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Verdun: The Longest Battle in Modern History


If one battle epitomized the horrific nature of combat in the First World War, it was the titanic struggle between France and Germany over the ancient fortress city of Verdun on the Meuse River.

Verdun occupied a crucial point along the Allied line on the Western Front and held tremendous historic significance to the French people, making it the perfect target for chief of the German General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn. By unleashing a million-man army against Verdun, Falkenhayn intended to lure French forces into a bloody battle of attrition to “bleed France white.” With the French drained of their manpower and knocked out of the war, the Germans would be free to concentrate on defeating the other major Allied power on the Western Front, the British.

A German aerial photograph of Fort Douaumont, which was the largest and highest of the 19 French forts protecting Verdun. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Codenamed Operation Gericht, which roughly translates to “judgment” or “place of execution,” the Germans unleashed their offensive at 4 a.m. on Monday, February 21, 1916. Around two million artillery shells were fired at the French lines during the opening bombardment. It was the beginning of the longest battle in modern history.

For nearly 10 months, both German and French soldiers alike lived an apocalyptic existence. As one combatant described the nightmare, “What a bloodbath, what horrid images, what a slaughter! Hell cannot be this dreadful.” In the face of this misery, the men on the frontlines gritted their teeth and fought on.

Exhausted French soldiers during the Battle of Verdun. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Germans came close to taking Verdun, gaining ground that included two prized French strongholds, Forts Douaumont and Vaux, but the French refused to break. With troops and supplies steadily brought to the battlefront along the “Voie Sacree,” the Sacred Way, a lone 20-foot wide road leading into Verdun, the French were able to maintain their tenacious resistance. Pressure was also taken off of the French at Verdun in the summer of 1916 when the Russians launched an offensive against Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungary on the Eastern Front and the British went on the attack against the Germans in the region of the Somme River. Because of these new threats, the Germans were forced to pull men away from Verdun.

The failure to capture Verdun and the staggering casualties suffered by German troops ultimately led General Falkenhayn to halt the offensive in July and tender his resignation soon after. One of his successors was forced to admit, “Verdun has exhausted our forces like an open wound. The enterprise has become hopeless.”

In autumn 1916, the French struck back in force. After more brutal fighting, they recovered nearly every piece of ground that had been lost to the Germans. After 298 days of carnage, the Battle of Verdun finally closed down with the onset of winter on Friday, December 15, 1916. France had survived and would live to fight again.

French soldiers recapturing Fort Douaumont in October 1916. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Battle of Verdun cost both sides between 750,000 and a million men killed, wounded, and missing. It is estimated that between 40 and 60 million artillery shells were fired over the course of the battle, which contributed to around 70 percent of the casualties. Verdun itself was left in shambles by the prolonged fighting and nine nearby French towns were left in total ruin. To this day, the landscape still bears the scars from the devastating battle.

Sources Battle of Verdun.

Imperial War Museums: What was the Battle of Verdun?

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