During the first few days, the Germans breached the French front lines and captured Fort Douaumont without a fight on 25 February 1916. The French High Command was anxious to retake the fort because of its dominant position high above the battlefield. Despite heavy shelling, the French infantrymen (known as “Poilus”) clung on to their positions and the Germans were unable to advance any further. General Pétain then took command of the troops. He was ordered to defend Verdun.
He increased the volume of traffic along the Bar-le-Duc to Verdun road, later known as the “Sacred Way”, the only route taking men and munitions up to the battlefield. In all, some 4,000 trucks, 2,000 cars, 800 ambulances, 200 buses and numerous vans passed along it.
From 6 March 1916, the Germans also attacked on the left bank of the River Meuse yet despite furious fighting on Le Mort-Homme in March and April they were unable to breach the French front line.
At the end of June, having taken Fort Vaux, they launched a massive attack which failed – but only just.
On 1 July, the British and French launched a major offensive on the Somme, relieving some of the pressure being put on the French troops by the Germans in Verdun.
The Germans tried to capture the town one last time, on 11 and 12 July, but they failed again.
In the autumn of 1916, the French counter-attacked. On 24 October 1916, they recaptured Fort Douaumont and, a few days later, they entered Fort Vaux. It was empty – the Germans had already left.
From 15 to 18 December, the French attacked again, retaking almost all the land they had lost since 21 February.
The 1916 battle ended after ten months of bitter fighting. There were more than 700,000 victims – 305,000 killed and missing and 400,000 wounded (approximately), with almost identical losses on both sides. Yet fighting continued around Verdun until 1918.
One hundred years ago, on Feb. 21, 1916, 1,200 German artillery pieces began firing on French positions around Verdun, the ancient fortress town on the Meuse River in eastern France.
It was the middle of World War I , and the fighting all along the Western Front that ran between the Channel and the Alps had settled into a static confrontation of men, planes and guns — guns, above all. That day the Germans dropped a million shells onto the forts, forests and ravines around Verdun, and in the 10 months that followed, 60 million more would fall in the area. By then the French had stopped the German advance and even recovered most of the terrain they had lost, reduced by then to a lunar landscape bereft of vegetable or animal life. And 300,000 men had died.
What exactly are we commemorating when we gather at the forts, shell-holes and monuments of the former battlefield? We like our battles to have a beginning and an end, to mark a moment and leave a meaning that posterity can grasp and visitors can celebrate — usually, a symbolic or strategic turning point, when one side loses the initiative and never regains it, as at Gettysburg or Stalingrad.
We won’t find it at Verdun. The French won a great moral victory — the last, in fact, that their arms would ever achieve — but it did not significantly weaken one side more than the other, alter the strategic picture, or determine the outcome of the war. Verdun declines to boast such significance. There is little to celebrate, and we wander its hills today only as pilgrims to a site of immense suffering.
On Sunday an expanded and renovated museum will reopen on the site of one of the ruined villages; later this year, President François Hollande and Chancellor Angela Merkel will inaugurate it officially, and add their names to the long list of dignitaries who came before them. They will say what President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl said when they visited in 1984 and clasped hands before the great ossuary that holds the shattered remains of the dead — that this must never happen again, that this cannot happen again.
They will speak of Europe. French heads of state here once spoke of national unity, of patriotism, of resistance, of heroism. Away from Verdun, authors and survivors wrote of all that and much more. Germans wrote of noble failure, of brave soldiers betrayed by a cynical or inept high command. Some spoke of it in cautionary terms, as a military folly to be avoided at all costs. Never again, wrote one of the architects of the German blitzkrieg of World War II, Heinz Guderian. “I do not want a second Verdun there,” Hitler said of Stalingrad in November 1942, as though to condemn in advance the protracted siege warfare that would cost him his entire Sixth Army.
What, the visitor asks, is the meaning of what happened? Like all battlefields, Verdun is silent.
Between an older narrative of heroism and a more recent one of pointless slaughter lies an ocean of ambiguity, mingling grandeur with absurdity. Through 1916 French and German losses kept climbing in a macabre pas de deux. Under a sky illuminated by shellfire, in ravines and on hillsides denuded of natural or man-made cover, huddled in what was left of their trenches, the French and Germans lived Verdun in the same way. They used the same words to describe it — “L’Enfer,” “Die Hölle von Verdun” — and spoke too of entering another world, severed from the one they had left behind, and pervaded perhaps by an evil presence. Yes, the French stopped the German offensive on the Meuse. But so what?Continue reading the main story