'During the time that the battle of Verdun raged, the dead from both sides equalled almost the entire losses suffered by the British Empire during the Second World War. Roughly one death every two minutes – night and day – for ten months.'
To a French person Verdun needs no introduction; the battle that raged here in 1916 is part of some profound collective experience, a symbol of French identity.
Especially with the anniversary of World War I everywhere in French life now, Verdun has returned to the forefront of French consciousness.
This is the plaque on the Porte that marks the entrance to the town.
BESEIGED, DESTROYED or DAMAGED in
AND DESTROYED IN TEN MONTHS
AND REBUILT IN TEN YEARS
Above it, written in large letters is one word:
In the French imagination, Verdun is remembered much like the Somme is by the British. Except here the imagery is perhaps more potent; Frenchmen fought on French soil; Frenchmen with their backs to Paris; Frenchmen against the old German enemy. This battle had its antecedents in the fall of Napoleon 1, the revolution of 1848, the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to the Prussians in 1871, the Paris Commune and the fallout from the Dreyfus Affair. Verdun was a national experience, a massive undertaking, seen through to the most bitter and inconclusive of ends.
Nowadays the town of Verdun isn’t too welcoming visually; it’s cold, gloomy, almost deserted. About two hours northeast of Paris by train from the Gare de l’Est, it seems a rather insignificant place today considering the lives that were expended here. With its scattering of monuments the town isn’t much more than a dreary dedication to peace. History overshadows the present here. In 843 the Treaty of Verdun was signed, separating Charlemagne’s territories and creating what we can start to recognise today as Germany and France. By 1916 Verdun was the most advanced fortress system on the recently re-drawn Franco-German border, and stood between Paris and the German army.
The German Schlieffen Plan aimed for a quick arc westwards in order to reach a decisive victory over France. The Germans moved 1,200 artillery pieces to Verdun with half a million shells, enough for a swift six-day bombardment. But the French, with their bitter obsession, hadn’t forgotten the terms of the peace agreement that ceded Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871, thus re-drawing the borders of France – La Débâcle as Zola referred to it. And Verdun sat right on this truncated frontier. So when the Douamont Fort (the most advanced of the Verdun defences) fell to the Germans on 25th February 1916, Verdun became a national commitment, tenir (‘to hold’) was the word.
Seeing the French commitment to Verdun, the German objective of the battle was then to ‘bleed the resources of France dry’ and prevent an Allied offensive elsewhere (this would eventually happen at the Somme in July 1916, but with a predominantly British force due to the French commitment at Verdun). At times the German army came very close to bleeding France dry – quite literally. It also came very close to bleeding Germany dry too – the Germans referred to Verdun as ‘The Mill.’
During the time that the battle raged, the dead from both sides equalled almost the entire losses suffered by the British Empire during the Second World War – 305,440 dead out of 708,777 casualties. That is roughly one death every two minutes – night and day – for ten months. Verdun accounts for approximately one tenth of all French losses during the First World War. Yet despite its bloody nature and the historical significance attached to it by the French, statistically it wasn’t the ‘worst’ battle of the war for them, or even the worst year. The worst period for France (as for all other combatant nations) was the four opening months of war in 1914, when they lost 307,000 men.
By the 17th December 1916 the French had essentially taken back most of the land they’d lost since February, and the Germans were pushed back further from Verdun. But this huge effort left a deep physical scar on France, “a tidal ebb and flow, wearing landmarks beyond recognition, almost out of existence,” as the British historian Ian Ousby says in his excellent book, ‘The Road to Verdun.’ Examples of this are everywhere in the landscape, like the village of Fleury: population zero; official designation: ‘village that died for France.’ One modern historian calculates that between 13th June and 17th July 1916, the village changed hands sixteen times. Now it’s nothing more than walkways marked amongst the trees: piles of rubble and signs denoting where buildings once were, where lives were once lived.
