A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Verdun’s storm of shellfire that obliterated 300,000 men (The Independent 14 May 2014)
Synonymous with futility and heroic defiance, it was the biggest battle the world had ever seen. John Lichfield on an inferno that marked the birth of the age of warfare by mass destruction
On 21 February 1916, a single German shell looped high over a wooded ridge in eastern France and fell on the town of Verdun. Over the next 10 months, but mostly in the next four months, the Verdun ridge was hacked and ploughed by 32 million shells. In places, it has been estimated, 10 shells fell on every square centimetre.
By the end of the battle – the longest single battle in human history – more than 300,000 French and German soldiers had been obliterated in an area of 50 square miles. Most are still there, pounded into the sand and chalk of western Lorraine.
When fighting ended in December 1916, the two armies stood a few hundred yards from where they had been. For the French, the name “Verdun” still symbolises the murderous futility and the impossible heroism of the 1914-1918 war. And yet Verdun was less destructive than the Somme. It was less costly to the French, month by month, than the foolish and largely forgotten offensive battles of 1915.
In pictures: A history of the First World War in 100 moments
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It has become lodged in French popular memory partly because, despite 170,000 French deaths, it was a French defensive “victory” in a war in which victories were scarce.
“All the regiments in the French army were rotated in and out of Verdun,” said the French historian Jean-Yves Le Naour. “It seemed as though the blood of the entire nation was coursing through one battlefield.” The slogan of defiance attributed to Marshal Pétain, “Ils ne passeront pas”, fuelled the heroic legend.
There is another reason why the name “Verdun” has been seared on the memory of mankind. “The logic of Hiroshima began at Verdun,” said Mr Le Naour. “It was at Verdun that the notion of industrialised mass destruction was pushed to its limit for the first time.”
At Verdun – and from 1 July that year on the Somme – the firepower, and the ingenuity behind it, exceeded even that seen in the murderous campaigns of 1914 and 1915. In both battles, artillery was assembled by the Germans, and later the French and British, on an unimagined scale. Flamethrowers (Verdun), tanks (the Somme) and more efficient forms of poisonous gas (both) joined the world’s arsenal of mass butchery.
A French soldier is shot during a counter attack (Alamy)
Richard Holmes, the great British historian of the Western Front, also points out that there was “something particularly dreadful” about the distilled horror of the tiny battlefield of Verdun. “The front was so narrow (less than 15 miles)… Men might be killed instantly but without apparent damage by concussion; blown to tatters by direct hits; cut up as if by some malicious butcher; crippled by flying fragments of their comrades’ bodies or shocked into babbling incoherence by a capricious hit which left them unscathed among the remnants of their friends.”
An anonymous French officer left an account of the first days of the fighting: “Thousands of projectiles are flying in all directions, some whistling, others howling, others moaning low, and all uniting in one infernal roar. From time to time, an aerial torpedo passes, making a noise like a gigantic motor car…
“Beyond, in the valley, dark masses are moving over the snow-covered ground. It is German infantry advancing in packed formation… They look like a big grey carpet being unrolled over the country…
“There is a whistle over our heads. It is our first shell. It falls right in the middle of the enemy infantry… Through glass we can see men maddened, men covered with earth and blood, falling one upon the other.
“When the first wave is decimated, the ground is dotted with corpses, but the second wave is already pressing on. Once more our shells carve awful gaps in their ranks… Then our heavy artillery bursts forth in fury. The whole valley is turned into a volcano, and its exit is stopped by the barrier of the slain.”
Another French officer, Lieutenant Henri Desagneaux, wrote: “Numb and dazed, without saying a word and with our hearts pounding, we await the shell that will destroy us… There’s death everywhere. At our feet, the wounded groan in a pool of blood. Two of them, more seriously hit, are breathing their last. One, a machine-gunner, has been blinded, with one eye hanging out of its socket and the other torn out: in addition he has lost a leg.
“The second has no face, an arm blown off and a horrible wound in the stomach. Moaning and suffering atrociously, one begs me: ‘Lieutenant, don’t let me die.’”
Devastation near Fort Souville, Verdun (Alamy)
Erich von Falkenhayn, the German Chief of the General Staff, claimed after the war that his aim had been not to break through at Verdun but to kill French soldiers, and “bleed the French army white”. This is now thought by many historians to have been a lie by von Falkenhayn to explain his defeat. His intention had been to break through, and to destabilise the Allies before the new Pals regiments of Kitchener’s British volunteer army could enter the war further west. The initial German assault captured a handful of forts and advanced about four miles. From April, the Germans were stopped, only to advance again, be pushed back, and advance once more, before eventually being repulsed.
It is sometimes forgotten that the battles of Verdun and the Somme overlapped between July and November 1916. The Germans were also heavily engaged in defeating a Russian offensive on the Eastern Front. It was an extraordinary – but hugely costly – achievement by the German army to fight these three great battles in one year. Berlin’s casualties in 1916 on the Western Front alone – at least 700,000 dead, wounded or captured; some say 900,000 – are part of the ghastly arithmetic of eventual German defeat.
But even those terrible losses fell short of persuading the Germans that they had lost. That took another two exterminatory years and American intervention.