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France and Germany mark centenary of Battle of Verdun

Commemorations have been held in northern France to mark 'the pointlessness and savagery' of World War One's longest battle, at Verdun. It claimed 300,000 lives and ended after ten months in a stalemate in 1916.

Remembering Verdun was now the task of new generations, the memorial site's Director, Thierry Hubscher said as thousands of French and German children attended Sunday's events in northern France.

One hundred years after the battle, all surviving combatants

have passed away,

Hubscher said. "Verdun is no longer a memory, it is history."

At dawn on Sunday, 300 volunteers in military costume gathered north of the town of Verdun, in the forest of Caures, where German artillery shells first fell on February 21, 1916. By the close of the first day of battle, almost a million German shells had fallen, fired from 1,400 guns and mortars.

French General Robert Nivelle's phrase "They shall not pass" came to symbolize French national resistance. German commander-in-chief Erich von Falkenhayn had vowed to "bleed France dry."

'Epitome of pointlessness'

Germany's current ambassador to Paris, Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut said Verdun in German memory was the "epitome of the pointlessness and savagery of World War One."

The industrialized trench warfare that began in 1916, including poison gas and flame-thrower attacks, also left 400,000 troops wounded on both sides, many with life-long trauma or "shell shock."

Soldiers sank in mud. Nine villages were obliterated. The French wrested back territory lost and ten months later the frontline was located almost exactly where the battle had begun.

"Verdun changed almost nothing," said German historian Herfried Münkler.

Hand-in-hand

Official reconciliation came only decades later

in 1984 when the then French President Francois Mitterand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood hand-in-hand near the fort of Douaumont.

Audioslideshow Helmut Kohl

Mitterand and Kohl extended hands at Verdun in 1984

The site where they stood holds the skeletal remains of 130,000 fallen French and German soldiers.

The memorial recently underwent a 12.5-million-euro ($14 million) renovation and takes visitors over glass flooring that allows views of the muddy ground below and battle field objects.

One letter on display asks: "Mother, why did you bring me into this world?"

The men on both sides underwent the same agonies and fears, said memorial director Hubscher.

Frankreich Soldatenfriedhof Douaumont in Fleury

The cemetery at Douaumont

French-German commemoration in May

In May, France's current President, Francois Hollande, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are scheduled to visit the battlefield together.

In all, World War One claimed the lives of 10 million military personnel and left 20 million wounded.

ipj/jm (AFP, dpa)

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