Revisiting Verdun's battlefields

As the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I approaches, a new book assesses the heavy toll exacted by the Battle of Verdun

Photo/Mike Lovett

Paul Jankowski

Ninety-eight years ago, on Feb. 21, 1916, the German army launched an attack on a small amphitheater of hilly land in northeastern France. A ring of historic forts stood on the land, and German leaders believed the French would defend the forts so fiercely, the Germans would be able to “bleed the French army white” and turn the tide of the First World War to their advantage.

Ten brutal months later, the Battle of Verdun lurched to an end — or almost to an end; remnants of the fighting wouldn’t cease until World War I ended, two years later — with a very different conclusion than the Germans had expected. The French troops had held their position. And the cost of the battle had been enormously high on both sides: The French lost 160,000 men; the Germans, 140,000.

Verdun was World War I combat at its worst — “very impersonal and very, very industrial,” says Paul Jankowski, the Raymond Ginger Professor of History, who has written a new book titled “Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War” (Oxford University Press, 2014).

“Most of the killing done was done long-range, by artillery fire in the form of huge shells, and some poison gas,” he says. “You never saw who was shooting at you. This was not your gallant encounter of yore.”

Men dug themselves into trenches to survive (soil offered the best protection against shellfire, Jankowski says). Occasionally, the armies initiated closer-range attacks involving rifles, grenades or flamethrowers. But machine guns proved themselves to be incredibly effective defensive weapons at Verdun. “With just a small number of machine guns, you could basically shut down any movement,” says Jankowski.

The continuous shelling left soldiers stunned, exhausted. French commanders rotated their soldiers off the front lines for a rest at the rear every few weeks. German soldiers weren’t as lucky, and their morale plummeted.

Yet neither side saw any mutinies at Verdun. “Somehow the men carried on,” Jankowski says, “because to do anything else would have been an act of betrayal — of family, of country, of their unit.”

Could such a prolonged, grisly encounter happen today? In most parts of the world, the short answer is no, Jankowski says. In America, for instance, “a few hundred casualties are enough to produce indignation and alarm.”

But, he adds, Verdun-like clashes did happen in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, which, like World War I, was a war of attrition fought with artillery and chemical weapons.

Jankowski’s “Verdun,” published in America this month, was released in France late last year, attracting much media attention there. German and Italian editions are already in the works.

The military lessons of Verdun have plenty of relevance today, the author says. “German leaders started the battle without really knowing what the goal was. There was no real strategic objective. That’s a very, very important lesson.”

Likewise, Verdun commanders didn’t know when to say “No more.” “Once the Germans saw their attack wasn’t going anywhere, they ought to have called it off,” Jankowski says. “And I’m not sure it was all that important for the French to defend the area so tenaciously.

“It all became such a terrible waste.”

Paul Jankowski will be interviewed about “Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War” on WBUR-FM’s “Radio Boston” on Tuesday, Feb. 25, at 3 p.m.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

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