Ruined building at Verdun, 1916
A group of French soldiers rest on the ruins of a building in Verdun, 1916
History’s Most Savage Siege – 10 Facts About the Battle of Verdun You May Not Have Known
The morning of February 21, 1916, marked the beginning of one of the longest, bloodiest and costliest battles in World War I and history. For about 300 gruesome days, the French and German armies exchanged a brutal cycle of attacks, counterattacks and bombardments. The battle plunged the region around the Meuse River, not even 10 km radius, into what was later called the &ldquoHell of Verdun&rdquo. Hundreds of thousands of German infantries, heavy artillery, and bombardments were unleashed upon French armies positioned around forts and inside the fortified city of Verdun. Although the Germans planned for their attack to bleed France to death, the battle pulled both of them into a long and expensive impasse. By December 19th, the French were able to get the upper hand and regained their territory, but not before sustaining heavy causalities. The French and German armies suffered 800,000 men or more between them. Come and explore ten facts about the longest battle of World War I.
16 February 1916
Danger seemed distant until 16 February 1916, when the villagers were evacuated to Verdun and Bras-sur-Meuse.
The fall of the Fort of Douaumont on February 24, 1916, altered forever the fate of Fleury-devant-Douaumont.
The incessant bombardment and the capture of the Fort de Vaux by the Germans on June 7, 1916 pushed Fleury-devant-Douaumont in the front line.
On June 23, the Germans captured the village, then La Poudrière, an advance post located farther down the slope, on July 11.
The French re-seized the position on June 24, but lost it shortly after.
Fleury-devant-Douaumont had become a key location in the Battle of Verdun.
It was alternately occupied 16 times by the French and the Germans between June 23 and August 18, 1916, when the soldiers of the French Colonial Troops from Morocco re-captured it for good.
By then Fleury-devant-Douaumont was a vast field of ruins, which served as starting point for the French offensives that led to the re-capture of the forts of Douaumont and Vaux.
The village was classified as Zone Rouge (Red Zone) in 1918, and officially recognized as “Mort pour la France” – Dead for France.
You must always know what happened in the past to avoid reliving it
As we walked, Moizan paused, bent down and plucked a piece of metal from the ground: a fork. The rain from the night before had washed away the top layer of soil, yielding detritus from the war. In addition to shells, dog tags, helmets and even bones sometimes appeared. We stared at the fork for a few moments, and I wondered to whom it had belonged. The average age of soldiers who enlisted in World War One was 24. Someone’s son once ate using that fork. Perhaps he also used it to eat his last meal.
At the edge of the forest, we came to a small chapel, constructed after the war was over as a place to pray and remember the dead. We walked around it, and I was mesmerised. It’s the only building for miles, and I recalled a rhyme my stepfather, a minister, taught me when I was a young child.
“Here is the church,” he said, while hiding his fingers within his hands. Then, thrusting up two fingers in a triangle shape, he continued: “Here is the steeple.” Finally, while opening his hands and waving his fingers, he exclaimed: “Open the doors, and see all the people!”
A small chapel was constructed near Fleury-devant-Douaumont after the war as a place to pray and remember the dead (Credit: Melissa Banigan)
Staring at the church, I felt as though I could see the ghosts of the people who once lived in the area. As we left, an old man slowly passed us on the path. Who is he, I wondered? A descendant of one of the soldiers? Or perhaps a retired soldier from another war, there to pay homage to his brethren? I looked back at the man, towards the church and beyond, at the forest, which swayed in the wind over the cratered battlefield. The sun had risen high over trees and the forest was bathed in golden light. I noticed a number of young birch trees standing together like waifs, their leaves glittering.
I realised that I was still carrying the piece of shell Moizan had handed me at the bunker. I let it drop heavily to the ground with a soft thud. From somewhere out of the last vestiges of the fog over the forest, a flock of birds took flight. The air was punctuated by a mad rush of feathers, and then the tiny souls lifted and disappeared into the light.
