February 21, 2016, marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Verdun – the longest battle of the Great War, fought on a battlefield that was not even a square ten kilometres. Verdun was one of the major two battles that took place on the Western Front, the other being the Somme: an effort to relieve the pressure on the French forces all but surrounded at Verdun.
By 1916, two years into the war, trench warfare had become well established, in all its futility and brutality. Chief of staff of the German army, Erich von Falkenhayn believed that the key to winning the war lay not in confronting Russia on the Eastern Front, but in defeating the French on the Western Front. Verdun maintained a great psychological hold in the minds of the French people (it was the last stronghold to fall in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War) and hence was chosen for the assault which was intended to “bleed the French white”.
“The string in France has reached breaking point. A mass break-through – which in any case is beyond our means – is unnecessary. Within our reach there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death.” – Falkenhayn to Kaiser William II
The battle took place on the hills north of Verdun-sur-Meuse in north-eastern France. During the 10-month long battle hundreds of thousands of lives were lost for insignificant territorial gains, with the Germans being pushed back to their original positions by the end of the battle. Within four days the French suffered over 60 percent casualties, and the Germans losses were nearly as heavy.
After a few brief territorial gains from the Germans, the battle settled into a stalemate, as casualties quickly mounted on both sides. By the latter half of 1917, German resources were stretched thin as they confronted both a British-led offensive on the Somme River and Russia’s Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front. On 19 December 1916 the German army command concluded that they had suffered a defeat at Verdun.
“To die from a bullet seems to be nothing; parts of our being remain intact; but to be dismembered, torn to pieces, reduced to pulp, this is the fear that flesh cannot support and which is fundamentally the great suffering of the bombardment.” – Anonymous French soldier
Many troops at the battle never saw an enemy soldier, experiencing nothing but artillery fire: of the 800,000 casualties at Verdun, an estimated 70 percent were caused by artillery fire. The millions of artillery shells fired during the battle permanently altered the landscape and the battle resulted in the complete annihilation of the nearby towns of Beaumont, Bezonvaux, Cumières, Douaumont, Fleury, Haumont, Louvemont, Ornes, and Vaux.
Bomb-disposal teams remove approximately 40 tons of unexploded munitions each year, and yet it is estimated that it will take a further several hundred years to completely clear the battlefield at the current rate of removal.
Today Forts Vaux and Douaumont, scenes of some of the bloodiest fighting of the lengthy battle, are kept open to the public. Each year, visitors in their thousands journey to the site. Many who have visited have observed that to this day no birds sing – a theme picked up on by Sebastian Faulks in his WWI novel, Birdsong.
Verdun would come to signify, more than any other battle of World War I, the horrific and relentlessly bloody nature of warfare on the Western Front. Skeletons of Verdun still surface to this day, and are added to the towering bone piles in the basement of the Douaumont Ossuary.
100 years ago, acorns from the battlefields of Verdun were planted in Britain. The Woodland Trust are trying to hunt down these Centenary Woods, and ensuring their legacy lives by on growing a second generation of trees.
No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand. When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them. We will talk and sleep and go about our business like human beings. We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us. – Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong
Nothing was the same once the war was over – the world changed drastically in the space of the four-year conflict. We have all been taught, or read, about the horrors of “the war to end all wars”, but as the last generation who lived and fought through World War I, and battles such as at Verdun, fade into history we must do all we can to ensure the legacy of the Great War, and those who lost their lives, remains.