The war to end all wars...
December 2, 2008 6:39 PM   Subscribe

It wasn't a Merry Christmas A few years ago while visiting friends in Germany, we made a trek to Verdun, France. As an American, I had no clue as to what was there other than it was an old city dating to the (Pre)- Roman era.
I was shocked and humbled to what I saw. The greatest battle (possibly in the history of modern warfare) was at the very place I was walking.

At the Douaumont Ossuaire, we video taped our tramping about. Below the bldg, there are windows that peer into...what to call it? A giant room filled to the top with bones and skulls. I taped for a few minutes and then felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. I was looking at 130,000+ forgotten warriors. I shut of the camera and destoyed the tape. This month, please take a moment to remember the fallen. My respect to those who died. As an American. Previosly.
posted by shockingbluamp (45 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The dead, living in Hell (George Leroux, 1917).
posted by cenoxo at 7:12 PM on December 2, 2008

Stalingrad was at Verdun?
posted by pompomtom at 7:14 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Good post. An interesting story from the Battle of Verdun is The Bayonet Trench. A little about the trench from Alistair Horne's The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916:

It was not until after the war that French teams exploring the battlefield provided a clue as to the fate of 3 Company. The trench it had occupied was discovered completely filled in, but from a part of it at regular intervals protruded rifles, with bayonets still fixed to their twisted and rusty muzzles, On excavation, a corpse was found beneath each rifle. From that plus the testimony of survivors from nearby units, it was deduced that 3 Company had placed its rifles on the parapet ready to repel any attack and — rather than abandon their trench — had been buried alive to a man there by the German bombardment. When the story of the Tranchée des Baionnettes was told it caught the world's imagination.

I highly recommend Horne's book if anyone is interested in reading more about the battle.
posted by marxchivist at 7:31 PM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

At the Douaumont Ossuaire, we video taped our tramping about. Below the bldg, there are windows that peer into...what to call it? A giant room filled to the top with bones and skulls.
You call it an "ossuary."
posted by jtron at 7:32 PM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is a good post. But is it a self-link?
posted by Class Goat at 8:19 PM on December 2, 2008

The battle of Verdun, around a heavily fortified French town resulted in 800,000 casualties on both sides, over an area roughly 10km square.

Stalingrad cost an estimated 1.5 million dead and wounded to both sides. Truly horrific losses of a generation in both cases, for somewhat similar reasons. Improvements in the weapons of war, for which the tactics had not or could not be adjusted - combined with a grim determination on both sides to throw as many troops into the battle as they could muster in order to win.

The battle of Verdun is to the French, what the battle of the Somme is to the British (another 1.5 million dead or wounded), Stalingrad to the Russians or Gettsyburg to the Americans.
posted by ArkhanJG at 8:20 PM on December 2, 2008

NOT a self link.
posted by shockingbluamp at 8:32 PM on December 2, 2008

As an American, I had no clue as to what was there

Evan as an American, I don't think that Verdun is a particularly obscure reference; I do however second the gesture of respect, in one sense, at least. Yet it's also worth asking whether all those people piled in all those ossuaries might have done better to think twice and stay home.
posted by washburn at 8:38 PM on December 2, 2008

Washburn, you think they had a choice?
posted by Class Goat at 8:41 PM on December 2, 2008

GYOFB/great post
posted by humannaire at 8:46 PM on December 2, 2008

I don't get the "as an American" bit. What does that have to do with respecting the dead?
posted by robcorr at 8:52 PM on December 2, 2008

washburn, you can be shot for cowardice, you know.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:53 PM on December 2, 2008

As an American... and somewhat unrelated to WWI, Mr. Matty and I have been watching "Band of Brothers". As an American, I'm humbled and embarrassed about what I DON'T KNOW about history and the sacrifices that a generation or two made.

(But then I'm also a Veteran and spent some time in the desert and lost some friends, so I'm not clueless.)

Sure I know about WWI and WWII in the general sense, but I don't REALLY understand them. The Meta-literati can bite me - I'm an admittedly average American.

WWI and WWII were awful. My ignorance is awful. But more importantly it's vital to recognize and understand the past. "Band of Brothers" actually helped me recognize that - as did this post.

Thanks for that.
posted by matty at 9:09 PM on December 2, 2008

The saddest thing in the world to me is the fact that the enormous sacrifices made by the people of France during the Great War were cast into shadow by the events of World War II. Verdun was a meatgrinder of a battle that went on and on and on, as German high command talked about 'bleeding France white' as a deliberate strategy. And they did. Frenchmen, along with other Allies, died to hold that line by the hundreds of thousands. It had shockwave effects throughout Western culture that are still being played out.

