In January 1919, Father Louis Ratier, chaplain of the 137 th Infantry Regiment of Fontenay-le-Comte, returned to the site of a battle that he had been party to. A couple of miles from the Meuse, he found the site where so many of his comrades had fallen – and saw a bunch of rods sticking out from the dirt. Digging with his hands, he realized that the rods were the rusty bayonets of the men who had been lost when the trench was taken by the Germans. The battle had been fought two-and-a-half years previously, but the memory resonated with Ratier, who would construct the first, very simple monument on the now-famous site.
The Tranchée des Baïonnettes – literally “Trench of Bayonets”, but usually called “Bayonet Trench” in English – is now among the oldest public Monument aux morts (“monument to the dead”) devoted to the Great War dead in France. The widely-spread and oft-repeated myth about the site is that 21 men of 3 Company of the 137th Infantry Regiment, lying in wait with their bayonets up against the parapet, were suddenly buried alive there after the heavy German bombardment finally hit a bullseye. The truth of the matter is somewhat less dramatic, but the scene no less poignant. First, the stereoview in question:
Now some facts. Between late-night on 9th June and early-morning 10th June 1916, two divisions of the 137th arrived. One, designated 3 Company, under the command of Major Dreux, was to hold a trench on the Ravin de la Dame (“the Ravine of the Lady”), which was thought to be a key strategic chokepoint for holding off the German advance. From the 10th through the early morning of the 12th, the bombardment was virtually non-stop; over half of the men in the unit were dead or wounded. Up until this point the Germans had been repelled by 3 Company several times – meeting fierce resistance from the well-guarded trench and the fierce fighters within. Soon, what remained of 1 Company would join their comrades in the trench, having retreated from their previous position. At around 6 a.m. the bombardments increased, and it looked as if the remaining French troops could not rally on – yet Lieutenant Colonel Gauthier, commander of the 137th, sent down the order: hold the line.
From this point, there are diverging accounts of what happened at the Ravin de la Dame. One such report is summarized by historian Alistair Horne in “The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916”:
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 of the Tranchée des Baionnettes was told it caught the world’s imagination.
To be fair, this was the popular story of the day, and Horne was writing about a war which took place before his birth, more than 40 years after it ended, and by this point this was the narrative. It’s a gripping tale – and as most informed people are aware, a gripping tale will often subvert the truth where popular history is concerned. This is, however, confirmed to be merely a legend – though the truth still has a poignancy to it.
In the 1930s, when the war was beginning to fade from being such a recent, painful memory, Lieutenant Polimann – who had commanded companies 1 and 3 of the 137th, and led the defense of the Ravine, finally told the truth of what happened at the scene. For years, he’d kept mum, for as he stated: “The story was far too beautiful not to become a legend.”
Reduced to about 60 men, bereft of food and water, and low on ammunition, the now-joined 1 and 3 companies were also running low on morale. Polimann made the call – they were going to attempt to surrender to the Germans. The enemy army accepted, and ordered them to lay down arms. Not having time to bury their dead, they placed their rifles in upright positions, as makeshift markers to honor their fallen comrades, before heading out of the trench.
Over the ensuing months, bad weather and spent shells would fill the trench, and it was this – and not a sudden live burial – that interred the already-dead soldiers that were excavated three years later. Polimann would go on propagating the story, and eventually be elected Deputy of the Meuse, not telling the real story until nearly twenty years later – and then, not widely. And perhaps there is some truth to the notion that the myth was too beautiful not to repeat – although one ought wonder whether there was some political motivation there as well. Admitting that he had surrendered with 60 able-bodied and armed (albeit barely) men, Polimann might have earned somewhat less esteem in his later career. This career came to a crashing end during the Second World War, when the former Lieutenant sided with the Vichy government, and spent five years imprisoned at the war’s end.
As for the priest who opened this story – Father Louis Ratier – he built a simple wooden cross (as those in the stereoview), which led to the regimental commander ordering a modest, but permanent, marker on the site. Of the 21 bodies recovered, 14 were identified and interred at the Ossuary of Douaumont, while the other 7 were lain to rest back where they were found. The site became a site of pilgrimage to those who had lost loved ones in Verdun, and particularly to those whose loved ones’ bodies were never recovered. The following year, an American banker by the name of George T. Rand offered 500,000 francs towards the construction of a permanent monument at the Bayonet Trench. That monument stands today. Strangely, so does the myth, which is still overwhelmingly believed by many people 100+ years on.