February 21, 1916, marked the beginning of one of the most devastating battles of all time, a paroxysm of suffering, madness, and courage. The numbers are staggering and almost incomprehensible: sixty million shells fired over a period of 300 days and nights. That’s one every two seconds. Beneath that shower of shells, 2.3 million soldiers fought in the hills of the Meuse département in Northeastern France. The battle left 400,000 wounded and 300,000 dead – one death every 90 seconds – and in the end, the front line remained virtually unchanged. Even 105 years later, visitors to Verdun can still feel the horror.
By early 1916, the front line of this industrial war had stabilized. Germany was looking to boost morale among its troops after two years of fighting and losses at the Marne River and the Argonne Forest. The Germans were planning a major offensive that they believed would be unstoppable. They would attack Verdun and, in the words of General Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of the German General Staff, “bleed the French Army dry.” Why Verdun? It was a symbolic location, as both sides had already fought there in 1792, during the French Revolution. In a much smaller battle, the Germans – Prussians at the time – had broken through the French line of defense and begun making their way towards Paris, but were eventually stopped in Valmy. Fast-forward to 1916: On February 21, the French defenses were battered by an artillery attack of unprecedented scale – the biggest in history. The battle’s first deaths were recorded.
Verdun, a strategic point of defense, was connected to the rest of the French army only by a narrow dirt road, the “RD 1916,” or as the French called it the “Voie Sacrée” (Sacred Road). Today, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Paris. At the height of the battle, there were 8,000 trucks running non-stop along the road every day – one vehicle every fourteen seconds – transporting men and supplies to the battlefront under France’s “noria” system of rapid troop rotation. Transport along the sacred road was organized by Philippe Pétain, who, sadly, is better remembered today for collaborating with the Nazis during World War II. In the Great War, however, he was the hero of the French resistance at Verdun, who fired up his troops with his famous line: “Stay strong, we will prevail!”
Douaumont Ossuary is where our commemorative visit begins. Built between 1920 and 1932, the monument is shaped like a giant sword planted in the ground up to its guard. The ossuary’s cloister is 450 feet long and houses the skeletal remains of 130,000 unidentified soldiers. This is where François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, former heads of France and Germany, respectively, famously shook hands in 1984 as a symbol of reconciliation. In front of the cloister, 16,000 clean white graves stand silently in neat rows.
Looking out at the sea of crosses gives a vague idea of the scale of the massacre – 300,000 dead, but how many widows, orphans and mothers were left grieving? Some of the names on the graves, such as Archimède, Florimond, and Alzyre, are relics of a bygone era. Others are more common: Joseph, Henri, Georges, Emile. They are the names of boys raised in the French countryside, a generation sacrificed. Most of the victims were under 25 years old.
Two monuments, one at each end of the cemetery, pay homage to the Jewish and Muslim soldiers who died for France. A little farther on, trenches are still visible in the nearby woods. The long, interconnected galleries, now lined with trees and mushrooms, are deep enough to stand up in. I try to imagine how horrific it all must have looked a century ago: black fields of uncovered soil, scarred with shell holes and bristling with barbed wire… A martyred landscape strewn with gunpowder, shrapnel, feces, blood, and corpses. Here and there, a gutted bunker quietly withers away beneath the moss. It’s cold and raining, and the wind has started blowing in harsh gusts.
How did the soldiers cope with it all? A map of the area reveals the sinister names given to nearby forts and commemorating clashes that occurred in the area: Mort-Homme (Dead Man’s Hill), Froideterre (Cold Land), Bois Bourrus (Scraggly Woods), Bois Corbeau (Raven Woods), Ravin de la Mort (Ravine of Death).
Douaumont: The Fortress of Verdun
Next stop: Fort Douaumont. This large fortified hill was designed to be impenetrable, and yet it fell twice during the war – captured once by the Germans, then recaptured by the French. Thimble-shaped observation posts the size of cars – now rusted and dimpled with gunshot – line the roof. I poke my finger inside one of the indentations and find a family of ladybugs living there…
Douaumont, now a ghost village, is where then-Captain Charles de Gaulle was taken prisoner in March 1916. Before the war, 400 people lived here. Now nothing remains but giant shell holes and a small monument. It is part of the “red zone”: 300,000 acres of former battlefields where building was forbidden after the war because of the thousands of cadavers and unexploded ordnances in the ground. There are nine red-zone villages that were destroyed and never allowed to rebuild. Symbolically, they still elect mayors.
The “Bayonet Trench” monument in Douaumont pays homage to a group of soldiers believed to have been buried alive by a shell blast as they were standing ready to attack, with bayonets on their rifles. Only the tips of their bayonets were left sticking up out of the ground, like flowers. Although no one knows for sure how the soldiers died, an American banker paid for a monument to be built at the site with a plaque that reads: “In memory of the French soldiers still standing in this trench, rifle in hand. Their American brothers.” The woods surrounding the reconstructed trench give the place an eerie feel. Under those war-mangled trees lie the bodies of 60,000 French and German soldiers, scattered beneath the soil, never to be found.
Article published in the February 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.