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World War One, Verdun

…. They had conquered a notorious hill. They had lived in trenches that had been alternately French and German. These trenches sometimes lay filled with bodies in different stages of decomposition. They were once men in the prime of their lives, but had fallen for the possession of this hill. This hill, that was partly built on dead bodies already. A battle after which they lay rotting, fraternally united in death….
(Georges Blond – Verdun).


verdunmap.jpg (92554 bytes)  Map of the battle field

Verdun was a battle fought for the sole purpose of bleeding the enemy white.  It was unlike any fought before as its goals were not to take ground, not to capture property, not to break the enemies lines but to create a mountain of French dead...to cost the French so many men that they could not continue the war.  It was the heirs of Beethoven and Goethe bleeding dry the ancestors of Voltaire and Rousseau.  It lasted approximately 11 months and may be the worst battle ever fought.  The level of suffering for the soldiers is beyond compare.

 

Eye Witness Reports

A French captain reports: ...I have returned from the most terrible ordeal I have ever witnessed. […] Four days and four nights – ninety-six hours – the last two days in ice-cold mud – kept under relentless fire, without any protection whatsoever except for the narrow trench, which even seemed to be too wide. […] I arrived with 175 men, I returned with 34 of whom several had half turned insane....

 

The last note from the diary of Alfred Joubaire, a French soldier: ...They must be crazy to do what they are doing now: what a bloodbath, what horrid images, what a slaughter. I just cannot find the words to express my feelings. Hell cannot be this dreadful. People are insane!...

 

A German soldier writes to his parents: ...An awful word, Verdun. Numerous people, still young and filled with hope, had to lay down their lives here – their mortal remains decomposing somewhere, in between trenches, in mass graves, at cemeteries....

Louis Barthas recounts the bitter man-to-man fights: ...Woe betide anyone who fell into the hands of the enemy alive; all sense of humanity had disappeared. Soldiers, wounded, stretcher-bearers – a distinction was no longer made....

An eye-witness: ...One soldier was going insane with thirst and drank from a pond covered with a greenish layer near Le Mort-Homme. A corpse was afloat in it; his black countenance face down in the water and his abdomen swollen as if he had been filling himself up with water for days now....

A soldier tells: ...The soldiers put their feet in front of them and pulled up out of the swampy and smelly soil. A disgusting impenetrable stench surrounded every move. Some did not manage to pull their boots from the mud and had to continue in their socks, puttee or even barefooted....

A French soldier describes the horrors of a bombardment: ...When you hear the whistling in the distance your entire body preventively crunches together to prepare for the enormous explosions. Every new explosion is a new attack, a new fatigue, a new affliction. Even nerves of the hardest of steel, are not capable of dealing with this kind of pressure. The moment comes when the blood rushes to your head, the fever burns inside your body and the nerves, numbed with tiredness, are not capable of reacting to anything anymore. It is as if you are tied to a pole and threatened by a man with a hammer. First the hammer is swung backwards in order to hit hard, then it is swung forwards, only missing your scull by an inch, into the splintering pole. In the end you just surrender. Even the strength to guard yourself from splinters now fails you. There is even hardly enough strength left to pray to God....

A witness tells: ...We all carried the smell of dead bodies with us. The bread we ate, the stagnant water we drank… Everything we touched smelled of decomposition due to the fact that the earth surrounding us was packed with dead bodies....

Henri Barbusse describes the trenches as:
...a network of elongated pits in which the nightly excreta are piling up. The bottom is covered with a swampy layer from which the feet have to extricate themselves with every step. It smells dreadfully of urine all over....

A French stretcher-bearer describes the consequences of a flame-thrower attack: ...Some grenadiers returned with ghastly wounds: hair and eyebrows singed, almost not human anymore, black creatures with bewildered eyes....

Louis Barthas also describes such an attack:
...At my feet two unlucky creatures rolled the floor in misery. Their clothes and hands, their entire bodies were on fire. They were living torches. [The next day] In front of us on the floor the two I had witnessed ablaze, lay rattling. They were so unrecognisably mutilated that we could not decide on their identities. Their skin was black entirely. One of them died that same night. In a fit of insanity the other hummed a tune from his childhood, talked to his wife and his mother and spoke of his village. Tears were in our eyes....

A soldier tells: ...Seven days without sleep, seven days of fatigue, thirst and fear made these healthy men, these beautifully disciplined companies into a gang of loiterers. Critically ill, but calm and satisfied, because they were now out of danger and appeared to be still alive....

A German officer recalls: ...We saw a handful of soldiers, commanded by a Captain, slowly approaching, one at the time. The Captain asked which company we were and then started to cry all of a sudden. Did he suffer of shellshock? Then he said: ...when I saw you approach it reminded me of six days ago, when I walked this same road with approximately hundred men. And now look how few there are left.... We watched as we passed them; they where about twenty. They walked by us as living, plastered statues. Their faces stared at us like shrunken mummies, and their eyes were so immense that you could not see anything but their eyes....

A German soldier describes: ...The men who have lived in these trenches just as long as our infantry men, without going insane under these infernal attacks, must have lost their sense for a large number of things. Our poor men have seen too many atrocities, have witnessed too many incredible matters. I cannot believe that we will be able to cope with this. Our poor little mind simply cannot comprehend all of this....