It is blasphemy that we have forgotten Verdun.

Don't forget, too, that people welcomed war. They thought of it as a tonic. British newspapers and ordinary citizens felt that a good war was just the thing to improve the British race. It was not like the post World War period, when people thought of war as a horror. The people entering World War I had no earthly idea what mechanized mass warfare would be like, because previous wars were relatively small and limited in scale. It is a world we cannot imagine. When reading Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, or Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, or Robert Graves' savage Goodbye to All That, it is dimly possible to perceive the way things were different, but not wholly so.

There is a big debate in the historiography about whether the changes which arose after the war were due to the war or the war simply accelerated changes that were already happening, but change they did.
posted by winna at 9:10 PM on December 2, 2008 [13 favorites]

How about we digs a trench around the post, then sit in it with a machinegun and gun down any other whiney fuckers that come near it?
posted by Artw at 9:35 PM on December 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

I Know it is bad form to post a comment to one's own post but I want to say that I am grateful to those who have read it and given nods. It was a powerful little trip we made to France. I had never been there and I don't speak french...but the people there in S. France were the most gracious and friendly as I have ever met. I was there during the off peak season and had and we wandered everyywhere. Verdun is kinda region...but back in that day there were villiages scattered all over. Stomping thru the woods as we had to stay on trails (there are warnings all over warning of buried, unexploded ordinances)... whole towns..children, wives, farms..everuthing...wiped out. Nothing but forest now. The thing about me being an American.....I just didn't know. I learned. At the trench of the buried soilders...there is only ONE left...a rusted bayonet or the tip of a mount sticking out of the grond...maybe 2-3 inches. The people there know to leave it is covered by a pavillion. One COULD even touch it but...even after almost 90 years...folks don't. That made me cry. I went in the woods and cried. There was someone's son three feet below that rusted gun.
posted by shockingbluamp at 9:38 PM on December 2, 2008

It's ... strange that this has come up. I've been doing some reading lately about World War I, and the more I read about it, the more breathtakingly insane World War II becomes. It is hard to get my mind around how people who had survived (or whose parents had survived) one war, allowed themselves, with admittedly varying degrees of complicity, into a second. That the world, that civilization in general, allowed that.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:39 PM on December 2, 2008

Possibly that hesitation to get into a war actually led to WWII? Lots of people were making excuses for that Hitler chap and hoping all the fuss would just sort of die down, not wanting to go through the whole thing again could be a reason for that.
posted by Artw at 9:42 PM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

It's British, not French, but I can't recommend Charley's War enough. It's an incredibly touching and downbeat account of of a 16 year old who enlists and fights in WWI without quite knowing waht he's getting into, which is even more incredible for being essentially an antiwar comic and yet running in Battle, a gung ho british war comic for kids, in the early 80s.
posted by Artw at 9:58 PM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

(The reason it came to mind was I seem to remember the Bayonet Trench story getting used in it, though possibly moved to the Somme. A lot of the weirder and more grotesque stuff in it is actually stuff that Mills dug up in research and plugged in like that)
posted by Artw at 10:46 PM on December 2, 2008

Something I didn't know was the Battle of the Somme (the Somme offensive) was deliberately started by the allies to draw some of the pressure away from Verdun - but in the end cost more lives than the War at Verdun did.

I know more of the Somme, being British. The British Army had 57,000 casualties in the very first day, 19 thousand of them killed - the highest one-day losses the British Army has ever suffered. To give a comparison, there were about 50,000 causalties at gettsyberg over 3 days; the battle of the Somme went on for 4 months before the germans finally retreated, and at the end British casualties alone topped 360,000 men.

Many of the soldiers in WW1 were young, inexperienced volunteers. Flush at the height of empire, the British Army was used to fighting tribal rebellions and peacekeeping missions (though with a lot more force than today). Everyone expected the war to be over by Christmas, just a skirmish really to put the hun in his place.

The public and the volunteers had no idea what true mechanized warfare would be like - what war would be like when both sides had machine guns, reinforced bunkers, poison gas and heavy artillery. How many would die in suicidal assaults on prepared positions, over a few hundred meters of twisted, poisoned, destroyed earth. It wasn't even really until newsreel footage of the Somme made it back home that ordinary British people really realised what Hell On Earth looked like. Even then, it wasn't like people could just resign their post and go home. Deserters were shot, and so were many men suffering PTSD - shellshock, back then.

