A century ago the Battle of Verdun was taking place. This was a battle between the French and the German armies during World War I which began on February 21st 1916 and lasted until the 18th of December 1916. It is famous for being one of the worst battles ever: a complete catastrophe where poor leadership, innate human savagery, and industrial warfare combined to destroy countless lives.
The battle started when the German high command abandoned its attempt to smash through the French lines and achieve a quick victory (the central plan of their war efforts up that point). Instead the German generals felt that they could “bleed the French to death” in a costly war of attrition if they attacked in such a place that the French could not retreat from for reasons of pride and necessity. They chose to attack an ancient fortress on the Meuse River–Verdun. The town had a long history of war. Attila the Hun’s armies were driven back at Verdun in the Fifth Century AD. The town traded place between France and The Holy Roman Empire in the Dark Ages. There was also a modern fortress there, although it had been denuded somewhat of weapons at the beginning of the war (because it was not thought to be of high strategic importance).
The Germans built ten train lines (and twenty new stations) to quickly provision the battle. Yet the French had done a better job of (re)fortifying the area on short notice than the Germans had expected and the German attempt to seize advantageous tactical positions was not entirely successful. But the battle had begun. The German meatgrinder began to pulverize the reserves of the French army.
As it turned out, the German generals were proven right: the French army refused to retreat or surrender. They remained in place and defended Verdun at a terrible cost. However there was a second part of the German strategy which the Field Marshalls had initially overlooked: it turned out that for reasons of pride and necessity, the German army could not retreat or surrender either. The huge modernized armies armies were trapped locked together in a few square kilometers for 11 months. During that time they fired 10,000,000 shells at each other: a total of 1,350,000 long tons of high explosives and shrapnel. The new weapons of the day—poison gas, flamethrowers, grenades, airplanes, and machine guns all made frequent appearances.
Spent shell casings at Verdun
I cannot give you a blow by blow account of the battle. More than a million men attacked and counter attacked again and again and again. You can read a synopsis online, or look up the details in one of the many books about Verdun.
What we can say is that Verdun was a nightmare of mud and mechanized death. The year was wet and the local clay quickly became a treacherous landscape of mud filled with war debris and human waste and remains. Trenches and shell holes became slimy drowning pits filled with barbed wire and metal shards. The living and the dead alike rotted in place as millions of shells rained down along with the ever-present rain.
Historians disagree on the full cost of Verdun, but total casualties (men seriously wounded to the point they were lastingly removed from combat) for both armies numbered between 750,000 and 960,000. An appallingly high number of these casualties were men killed outright. There were tens of thousands of combatants who went missing in action and have never returned.
During the Battle of Verdun, the French army came perilously close to coming apart entirely. Desertions began to run high (though deserters who were caught were summarily executed by firing squad for cowardice). Men went mad and became completely unhinged. Antoine Prost wrote, “Like Auschwitz, Verdun marks a transgression of the limits of the human condition” A French officer who was there (and who died there before the battle ended) wrote ” Hell cannot be so terrible.”
The battlefield today (still scars upon the land)
And in the end the result of the internecine battle was…stalemate. Both sides lost more than they could afford and neither gained a real advantage (although strategists grudgingly grant victory to France for not breaking). The war moved on—soon an equally large battle was taking place at the Somme 125 miles to the Northwest. At any rate there was a second battle of Verdun in summer of 1917…not to mention a whole second world war a generation later.