They shall not pass.
February 21, 2016 5:56 AM   Subscribe

One hundred years ago today began the terrible battle of Verdun. The German strategy called not so much for territorial conquest as for simply killing as many Frenchmen as possible, to "bleed France white". The name of the plan was Operation Gericht, as in judgement or, grimmer still, the place of execution. Up to nearly one million casualties resulted.

The battle was the most bloody and destructive of World War One up until that point. It would last for the rest of 1916, continuous fighting lasting for more than 300 days.

The French command cycled troops from around the nation in and out of the meat grinder, making the Verdun experience a national touchstone for years to come.

Verdun items in the Europeana online collection.
The Douaumont Ossuaire.
On the Tranchée des Baionnettes.
Traveling the Voie sacrée.
With the American Escadrille at Verdun.
Britain's Lord Northcliffe reflects during the battle.
A great book on the battle, The Price of Glory, by Alistair Horne.

Years later, restoration efforts. The martyr villages remain. France reflects today.

Previously on the blue: a MeFite visits Verdun; the French commander's New Jersey connection.
posted by doctornemo (48 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
I've been thinking about this this morning. Thank you for the well-crafted post. The horror was almost unimaginable.

My great-uncle fought in France during WWI. He would not speak of it, ever. During thunderstorms he would lock himself, his wife and child in a windowless bathroom until the lightning passed. Everyone in the family knew of this but said and did nothing. It was the 60s and PTSD was just "shell shock," something to be lived with. We never knew what Sam saw in France.

War is the definition of Hell, and surely Verdun was in the darkest circle thereof. Jesus wept.
posted by kinnakeet at 6:29 AM on February 21, 2016 [26 favorites]

This is grim but fascinating thank you. It's a battle I really knew of by name only and this fills in vast gaps in my understanding.
posted by diziet at 6:30 AM on February 21, 2016

As always, The Great War youtube channel is doing a fantastic job with this too.
posted by bonehead at 6:44 AM on February 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

For those interested, the Great War project puts out a history video every thursday on the WW1 events of exactly 100 years ago.
posted by 445supermag at 6:47 AM on February 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

Anytime any smartass talks about the French being "surrender monkeys" I say, "Oh you mean the military masters of Europe for a thousand years? The folks who fought to the last breath at Verdun?" I then tell them to go look it up.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 7:01 AM on February 21, 2016 [59 favorites]

A nice article in today's NY Times: World War I’s Iconic, Ironic Battle
posted by Postroad at 7:06 AM on February 21, 2016

Also...what a goddamn waste.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 7:07 AM on February 21, 2016 [8 favorites]

Even with a great post like this, I don't know if it is possible to fully comprehend what WWI really was like. 300 days, 1M casualties? and somehow music like this? There's a thing about the music from the time period that might touch on WWI but nonetheless somehow glazes over the horrors that the war actually presented itself as. Reading this is depressing and part of me is really glad that what actually happened is only viewable in print an occasional still-frame. That these people came home, somehow managed to push this to the side and get past this, and somehow survive the great depression and then build the New Deal... cronological order and figuring out what and when motivates people is something I think doesn't get enough emphasis in history.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:10 AM on February 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

Added on top of that: Verdun was the longest single battle in human history but not the most murderous. The Somme, which started four months later and ended a month earlier, caused 1.2 million casualties and 400,000 deaths.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:18 AM on February 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

From the 2nd link From a strategic point of view there can be no justification for these atrocious losses. The battle degenerated into a matter of prestige of two nations literally for the sake of fighting...... From what I've read of WWI, there was an obscene amount of that. I tend to think the class attitudes of the time contributed to the casual disregard not just for lives, but for tens of thousands of lives and horrific suffering. I'm old enough to remember WWI vets on parade floats, but I had no idea.
posted by theora55 at 7:19 AM on February 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

And Nanukthedog, add to your post-war list the great 1918-19 influenza epidemic.
posted by NorthernLite at 7:19 AM on February 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Re theora55 about class attitudes: I've always looked at Kubrick's Paths of Glory from that perspective too.
posted by Captain Fetid at 7:34 AM on February 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

For those who find these sort of figures unimaginable, you don't have to imagine. The Syrian civilian casualties, both killed and wounded, now exceed those of the soldiers of the Somme.