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Zone Rouge: An Area of France So Badly Damaged By WW1 That People Are Still Forbidden To Live There
While WW1 ended nearly a century ago, its scars can still be found across Northern France and Belgium. Zone Rouge (French for Red Zone) is perhaps the ultimate example of this.
At the end of the war in 1918, the French government isolated the areas in red above and forbade activities such as forestry, farming and even the building of houses from being performed inside them.
In total the non-contiguous areas took up 1,200 sq km (460 sq mi) (roughly the size of New York City).
The primary reason the areas were declared no-go zones was that they had seen some of the worst fighting during the war, particularly during the Battle of Verdun in 1916. The areas were environmentally devastated and contained large numbers of unexploded ordnance along with human and animal remains that further contaminated the environment.
The Battle of Verdun lasted 303 days and was one of the longest and bloodiest in human history with somewhere between 700,000 and 1,250,000 casualties in total. It also resulted in the destruction of villages, 6 of which have never been rebuilt.
Over the last century work has been done to clean up Zone Rouge and today the no-go areas have shrunk to 168 sq KM (65 sq mi) (about twice the size of Manhattan).
However, cleaning up the areas doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re safe. Nor that areas that were not included in the original Zone Rouge are without danger. The Iron harvest, which uncovers unexploded ordnance, barbed wire, shrapnel, bullets and congruent trench supports, still occurs every year across North France and Belgium.
Since the end of the war, at least 900 people have been killed by unexploded WW1 ordnance across France and Belgium, with most recent deaths as late as 1998. Meaning that the war was still claiming victims 80 years after the cease-fire went into effect.
A blog post really can’t do this topic much justice so I highly recommend learning more from the following books:
The Douaumont Ossuary contains the bones of 130,000 unknown soldiers, French and Germans, who died in 1916.
The 137m long Ossuary is designed like a cloister it is open with alcoves and ends with two apses.
It stretches on both sides of the Chapel that is located just underneath the Lantern of the Dead.
Marshal Petain laid the first stone on August 22, 1920.
The remains of the men fallen in the different sectors of the battlefield were officially transferred in Douaumont.
The Ossuary was inaugurated on September 18, 1927.
A ceremony of reconciliation, led by the French president Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, took place on September 22, 1984.
In 2008, President Sarkozy presided the first ceremony of the Armistice of November 11, 1918 that ever took place in Douaumont.
One of the most meaningful symbols of this reconciliation took place on February 9, 2014.
On that occasion, the name of Peter Freundl, a German soldier who died on May 28, 1916, was engraved in the stones of the Ossuary’s vaulted ceiling, along with those of French soldiers.
Douaumont Ossuary underwent complete renovation for the celebration of the Battle of Verdun Centennial on September 22, 2016.
The north wall of the Ossuary or cloister is open with 18 alcoves – similar to lateral chapels – each containing two tombs.
Each end of the cloister ends with an elongated apse each apse contains five tombs.
The 46 tombs corresponds to the 46 main sectors of the Battle of Verdun.
Each tomb stands above a 14m3 vault, that contains the bones of the unknown soldiers who died in each sector.
The walls of the alcoves are engraved with their names.
Each stone of the cloister’s vaulted ceiling is inscribed with the name of unknown soldiers and veteran associations.
It also bears dedications to the soldiers who died during WWI, War of Indochina and War of Algeria.
All this is obviously quite sad and moving!
The cloister, however, is bathed in a soft amber light that filters through the tall stained-glass windows of the south facing wall.
The light produces a soothing atmosphere conducive to meditation.
Once outside, walk towards the Ossuary’s north facing wall.
It has narrow windows, which look straight into the vaults.
This is exceedingly moving as you can see thousands of piled bones!
These are the bones of the soldiers whose identity was never discovered.
Verdun Cathedral is a Roman Catholic cathedral, and national monument of France. In about 330, Saint Saintin (or Sainctinus) evangelised the city of Verdun, became its first bishop and founded a church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. In 457 Saint Pulchronius (or Pulchrone), a later bishop, had a cathedral built inside the walls of a ruined Roman building, on the present site.
