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.