One of the costliest battles in history, the battle of Verdun in World War I demonstrated the results of a war of attrition pursued by both sides, which led to an enormous loss of life. We toured the battlefield today and could imagine the devastation. Though it is now covered by new forests and grass, the craters and the trenches are clearly visible, and the carnage is easily imagined.
In the winter of 1915–1916, the Germans made plans for a large offensive on the Western Front. The theory was that once the French army had bled to death, Britain could be brought down by Germany’s submarine blockade and superior military strength. The German plan was to initiate a battle not to gain territory or a strategic position but simply to create a killing ground to bleed the French army dry.
Verdun was the strongest point in pre-war France, ringed by a string of powerful forts, including Douaumont and Vaux, and protected overall by the famed but failed Maginot Line. By 1916, the salient at Verdun jutted into the German lines and lay vulnerable to attack from three sides.
Verdun was utterly unprepared for the initial bombardment on the morning of 21 February 1916. German infantry attacks followed that afternoon and met tenacious but ultimately inadequate resistance for the first four days. On February 25, the Germans occupied Fort Douaumont, which we were able to tour. It has over two miles of halls, and it was evidently hell below ground for those who lived there – both Germans and French.
French reinforcements—now under the leadership of General Pétain—began to arrive and were instantly thrown into “the furnace” (as the battle was called) to slow the German advance, no matter what the cost.
Over the next several days, the stubborn defense managed to slow the German advance with a series of bloody counter-attacks. Pétain organised repeated, small-scale attacks to slow the German advance. He also ensured that the Bar-le-Duc road into Verdun—the only one to survive German shelling—remained open. It became known as La Voie Sacrée (“the Sacred Way”) because it continued to carry vital supplies and reinforcements into the Verdun front despite constant artillery attack.
On June 23, the Germans reached what would become the furthest point of their advance. The line was just in front of Fort Souville, the last stronghold before Verdun itself. Pétain was making plans to evacuate the right bank of the Meuse when the Allies’ offensive was launched. The Germans could no longer afford to continue their offensive at Verdun. At a cost of some 400,000 German casualties and a similar number of French, the attack was finally called off. Germany had failed to bleed France to death.
The battle continued, however, from October to the end of the year. French offensives, employing new tactics , regained the forts and territory they had lost earlier. No real change, except for the extreme loss of life over 11 months.
There are many French and German cemeteries throughout the battlefield. The largest is the French National Cemetery and Douaumont Ossuary. Thirteen thousand crosses adorn the field in front of the ossuary, which holds roughly 130,000 unidentified remains brought in from the battlefield. Every year yields more remains.
The sadness is everywhere. And the consequences were horrendous.