An eye-witness: ...There is nothing as tiring as the continuous, enormous bombardment as we have lived through, last night, at the front. The night is disturbed by light as clear as if it were day. The earth moves and shakes like jelly. And the men who are still at the frontline, cannot hear anything but the drumfire, the moaning of wounded friends, the screams of hurt horses, the wild pounding of their own hearts, hour after hour, day after day, night after night....

A German soldier: ...the soldiers fell over like tin soldiers. Almost all our officers get hurt or killed and many of our men get killed because of their own artillery fire, which is too close and therefore causes many victims...

A French soldier: ...my battalion comes straight from the land behind the front-lines, the men are exhausted and did not sleep. The battalion consists of 800 men - the battalion that we are here to replace lost 800 men...

A German eye-witness: ...The losses are registered as follows: they are dead, wounded, missing, nervous wrecks, ill and exhausted. Nearly all suffer from dysentery. Because of the failing provisioning the men are forced to use up their emergency rations of salty meats. They quenched their thirst with water from the shellholes. They are stationed in the village of Ville where every form of care seems to be missing. They have to build their own accommodation and are given a little cacao to stop the diarrhoea. The latrines, wooden beams hanging over open holes, are occupied day and night – the holes are filled with slime and blood...

A neutral contemporary feels: …that they, within the framework of this World War, are involved in some affair, that will still be considered horrible and appalling in a hundred years time. It is this Hell of Verdun. Since a hundred days – day and night – the sons of two European people fight stubbornly and bitterly over every inch of land. It is the most appalling mass murder of our history…

A soldier: …One of the trenches is so filled with wounded and dead bodies the attackers have to use the parapet in order to be able to move forward…

A German witness: ….the latrines cause major problems. They are completely blocked up and smell terribly. This stench is fought with chlorinated lime and this smell mixes with the battlefield smell of decomposition. Men even wear their gas masks when using the latrines…

A French eye-witness: …mud, heat, thirst, filth, rats, the sweet smell of corpses, the disgusting smell of excreta and the terrible fear: ‘it seems we will have to attack’, and that when nobody has any strength left...

A German soldier: …and during the summer months the swarms of flies around the corpses and the stench, that horrible stench. If we had to construct trenches we put garlic cloves in our nostrils…

An eye-witness: … you could never get rid of the horrible stench. If we were on leave and we were having a drink somewhere, it would only last a few minutes before the people at the table beside us would stand up and leave. It was impossible to endure the horrible stench of Verdun...

A German officer: …the number of defectors increases, the front soldiers become numb by seeing the bodies without heads, without legs, shot through the belly, with blown away foreheads, with holes in their chests, hardly recognisable flab’s, pale and dirty in the thick yellow brown mud, which covers the battle field…

A French soldier: …everyone who searches for cover in a shell hole, stumbles across slippery, decomposing bodies and has to proceed with smelly hands and smelly clothes…

A German soldier: …in the drumfire bravery no longer exists: only nerves, nerves, nerves. When anyone is exposed unto such trials and tribulations he is no longer of any use as an attacker or defender…
 

Casualties for both sides totaled approximately one million men

A major military engagement of World War I, the Battle of Verdun was a ten month long ordeal between the French and German armies. The battle was part of an unsuccessful German campaign to take the offensive on the western front. Both the French and German armies suffered an incredible loss of life (estimated casualties: France 540,000 men and Germany 430,000 men) and no strategic advantages were gained for either side. The Battle of Verdun is considered to be one of the most brutal events of World War I, and the site itself is remembered as the "battlefield with the highest density of dead per square yard." (Horne, 1)

In the years preceding World War I, Germany became Europe's leading industrial power. France felt increasingly threatened by German industrialization; and although France ruled the second largest colonial empire in the world (Britain was the largest), French leaders realized that France could not protect itself on its own from the burgeoning power of Germany.

As a response to the German threat of invasion, France built a continuous line of sunken forts in the hopes that an invading army would not be able to maneuver through it. The line of fortifications extended from the Swiss frontier to the French city of Verdun, thus making Verdun a vital strong point for the French war effort.

The German attack began on February 21, 1916 with an intense artillery bombardment of the forts surrounding Verdun. The French army retreated to predetermined positions while the German army pounded through the French lines. On February 25 1916, Fort Douaumont, near Verdun, surrendered to German forces. On that same day, General Joseph Joffre, the French Commander and Chief, dedicated to ceasing further French retreat, assigned General Henri Philippe Petain to command the French army at Verdun. Petain fought with the motto " Ils ne passeront pas," which means, "They shall not pass!" While the exhausted German army was lingering at Fort Douaumont, Petain restructured his troops and transported reserves to the region continuously.

On March 6 1916, the German commanders ordered an attack, and on March 22, 1916, another French fort near Verdun, Harcourt, surrendered to the German army. A week later, on March 22 1916, Malancourt, a French fort near Verdun, had fallen to the Germans. Although three French forts near Verdun had capitulated to German forces, Verdun itself remained undefeated.

German attacks ensued, but by April, the French Air Force had secured the sky over Verdun, which would help the French to successfully defend the area. However, the French forts of Thiaumont and Vaux had fallen to the German army in June, although the pressure on France had diminished due to the British attack on German forces near the Somme River. This British attack and a Russian offensive in the east forced the German army to transfer troops away from Verdun. These events put Germany in a defensive mode, and the French quickly took the offensive.

By November of 1916, Fort Vaux, Fort Thiaumont, and Fort Douaumont had been reclaimed for France. By December, the French had advanced to their February 1916 lines, their original position. No new advantage had been gained for either side.

International History Project