Several buildings were erected and destroyed on this site, until in 990 Bishop Heimon ordered the construction of a new cathedral on the Romano-Rhenish plan: a nave, two transepts, two opposing apses, each one flanked by two belltowers.
In the 12th century the architect Garin built the east choir, the two portals of Saint John and of the Lion, and the crypts. The building was consecrated by Pope Eugene III in 1147. The cloister seems also to have been built at about this time, close to a ravine.
In the 14th century the cathedral was refurbished in the Renaissance style the flat wooden ceiling was replaced by a vaulted one, the windows were enlarged, and the interior was decorated with frescos. The first rood screen was constructed and spires were added to the towers. Gothic side-chapels were added to either side of the lower end of the nave the last side-chapel, dedicated to the Assumption, was built between 1522 and 1530. At about the same time the cloister was entirely rebuilt in the Flamboyant style, of which it is a spectacular example.
On 2 April 1755, the roof and towers were set on fire by a bolt of lightning the spires were never replaced. The cathedral was badly damaged, and from 1760 was overhauled in the Neo-Classical style, of which the principal works are the refurbished nave, the east tower, the organs, and especially the magnificent Rococo baldacchino.
The cathedral was severely damaged during World War I between 1916 and 1917 the eastern block was totally destroyed, and the towers have never been rebuilt. During the restoration that took place between 1920 and 1936 a number of Romanesque features were re-discovered, as well as the crypt. The cathedral was re-inaugurated in 1935. In July 1946 the cathedral was visited by Mgr Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII.
Fort Douaumont – Part of Zone Rouge
It was built to protect a small city in northeastern France by the name of Verdun. But history has it that German soldiers captured it without major difficulties and that it took the French nine months, or almost 300 days, to gain it back. A period that took countless lives, and will remain forever remembered as the Battle of Verdun.
The building of the fort began in 1885. The location chosen for it was close to Douaumont, a village in northeastern France that was destroyed during the First World War, and where more than 100,000 soldiers that died in the Battle of Verdun are laid to rest – all of them unknown.
The entrance to the fort/ Author: Eric T Gunther CC BY 3.0
Over the years, the fort itself went through a number of renovations and extensions that lasted until 1913. Once completed, the fort spread across 7.4 acres and was around 1,300 feet in length. It was a true fortress, that even went as deep as two stories underground. These levels were built to last, for up 40 feet of reinforced concrete protected it from direct bomb hits.
Fort Douaumont was equipped with 155mm and 75mm gun turrets that were mounted on rotating platforms all around the fort. The entrance stood to the back of the fort. The way it was built, the fort would have been able to withstand the devastating blows of the German Big Bertha, the same gun was used to cripple a number of Belgian forts.
Big Bertha/ Author: Paul Hermans
But fear got the upper hand. Once General Joffre realized what the German guns were capable of doing, as demonstrated by a number of annihilated forts, he gave out an order for the garrison at Fort Douaumont to be substantially reduced. The order was carried out, and almost all of the weaponry at the fort was dismantled.
One of the tunnels/ Author: Eric T Gunther CC BY 3.0
Most of the soldiers that remained in the fort were reservists in their middle age. It was February 21, 1916, when the German Army made an advance and with it started the Battle of Verdun. It took the German Army just three days to advance further and closer to Fort Douaumont – the most crucial link in the defense chain of Verdun – and on the February 24, they came within a stone’s throw.
Fort Douaumont before the battle/ Author: German Government, Department of photos and film
At that time, there were around 54 soldiers inside the fort and not a single officer. One day later, on February 25, the Germans began the bombardment of the fort. At this point, most of the soldiers went underground to protect themselves.
The Germans slowly approached the fort, and once they found that it was pretty much unmanned, managed to capture it. They continued to occupy Fort Douaumont for some time. On May 8, 1916, a fire caused by some of the soldiers ripped through the tunnels of the fort killing 679 soldiers.
