Railways And the Battle of Verdun


This article by Patrick Bennett was first published in Society Journal 151


It is generally believed that the famous Voie Sacrée was the only means of supplying the French army during the Battle of Verdun, following the inability of the railway to do so, and thus the means by which the army avoided defeat. The Voie Sacrée was the road from Bar-le-Duc to Verdun along which lorries travelled day and night bringing in supplies and men, and taking out the wounded. Such was the intensive use of this road that it required to be constantly repaired and it is said that there was one road worker for each metre of road. What is perhaps less well known is that in fact the railway never stopped supplying the troops at Verdun, and that following the extreme difficulties experienced by the the Compagnie des chemins de fer de l'Est (EST) this role fell to the Meusien, and that there is a good argument for saying that it was the the Meusien which, at least in the early days, saved the French army from defeat.

Given the urgent need for resupply and the problems being experienced on the Ste. Menehould – Verdun line, it was decided to unload supply trains at Bar-le-Duc and Revigny, with the supplies being taken forward by the Meusien. This did not work well until a plan was put in place to designate certain Meusien stations as supply depots, to which trains could be directed as required. These stations were Nixeville, Dugny, Lemmes, Souilly, Heippe, Beauzée, Chaumont-sur-Aire and Pierrefitte. After some trial and error a standard type of train was adopted with each train carrying rations for 15,000 men and for 4,500 horses. As the system settled down the number of workings increased from 32 to an average of 36 per 24 hours. The station at Nixeville could receive eight trains in a 24 hour period, bringing in 100,000 rations for men, and 30,000 for horses

Other types of train were also run. Each night two trains carrying 200 tonnes of munitions were despatched to the depot at Maison Rouge. Other trains removed workshop equipment from the station at Verdun in order to relocate it at Revigny. Three ambulance trains were created, each of which could carry 100 seriously wounded and 150 walking wounded. These trains, each of which had a medical team on board, normally departed from Souhesme, with Bar-le-Duc and Revigny as their destinations. Later a special hospital station was established at Queue-de-Mala. Nine thousand wounded were transported by these means during the month of March. This is an example of what was carried in one 24hour period, April 15th: Thirty trains ran carrying: 300,000 rations for men and 90,000 for horses, together with another 40,000 rations of fodder; 3,400 shells; 442 wounded men in two hospital trains. Four further trains carrying 500 passengers, post, timber and other supplies also ran. In June a total of 73,000 men and 70,000 tonnes of material was carried..

A glance at the map will show that the lines of the EST company to the north, south and east were no longer usable as supply routes. Only the line from Ste. Menehould via Clermont-en-Argonne and Aubreville could be used. On the 21st February 1916 the German artillery started their bombardment not only of the French front line but also of the station at Verdun and the line from Ste. Menehould. The line was cut and repaired several times, leading eventually to a situation where it could only be used at night, and even then only with great difficulty. Thus it was that the little Meusien came to play its part in the saving of the French army at Verdun.

The 62km metre-gauge line from Haironville to Triaucourt via Revigny-sur-Ornain opened in 1884. Within two years the concessionaire, the Chemin de Fer d’Intérêt Local de la Meuse, went out of business and the company was absorbed by the Compagnie Meusienne de Chemin de Fer (also known as Le Varinot after its proprietor Charles Varinot). This company went on to build the remainder of the network, which opened progressively between 1887 and 1914, giving a total route mileage of 203km.

At the outbreak of the war the Meusien came under the control of the army, and work was set in motion to improve and develop the network, particularly the lines from Revigny and Bar-le-Duc to Verdun. Heavier rails were laid, crossing loops installed, stations enlarged, and sorting sidings developed. The line between Rembercourt and Beauzée was doubled. Rolling stock was obtained to bring the total number of wagons to about 800. The Meusien had about twenty locomotives of no great power and to supplement its fleet locomotives were obtained from all over France. Amongst these were a number of Mallets, including two from the CFD de la Lozere, nos. 322 and 323; 0-6-0s by Corpet-Louvet, mostly from the Charente; 2-6-0s by Pinguely and Decauville from various networks; and miscellaneous other types. As for the total number of locomotives available, sources disagree, with figures of 60, 75 and 120 being given! Unfortunately there was no uniformity in the buffing or coupling gear, or indeed in types of brakes. As an example, the Meusien had double buffers whereas all the loaned locomotives had a single central buffer.

Batignolles 2-4-0T No 64 of the PO Correze, one of the locomotives loaned to the Meusien

Despite these problems, even before the start of the battle, the Meusien had been doing sterling work transporting men and goods. Twelve trains ran daily, bringing in some 1300 men and 500 tonnes of supplies. It can be imagined, however, that to supply an army of 400,000 men engaged in the fiercest of battles these kinds of totals were entirely inadequate. Some idea of the scale of things can be gauged by the fact that during the battle 23.5 million shells were fired by the French, and during just the first five weeks of the conflict 80,000 wounded men had to be transported to the rear.

Gare de Souilly on Ligne 6bis

Thus it was by means of the Voie Sacree, the Meusien, and Ligne 6bis that the French army continued to be supplied and avoided defeat. The battle of Verdun continued until December, by which time the front lines were back where they had started in February, and nearly one million soldiers had been killed or wounded.

The new standard gauge line was lifted soon after the end of the war. As for the Meusien, in 1922 the system was taken back under the control of the département who subsequently awarded the concession to the Société générale des chemins de fer économiques. The last train ran in 1936. The section from Robert-Espagne to Haironville was converted to standard gauge and remained in use until 1971, worked by two Corpet-Louvet 0-6-0 tanks nos. 3071 and 3072.

This is not the end of the story. Some time after the closure of the railway, ‘Suzanne’ a Meusien Corpet-Louvet 0-6-2T of 1891 found herself working for the Germans on building the Atlantic Wall during WW2. In 1981 the engine was discovered in a scrapyard in the Baie-de-Somme and repatriated to the Meuse département but restoration did not begin until 1992, being completed in 2008. The current plan is to rebuild a 4.2 km length of the Meusien in the forest of Massonges, but considerable funds are needed, which are not currently forthcoming.

Gare de Lemmes

Despite the efforts of the Meusien and the Voie Sacree it was felt that a standard gauge line supplying the front was also needed and work began as early as March 4th on building a line, 57km in length, from Sommeilles-Nettancourt to Dugny. This line, designated Ligne 6bis, was constructed by the 5e Genie, the railway engineering regiment of the French army. The line largely followed that of the Meusien as far as Vaubecourt, which it then met again at Fleury, and once more at Souilly. Here there were two stations, that of Cousances, and of Souilly itself, around which there was a large complex of lines serving a supply depot, a hospital, and locomotive servicing facilities. The work involved was considerable with the necessity to dig deep cuttings, and bridge a number of waterways. 8000 men worked on the line and the first section from Sommeilles to Souilly was completed by 17th May, with the line being opened throughout on the 21st June. There were two branches; from Souilly to Dombasle and from Fleury to Froidos, the latter being extended to Clermont in 1917. A short branch was built to cross the Meuse at La Dieue. An additional 27km of track were laid in the form of sidings, loops etc. Locomotives used on the line were mostly 0-6-0s of the Midi and 0-8-0s of the EST. Later in the war the Americans used their own locomotives on the line.

Midi 0-6-0 no. 856 at work on Ligne 6bis. Note the wooden ‘baraquements’ behind the locomotive