100 Years After Verdun: The Demoralizing Lesson from History’s Worst Battle
The German strategy was chilling in its cold-bloodedness. Erich von Falkenhayn, Germany’s Chief of Staff, described his thinking just two months before the battle of Verdun,
Within our reach behind the French sector of the Western front there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death — as there can be no question of a voluntary withdrawal — whether we reach our goal or not.
The Kaiser approved the plan and the Germans launched an offensive against the French at the historic fortress town of Verdun on February 21, 1916. Lasting ten months, it became the longest battle of all time with the highest density of dead per square yard of any battle in history. Overall, there were almost 300,000 total dead and missing over the course of the fighting.
The horror at Verdun is beyond our comprehension. Human beings were literally torn to shreds by shells. Others drowned in their trenches or suffocated from newly designed gasses. Everyone had to share their quarters with huge rats that thrived in the subhuman conditions.
A French solider described what really made Verdun so terrible,
To die from a bullet seems to be nothing; parts of our being remain intact; but to be dismembered, torn to pieces, reduced to pulp, this is a fear that flesh cannot support and which is fundamentally the great suffering of the bombardment…
It didn’t take long for a soldier to break down under such conditions. One of the commanders, the German Crown Prince, wrote in his memoirs, “The mill along the Meuse has ground down the hearts of the soldiers, just as it did their bodies.”
I just finished reading Alistair Horne’s classic, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916. It’s truly impossible to imagine such an unnecessary event as Verdun. F. Scott Fitzgerald was correct when he said, “This western-front business couldn’t be done again…This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes.” The end result was young Frenchmen and Germans being led, day after day, to their deaths by incompetent, myopic generals. There were even reports that some French troops made bleating sounds like sheep as they were transported to the front lines.
The battle took over everything with the generals powerless to stop the slaughter. As one German soldier wrote, “There could be no end to it until the last German and the last French hobbled out of the trenches on crutches to exterminate each other with pocket knives or teeth and finger nails.”
One hundred years later, we see a similar dynamic going on in Syria. Just two months ago, it was reported that almost 500,000 Syrians had died as a result of the war, and there is no end in sight to the carnage. Perhaps the truly horrific lesson of Verdun is that some violent conflicts can reach a tipping point beyond which they become impossible to stop. By now, the global community knows that peace must be restored to Syria, but we seem unable to end the violence.
As Horne makes clear, Verdun was the most senseless battle in one of the most senseless wars in history. Both sides began the battle by seeing victory at Verdun as crucial to their fortunes in the war and their futures as great powers. After the incomprehensible losses on both sides, it became increasingly impossible for either country to admit defeat and withdraw. The only alternative appeared to be to keep bringing bodies to the “Mill on the Meuse” each day. Verdun’s greatest tragedy might be that humanity has failed to learn its most critical lesson.