September 26, 1918 – Full diary entry:
“Slept in a dugout behind the artillery.
Marched all day but can’t find the boys yet.
The big battle is on. Perhaps it will be the biggest of the war!”
Robert was right about that. And Chaplain Edwards, in From Doniphan to Verdun, captures the moment with some of his most beautiful prose.
On the wet grass under the trees we lay and tried to sleep. Some really did sleep for a time, but only for a time. About 2:30 the irregular fire of the artillery blended into a huge and deafening volume of sound. The barrage was on. Thousands of guns! Countless thousands of shells! There they go levelling barbed wire, obliterating trenches, smashing ammunition dumps, blocking dug-outs, a Niagara of flame, a river of iron flowing over the Boche trenches. One somehow sensed a magnificent power. It was our barrage, and it was magnificent. One will never forget it, but it cannot be described. A husky voice is heard “Some barrage!”; the answer “I’ll tell the world!”
Then suddenly — quiet, a strange terrible silence. A grey, misty dawn. It is 5:30, the “zero hour.” Light packs and ammunition bandoliers are adjusted, bayonets are fixed, and breakfastless, cold, stiff, but feeling suddenly young and strong and victorious the men stream “over the top.” They were quiet, steady and determined. There was little evidence of excitement and none of fear. But continually one heard expressed the dread that the soldier might get lost or go the wrong way. In the haze of the smoke screen, and the clouds of the morning, this was but natural.
On this first day of the battle, the 35th (shown in the pink section below) quickly took Vauquois Hill and advanced past Cheppy. Neuvilly, at the bottom of this map, was where the 35th had established its field hospital. Robert would have been transporting wounded soldiers back in this direction to where the ambulances could pick them up.
It’s frankly amazing that the 35th was able to take Vauquois Hill so quickly, considering how well-reinforced it was and how long it had been held. This page on verdun1916.eu does a fantastic job explaining and illustrating the fortress.
I also just got access to a tremendous collection of battlefield photos courtesy of meuse-argonne.com, taken in 1918 and 1919. This set shows the rough terrain and steep incline of Vauquois Hill:
Where was Robert today? See the timeline.