Pour nous, c’est très présent,” remarked my octogenarian friend, a distinguished French scholar of English literature at the Sorbonne, when I told him of my plan to leave behind the delights of Paris for the somber battlefield at Verdun. A century ago his grandfather, a young subaltern, had served there and been incapacitated in a German gas attack. Today, and perhaps then as well, this defining struggle of World War I could not seem further from the oblivious bobos strolling below the aged academic’s worn but high-valued flat on the Rue des Beaux-Arts. Or could it? From Paris’s Gare de l’Est, Verdun and its surrounding combat zone lie less than two hours away via tgv. An early morning start delivers a visitor there in time for the standard 10 AM opening hours of all the major sites, most of which are accessible on foot, via taxi, or courtesy of special tour programs.
Destiny itself seems to have predetermined Verdun’s fate.
The town of Verdun, which straddles the river Meuse, is picturesque and well worth a visit without reference to the mournful martial lore that draws virtually all tourists. If one can get past the souvenir shops selling tasteless battle memorabilia (think candles in the shape of the signature French 75mm howitzer shell), the small city yields the undiscovered wonders so often found by surprise when roaming la France profonde.
Destiny itself seems to have predetermined Verdun’s fate. The strategic high ground around the city has served defensive purposes from time immemorial. The city’s very name derives from the Roman Verodunum, itself a Latin bastardization of the Gallic term for “fortified place.” Facing untamable Germanic tribes in the forests to the east of Gaul, the Romans quickly turned the locale into a strongpoint of their own. By the fourth century it had grown substantial enough to boast a Christian bishopric, a see that would in future centuries erect several prominent churches before settling on the town’s still impressive (if extensively renovated) cathedral. In 843 A.D., long after the Roman defensive line had become obsolete, Charlemagne’s fractious grandsons met there to sign a treaty dividing his inheritance into three portentously delineated realms. Roughly speaking, their independent domains constituted what we know today as France, Germany, and a geographically ill-defined buffer state called “Lotharingia,” so named for its first ruler, Lothar, who had claimed the whole of the imperial inheritance before his brothers fought him to the negotiating table. Running in a strip from the Low Countries to Northern Italy, the name of his realm is most recognizable to us today as “Lorraine,” as in Alsace-Lorraine, the eastern French region that was passed back and forth with Germany until 1945.
Verdun initially fell in this middle belt of territory, and its further history naturally condemned it to contention. Indeed, the city’s principal monument to the battle is a thick pillar supporting a stern-faced, helmeted statue of Charlemagne leaning down with both arms resting defiantly on the hilt of his sword. The mighty medieval Emperor could be posturing to scold his offspring’s disobedient nationalist descendants as easily as defying any foreign invader of a country that claimed him most directly as its founder. France did not take permanent, internationally recognized control of Verdun until the Treaty of Westphalia confirmed possession in 1648. Thereafter, Louis XIV’s fortification of his realm’s border zones turned the city over to the brilliant military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (whose first solo project was fortifying a more modest burgh in the northern part of France called Le Quenoy, but that is a separate story). Incomplete until the early nineteenth century, Vauban’s starfish-shaped citadel quickly declined into military obsolescence. When the Prussians invaded revolutionary France in 1792, they easily occupied Verdun before continuing on to defeat farther along at Valmy, a riposte that emboldened the Jacobin regime in Paris to abolish the monarchy and proclaim France’s First Republic (four other republics have followed—there may soon be a sixth, or something else). Napoleon employed Verdun’s fortress to confine British prisoners of war. By the time of the next Franco-German War, in 1870–1871, Verdun could boast that it was the last French fortress to surrender to the Prussian invaders, though the siege was an afterthought to the massive open-field battle further north at Sedan and a definite sideshow compared to the much more devastating siege of Paris that was still ongoing at the time of the peace settlement.
Today the main part of Vauban’s fortress is an active military installation closed to visitors, but its tunnels offer a fairly interesting museum of the First World War battle. Additional exhibits may be found in the town hall, which also dates from the seventeenth century. And now, running from June 2014 until November 11, 2018—the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that brought World War I combat to a halt—a special multimedia exhibition has been installed in the town’s eighteenth-century Episcopal Palace, part of which houses a permanently operating World Peace Center. Immersive in ambition, the exhibit employs detailed video projections and 3-D “augmented reality” installations to impart impressions of what the combatants faced. The effect is powerful and certainly represents an improvement over the standard stale exhibition displays that now seem so stultifyingly twentieth-century.
