(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.