Martyr of Verdun: Émile Driant’s Command Post

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Émile Driant was a French army officer who served originally as an aide to General Boulanger (and married his daughter). This connection would tarnish his career when politics forced Boulanger to resign (and shortly afterward commit suicide). It became clear that he would never rise much in rank, and in 1905 he resigned his commission. In 1910 he was elected to the French National Assembly, where he was still serving when was erupted in 1914. Driant was focused on French military readiness his entire life, and wrote extensively about potential future wars.

In 1914, he was recalled to military service, although he retained his Assembly position. He was given command of a reserve unit of Chausseurs (infantry) in the quiet backwater Verdun sector, where he couldn’t cause too much trouble to the military establishment. Through 1915 he watched Joffre remove men and guns from the forts around Verdun to reinforce more active areas of the front. He was intensely concerned that this was leaving Verdun a weak point ripe for German attack. As an officer, there was not much he could do about this except complain to his own commander – but as an active member of the National Assembly, he was able to bypass the military chain of command and take his concerns directly to the civilian government. This did nothing to endear him to Joffre, but the attention he brought did result in more defensive preparations being made in and around Verdun.

On February 21st, 1916 Driant’s warnings were proven true when the Germans launched the Battle of Verdun, which would become one of the most significant operations of the war for France. Driant and his 1200 Chausseurs were stationed in the Bois de Caures forest, right in the middle of the German offensive. His men fought valiantly to hold back the attack in their sector, but were reduced to less than 200 men combat-effective by the 22nd. Driant ordered a withdrawal that morning, and was killed by a gunshot while aiding a wounded trooper.

He was buried with military honors by the Germans, but later re-interred by the French where he had fallen. Today his command post remains just a few hundred yards from his gravesite, and a memorial marks the spot. Driant quickly became recognized as one of the heroes of Verdun, for his efforts before the battle and his front-line leadership during the initial attack.

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