The specter of a new German invasion after the war of 1870–1871 convinced the French to move beyond the quaint walls of Vauban’s citadel to batteries of “modern” fortifications radiating in a semicircle to the north and east of Verdun. Long before the Maginot Line placed an ultimately futile concrete barrier along the Franco-German frontier, these bastions dominated the rolling local landscape like so many grim Mordors. Elevation atop gentle slopes offered their defenders broad visibility to blast invaders with modern artillery from impressive distances. Tons of cement were laid and gigantic ditches dug to keep them safe in their gloomy redoubts.
The great irony of the World War I battle was that these fortresses had become quite meaningless by the time the first salvoes were hurled. Facing a two-front conflict with France in the West and France’s Russian ally in the East, the Germans planned to march though Belgium to envelop and defeat the French army quickly enough to transfer their army to the Eastern Front in order to meet the slower moving Russian hosts. As the autumn of 1914 set in, however, modern mechanized warfare and all its attendant horrors froze the Western Front into two opposing lines of improvised trenches that proved virtually impenetrable. Despite numerous tactical innovations and technical enhancements, neither side could achieve a breakthrough all through the next year.
Verdun thus came into the war on the Western Front almost by accident. Frustrated by their inability to break through the German lines, the Allied military leaders agreed to launch coordinated attacks on all fronts—Western, Eastern, and, since May 1915, Italian—in the summer of 1916. On the Western Front this coalesced into the other massive bloodletting of 1916, the Battle of the Somme. But the Germans had looked for their own opportunities after the dismal disappointments of 1915. By the turn of 1916, the fortified area around Verdun sat like an uncomfortable elbow right where the fixed positions bent in a near 90-degree angle from the relatively ignored frontier zone into the German trenches deep inside northern France. Erich von Falkenhayn, the chief of the German general staff, wrote in his memoirs that his idea was to launch a massive assault that would force the French to defend the area and bleed their army to death in the process. In a “Christmas memorandum” he purportedly sent Kaiser Wilhelm in late 1915, the operation’s bleak goal was to start a duel of attrition. Since no copy of this “Christmas memorandum” has ever been found and no other evidence of it exists, historians have surmised that this was not Falkenhayn’s actual plan. Operational orders to the local commanders and preparations for an artillery bombardment of unprecedented power instead suggest that his real intention was to break through at Verdun and then roll up the French positions to the north and west. When this failed in a bloody stalemate, Falkenhayn likely invented the attrition plan after the fact to disguise the magnitude of his failure and justify his tremendous losses.
On Febuary 21, 1916, before the Allies could even come close to launching their own offensive, 1,200 German guns roared at Verdun and the surrounding positions. Waves of troops commanded by Germany’s Crown Prince—with specially trained and ominously named units of elite “stormtroopers” in the lead—probed weaknesses in the French line and decimated their opposite numbers not only with the standard artillery, machine guns, and small arms, but with war’s latest adaptations: flamethrowers that could incinerate enemy soldiers inside their bunkers and deadly phosgene gas that was virtually undetectable until it started to choke its victims to painful death.
The imposing French fortresses stood silent, for the needs of more active sectors of the Western Front had claimed almost all of their artillery long before the stormtroopers started their march (in another terrible irony of war, the local commander who had advised against removing the guns was almost immediately killed by the German artillery barrage). The biggest and most important one, Fort Douaumont (only completed in 1913), fell to a small German patrol just four days into the attack. Its young conquerors rocketed to international fame. The psychological blow devastated their opponents. More than twenty years later, Jean Renoir incorporated news of the event into his film La Grande Illusion (1937) to suggest the despair of the French prisoners whose demoralization leads to increasingly bold escape attempts. Charles de Gaulle, then an ambitious company commander, endured such frustration after he was wounded and captured in the early days of the battle as it raged around the lost fort. His own five failed escape attempts kept him out of the rest of the war; he compared his frustration (oddly in a letter to his parents) to being cuckolded. Only the steely determination of another officer whose lifelong fate would be interwoven with de Gaulle’s, General Philippe Pétain, enabled the front to hold—and then only just—after he assumed command of the French Second Army, a regional formation stationed around Verdun because the front was thought to be “quiet.” Cut off from the rail line, which ran through German-occupied territory, supplies had to be trucked in along a slender, serpentine road that the future fascist intellectual Maurice Barrès dubbed “la voie sacrée.” Under constant German artillery fire, one truck is believed to have passed along it every fourteen seconds to keep the beleaguered men at the front sufficiently supplied to continue their fight.