“We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death; whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators,” wrote Freud in November 1915 in ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.’ But here, men lived side-by-side with death. At Verdun, the soldiers encountered death as intimately as possible without actually dying. The attacks on the Douaumont Fort left bodies hanging from the exposed iron that had splintered out of the reinforced concrete, bodies that would begin to rot in the sun, like the bodies given up by the wet soil when the rains ceased. During one advance, a French soldier reported to his senior that digging the trenches forward towards the Fort was like digging through “viande,” meat. He was told to carry on.
Down from the Douamont Fort, in the centre of the battlefields, now sits a large memorial building erected in the 1920’s, the Douamont Ossuary. The weight of history literally bears down on you here. Behind the walls lie the remains of 130,000 French and German soldiers, visible in their morbid white piles from the windows surrounding the base of the building; they provide a symbolic foundation for this edifice to peace. Above the crypt of bones, an amber light from the south-facing stained glass windows fills the large main chamber; it’s cold, and empty. The whispers of the dead seem to rush along the cold stone walls that bear the names of the fallen, “Mort Pour La France 1916…”
Verdun holds a powerful place in the French imagination. Take the story of the Bayonet Trench, where it is said that in the early hours of June 12th 1916, 3rd Company had been defending a position in the Ravin de la Dame just down from the Douaumont Fort. Later that morning a row of bayonets was found sticking out of the soil, and below the surface, stood the fifty or so men still clutching their rifles, ready to die for France, now dead, having been buried by a German shell. The story appealed to the public’s imagination, despite its improbability, and found its way into official histories. And the memorial still stands today in the woods down from the fort, a concrete structure covering an L-Shaped line of graves; wooden crosses now replacing the bayonets.
As with most places here there’s an eerie feeling that surrounds the monument. Topographical features, things you’d take for granted when strolling elsewhere; shallow depressions, faint echoes in the now intensely green landscape initially seem banal. It’s a landscape of death, and you feel it, as you ascend and descend, walking through the quiet and airy woodland. The smell of death, chemicals, smoke, flesh and cordite may have gone. But their sentiment hasn’t left. Here you are walking on the graves of fallen men.
Verdun instilled a sort of “patriotic pacifism” in France. As Ousby says: “It emphasised her greatness, and her need to be great, but it also left a scar from her suffering, a reminder of her need not to suffer again.” It’s not surprising therefore that so much of France and the modern French identity are bound up in this battle. Former French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier, who signed the Munich pact in 1938 with Hitler, fought here. And the swift French surrender in 1940, has much to do with the Verdun experience. So did the desire in the 1950s to make an eternal peace between France and Germany through the European Union. Indeed, Robert Schumann, the French prime minister who helped create the first European institutions in the 1950s, was born in Luxembourg and had served in the German army auxiliary during world war one.
Symbolism drove the French defence of Verdun as much it still drives the collective French identity that stems from it today. When former Prime Minister Jacques Chirac visited in 2006 to commemorate the first monument to the 28,000 Muslims who died there he said: “The Verdun army was the army of the people, and everyone took part. It was France in its diversity.”
Pétain, de Gaulle and Maginot all fought here. But it’s not these people that are remembered. It’s the ordinary people, and it’s within this that we see the collective French memory of Verdun. The place symbolises France’s greatness and strength as demonstrated by her people, her tenacity, the Republic: modern day France. They are a symbol of the ultimate sacrifice made for France. Like the remains that rest silently under the Arc de Triomph in the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, chosen from an unidentified body that fell at Verdun.
The tally of conquests on the Verdun entry Porte is actually incomplete as the plaque was put up before 1940, when, after a brief engagement, Verdun fell to the Nazis. In front of the Porte stands Rodin’s bronze statue, La Défense. She is a bare-chested female figure with a dead or wounded soldier slumped across her knee. Her arms are outstretched in defiance, her muscles contorted, her wings unfurled with a majestic power, as her face seems to project an eternal scream of untold pain and anger. As French poet Paul Valery said in 1931: “A battle?… But Verdun is a complete war in itself.”
Edward Chisholm is a British freelance writer, editor and copywriter currently living in Paris. His work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times and Guardian.