(Image: Oeuvre personnelle, public domain)
For almost a year, from February to December 1916, fierce fighting on hilly terrain north of Verdun-sur-Meuse transformed the landscape forever. The end result was a French tactical victory despite greater casualties, having recaptured Fort Douaumont at the centre of Verdun’s defensive system. The cost: around 362,000 French and German lives.
The Battle of Verdun was the longest single battle of World War One and among the most devastating in the history of warfare. The German High Command planned to attack France at a place of great national importance. The chosen target was the network of forts located on the Meuse River in the north-east of the country. Germany expected France to defend at all costs, sacrificing enough men to change the course of the war.
(Image: Collier’s New Photographic History of the World’s War, public domain)
But the task would be bloody and the area had a history of resistance. Attila the Hun had failed to seize the town during the fifth century AD. In 843 the Treaty of Verdun had divided Charlemagne’s territory and the town became part of the Holy Roman Empire. Verdun was finally integrated into France after the Peace of Westphalia (1648).
During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 a line of fortifications was built to defend the eastern border against Germany, protecting the entrance to the plains of Champagne and the strategically important approach to Paris. And so it was that, by 1916, with heavy casualties on all sides, the forts surrounding Verdun had been weakened and Germany launched its massive offensive.
(Image: Gdr via Wikipedia, public domain)
Ten months of fighting were marked by horror on both sides. Most troops never even saw the enemy, the battle dictated by artillery fire. The pretty countryside was laid waste by relentless bombardment, reducing woodland to twisted stumps and turning fields into a potholed wasteland of death and destruction.
(Image: Bain News Service, public domain)
Shell craters soon filled with rain, causing many troops who fell in them or sought cover to drown. Everywhere there was death, as grass and other vegetation were replaced by corpses and body parts. Among those killed were French officer, writer and politician Émile Driant, American pilot Kiffin Rockwell and German painter Franz Marc.
(Image: Kek, public domain)
The effect on the soldiers of both armies was devastating. One French officer wrote in his diary on May 23, 1916: “Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!” He was killed later that year.
Verdun Battlefield Today
Today, peace has returned to Verdun. Trees grow where once they were decimated and grass covers the gentle contours of shell craters. Historic fortifications, including Fort Vaux, stand nearby. Preserved in nearby woodland are the winding remains of the trench system, while the Verdun Memorial offers a poignant reminder to the 362,000 dead and many more casualties of both sides.
Various monuments appear across the battlefield, some in memory of those who fought and died, others marking the spots where destroyed villages and buildings once stood. Nearby, the Douaumont Ossuary contains the bones of 130,000 unidentified soldiers killed at the Battle of Verdun. But perhaps the most poignant reminder of the bloodshed is the transformed topography of the landscape, and the fact that Verdun is now considered a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation dedicated to the ideals of peace and human rights.