The battle dragged on for ten months. In the end the French line held around the last French forts before Verdun, preventing any breakthrough and effectively winning the battle after late-year counterattacks recovered lost ground (Fort Douaumont was recaptured on October 24, eight months after it had fallen). The rotation of about two-thirds of combat units in the entire French army through the Verdun sector ensured a steady supply of fresh troops who were thereafter imbued with an intense spirit of shared comradeship unparalleled by any other contest in the war. When Pétain’s successor Robert Nivelle (after the battle both men would, in reverse order, serve as the French Army’s commander-in-chief) declared in late June, “they will not pass,” he spoke for an entire nation.
Improvised traffic signs glumly indicate buildings that are gone forever.
The months of hard-fought battle turned the surrounding area into a devastated gray moonscape barely recognizable to the visitor today. A century of comparative peace (in World War II the Germans occupied Verdun without serious opposition; the Americans liberated it with relative ease as Patton’s tanks careened into the region in September 1944) has restored a layer of verdant countryside and thickets of young forests. Nevertheless, some physical reminders jarringly recall what happened a century ago. Many of the small rural hamlets that dotted the battlefield were permanently destroyed and never rebuilt. Simple memorials mark the former locations of such places as Fleury, where a modest gravestone announces that “Fleury was here” and notes that the town was “destroyed in 1916.” Improvised traffic signs glumly indicate the former positions of the church, the town hall, and other buildings that are gone forever. Yet another battle museum, thoroughly renovated and reopoened in 2016, sprawls over the ruins of the town’s train station. Out in the fields the topography is oddly distressed, with glades of grass undulating over unfilled indentures in the earth with the unapologetic look of a blanket hastily tossed over an unmade bed. Long stretches of trench dugouts have survived intact, if overgrown with vegetation. A forested “forbidden zone” marked in red on maps still blots the landscape to warn of unexploded artillery shells and other hazards left over from the battle. Levels of arsenic, lead, zinc, and mercury in the local soil may not return to normal for ten thousand years. Even ostensibly safer areas turn up an annual “harvest” of unexploded shells that have to be secured and removed to clearly marked receptacle sites for government disposal.
When it was all over, both sides combined had suffered some 700,000 casualties, about 230,000 of them fatalities. In their respective languages French and German soldiers alike referred to the zone of combat as “the Hell of Verdun.” Many of the dead were never found or accorded formal burial. In the intensity of the German bombardments, scores of French soldiers at a time found themselves buried alive in their bunkers or trenches without ever having fired a shot. At a memorial at the so-called Trench of the Bayonets, one can reflect on the story, perhaps apocryphal but nevertheless poignant, of thirty-nine French soldiers who seemed to have been buried alive before going over the top of their trench. Through some contortion of the laws of physics, their rifles remained in upright positions leaned up against the trench’s wall, with only their bayonets sticking out of the ground to indicate where the men had breathed their last.
Many of the recovered dead of both sides rest in and around a vast burial complex about ten kilometers from the town and just down the road from the derelict remains of Fort Douaumont. A sprawling military cemetery—France’s largest—stands at attention in the shadow of the massive Douaumont Ossuary, a house of bones where human remains taken from the battlefield are still interred upon discovery. Along with the Christian crosses that mark most of the cemetery graves, there is an appreciable number of Stars of David and Islamic Crescents (a separate memorial inaugurated in 2006 commemorates all 70,000 Muslim soldiers who died for France in the First World War; there is also a separate memorial for all Jewish soldiers who perished in the conflict). The Ossuary building itself shelters the skeletal remains of some 130,000 French as well as German soldiers, along with some remains from World War II and France’s postwar colonial struggles in Indochina and Algeria. Plaques on the walls and ceiling commemorate individual soldiers who never returned. The bones are arranged visibly in alcoves on the ground level. An imposing tower rises in the middle of the building to house a giant brass bell (donated by an American heiress in the 1920s) and a red light that illuminates the surrounding area at night. The 6 PM train ride back to Paris was a somber one, indeed.