This is my second trip to the Verdun abattoir. Lorraine, home region of Verdun, with its rolling verdant hills and lush farms fed by rivers and streams is picturesque in a medieval agrarian sense. Barns built generations ago with broad oak beams and limestone still decorate the fecund peaceful countryside. I’m reminded of French Impressionists paintings by Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Camille Pissarro. Charolais cattle grazing and sleeping on its hillsides disguise the horrors of earlier generations. Lorraine has been a hotly contested province for many millennia most recently passing from France in 1870 to Germany and back to France in 1918 after World War I. Along with Alsace, Lorraine was the crucible of many violent Franco Germanic confrontations.
The French and British Expeditionary Force had stopped the German offensive in 1914 at the first battle of the Marne (In France known as the “Battle of the Taxi Cabs”) and the war had settled into a trench stalemate. The forested hills just east of Verdun were the staging grounds for the German offensive of 1916. The Battle of Verdun is considered the greatest and lengthiest in world history. Ten months. Something like eighty thousand soldiers were killed each month. Never before or since has there been such a lengthy battle, involving so many men, situated on such a small area of land. The entire battlefield was not even ten square kilometers. (Six square miles) Every square centimeter was an artillery-plowed mud field of human blood and gore. Noxious deadly weapon gases permeated the battle field. The unending stench of rotting human flesh forced many soldiers to wear their gas masks. No trees remained standing. Nine villages were obliterated. Almost a century later, it is still considered dangerous to step off some of the paths for fear of unexploded military ordnance.
The area around Verdun contained twenty major French forts and forty smaller ones that had historically protected the eastern border. The German command believed, probably correctly, that the French would fight to the last man to save Verdun and would thus lose so many men that the battle for Verdun would change the course of the war. The plan had one major weakness – it assumed that the French would be an easy opponent and would take unsustainable casualties – but that that German casualties would be light.
The Germans poured four million rounds of heavy artillery on the French in the first two weeks accomplishing their first goal — massive French casualties. Nevertheless, the French remained steadfast. One French soldier wrote about the German artillery bombardment: “Men were squashed. Cut in two or divided from top to bottom. Blown into showers; bellies turned inside out; skulls forced into the chest as if by a blow from a club.”
When the German ground offensive came 140,000 German soldiers climbed up from their trenches, raced across no man’s land into French machine gun and artillery fire in an attempt to dislodge the French. Much of the fighting was hand to hand. Bayonet to bayonet. The French line bent and fractured but was never broken. Both attacked and counterattacked continually for ten months. Some villages changed hands multiple times during the same day. The battle killed an estimated 477,000 French and 430,000 German soldiers. The French “won” this battle. In WWI two million French men died between the ages of fifteen and forty which was about five percent the total population. It took until the 1960’s to recover its prewar manpower.The unimaginable horror of this war caused the politicians and many others to declare that this was the “War to End All Wars.”
It was a warm (87F/31C) and partly cloudy day when we arrived at the battlefield. We hiked to the site of an old underground French fort. Just as we approached the entrance, the fort exhaled a damp bone chilling breath that seemed to pass through us like a ghost seeking refuge from a storm.