Memorial of the German soldiers buried behind this wall/ Author: Eric T Gunther CC BY 3.0
Their remains once gathered were buried inside the fort in one of the tunnels, behind a wall. It was at the end of May in 1916 when the French soldiers made an attempt to regain what had once belonged to them.
Fort Douaumont after the battle/ Author: German Government, Department of photos and film
They recaptured and for 36 hours held on to the western part of the fort, but were eventually forced to retreat. The Germans remained in control the fort until October 24, 1916, when it was taken over by the Regiment of Colonial Infantry of Morocco. Thousands of soldiers died in the process of regaining the fort.
Part of Fort Douaumont’s defenses/ Author: Eric T Gunther CC BY 3.0
The whole Battle of Verdun produced more than 700,000 casualties. The fort itself is part of what is known as Zone Rouge, an area that the French authorities decided to isolate after the war for it was devastated beyond repair. Farming and housing in this area are forbidden the bodies of thousands of soldiers are still in the soil and a great number of unexploded shells and grenades are scattered all around the battlefields.
Douaumont cemeteries. Author: Paul Arps CC BY 2.0
The fort and the zone itself and the scars that they wear in stone, concrete, and dirt serve as a monument for all those who never made it past 1916, for the thousands that died, both known and unknown.
By the time major European war broke out in 1914, Verdun cast an imposing shadow over the French landscape. It featured a total of nineteen major forts, armed with concrete- and metal-emplaced 155m and 75mm cannon and machine guns, with a total of forty-seven armoured observation posts set about the landscape. The garrison of the Verdun region numbered 65,000 men. Occupying a bulging salient, it was actually one of the most defensible French positions along the entire frontline, although not everyone on the French staff appreciated that fact.
Taking the offence
In September 1914 German forces had attempted to encircle and cut off the fortified town. This effort came close to success, not only because the German pincers nearly closed around Verdun, but also because Joffre had actually ordered the town to be abandoned. Thankfully for the French, Verdun’s commander disobeyed the order. Yet the Germans did succeed in weakening Verdun’s defensive integrity. The outlying Fort Troydon and Fort Camp des Romains were destroyed and captured respectively, and two of the main railway lines into Verdun were cut, leaving the town with just a single road and a narrow-gauge railway track from Bar-de-Luc as its main routes of supply from the west. The Germans also managed to capture the Les Éparges ridge, a strategically useful piece of high ground 24km (15 miles) to the south-east of Verdun. A French counter-attack from 17 February 1915 reclaimed much of the ridge, although some eastern parts of the feature remained in German hands almost until the end of the war. Twenty-four kilometres (15 miles) to the west of the town, the elevated Butte de Vauquois was similarly contested. The German capture of the feature brought vigorous French counter-attacks in the early months of 1915, but while infantry combat largely ground to a halt by 4 March, mine warfare continued for months to come, as each side attempted to secure the feature.
While fighting continued around Verdun, the town and its fortresses themselves came in for German attention, chiefly in the form of aerial and artillery bombardment. The latter included a fearsome pounding of Forts Douaumont and Vaux by 420mm howitzers, which succeeded in creating some significant external damage but without disabling critical French gun emplacements. Apart from such fiery interruptions, however, Verdun was actually one of the quieter sectors on the front. This was reflected not only in an encroaching complacency amongst the French garrison, but also in the stripping of many of the fortress’ guns to provide artillery for batteries elsewhere. Unknown to the French in Verdun, decisions were being taken within the German high command that would eventually make this relaxed existence nothing but a haunted and shattered memory.
In 1915, the German high command began to contemplate its next major strategic move to turn World War I in its favour. Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of staff, began writing a lengthy memorandum for Kaiser Wilhelm, in which he outlined the state of the conflict and the route to victory. Falkenhayn, giving priority to the Western Front over the Eastern Front (earning the enmity of many of his peers), identified Britain as Germany’s most pressing foe, with its vast industrial resources and the human capacity of its great empire. Falkenhayn laboriously listed the strategic options for taking on Britain, but through circuitous logic arrived at the conclusion that the best strategy was to knock the French out of the war.
