- James Houser
February 21, 1916 - The Battle of Verdun
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
February 21, 1916. The morning calm of France is interrupted by over German 800 artillery pieces, and 39 square miles of ground are about to become a tomb for over 700,000 men. Today begins the Battle of Verdun. Welcome to Hell.
Verdun is the final answer to the myth of the "cowardly Frenchman." It is more than that. To the French, and to many Germans, it was the defining experience of World War I. In national memory and patriotic legend, it became almost an emblem to France, a symbol of defiance and loss. It is something like Gettysburg to Americans, but the United States has never felt a loss on the scale of Verdun in any war, let alone a battle. For an entire generation of men, the word Verdun was singularly evocative. In a way, for many years, it WAS France.
In 1916, Germany was looking for a way to win the First World War. After a year and a half of conflict, they were no closer to victory than they had been at the beginning. The 1914 offensive had been frustrated at the Marne, and they had been locked into a death grip on the Western Front ever since, bleeding out slowly but bleeding out nevertheless. In the East, German armies had defeated the Russians multiple times, but with significant loss and to no apparent gain. Attacking into Russia would gain nothing but longer supply lines; Britain ruled the seas, though the U-Boats were taking their toll. But time was not on Germany's side. The longer they fought, the more the Russians, British and French could build up until something finally cracked.
The German high command developed a plan to break the Western Front: seize the high ground near Verdun, in northeastern France, in order to force the French to counterattack against it. The Verdun attack was purpose-built to be a meat grinder, luring the French into a war of attrition that would bleed them dry. What the Germans failed to realize was that in this case, the grinder would grind both ways.
Verdun was picked because of its cultural significance. Since the days of Attila the Hun, Verdun had held out against all of France's enemies, and it was considered a bastion of French nationalism. In the 1870 war against Prussia, Verdun had been the last fortress to surrender; the Germans believed that the morale loss would be so great the French would be forced to attack to retake it. In so doing, they would impale themselves.
On February 19, the Germans began their assault with the largest artillery bombardment in history. Over 800 guns poured 1 million shells into a front three miles wide, laying waste to the land. When the German infantry advanced, it was over a field that looked like the surface of the moon. The French had been caught by surprise, but where they survived they fought back tenaciously. It was not enough. On February 22, the Germans captured Fort Douaumont, the center of Verdun's defenses.
The alarm went up across France. New commanders were appointed, units were rushed to the front, the nation stiffened in the readiness of panic. The Germans expected a quick victory, but soon their progress slowed. By March, it had begun to dawn on the frontline soldiers that this was no longer a one-sided meat grinder. The battle spun both ways.
The battle continued into March, then April, then May. Over 37 square miles of front, the Germans and French both poured troops into the battle. For the French at least, a rotation system was devised; divisions were rotated into Verdun two weeks at a time. Anyone who stayed long enough would go crazy. The unfortunate side effect was that this spread the...unique psychological effects of Verdun across the whole French Army.
It was as close to Hell as the human experience can reach in this world. The ground was pulverized by artillery and flames into mud, mixed with human remains the residue of poison gas. The deep shell craters were a hazard, and many men drowned in the foul water that accumulated in them. Gas attacks were frequent, and men spent days in the slippery mess in mask and sludge. The constant thrum of artillery and the crack of machine guns, the hissing of nerve gas, and the frantic sounds of humans in an inhuman world did not allow for sleep. Psychological casualties mounted; the French estimated that it took three weeks at Verdun for men to become untreatable.
Verdun became the great terror-story of the civilized world, the death of civilization, the suicide of Europe.
By June, the French were holding on by their fingernails. The German assaults grew steadily closer. The nation galvanized, thickened, hardened. The general at the front declared the famous four words that define Verdun - "They Shall Not Pass" - even as the two armies slugged it out in the wastes they had created.
By October, the French were driving the Germans back. The German strategy had failed. When the lines finally stopped moving in December, the French had held Verdun. For the Germans, 1916 became the point at which they began to lose the Western Front.
But the cost.
The French lost 377,000 men killed, wounded and missing, the Germans 337,000 - hardly a one-sided meat grinder. This in only 37 square miles. The average of 37,000 casualties a month was appalling for such a struggle over so little ground. Verdun was a symbol ever after, the dimmest of lights in the blackest of nights to the French. Antoine Prost wrote, "Like Auschwitz, Verdun marks a transgression of the limits of the human condition".
To this day, large parts of the Verdun battlefield are sealed off. Even though trees have grown over the abandoned ground, six villages in the area have never been reclaimed - they are unfit for human habitation over 100 years later. The great unmarked graveyard of Verdun still holds as many as 100,000 soldiers whose bodies remain buried, unknown to any but God. Every year, bones recovered at the site are returned to the Fort Douaumont Ossuary in the Verdun Museum.
"They Shall Not Pass," said General Nivelle. But many did pass there. And when anyone says *anything* about the French our allies, maybe they should pay a visit to Verdun, where the bravest men of a generation were butchered to defend a nation now adjudged as "cowards."
The classic book, despite its weaknesses, on Verdun is Alistair Horne's The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1962). A more recent take is Malcolm Brown's Verdun 1916 (Stroud, UK: Tempus, 1999).