Britain lost nearly a million people killed in WWI, over 1.5 million were wounded - mostly soldiers, mostly young men, out a total population of 45 million. Germany and France were similarly wounded. In comparison, Britain lost half a million in WWII, fighting around the world. WWI was fought largely in the rolling fields of France.

The outcome of WWI caused WWII. The allied politicians at the end of the war were determined to utterly destroy Germany's ability to fight again, causing massive resentment in Germany who felt the allies were just as much at fault for starting it.

Hitler fought and was wounded at the Somme. Chamberlain was determined never to see another war like WWI in his lifetime, thus the appeasement over Germany retaking territory that was 'rightfully hers'. The French were similar - who amongst the French people would want to see another Verdun?

As the last living survivors of the trenches pass away, we must remember them. Their sacrifices for their country, their bravery and the terrible losses felt by their families left alive - an entire generation of Europe's best and the brightest, killed or crippled on the fields of France.

If you wonder why Europe, France, is reluctant to go to war today - remember the millions of dead in the French fields. Remember Verdun, and the Somme.

I think the biggest success of the EU is that the thought of another mass slaughter in Europe, between the European nations is almost unthinkable today. Hopefully as living memory fades away, we who live on won't forget that.
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:56 PM on December 2, 2008 [19 favorites]

I was looking at a great photo album of the Somme today [Warning: lot's of dead people].
posted by tellurian at 12:28 AM on December 3, 2008

This put me in mind of Richard Attenborough's musical satire on the First World War.
Oh it's a lovely war.

If you want the old battalion, we know where they are,
They're hanging on the old barbed wire,
We've seen them, we've seen them,
Hanging on the old barbed wire...

If you haven't seen it you should. It's excellent.
posted by jonesor at 1:27 AM on December 3, 2008

Doh! "Oh! WHAT a lovely war."
posted by jonesor at 1:28 AM on December 3, 2008

I visited Verdun a few summers back. The whole area is a deeply sad memorial to a particularly pointless bit of warfaring. A few particular memories:

- We visited the Fort Douaumont as well. I was struck by how absolutely medieval the whole concept of that kind of 'stronghold' was. Opposed to the vast majority of forts and castles you can visit as a tourist, it seemed you could just wander around aimlessly in the Fort. The creepiest of all were the pitch-black unlit rooms outside the guided tours. When the guided tours walk away and it becomes... one of the creepiest places I ever visited.

- One especially strange place to be is that memorial to the German soldiers that died in the storage room explosion. Not only the fact that it is a memorial to German soldiers in a French fort, but also the odd idea that behind that wall the War somehow never stopped.
posted by Harry at 1:49 AM on December 3, 2008


Epitaph on Army of Mercenaries (1914)
These, in the days when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and the earth's foundations stay;
When God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
posted by maxwelton at 1:50 AM on December 3, 2008

@ stupidsexyFlanders My God! That is a moving film. War is stupid.

My own great-grandfather died at Loos. He was a Welsh coal miner, he played the harp, sang very well, and did some of his best performances in the pub where he would drink beer by the quart.

He wasn't really a drunkard but drink was to prove more lethal than if he were: in those days, the recruiting sergeant would go round the pubs. Overcome by alcohol-induced patriotism, my great-grandfather signed up to join the army. When he sobered up in the morning he tried in vain to withdraw, claiming that his family needed him more than the King. He was killed a few months later while reportedly charging German machine gun emplacements (the soldiers only had bolt action rifles in those days) leaving a wife and 6 young daughters in poverty.

My great-grandmother blamed the king more than the Kaiser. War is stupid.
posted by jonesor at 3:02 AM on December 3, 2008

The regeneration trilogy is an interesting read about this period and its consequences over the soldiers. Of course, there's also La main coupée, by Blaise Cendrars. There's also the recent Un long Dimanche de fiançailles, aka a very long engagement, by Jeunet / Japrisot. Each family seems to have star crossed lovers because of WWI.
posted by nicolin at 3:03 AM on December 3, 2008

At midnight on Christmas we'll revisit this thread where we'll declare a temporary truce. We'll play soccer, drink cognac and sing carols. At dawn we'll shake hands and go back to fighting.
posted by fixedgear at 3:06 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

And about Christmas in the trenches.
posted by nicolin at 3:09 AM on December 3, 2008

An excellent example of the kind of stupidity and arrogance that cost many, many lives in WWI is the Ross rifle.
posted by QIbHom at 6:17 AM on December 3, 2008

I think the biggest success of the EU is that the thought of another mass slaughter in Europe, between the European nations is almost unthinkable today.