The place chosen to ‘bleed’ France to death was Verdun. The action was to be called Operation Gericht – options for translation include ‘tribunal’, ‘judgement or even ‘place of execution’. In rough outline, Gericht involved drawing the French into a battle of attrition around Verdun, dealing it a crippling blow in its already weakened state. With France brought to its knees, Falkenhayn envisaged, the British would lose a supporting strut and its motivation to prosecute a terribly costly war on French soil. Falkenhayn knew that the forthcoming battle would also be costly in terms of the lives of his own men, but he believed that the final equations of cost would work out in Germany’s favour. How wrong he would be.
The first 24 hours
At 4.00 a.m. on 21 February 1916, the Battle of Verdun opened with the deep thump of three 380mm naval guns opening fire, lobbing their sky-splitting shells deep behind the French frontlines. Their targets were bridges over the Meuse, the Bishop’s Palace at Verdun, plus the city’s railway station. The eruptions of the massive shells at point of impact were devastating, but as the frontlines were untouched, the men slowly roused themselves from slumber with the expectation of another quiet day in the trenches. Then, as night gave way to dawn at around 7.00 a.m., hundreds of German artillery pieces and mortars unleashed a bombardment of soul-destroying ferocity. Such was the continual thunder of this barrage that it could be heard 241km (150 miles) away. For those on the receiving end, even for combat veterans, the experience was one of overwhelming, helpless horror. In minutes entire landscapes were re-contoured, turned inside out and moulded by tons of metal and explosive ripping into the earth.
For the French, these first few hours of the battle were about nothing more than survival. They hunkered into every trench, dug-out, shellhole or other depression they could find, and trusted in nothing more than blind luck and meagre cover to keep them this side of death. The battering ranged far and wide along the French lines, running through the morning and into the afternoon. The nature of the bombardment gradually shifted its weight from the heavy-calibre howitzers to smaller field artillery and mortars, which delivered more precision targeting against positions that were still believed to hold opposition to the forthcoming German advance.
At 4.45 p.m., after a total of nine hours of unbelievable bombardment, German troops left their trenches and began the infantry assault across wrecked ground. Assault troops raced forward under the supporting fire of machine-guns, moving quickly in small groups, closing on the French trenches and showering them with grenades, or sending a jet of flamethrower- powered burning oil along their length. Some positions fell without a fight, the defenders being too few to put up any sort of meaningful resistance. Yet this was not the case everywhere, and here were the seeds that made the Battle of Verdun an equal bloodbath for the Germans.
During the terrifying nine-hour bombardment, the 1,300 men of the 56th and 59th Divisions suffered in the region of 60 per cent casualties. Men were interred in their trenches, buried alive by displaced earth, or physically rent asunder, their unrecognisable body parts scattered yards from the shell’s impact point. Others died from shrapnel, or from the effects of blast alone, their lungs destroyed without an outward mark on their bodies. Once the shelling stopped, however, dizzied survivors emerged and began an attempt to hold the line.
They faced the German 42nd Brigade, 21st Division, and did so with astonishing bravery given the experience of the last hours and the odds that they now faced – twelve battalions of enemy infantry. The machine-guns, rifles and grenades that weren’t buried and still working were quickly put into action, and German troops began to fall. Individuals performed heroically to protect small outposts, fighting in small groups until killed, seriously wounded or out of ammunition. Ironically, the devastated landscape assisted the defence, creating a complicated terrain for the German attackers to move across. In some cases, French troops even mounted minor counter-attacks on outposts captured by the Germans.
