Tuesday, September 14, 2004


Verdun. The name doesn’t mean all that much for Americans, but for the French, it speaks volumes. It is the name of a city in France that saw some of the fiercest fighting of World War I. The battle lasted from 21 February 1916 to 19 December 1916 and the total casualties (killed, wounded and missing) on both sides were around 700,000. During the four years of World War II, the United States lost just over 400,000 men, so you can see that this was a very, very, bloody battle.

Before World War I, the city of Verdun was much closer to the German border than it is now. Due to the French defeat during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the French had to give up all of Alsace and parts of Lorraine to the Germans. When World War I broke out, the areas around Verdun and Nancy were still a part of France, but the area around Metz, about 60 kms to the east of Verdun, belonged to the Germans.

During World War I, the German High Command formulated a simple plan to knock the French out of the war. They thought that if they attacked the French at Verdun, they would force them (the French) to commit so much men and materiel to the defense of the salient that it would “bleed” the French army dry. The surviving French army would be only a skeleton of its former self, thus forcing the French to either drop out of the war or become ineffective.

One of the reasons that the Germans thought that they could “bleed the French army dry” was the rate that soldiers were being killed during World War I. World War I happened at the time in history when man’s ability to kill had far out-paced man’s ability to not be killed. Two of the major military innovations during World War I that accomplished this were machine guns and rapid-fire artillery. The machine gun drove men to live underground in trenches or fortresses because of its ability to completely sweep the landscape with bullets and kill anyone foolhardy enough to stand up. Unfortunately, fortresses and trenches are fixed fortifications that do not move and when you are not moving, you are vulnerable to artillery fire. World War I has been called the “artillery war” due to the constant artillery barrages, the amount and size of artillery used on both sides and the amount of casualties produced by constant artillery barrages.

Since the site isn’t that far from the German border, I decided to go for a visit. I had read some material on the battle and seen some maps, but I wanted to go check the place out for myself. The city of Verdun is surrounded by hills and on these hills that saw the majority of the fighting. Vegetation and trees have since grown up over the battlefield, but the area is still marked by trenches, bomb craters and military fortifications. Because of the fighting, nine villages were completely wiped off the face of the earth. The most famous of these was the village of Fleury, which changed hands 16 times before the end of the battle. The village is completely gone now with only stone markers to show where the various streets were.

Where the old train station stood in Fleury is the Verdun Battlefield Museum. It contains your standard military museum fare (maps, weapons, uniforms, etc.) but also explains more about the battle. There are two things in the museum which stood out from the rest for me. The first was a hand-sewn cloth about the size of a handkerchief. A soldier had sewn on it “A ma cher épouse” (to my dear wife). I do not know if he survived the war to see her again or not, but I could feel the love that he had for her. The second was a display of flags of World War I veteran’s associations from around the world. When the last veteran of the association dies, the association flag is brought there and placed on display with other veteran association flags from World War I. It made me think about all those World War I veterans who will be gone in a few years.

Some of the forts that the French and Germans held during the battle can be visited. The most famous is Fort Douaumont. It was captured by the Germans the first day of the offensive and the French vowed to re-capture it. The place is wet, damp and smelly with water dripping from the ceiling and stalactites starting to form on the ceiling in the lower levels. The fort contains two cemeteries, one French and one German. The French cemetery is for seven men who were killed when a 42 cm shell made a direct hit on the room where they were sleeping. There were actually 21 men in the room who were killed, but they could only find and remove the bodies for 14 men, so they walled up the room and called it a cemetery for the other seven men. The German cemetery is where the bodies of 679 men are buried. During the fight, there was an accidental explosion in a grenade storage area which killed so many men, that they could not all be buried outside. As a result, they walled the bodies up in one of the fort’s tunnels and called it a cemetery.

I expected to see more cemeteries since there were so many killed during the battle. I saw only two cemeteries, they weren’t all that large. However, not far from Fleury is the Ossuary, which is home to the remains of 130,000 unidentified soldiers. Because of the constant bombardments during the battle, bodies of dead soldiers that had been buried would be unearthed and scattered across the battlefield by exploding shells. The Ossuary is where these remains have been deposited over the years when found.

I originally planned to spend the whole day looking at the battlefield, but after just a few hours of being reminded of the terrible cost of human lives, I decided that I was sufficiently “depressed” and decided to go home. My wife asked me why I insist on visiting these places and I told her for the simple reason that I want to remember. When I visited Dachau prison many years ago, just before you exit from the exhibits on what went on there, there is a quote by George Santayana. The quote is “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. I go to those places to remember what happened, so I can avoid repeating the errors of the past. Unfortunately, it seems that more of our world leaders ("Blacques Jacques" Chirac, Kofi "The Appeaser", Gerhard Schroeder, other members of the Axis of Weasels, etc.) should do the same.


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