Almost, but not quite. There are lots of scenarios I can imagine in which millions of Europeans begin slaughtering one another.
posted by MarshallPoe at 6:53 AM on December 3, 2008

You know, I appreciate the machine guns, etc., but I've done some reading on the Napoleonic Wars, and they sound pretty fucking awful, too. I have to wonder if all the "horror of war" stuff started after that period at least in part because the British army, at least, was mainly composed during the NW of men considered to be the scum of the Earth.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:11 AM on December 3, 2008

The official site of the Douaumont Ossuary. Thanks for posting this; people shoudn't forget it.
posted by TedW at 7:24 AM on December 3, 2008

I have to wonder if all the "horror of war" stuff started after that period at least in part because the British army, at least, was mainly composed during the NW of men considered to be the scum of the Earth.

Rank and file, yes; officers, not so much. Mostly the younger sons of upper classes, though they perhaps thought it wrong to bitch and moan about it. Stiff upper lip and all that. Conscription began in 1916, only after two years of declining gung ho-ery

As to France, first of the conscripted armies was to protect the homeland during the revolution. Napolean found it useful for expanding the definition thereof. It was, alas, an unfortunate precedent for how to conduct war.

As to "horror of war" stuff, plenty of that going around before hand. Think Goya for Napoleonic Spain for starters. And seventeenth century Europe (think Thirty Years War, a truly Godawful period we Americans tend to know little about) has some pretty graphic art as well. Plenty of grief to go around, but as with children, many of us inexperienced adults have a fascination of the morbid and so tend not to guard against the reality as well as we should.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:43 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yes, what I mean is the pervasive attitude represented in this thread that WW1 was some kind of turning point, that prior to that war wasn't nearly as horrific or as much of a meat grinder. I tend to think that to any extent this attitude really is/was shared, it's only due to the prior ignorance of ordinary British citizens. For officers, I'm sure the "glory of war" had something to do with it, but according to Wikipedia it may have been a relatively more diverse bunch than I previously thought:

Officers ranged in background, also. They were expected to be literate, but otherwise came from varied educational and social backgrounds. 5% of the officers from regular battalions had been raised from the ranks, and, while preferment by purchase was possible, less than 20% of first commissions were by purchase. Similarly, only a small proportion of officers were from the nobility; in 1809, only 140 officers were peers or peers' sons. A large proportion of officers came from the Militia, and small number were gentlemen volunteers, who followed the army until commissions became available. Promotion was mainly by seniority; less than 20% of line promotions were by purchase, although this proportion was higher in the Household Division. Promotion by merit alone occurred, but was less common. By 1814 there were over 10,000 officers in the army.

That passage was particularly interesting to me, as it surely is not the picture you get from reading Bernard Cornwell.
posted by adamdschneider at 6:10 PM on December 3, 2008

I'd think to judge what war is 'the most' of a meatgrinder, count the number of deaths over a given standard period of time. The one with the highest number wins.
Maybe I don't understand your point very well adamschneider; Would you mind restating?
Because the meatgrinder aspect of war most definitely reached an apex during ww1. Something on the magnitude of 20 million military deaths over four years; Note I'm not counting wounded.
posted by Catfry at 7:07 PM on December 3, 2008

Great post, thank you. It truly saddens me that we as a society tend to forget and almost marginalize WWI in the grand scheme of things. It was the turning point for the entire 20th century, it marked the end of the "Old World" of Kings and Queens and "Just and proper wars" and initiated the mass carnage, weaponry and chaos of modern warfare...but with 19th century tactics. It also involved the public at large in ways they never before imagined.

I highly recommend Tuchman's The March of Folly, The Guns of August and A World Undone by GJ Meyer. All three books will give you an immense picture of how different the world was only 94 years ago and how easily this war was started...without anyone even realizing it at the time.

Just remember that any future potential global conflicts are more likely to resemble the messiness and horror of WWI than anything after it.
posted by tgrundke at 8:45 PM on December 3, 2008

Would you mind restating?