Some centenary.
posted by Devonian at 7:39 AM on February 21, 2016 [26 favorites]

The battle of the Somme and Verdun are remarkable in that these were conflicts that explicitly lacked any ability to use manuevers to break the deadlock. Some of the eastern front sieges in WW2 had similarities but the great western battles were fought daily over 10s of meters with absolutely no hope ok a breakthrough until the development of the tank and even then the tank wasn't truly decisive.
posted by vuron at 7:44 AM on February 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

I went to Verdun a few years ago; it's one of the eeriest places I've ever been in my life. Particularly near Fort Douaumont, the ground isn't flat, it looks like a series of moguls. They're shell craters.
posted by asterix at 8:37 AM on February 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

From the "Witnesses of Verdun" section of the second link:

A neutral contemporary feels: …that they, within the framework of this World War, are involved in some affair, that will still be considered horrible and appalling in a hundred years time. It is this Hell of Verdun. Since a hundred days – day and night – the sons of two European people fight stubbornly and bitterly over every inch of land. It is the most appalling mass murder of our history…

That entire section is worth reading to get some small understanding of the conditions there.
posted by A Bad Catholic at 8:39 AM on February 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yes, one of the grim yet fascinating affects of WWI was that the military technology of the time favored defense, leading to costly stalemate. Ironically, were the tools of murder a little more advanced less people would have died.
posted by dazed_one at 8:40 AM on February 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes, in general the Germans tended to play defensive which suited their tactical position (they had positional advantages for the most part in terms of higher (and dryer) ground plus the fact that the battles were being fought on French soil so that the French had to repel the invader which tended to result in French (and British) offensives even though the technology and positioning clearly favored a German defensive strategy.

The smarter solution would've been for the French to withdrawal to more tactical advantageous territory but that was political (and socially) untenable.
posted by vuron at 8:52 AM on February 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I came in here to recommend The Price Of Glory, but I see the OP has that covered.

It was a battle in which at least 700,000 men fell, along a front of fifteen miles.

Just try to imagine slaughter on that scale.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:56 AM on February 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

posted by sallybrown at 9:14 AM on February 21, 2016

The technology of war had indeed run ahead of the ability of the armies to fight war. With the weapons available and the sizes of the opposing forces, a war of attrition was the only possibility given the state of strategic thinking at the time - and, probably, the only possibility full stop.

In that respect, I think WWI at this stage was closer to the Cold War than WWII. Had the Cold War heated up, it too would have been a war of attrition - just on a stupendously larger and infinitely quicker scale.
posted by Devonian at 9:15 AM on February 21, 2016

The 1964 BBC series "The Great War" is available in entirety on YT.

It's in black and white and appropriately ponderous. It also has scads of primary source material in the form of onscreen and voiceover first-person accounts.
posted by mwhybark at 9:24 AM on February 21, 2016 [8 favorites]

If you're at ALL interested in this and in podcasts, I can't recommend enough Dan Carlin's series on the topic, Blueprint for Armageddon, part of his Hardcore History podcast. It's brutal listening but will give you a much richer picture of the horrors of WW1. Like sitting in the front row of your favorite college history professor's class, but at 1.25x speed, and with the silences removed, of course.
posted by carlodio at 10:59 AM on February 21, 2016 [13 favorites]

The Globe Trekker special on WWI is a good guide of what's there today.
posted by destro at 11:50 AM on February 21, 2016

The Hardcore History sequence on WWI is superb
("Blueprint for Armageddon "):
posted by pantufla_milagrosa at 4:09 PM on February 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I checked and everything, but didn't see the previous mention of Dan Carlin.
posted by pantufla_milagrosa at 4:10 PM on February 21, 2016

Thanks for a great post. And thanks for the links in the thread to the superb YouTube channel.
posted by persona au gratin at 5:35 PM on February 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this post. I find it hard to wrap my head around the scope of these numbers about WWI, so I did a little bit of rather morbid math.

Assuming a French population of 40 000 000 at the start of the war and 162 000 killed on the French side.

That was 0.4% of the population.

For the United States at the turn of this century, that equivalent would be 1 154 250 people.

Or, in other words, September 11th occuring every day for each of the 306 days of the battle, and then another 100 days after that.

And that's not even counting the wounded or Germans.
posted by cacofonie at 5:52 PM on February 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Sometimes the "Hardcore History" podcast gets bombastic, but his series of (marathon!) episodes on WWI finally put it in perspective for me. Hearing him tell that story blew me away.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:02 PM on February 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

(So the fact that I skipped a few posts and am now the third person to suggest "Hardcore History" is a clue to its emotional impact.)
posted by wenestvedt at 6:06 PM on February 21, 2016

I can't imagine what the survivors of this terrible battle thought as Hitler came to power not 20 years later.
posted by persona au gratin at 6:22 PM on February 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the HH link. It's going on now.
posted by persona au gratin at 6:27 PM on February 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Man I have been trying to get through the BBC "Great War" for, oh...let's check the file dates...a little over three years. I have started three times and have never gotten past the fifth episode. SUPER dense, monotonously Redgrave, and fascinating as heck. I'd be into a FanFare for it.

