101 years ago today, the first shots in the battle of Verdun were fired. It was to become the longest and most destructive battle in what was then known as The Great War (World War I), and in all of history. By the time it was over 10 months later, there had been 377,231 French and 337,000 German casualties.
The battle was meant to start nine days earlier, and thousands of Germans were ready in their “stollen”, or tunnels. But snow, wind, rain, and poor visibility kept them in place. The tunnels had no heat and were flooded, and the condition of the troops deteriorated with hunger and medical issues. During the delay, the French had some time to move their troops into position.
Germans waiting to start
At 7:15 A.M. on February 21st., the fierce German bombardment began. 80,000 heavy grenades fell at a rate of 40 per minute on an area of half a square kilometer. The French trenches were blown up and men were ripped to pieces, buried under the earth or disappeared into the air. Trees are uprooted and body parts hang in the branches. The bombardment lasts nine hours.
The Germans emerge from their stollen at 5:15 P.M. expecting to find no-one alive, but the bombardment was less effective then they hoped, and the French are there to resist. The Germans use flamethrowers as an offensive weapon for the first time.
The battle continues for four days before the Germans are able to capture their primary objective, Fort Douaumont.
Fort Douaumont at war’s end
The French at Verdun are under the command of Henri-Philippe Petain, later the Chief of State of Vichy France. Retreat was not an option for him, and he orders the defense of a line between the remaining fortifications at Verdun “at all costs”. The battle for the village of Douaumont continues for days, and ultimately the Germans prevail on March 2nd, taking many prisoners, including Charles de Gaulle.
This was the battle of the Anthill. It is re-created in Kubrick’s superb anti-war movie, Paths of Glory, which has an unforgettable opening tracking shot of Kirk Douglas, as Colonel Dax, moving through the French trenches. See this movie again soon.
But Petain has achieved his objective, which was to delay the German advance for a couple of days while French reinforcements could be assembled. The battle for Douaumont bogged down, and the battlefield became a muddy swamp where neither army advanced for months. Fort Douaumont was finally re-taken by the French in October.
The overall battlefield itself was tiny, less than 10 square kilometers. Men on both sides lived in trenches and were fighting for just a few yards of territory at a time.
A French captain reports: …I have returned from the most terrible ordeal I have ever witnessed. […] Four days and four nights – ninety-six hours – the last two days in ice-cold mud – kept under relentless fire, without any protection whatsoever except for the narrow trench, which even seemed to be too wide. […] I arrived with 175 men, I returned with 34 of whom several had half turned insane….
The last note from the diary of Alfred Joubaire, a French soldier: …They must be crazy to do what they are doing now: what a bloodbath, what horrid images, what a slaughter. I just cannot find the words to express my feelings. Hell cannot be this dreadful. People are insane!…
A German soldier writes to his parents: …An awful word, Verdun. Numerous people, still young and filled with hope, had to lay down their lives here – their mortal remains decomposing somewhere, in between trenches, in mass graves, at cemeteries….
Henri Barbusse describes the trenches as:
…a network of elongated pits in which the nightly excreta are piling up. The bottom is covered with a swampy layer from which the feet have to extricate themselves with every step. It smells dreadfully of urine all over….
A French stretcher-bearer describes the consequences of a flame-thrower attack: …Some grenadiers returned with ghastly wounds: hair and eyebrows singed, almost not human anymore, black creatures with bewildered eyes….
A German eye-witness: …The losses are registered as follows: they are dead, wounded, missing, nervous wrecks, ill and exhausted. Nearly all suffer from dysentery. Because of the failing provisioning the men are forced to use up their emergency rations of salty meats. They quenched their thirst with water from the shellholes. They are stationed in the village of Ville where every form of care seems to be missing. They have to build their own accommodation and are given a little cacao to stop the diarrhoea. The latrines, wooden beams hanging over open holes, are occupied day and night – the holes are filled with slime and blood…
A neutral contemporary feels: …that they, within the framework of this World War, are involved in some affair, that will still be considered horrible and appalling in a hundred years time. It is this Hell of Verdun. Since a hundred days – day and night – the sons of two European people fight stubbornly and bitterly over every inch of land. It is the most appalling mass murder of our history…
15,000 French rest at Douaumont