Posted by: lifeonislandtime | July 27, 2015

The Hell of Verdun

My patient husband spends much of our trip planning telling me, “if you want to see it, we should go see it.” This becomes more important as we get to Bath, but for now, it means that we drove across France so that I could see the remains of one of the most brutal battles in world history for myself. 
A little background for those who are a bit *ahem* “rusty” on their Great War history: Verdun sits on the High ground above the Meuse River valley, overlooking the Alsace/Lorraine region which had been hotly contested between France and the Prussian empire (soon to become Germany) only 40 years before. Because of this war, France had designed a string of fortifications along their border to keep the Germans out. One of the strongpoints on this line was Verdun. The high ground was pockmarked with large forts housing large artillery, and underground fortifications housing many men. 
One of the interesting things about World War I is the rate of technological jumps in materiel available. What I mean, is that this state of the art fort system, built in the 1880’s and 1890’s, was completely outdated by 1916 when the battle of Verdun took place. Wars no longer needed long lines of men marching forward to engage with the enemy. Large artillery pieces, sighted correctly, could fire projectiles weighing 45 kilograms over a mile. These shells either exploded on impact (if their fuses were right), about 5 feet above the ground, or even upon loading into their guns. Extremely dangerous for the troops on the ground.
We saw a little of this in the later stages of the Civil War. The use of Grapeshot, designed to inflict higher damage, the use of incendiary fuses, trench warfare, all began around the Petersburg, Richmond, and Wilderness campaigns. By 1916, it was refined to nearly lethal precision, and employed on the battlefields of the Western Front.
On the eve of the battle of Verdun, the commander of the French forces, Marshall Petain, decided to strip all the soldiers out of the forts and put them in as reserve and front line troops along the rest of the western front. This left a skeleton crew and no guns at each fort.
The German commander, Falkenhayn, made the decision to “bleed France white” and throw everything he had at a hand-picked target in France. He chose Verdun. If Verdun fell, it was only a day from Reims, the ceremonial heart of France, where their Kings had been invested for centuries, where Joan of Arc was canonized (she was burned at the stake in Reims, too), and where all of their cultural history came from.
I’m still puzzled as to why the German high command agreed to this plan. Did they not think France would defend this site with all they had? Did they think they wouldn’t lose as many men with concentrated, focused resistance? Were they out of their collective minds?
The result do this insanity was 300 days and nights of constant battle. That’s 10 months. From February until November, 1916. Total losses are estimated at being 750,000 between British Commomwealth (British, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand), French/French colonial troops, and Germany. Many were never found, even to this day. There is a building housing all the unknown remains. It’s called the Ossuary, and it’s the size of a cathedral. The bones are arrayed by the sector of the battlefield they were found on. It is amazing in its sheer magnitude, and it’s a harrowing sight to see. 
The entire battlefield is in what the French call the “Zone Rouge,” or Red Zone, so named because the munitions from the war that either didn’t detonate, detonated and became buried in the mud, gas canisters, and dead bodies, have collectively poisoned the land. Routinely, farmers and foresters find entire undetonated artillery shells after the winter rains. The French army has an artillery range at Verdun, and collects these dangerous objects and safely detonates them. 
When you approach any portion of the battlefield, there are large signs stating, “Do not stray from path. Extreme danger!” All areas of the battlefield are cratered and pocked with shell holes, craters, trenches, and collapsed underground earthworks. In an arial picture taken shortly after the battle, there is only dirt visible. No trees. No villages. In fact, it looks like a patch of soil after a hard rain, when the raindrops pockmark the dirt and leave craters of their passing. It’s only after a few minutes of looking at the photo that one realizes craters are shell craters and the photo is of the fortification of Vaux, one of the massive forts ringing the city. 
We hiked a bit. We went to Fort Souville, which can only be hiked into. You can’t go in the fort, but you can walk around it. As you walk amongst the small trees ( only about 80 years old; it was reforested in the 1930’s, when it was cleaned up enough to begin reforestation) you still see the scars of the great battle: craters from artillery shells, broken earthworks, metal pickets with coils of barbed wire between them, broken stone, and demolished gun emplacements. As we walked, the “clear” path was marked with green spots on trees, while “unsafe” paths were marked with red spots. 
It amazes me what the Great War did to the physical landscape of France. I’m accustomed to seeing my battlefields semi-organized, as with the Civil War, or Normandy. A cohesive front, organized troop movements with a purpose. Though the battlefield was well described and well-signposted, it was difficult to follow. I’m no slouch when it comes to deciphering battlefields and transferring paper diagrams to the actual terrain, but in the case of Verdun, I was at a loss.
Through no fault of its own, the battlefield is chaotic, disjointed, and unclear. The French and German armies shelled the lines unmercifully: some estimates have the amount of shelling by the Germans on the opening day alone to be 1,000,000 artillery shells fired, and the level of battle remained relatively constant for the entire course of 300 days. As the Germans surged over the French lines, new ones were made. When the French took them back, the Germans made new ones. By the end of the battle, few true lines remained. Just hell. Small towns were fought over so fiercely, they were obliterated. Today, nothing remains but the foundations and some cracked pottery.
Maybe that is the true legacy of Verdun. We’re not meant to understand it, or put it in a nice box, like we can other battles. We’re meant to stand at the precipice of a massive graveyard for a generation of young men, and promise them that we won’t do it again. 


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