In this way, Driant’s men held onto much of the Bois des Caures until night fell, a shock to German troops who couldn’t conceive that anyone, or anything, could have survived the bombardment they had unleashed. We should qualify this picture of French resistance a little by noting that only parts of the three German corps had been committed to these first stages of the battle many troops were held back in expectation of an easy advance. Furthermore, progress had been made elsewhere. Either side the Bois des Caures, the Bois d’Haumont and the Bois d’Herebois were taken (although Haumont itself remained in French hands). The German forces were confident that their overwhelming superiority in numbers and firepower would take the field the next day.
Extracted from Battle Story: Verdun by Chris McNab
Verdun, a war in itself
This is the plaque on the Porte that marks the entrance to the town. To a French person Verdun needs no introduction the battle that raged here in 1916 is part of some profound collective experience, a symbol of French identity. Especially with the anniversary of world war one everywhere in French life now, Verdun has returned to the forefront of the collective consciousness.
In the French imagination, Verdun is remembered much like the Somme is by the British. Except here the imagery is perhaps more potent Frenchmen fought on French soil Frenchmen with their backs to Paris Frenchmen against the old German enemy. This battle had its antecedents in the fall of Napoleon 1, the revolution of 1848, the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to the Prussians in 1871, the Paris Commune and the fallout from the Dreyfus Affair. Verdun was a national experience, a massive undertaking, seen through to the most bitter and inconclusive of ends.
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Nowadays the town of Verdun isn’t too welcoming visually it’s cold, gloomy, almost deserted. About two hours northeast of Paris by train from the Gare de l’Est, it seems a rather insignificant place today considering the lives that were expended here. With its scattering of monuments the town isn’t much more than a dreary dedication to peace. History overshadows the present here.
In 843 the Treaty of Verdun was signed, separating Charlemagne’s territories and creating what we can start to recognise today as Germany and France. By 1916 Verdun was the most advanced fortress system on the recently re-drawn Franco-German border, and stood between Paris and the German army.
The German Schlieffen Plan aimed for a quick arc westwards in order to reach a decisive victory over France. The Germans moved 1,200 artillery pieces to Verdun with half a million shells, enough for a swift six-day bombardment. But the French, with their bitter obsession, hadn’t forgotten the terms of the peace agreement that ceded Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871, thus re-drawing the borders of France - La Débâcle as Zola referred to it. And Verdun sat right on this truncated frontier. So when the Douamont Fort (the most advanced of the Verdun defences) fell to the Germans on 25th February 1916, Verdun became a national commitment, tenir (‘to hold’) was the word.
Seeing the French commitment to Verdun, the German objective of the battle was then to ‘bleed the resources of France dry’ and prevent an Allied offensive elsewhere (this would eventually happen at the Somme in July 1916, but with a predominantly British force due to the French commitment at Verdun). At times the German army came very close to bleeding France dry – quite literally. It also came very close to bleeding Germany dry too - the Germans referred to Verdun as ‘The Mill.’
During the time that the battle raged, the dead from both sides equalled almost the entire losses suffered by the British Empire during the Second World War – 305,440 dead out of 708,777 casualties. That is roughly one death every two minutes – night and day – for ten months.
Verdun accounts for approximately one tenth of all French losses during the First World War. Yet despite its bloody nature and the historical significance attached to it by the French, statistically it wasn’t the ‘worst’ battle of the war for them, or even the worst year. The worst period for France (as for all other combatant nations) was the four opening months of war in 1914, when they lost 307,000 men.
By the 17th December 1916 the French had essentially taken back most of the land they’d lost since February, and the Germans were pushed back further from Verdun. But this huge effort left a deep physical scar on France, “a tidal ebb and flow, wearing landmarks beyond recognition, almost out of existence,” as the British historian Ian Ousby says in his excellent book, ‘The Road to Verdun.’ Examples of this are everywhere in the landscape, like the village of Fleury: population zero official designation: ‘village that died for France.’ One modern historian calculates that between 13th June and 17th July 1916, the village changed hands sixteen times. Now it’s nothing more than walkways marked amongst the trees: piles of rubble and signs denoting where buildings once were, where lives were once lived.
