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Verdun: World War I's war within a war

Volker Wagener / gro May 28, 2016

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande prepare to meet in Verdun, DW looks back at the World War I battle. The senseless massacre lasted 300 days and failed to produce a victor.

Frankreich Douaumont Verdun Gedenkkreuz
Image: Reuters/V. Kessler

The barrage that announced Operation Judgment began in the early hours of February 21, 1916. Hundreds of German barrels of all calibers fired for nine hours straight. The world had never seen anything like it. Two hundred kilometers (120 miles) in the distance, the cannons of Verdun could be heard. The German author Ernst Jünger called it a "storm of steel." Europe had been at war for a year and a half at that point, but the Battle of Verdun ultimately became the symbol of World War I.

Over 300 days, 162,000 French and 143,000 German soldiers would lose their lives. Five hundred were killed per day on the German side, even more on the French. They did not "fall" as soldiers had in previous wars; they were torn apart, blown up or pulverized.

Verdun - with its hilly landscape along the Meuse River, which bends around the city - was more than a strategic military location to the French. The city in the Lorraine region "was a symbol of the German-French conflict," the historian Herfried Münkler said. This is where the Carolingian Empire was divided into the three kingdoms from which eastern and western France would evolve at the end of the medieval period. It was place of great psychological significance for the French. Under no circumstances could Verdun fall into enemy hands.

And, military experts and historians widely agree, Verdun was not a good starting point for the Germans if they had really intended to push forward the 250 kilometers to Paris. However, Supreme Commander Erich von Falkenhayn was not seeking a breakthrough or surround-and-capture operation: Verdun was a blood pump that was to bleed the French dry - or, in the officer's own words, "bleed them white."

Philippe Petain, Verdun's defender, saw through von Falkenhayn's intentions. The French general used a clever tactic to counter Germany's goal of obliterating the French. He deployed virtually the entire nation in the battle. More than 70 percent of French soldiers were ordered to fight at least once in the trenches near Verdun for eight to 10 days. A member of almost every family in France took part in the battle - particularly between February and June 1916, when large parts of the army were concentrated in the area.

From July 1916 on, after the failure of smaller offensives, von Falkenhayn ordered a "strict defensive." German troops had long been needed elsewhere, especially on the Somme front. By October, the French were advancing; by December, they had recaptured almost all lost territories. The French did not so much succeed as end up on the better side of an unparalleled human catastrophe.

Oussaire de Douaumont
In the ossuary, the bones of the bitter enemies are mixedImage: DW/K. von Kotze

'The lethal banality'

According to military calculations, about 1 million steel projectiles weighing a total of 1.35 tons touched down on a surface area of less than 30 square kilometers (12 square miles) during the Battle of Verdun. The noise caused many in the surrounding area to go deaf. The unbearable stench added to the suffering. The Battle of Verdun was a condensed version of the continentwide war.

"Unlike the 'war of movement' on the Marne," the military historian German Werthe has written, "the battle in the Meuse region was characterized by dullness and monotony, which made it a symbol of the lethal banality of the four years of trench warfare."

The landscape was contaminated for decades. Many places were declared "zone rouge" - made impassable by the scars of a human and materiel battle in which neither army ever gained more than 4 kilometers.

The most touching of the innumerable monuments to the slaughter is the ossuary in Douamont, which was inaugurated in 1927 in front of the most powerful and most northern fort near Verdun. In the main tower of this mass grave are the mixed remains of about 130,000 French and German soldiers - all unknown. Even today, random bones from gardens, fields and forests in the region are taken to the ossuary.

The French have attempted to declare defensive victory. "Verdun!" they sing. "On ne passe pas!" ("Verdun! They shall not pass!") In Germany, on the other hand, the battle is synonymous with absolute futility. Nonetheless, attempts have been made to glorify the disaster. The battlefields, for example, have been recast as "immortal landscapes."