Western Front and, despite the support of the Minister for War Joseph Gallieni, no troops or guns were returned.

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Emile Driant, seen 2nd from the left, outside his Command Post in the Bois des Caures

It is thought that Lieutenant Colonel Driant foresaw what would become of him and his Chasseurs in the Bois des Caures. And on the night before the opening of the battle he wrote two letters.

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Emile Driant’s CP in the present

On 20th February 1916, in a letter to his wife, Driant wrote,

‘I am writing a few lines hastily, because I go up there to encourage all in my world and to see the final preparations by the order of General Bapst. Joffre’s visit yesterday shows that the time is near, and I feel a satisfaction to see that I am not wrong by announcing a month ago what will happen. By the grace of God! You see I will do my best and I feel very calm. I have always had such luck that I still believe. Their attack will take place this night and it is certain that our wood will be taken and our fate settled in the opening minutes, as they will use flame and gas. We know this from a prisoner we captured this morning. My poor battalions have so far been spared! Finally, they too have been lucky so far … Who knows! But it feels like a small thing in these times!’

On 20th February 1916 he wrote to a friend.

‘Tonight I think about all the men and women of France to whom I send my thoughts before the assault. I’m talking about the assault from the enemy we expect from day to day and it is certain now that General Joffre came to us yesterday and he announced that he was counting on us. And the Crown Prince has announced that his four corps taking Verdun will end the war no matter what it costs to take it. I feel a certain satisfaction to have foreseen this assault. Predicting ‘tomorrow’s war’ was not difficult: it was to come. This prediction on of the storming of Verdun, was necessitated by their need to announce a successor in the Reichstag before the new vote over their debt, which was most risky. Many of the Chasseurs you know will not be around in a week or two, and this saddens me thinking about tomorrow. Having remembered the last eighteen months as I had the chance to do and see in the melting furnace where they are going to fall! Finally it’s war … As for the following months I still have a chance as hope will not abandon me and I hope you write back when we get through the hard way.’

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Emile Driant in the centre near his command post in the Bois des Caures

Note that when Driant wrote that his fighters were ‘spared so far’ this is very modest. For seven months earlier to the day he had written to his friend Richardot stating,

‘I’ve lost 1,300 fighters since the beginning in six fights, two of them were very costly in the Argonne region , where I lost 26 officers, but I still have a core that became the beginning of an admirable unit with high morale who prepare all newcomers. So when we finally go into Germany, when their depletion forces them to break, you will see if my two battalions were the last. I thank God for giving me the health that allowed me not to have one day of downtime since August 6 and seeing that realized what I had so often dreamed. At least I will have made this a war of revenge. I went to Paris a few days ago, four times to hear the Committee of Ministers of the army and these moments gave me the urge to come back here soon … I spent yesterday at a review and have distributed 75 Croix de Guerre kissing 75 Poilu in good humour. It will be a nice history of the war, you know. Ah! While yes, we have beaten them, without help, at least in the first year.’

In the 2nd part of this blog we will look at the initial assault and defence of the Bois des Caures by Driant and his men.

 

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