Prof. Gerd Krumeich: “Verdun – Attrition Warfare and Site of Remembrance”

In both France and Germany, the Battle of Verdun (February 21 – December 20, 1916) still today is seen as the most significant battle of the First World War. It is more widely and vividly remembered than even the battles that consumed more “human material” and materiel, such as the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916.

How did this come about?

First of all, both in France and in Germany, Verdun is remembered for its enormous “casualty” figures, even though fantasy numbers are frequently bandied about. It is said that 1 million soldiers were killed. The reality was far from it, but the figures are nevertheless dramatic: taken together, both armies suffered some 700,000 “casualties” – that is, dead, wounded, and missing persons (336,000 Germans; 362,000 French). On the German side, 143,000 soldiers were killed, while the French counted 167,000 dead. Although these figures were surpassed later, Verdun for the first time brought losses of this magnitude and thus engraved itself deeply into collective memory.

Moreover, both nations still remember the plan of the German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, who claimed that he had never intended to conquer Verdun but to “bleed to death” the French army. Historical research of the last decades has shown that this plan – the so-called “Christmas Memorandum” of 1915 – was a post-war fabrication to gloss over the Germans’ effective defeat at Verdun. But this “bleeding to death” plan has, of course, darkened the German memory of Verdun. In hindsight, it was above all the soldiers, which had bled as much as their French counterparts at Verdun, who came to see their enormous sacrifice as lacking sense or meaning.

In contrast, the French for a century have remembered Verdun as an absolutely meaningful battle. There, the poilus had given their all, braving unspeakable suffering and mass deaths, to defend French soil against the Germans. They had done so before – at the Marne – and would do so again later – at the Somme –, where they incurred similarly high losses. But in French historical memory, Verdun occupies a unique place. First and foremost, this has to do with the fact that, unlike at other battlefields such as at the Somme, the battles at Verdun were characterized by a rather special mix of close-range combat and long-range bombardment. Traversed by ravines and heights, the region around Verdun saw the armies perpetually charging towards each other, with the enemy almost always within sight. This incredibly grim close-quarters combat took place under the relentless fire from thousands of artillery of all calibers – the bombardment being so intense that, within a few weeks, the forested landscape around Verdun had been transformed into a veritable moonscape. What also distinguishes Verdun is that the French military and political leadership already shortly after the start of the battle began to cast this sector of the front – which had previously been wantonly neglected (the cannons at Fort Douaumont had been dismantled in 1915, for they were urgently needed at other fronts) – as the scene of a decisive battle to bolster the morale of the nation and its soldiers. What the French remember above all is the Order of the Day issued by General Pétain, the commander of the Verdun sector, on April 10, 1916: “Courage, on les aura!” (Courage! We shall get them!)

As though in response to this authoritative assurance, today’s monument at Mort-Homme bears the inscription: “Ils n´ont pas passé“ (They did not pass). Behind this both laconic and proud phrase lies the awareness that here, outside of Verdun, almost all French soldiers fought at least once. All soldiers thus actively participated in the defense of French soil. This total commitment is symbolized by the “Noria” system, the constant coming and going of trucks and vehicles on the road from Bar-le-Duc to Verdun, which, starting in March 1916, at the rate of one vehicle every fourteen seconds, day and night, transported men and materials of all kinds – food as well as cannons – to the front. Still today, the milestones of this “Voie Sacrée” (Sacred Way) are decorated with oak leaves and steel helmets. Small hollowed-out clay copies of the milestones, filled with the “sacred soil” of Verdun, counted among the most important souvenirs as long as the soldiers and their relatives were still alive. This soil had, after all, quite literally been soaked with blood, with an area of less than 300 square kilometers absorbing the blood of 700,000 people. When work began in 1919 to gather the remains of the unidentified soldiers on the battlefield, the earth quickly yielded up 130,000 nameless dead who are today housed at the Douaumont Ossuary.

For a century, Verdun has thus served as a symbol of total war, the unsurpassable experience of slaughter and industrialized death. The idea suggested itself that this could only be followed by peace, and it was an idea cultivated in particular by the anciens combattants. At their invitation, 30,000 veterans – mostly French and Germans – came together at Douaumont in 1936 to deliver an “oath of peace,” swearing that those who had experienced and survived Verdun wished for nothing but peace. Since the Battle of Verdun had been fought exclusively by German and French soldiers, this desire for peace became one of the main drivers of Franco-German reconciliation and later friendship. On September 22, 1984, this friendship was sealed most impressively and lastingly when Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand stood hand in hand outside the Douaumont Ossuary, silently holding this gesture for a long time. The Franco-German unity at this site of terror and disaster manifested itself further in November 2009, when the German and the European flag were raised next to the French flag at Douaumont – a wonderful gesture executed by female soldiers of the Eurocorps. In 2016, we will take another step forward in this joint work of remembrance when, on May 29, the Mémorial de Verdun in Fleury, which has been remodeled into a Franco-German museum and information center, will be inaugurated by François Hollande and Angela Merkel. On that same day, a plaque is finally scheduled to be unveiled at Douaumont that bears the inscription: Here rest French and German soldiers.

Still visibly bearing the scars of the fighting that took place there in 1916, the battlefield at Verdun has thus become the most important symbol of Franco-German amity, precisely because it had once been the site of the two nations’ most ferocious enmity.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V.
January 2016

Translated by Manuela Thurner

    Prof. Gerd Krumeich

    Prof. Gerd Krumeich

    Gerd Krumeich is one of the leading experts on the First World War, and his works have made a major contribution to the dialogue between German and French historians. After completing his dissertation in 1975 with a thesis on “Military Build-up and Domestic Policy in France before the First World War,” he was postdoctoral assistant to Wolfgang J. Mommsen at the University of Düsseldorf. From 1990 to 1997, he was Professor of the History of Romance Western Europe at the University of Freiburg. He subsequently returned to the University of Düsseldorf as successor to W. J. Mommsen, where he taught until his retirement in 2010. From 2004 to 2015, he directed the Düsseldorf working group of the Collected Works of Max Weber. In addition, he was involved in setting up the Historial de la Grande Guerre (Museum of the Great War) in Péronne, where he serves as a vice-president of the Research Center. 

    His works include Enzyklopädie Erster Weltkrieg (Encyclopedia of the First World War, 2003; 3rd ed. 2014), Juli 1914. Eine Bilanz (2014), and, most recently, Verdun 1916 (2016), co-authored with the French historian Antoine Prost and published in both France and Germany.

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