On the 18th December 1916, one of the most deadly battles of World War I ended without a clear victor. The carnage was mind numbing with casualties estimated at more than 700,000 to just under one million. The battle pitted the French against the Germans and it was one of the many attempts to break the grueling trench warfare.
The city of Verdun was destined to be the scene of many clashes.
From the time of the Romans until the tanks and the jeeps of Patton’s 3rd Army rolled through its streets in September 1944, both invaders and defenders sought to control this strategic city on the Meuse River. During WWI, it remained as a French controlled salient jutted into the German line.
Erich von Falkenhayn, the German commander, intended to bleed the French white. He almost succeeded. In the process, however, he bled his own troops dry as well.
At Verdun, both sides used tens of millions of artillery shells, tried new tactics and grinded their manpower with nationalistic enthusiasm.
The youth of the two nations perished in such appalling conditions, and at such a rate as to guarantee that Europe would cease to be the center of the world. The landscape was so thoroughly churned, and the casualties so high, that even today, the French discover scattered bones in the area’s thousands of small craters.
Combatants added yet another spice to the list of horrors.
For the first time in modern warfare, the Germans used flamethrowers. They also forced the French to field advanced gas masks because some German chemists suggested the use of shells with diphosgene gas.
Still, at the end of the battle, little had changed, except the length of the list of casualties. There were heroes and medals on both sides as well as summary executions for those who refused to attack against impossible odds.
The most apt conclusion was found written in the diary of a young French lieutenant shortly before his death: “Men are mad.”
This 17 minute video illustrates the entire strategy leading up to Verdun and the choice of Verdun as Europe’s killing ground of its day.
This battle would change military strategy forever and steer Europe’s history. It is well worth understanding for its tactics then and its impact now.
Bibliography: The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, Alistair Horne. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1964)