World War I’s Iconic, Ironic Battle

One hundred years ago, on Feb. 21, 1916, 1,200 German artillery pieces began firing on French positions around Verdun, the ancient fortress town on the Meuse River in eastern France.

It was the middle of World War I , and the fighting all along the Western Front that ran between the Channel and the Alps had settled into a static confrontation of men, planes and guns — guns, above all. That day the Germans dropped a million shells onto the forts, forests and ravines around Verdun, and in the 10 months that followed, 60 million more would fall in the area. By then the French had stopped the German advance and even recovered most of the terrain they had lost, reduced by then to a lunar landscape bereft of vegetable or animal life. And 300,000 men had died.

What exactly are we commemorating when we gather at the forts, shell-holes and monuments of the former battlefield? We like our battles to have a beginning and an end, to mark a moment and leave a meaning that posterity can grasp and visitors can celebrate — usually, a symbolic or strategic turning point, when one side loses the initiative and never regains it, as at Gettysburg or Stalingrad.

French troops under shellfire during the Battle of Verdun. Credit General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
French troops under shellfire during the Battle of Verdun. Credit General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

We won’t find it at Verdun. The French won a great moral victory — the last, in fact, that their arms would ever achieve — but it did not significantly weaken one side more than the other, alter the strategic picture, or determine the outcome of the war. Verdun declines to boast such significance. There is little to celebrate, and we wander its hills today only as pilgrims to a site of immense suffering.

On Sunday an expanded and renovated museum will reopen on the site of one of the ruined villages; later this year, President François Hollande and Chancellor Angela Merkel will inaugurate it officially, and add their names to the long list of dignitaries who came before them. They will say what President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl said when they visited in 1984 and clasped hands before the great ossuary that holds the shattered remains of the dead — that this must never happen again, that this cannot happen again.

They will speak of Europe. French heads of state here once spoke of national unity, of patriotism, of resistance, of heroism. Away from Verdun, authors and survivors wrote of all that and much more. Germans wrote of noble failure, of brave soldiers betrayed by a cynical or inept high command. Some spoke of it in cautionary terms, as a military folly to be avoided at all costs. Never again, wrote one of the architects of the German blitzkrieg of World War II, Heinz Guderian. “I do not want a second Verdun there,” Hitler said of Stalingrad in November 1942, as though to condemn in advance the protracted siege warfare that would cost him his entire Sixth Army.

What, the visitor asks, is the meaning of what happened? Like all battlefields, Verdun is silent.

Between an older narrative of heroism and a more recent one of pointless slaughter lies an ocean of ambiguity, mingling grandeur with absurdity. Through 1916 French and German losses kept climbing in a macabre pas de deux. Under a sky illuminated by shellfire, in ravines and on hillsides denuded of natural or man-made cover, huddled in what was left of their trenches, the French and Germans lived Verdun in the same way. They used the same words to describe it — “L’Enfer,” “Die Hölle von Verdun” — and spoke too of entering another world, severed from the one they had left behind, and pervaded perhaps by an evil presence. Yes, the French stopped the German offensive on the Meuse. But so what?

To a historian 100 years later, Verdun does yield a meaning, in a way a darkly ironic one. Neither Erich von Falkenhayn, the chief of the German General Staff, nor his French counterpart, Joseph Joffre, had ever envisaged a climactic, decisive battle at Verdun. They had attacked and defended with their eyes elsewhere on the front, and had thought of the fight initially as secondary, as ancillary to their wider strategic goals. And then it became a primary affair, self-sustaining and endless. They had aspired to control it. Instead it had controlled them. In that sense Verdun truly was iconic, the symbolic battle of the Great War of 1914-18.

Paul Jankowski, a professor of history at Brandeis University, is the author of Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War.

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