What I'm saying is, absolute numbers of casualties aside, WW1 combat doesn't sound astronomically more terrifying and arbitrary than, say, marching steadily into canister fire, and that it was most likely a mechanical, methodical hell on earth for many or most of those who participated in it prior to that war. What I'm also saying is that I wonder if this shift in perception (if true) didn't take place at least in Britain before WW1 because hardly anyone in Britain before WW1 gave a rat's ass about the army rank and file.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:33 AM on December 4, 2008

...that it (combat) was most likely...
posted by adamdschneider at 8:34 AM on December 4, 2008

Ok I see your point now, thank you, and it is a decent one.
posted by Catfry at 10:42 AM on December 4, 2008

WW1 combat doesn't sound astronomically more terrifying and arbitrary than, say, marching steadily into canister fire

How about frontier/wilderness/jungle warfare where "savages"/insurgents/Viet Cong lay traps and spring ambushes upon the unsuspecting at any moment day or night and there is no relief from this fear for months of deployment?

In WWI at least the "front" was an actual tangible and visible place. Men could march away from it to the "rear" and be essentially out of much of the harm. In most of the other wars of the modern era, this is not so. There are few if any fixed positions. The enemy strikes at any point. Even when withdrawn to the rear you are still subject to terrorist style attacks. In WWI men cycled in and out of the front. They often went to the rear for supplies. The British, for example, had a 16 day rotation, 8 days in the front, 2 days in reserve, 4 days in the rear, then 2 days back on reserve and repeat. So, while you were in the worst of the terror for 8 days, you were also out of it for 8. In Vietnam or Zululand or Afghanistan or Burma or Guadalcanal you marched and fought and skirmished and were ambushed and marched and bivouacked and marched and stepped in booby trapped spike pits and fought constantly until you were sent on leave and then you dealt with suicide bombers and double crossing merchants and then you went back in for months at a time.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:28 AM on December 4, 2008

Yes, what I mean is the pervasive attitude represented in this thread that WW1 was some kind of turning point, that prior to that war wasn't nearly as horrific or as much of a meat grinder.

War was always horrific, but I don't think it's a weird assertion that WW1 was a turning point. After the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, the great powers had been busy colonising and warring with nations with far lower means (extremely sharp pineapples). The war was intended to be a quickie. Being shot by a bayonet wasn't all that bad compared to what followed.

The European countries had become fully industrialised and the arms race produced many new wonders, many of them focused on causing fear: Dreadnoughts and U-boots (scare in the waters), chemical warfare and flamethrowers (nasty and demoralising even if not too successful), the threat of air raids (think battle of Anglia). Even tanks debuted back then.

Many fronts remained static for many long years of the war. The advanced artillery was constantly bombarding positions manned by soldiers who found themselves in the middle of a novelty, a trench war. Arras, Ypres, Somme, Verdun, Cambrais had many casualties without any gains. The Italian and Balkan fronts were also stable during long times. The losses in the Eastern front and the misery in Russia were so great that led to the Russian Revolution and the collapse of the Russian Empire. The German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires also got destroyed; there was no Congress of Vienna retconning.

Other than the year-long misery in the trenches and the fields of war, the heavy casualties and the return of the shell-shocked, I think a point that needs more consideration is how the rising power of the states affected the rest of the population who were conscripted to the war effort, scared and at the end rationed. Extensive documentation and organising of civil services is largely a relic of the two WWs.

One of the most dramatic effects was the expansion of governmental powers and responsibilities in Britain, France, the United States, and the Dominions of the British Empire. In order to harness all the power of their societies, new government ministries and powers were created. New taxes were levied and laws enacted, all designed to bolster the war effort; many of which have lasted to this day. (wiki).

We marched a long time. There were streets and more streets, and they were all crowded with civilians and their wives, cheering us on, bombarding us with flowers from café terraces, railroad stations, crowded churches. You never saw so many patriots in your life! And then there were fewer patriots... It started to rain, and then there were still fewer and fewer, and not a single cheer, not one.
Pretty soon there was nobody but us, we were all alone. Row after row. The music had stopped. "Come to think of it," I said to myself, when I saw what was what, "this is no fun anymore! I'd better try something else!" I was about to clear out. Too late! They'd quietly shut the gate behind us civilians. We were caught like rats.

You can be a virgin in horror the same as in sex. How, when I left the Place Clichy, could I have imagined such horror?

L.F. Céline - Journey to the end of the night, tr. Ralph Manheim.

The notion of war as sport died and didn't return.
posted by ersatz at 5:47 PM on December 4, 2008

The European countries had become fully industrialised and the arms race produced many new wonders, many of them focused on causing fear: Dreadnoughts and U-boots (scare in the waters), chemical warfare and flamethrowers (nasty and demoralising even if not too successful), the threat of air raids (think battle of Anglia). Even tanks debuted back then.

Not only the European countries, but the good 'ol US of A, and I didn't think that this was really in dispute.
posted by fixedgear at 8:03 PM on December 5, 2008

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