The Battle of Verdun, fought between the French and German armies on the Meuse between February and December 1916, was the longest battle of the First World War. This battle of attrition, whose symbolic impact greatly exceeded its strategic and political importance at the time, became the metonymic expression of the horrors of modern warfare.
As the start of operations, the French found themselves in an unsuitable position for defence. Straddling the river and squeezed up against a promontory, the excessively narrow access lanes complicated the procurement of supplies.
Initially, the French heavy artillery force was greatly inferior to that of their adversaries from the other side of the Rhine. On 24 February, the French were forced back onto their second line of defence, which formed a perimeter of ten kilometres around the town of Verdun. Having slowed down after their initial advance, the Germans nevertheless could not be held back. They captured Bois des Fosses, Bois des Chaumes and Bois des Caurières, surrounded Louvement and forced access to Fort Douaumont, which fell the following day. Although the advance was successful, a complete breakthrough was not accomplished. The Germans were forced to withdraw for fear of being cut off from the rest of the troops and surrounded.
After this initial setback, the French asserted their determination to defend Verdun at all cost. General Pétain, who took over command from General Castelnau, clearly defined his objective: “The mission of the Second Army is to bring the enemy’s efforts to a halt at all costs.” On 9 April, he launched his famous “Courage, on les aura!” [Be brave, we will get them!] to spur on the new troops he was dispatching to the front. The surprise effect fizzled out.
After failing to gain a rapid victory on the right bank of the Meuse, the Germans decided to attack from the left so they could seize some nearby hillocks, which would have enabled them to dominate the theatre of operations. In March and April, they attempted to conquer the flank of Mort-Homme, Côte 304, Bois des Corbeaux and Bois d'Avocourt. Incapable of inflicting a decisive blow, the Germans were now forced to defend the positions they had initially gained. The battle therefore created a never-ending oscillation between the roles of assailants and defenders. Planned as a means of getting the war moving again, the result was a battle of attrition that caused enormous losses.
At the end of June, with the first signs of the Allied offensive on the Somme, the Germans stepped up the pace and organised new offensives. They were just 5 kilometres from Verdun. But from July-August, the balance of power changed. The French, now better organised, launched a series of partial counter-offensives, which enabled them to regain most of the sites they had lost. In late October they recaptured Fort Douaumont, in early November Fort Vaux, and in mid-December Bois de Caures and the surrounding area. At the end of 1916, the line had basically stabilised on the same positions as before the launching of the German offensive in February. Although clashes continued in the sectors, this successful recapture by the French traditionally marked the end of the battle. From a military standpoint, neither of the warring parties succeeded in imposing its will on the other. In these conditions, the “glory” of the victory fell to the defenders.
After several months of violent confrontations with a tonne of shells being fired per square metre, the panorama had changed completely. The landscape was bleak, devoid of vegetation. For the soldiers, this apocalyptic vision was indelibly inscribed in their memory and symbolised the grim reality of modern warfare. In fact, although from a strategic point of view the outcome was not crucial, Verdun quickly assumed a significance of legendary proportions. The Battle of Verdun became the symbol of the ability of the French to defend their homeland and endure sacrifice. The nature of this battle of attrition therefore played a key role in fabricating the legend and the count of the casualties became an issue of the utmost importance right from the first days of the confrontation.
To safeguard the morale of their troops and dishearten the enemy, the two sides never ceased to stress that they had inflicted greater losses and damage. Weakening the enemy was asserted as the overriding justification for the operation. In his memoires, which appeared shortly after the war, General Falkenhayn claimed that “Ausblutung” (bleeding to death) was indeed his original objective. Back in 1915, in his Mémoire de Noël intended for the Kaiser, he allegedly said that it was necessary: “to bleed the French troops white […], whether the objective was accomplished or not.” Although the actual existence of this document has never been proven, it has been widely repeated by the two sides. According to Falkenhayn, it provided a convenient excuse for the failure of the offensive, as for the French, the idea of Ausblutung was perfectly aligned with their propaganda efforts to demonstrate the brutality of the enemy. Disseminated during the inter-war period through folktales, this explanatory leitmotiv burgeoned throughout the 20th century. It was not challenged until detailed historic research was carried out the end of the first decade of the 2000s.
In the final analysis, Verdun relatively speaking was not the deadliest battle of the entire war. Indeed others were just as violent.
However, the fact that the French fought alone without their allies, the absence of any significant protest movements, fuelling the legend of national unity, the perseverance of the French soldiers and the length of time it lasted, creating through the rotation of troops the impression of an experience shared amongst the men, amongst whom the intellectuals unhesitatingly shared their respective experiences, are equally factors that led to the Battle of Verdun leaving a long-lasting impression in the collective memory and shaped its image.