One hundred years ago today, on February 21st, 1916, the Battle of Verdun began. It would continue until 20th December that year, and was one of the largest battles of the First World War. German forces tried to inflict so much damage on the French Army that they would knock France out of the war. They did not succeed, but both sides lost hundreds of thousands of men.
Anthony Peregrine reflects on the battle, and the newly renovated Museum on the site.
It was a German soldier who, in 1916, wrote home thus: “Mum, why did you give birth to me? Why must I see this?”
He was writing from the battlefield of Verdun, where, as a contemporary noted, “in some areas the ground was composed more of human flesh and bone than of earth and vegetation”. One of history’s longest and bloodiest battles, Germany against France, started in the snowy early morning of February 21 1916. On the mild heights above Verdun, the Germans unleashed the most astounding artillery barrage ever experienced: around a million shells along an eight-mile front.
The intention was to blast the French to smithereens. The resultant conflict has left the word “Verdun” tolling through French history, a byword for valour and industrial slaughter.
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Exactly how filthy, appalling and complex the whole 10-month conflict turned out to be is made clear at the Mémorial de Verdun. After a £9 million makeover, the museum reopens this weekend, a hundred years to the day since Verdun began wiping out young French and German men.
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The coverage, individual through global, is sharp, complete and shattering. Beyond, 34,000 acres of battle zone undulate with shell-blast pockmarks. Farming and development are banned in this zone rouge, not least because about 80,000 bodies are still to be unearthed. Time has softened the scars. Woodland now laps the defence works, underground fortresses (Douaumont, Vaux), annihilated villages and the vast Douaumont Ossuary. There is a still, heavy weight upon this landscape enhanced by the tranquillity of trees. It’s essential to an understanding of the First World War – and perhaps also of the French.
There’s more at the link.
This is how the battlefield at Verdun looks today. The uneven ground is due to the remains of craters left by artillery bombardments during the battle. Click the image for a larger view.
The casualty lists on both sides were enormous. Wikipedia reports:
An estimate in 2000, found a total of 714,231 casualties, 377,231 French and 337,000 German, an average of 70,000 casualties for each month of the battle; other recent estimates increase the number of casualties to 976,000, with 1,250,000 suffered at Verdun from 1914 to 1918. The Battle of Verdun lasted for 303 days and became the longest and one of the most costly battles in human history.
Here’s a documentary describing the battle. It makes chilling viewing.
At the end of the battle, both sides were in approximately the same places as they were when it started . . . so all those casualties were in vain. Hundreds of thousands of men or were maimed died for no good reason.
I'm looking at that photo…of what ought to be an idyllic, green, lush meadow…and all I keep saying is "Oh my G*d. …Oh my G*d. …Oh my G*d!" with tears blurring my eyes. Ten. Months. Ten months of slaughter, horror and chaos. Nearly a MILLION men, sons, fathers, brothers…dead. And that was just one battle, in a war that ended with an "armistice" that basically amounted to a "rain-check" agreement to resume the horror in a couple decades, once the supply of grist for the mill had recovered somewhat. Mighty God…
I really don't have anything else I can think of to say.
I wanted to clarify that I intend no disrespect whatsoever to the souls that perished in that/those wars, or to the veterans that still remain. I was simply trying to articulate my feelings of grief and sorrow…it's just such an incomprehensibly vast ocean of tragedy…I…I'm going to shut up now.
Went there two years ago, visited Doaumont Fort, and the Doaumont Ossuary. Chilly in more than one sense, and it was Summer.
Said some prayers for the fallen.
And understood better the kind of atmosphere Tolkien described when writing on the Dead Marshes, just in front of the Morannon.
http://www.battleofverdunpodcast.com/ Does an excellent job of describing the conditions, Dan Carlin of Hardcore history has a great podcast of WW1 and his section on Verdun is excellent as well
Verdun never sank into my addled teenage brain when we talked about it in school, but it made an impression when I read about it later as an adult. I think you can make the case that Europe never recovered from Verdun. As Bibliotheca Servare said, there was a respite for the continent to breed another generation of cannon fodder and they did it again (and I echo the message of no disrespect intended to the souls lost there).
All of the problems in Europe now of declining populations, importation of immigrants that won't assimilate and the concomitant tearing apart of the society trace directly back to the fields of Verdun. At least in my mind.
There was a viral email a couple of years ago attributed to someone from Spain saying Europe killed its culture when it killed off the Jews. Same sentiment.
"SiGraybeard", you're more correct than you might know. A bit of digging shows some of the "why's" of the actual war (I don't consider them WWI and WWII — just two different phases of the same incident).
This digging shows that a very small group profited hugely from the war. How? They controlled the Central Bands that loaned money to the Gov'ts to fight the war. They also held controlling interests in the armament manufacturers who produced and sold the supplies for the war. It was a perfect scheme: first loan the money, which would have to be paid back (principal plus interest), and then get the original loaned money back into your control when it was used to pay for the armaments. Thus, they effectively doubled their wealth *AND* added interest on top of it. The bonus was that utter destruction of the youth, vitality, and culture of Europe — from which it has never (and never will recover). It also destroyed the control that Colonial Christendom held over a large part of the planet at that time (which I suspect was another part of the bonus). It also set the course for the current problems both in Africa and the Middle East, and the ultimate destruction of Europe through native population decline and immigration invasion.