The Great War YT channel above looks a lot more accessible, but the BBC doc really requires external motivation for me.
posted by rhizome at 10:02 PM on February 21, 2016

Average shoulder with of a male is 18 inches.

15 miles / 18 inches =52,800.

700,000 / 52,800 = 13.25

Average thickness of a male at the chest is 9.5 inches.

This means if one piled the dead like firewood, one would get a 10 feet tall all along the front. Or a wall 3 meters high and 24 kilometres long.

I always thought it was an exaggeration when I read about soldiers having to climb on hands and knees over piles of dead bodies, just to be mowed down at the top by machine guns and adding to the pile.
posted by Doroteo Arango II at 1:46 AM on February 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, that HH is terrific. I mean, it's not David Attenborough. But it's really good. I think my next Audible book will be on WWI. Any recommendations?
posted by persona au gratin at 2:27 AM on February 22, 2016

John Keegan is one of the finest military historians and I highly recommend his WWI book. It doesn't appear to be on Audible, but The Face of Battle is.
posted by orrnyereg at 3:08 AM on February 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

God, those pics (and the captions) are sobering.

"Remains of unidentified soldiers at the ossuary of Douaumont, eastern France, on February 9, 2014. The ossuary holds the remains of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers who died in the battle of Verdun."

"An aerial view of the Franco-British memorial in Thiepval, northern France, on April 12, 2014. At 45 meters high, this is the largest British war memorial in the world; over 72,205 names of missing soldiers of the First World War are engraved in the stone pillars."
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 3:40 AM on February 22, 2016

Sometimes the "Hardcore History" podcast gets bombastic, but his series of (marathon!) episodes on WWI finally put it in perspective for me. Hearing him tell that story blew me away.

N'thing the recommendation of this. I just happen to be midway through a relistening right now.

Speaking of Dan being bombastic, the first 20 minutes of the first episode is pretty rough, but then he gets into stride and it becomes really good. So if you're interested, just try and suffer through that part. Dan does a really good job at trying to get into the minds and reactions of what it's like to be an actual human in that time, from the generals to the rank and file.
posted by mayonnaises at 7:43 AM on February 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

. x 17,000,000
posted by entropicamericana at 8:10 AM on February 22, 2016

Killing as many enemy troops as possible was inspired by Clausewitz's, "Direct annihilation of the enemy's forces must always be the dominant consideration." Clausewitz saw Napoleon apply overwhelming force at a critical point, and that inspired his thoughts on war; Moltke the Elder was a student of Clausewitz, and applied his theories to win quick, brilliant wars in the early 1870s; all of Europe was shocked into action by the Prussian victories, and everybody started reading Clausewitz because Moltke mentioned that On War was his guiding book.

And so all the combatants, with the Germans a generation ahead in their learning, applied Clausewitz's dictums and tried to destroy as many enemy troops as possible.
posted by clawsoon at 9:25 AM on February 22, 2016

The Great War YT channel above looks a lot more accessible

If you want a quick catch-up, they do a six-month summary (playlist) as well as the weeklies. Their latest was a few weeks ago, in January. They're typically a little less than ten minutes long each. Just enough for detail, not too long to get too heavy, and Indy is a pretty funny guy.

Even more than the weeklies, the episodes we like are the Q&As they do from watchers, as well as the spotlight episodes, which give mini essays on who did what, uniforms and weapons of the war, and so on. Many of these are researched for the channel by the community of TGW.
posted by bonehead at 2:18 PM on February 22, 2016

Jesus, I just watched the Somme episode of "The Great War." It was broadcast 20 years after 1944. What I have mistaken for reticence and reverence in the narration is pure rage. It's hard to tell if given footage is from a movie or from documentary reels unless it's, you know, hundreds of bloated corpses stinking in the spring mud. Midway, here's a vignette: possible battlefield footage of a shell striking a column of mounted infantry.\
posted by mwhybark at 10:35 PM on February 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

mwhybark: can you link the thing you saw? Thanks!
posted by persona au gratin at 11:27 PM on February 22, 2016

It's probably this one
posted by rhizome at 12:35 AM on February 23, 2016

Correct. The cavalry thing is at about 14 minutes in.
posted by mwhybark at 7:06 AM on February 23, 2016

("Mounted infantry"? It was late.)
posted by mwhybark at 7:08 AM on February 23, 2016

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