Verdun: the endless battle

Historian article

By Paul Jankowski, published 2nd August 2016


Most can agree that the battle of Verdun started 100 years ago, on 21 February 1916, when the Germans began attacking French positions north and east of the old fortress town on the Meuse river. Few can agree on when it ended. The Germans might draw a line under it in the summer, when they halted their offensive operations; the French, in the winter, when they took back most of the ground they had lost, or in August of the following year, when they took back the remaining hilltops; the Americans, when the Armistice the year after that put an end to the local operation they were planning there, in the sector they had recently taken over from the French. But the Germans were still there, a few miles away. Whatever its finis, Verdun was the longest battle of the war, and one of the longest in history, up there with the protracted sieges and chevauchées of earlier centuries, and like them driven by its own infernal logic.

The longest, but not quite the bloodiest. It had claimed 300,000 French and German lives by December, somewhat less than the battle of the Somme, called off a month earlier after four months of inconclusive fighting. The war of movement, in August and September 1914, claimed many more French lives than the ten months of Verdun. And yet, outside Britain, Verdun came to enjoy a notoriety all its own, even in Germany, where the Somme offered more to celebrate. A surfeit of men and firepower had smothered strategic possibilities; the means had bankrupted the ends; the only victory had been a moral one. If Auschwitz became the symbol of the Holocaust, and Hiroshima of nuclear annihilation, then Verdun became the symbol of the futility of industrial war...

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