“We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators,” wrote Freud in November 1915 in ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.’ But here, men lived side-by-side with death. At Verdun, the soldiers encountered death as intimately as possible without actually dying. The attacks on the Douaumont Fort left bodies hanging from the exposed iron that had splintered out of the reinforced concrete, bodies that would begin to rot in the sun, like the bodies given up by the wet soil when the rains ceased.
During one advance, a French soldier reported to his senior that digging the trenches forward towards the Fort was like digging through “viande,” meat. He was told to carry on. Down from the Douamont Fort, in the centre of the battlefields, now sits a large memorial building erected in the 1920’s, the Douamont Ossuary. The weight of history literally bears down on you here. Behind the walls lie the remains of 130,000 French and German soldiers, visible in their morbid white piles from the windows surrounding the base of the building they provide a symbolic foundation for this edifice to peace. Above the crypt of bones, an amber light from the south-facing stained glass windows fills the large main chamber it’s cold, and empty. The whispers of the dead seem to rush along the cold stone walls that bear the names of the fallen, “Mort Pour La France 1916. ”
Verdun holds a powerful place in the French imagination. Take the story of the Bayonet Trench, where it is said that in the early hours of June 12th 1916, 3rd Company had been defending a position in the Ravin de la Dame just down from the Douaumont Fort. Later that morning a row of bayonets was found sticking out of the soil, and below the surface, stood the fifty or so men still clutching their rifles, ready to die for France, now dead, having been buried by a German shell. The story appealed to the public’s imagination, despite its improbability, and found its way into official histories. And the memorial still stands today in the woods down from the fort, a concrete structure covering an L-Shaped line of graves wooden crosses now replacing the bayonets.
As with most places here there’s an eerie feeling that surrounds the monument. Topographical features, things you’d take for granted when strolling elsewhere shallow depressions, faint echoes in the now intensely green landscape initially seem banal. It’s a landscape of death, and you feel it, as you ascend and descend, walking through the quiet and airy woodland. The smell of death, chemicals, smoke, flesh and cordite may have gone. But their sentiment hasn’t left. Here you are walking on the graves of fallen men.
Verdun instilled a sort of “patriotic pacifism” in France. As Ousby says: “It emphasised her greatness, and her need to be great, but it also left a scar from her suffering, a reminder of her need not to suffer again.” It’s not surprising therefore that so much of France and the modern French identity are bound up in this battle. Former French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier, who signed the Munich pact in 1938 with Hitler, fought here. And the swift French surrender in 1940, has much to do with the Verdun experience. So did the desire in the 1950s to make an eternal peace between France and Germany through the European Union. Indeed, Robert Schumann, the French prime minister who helped create the first European institutions in the 1950s, was born in Luxembourg and had served in the German army auxiliary during world war one.
Symbolism drove the French defence of Verdun as much it still drives the collective French identity that stems from it today. When former Prime Minister Jacques Chirac visited in 2006 to commemorate the first monument to the 28,000 Muslims who died there he said: “The Verdun army was the army of the people, and everyone took part. It was France in its diversity.”
Pétain, de Gaulle and Maginot all fought here. But it’s not these people that are remembered. It’s the ordinary people, and it’s within this that we see the collective French memory of Verdun. The place symbolises France’s greatness and strength as demonstrated by her people, her tenacity, the Republic: modern day France. They are a symbol of the ultimate sacrifice made for France. Like the remains that rest silently under the Arc de Triomphe in the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, chosen from an unidentified body that fell at Verdun.
The tally of conquests on the Verdun entry Porte is actually incomplete as the plaque was put up before 1940, when, after a brief engagement, Verdun fell to the Nazis. In front of the Porte stands Rodin’s bronze statue, La Défense. She is a bare-chested female figure with a dead or wounded soldier slumped across her knee. Her arms are outstretched in defiance, her muscles contorted, her wings unfurled with a majestic power, as her face seems to project an eternal scream of untold pain and anger. As French poet Paul Valery said in 1931: “A battle. But Verdun is a complete war in itself.”
Photo © Edward Chisholm
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