The 'Hell of Verdun' - 'L'Enfer de Verdun'

Posted on Aug 09, 2013 in category

'L'Enfer de Verdun' or 'Hell of Verdun' is an apt description for the inhumane experiences of soldiers who endured 10 months (21 Feb.-18 Dec. 1916) of unparalleled barbarity at Verdun, the longest battle of World War I. Nineteen national necropolises in the Verdun area (Department of Meuse) testify to the enormous death toll and carnage inflicted within this 15,000 sq. kilometre area.

Sanitised statistics reveal:

  • 9 villages were totally destroyed with another 150 localities deeply affected
  • 15,000 hectares of woods and fields were ravaged in this 'inferno' leaving a lunar landscape and of course,
  • over 500,000 French casualties and slightly fewer German casualties (see J.H. McRandle and J.Quirk's, "The Blood Test Revisited: A New Look at German Casualty Counts in World War I," The Journal of Military History, Vol. 70, no.3, July 2006).


Artillery barrages went for many hours inflicting shocking injuries. The initial German barrage at Verdun on 21 February 1916 started at 7.15 hours and continued until 16.00 hours. It was described by Erich Maria Remarque as "an explosive mangle" that resulted in many soldiers being, "blown into showers" (Silence Round Verdun 1930). Officially, missing troops were said to be the result of 'disintegration by artillery' (J. R. Chrislip, "Firepower Kills: The Evolution of French Infantry Tactics at Verdun," Voces Novae, Vol.3, no.1 2012). Unofficially, the battle became known as 'The Mincer'.

Several reasons made Verdun a likely target for a major attack:

  • the German High Command knew that preparations were on the way for a new front to be opened up by France and its allies along the Somme River
  • there was a need to boost morale back home in Germany
  • General Falkenhayn realised his strategically favourable position in Verdun with the French exposed on three fronts (after the war he argued that his main strategy was 'to bleed France white')
  • the French High Command led by General Joffre had run down and, lost confidence in, the fort system around Verdun since 1915 because the two main Belgium forts at Liege and Namur failed to stop the German advance. 
  • a perceived need to adopt a more offensive "attaque a l'Outrance" strategy since the Franco-Prussian War defeat of 1870 and finally,
  • the Prussian army had a good track record in the Verdun area with military victories in 1792 and 1870.

The above map shows how Verdun (in bold font) found itself since 30 September 1914 open to attacks on several fronts because it had formed a salient thrust into German lines.

The German offensive began on 21 February 1916 proving that 'le feu tue' or 'firepower kills'. France was heavily outgunned 4 to 1 and outmanned by 3 to 1; thus, forcing the French Army to adopt a desperate strategy of 'tenir' or 'hold at all costs'. "Vous ne les laisserez pas passer, mes camarades!" ('You will not let them pass, my comrades!') stated General Robert Nivelle (23 June 1916). Not surprisingly, French losses were extreme with 30% losses in one day not uncommon. For example, the 153 Regiment d'Infanterie lost 2284 men out of a maximum 2,800 (J.R. Chrislip 2012). One company commander, Charles de Gaulle, 33rd I.R. was wounded and taken prisoner in the initial offensive but contributed greatly, like many other small company engagements, by stalling the German advance and enabling French reinforcements to secure better defensive strategies and positions.

The two main fronts were the left (orange/pink) and right banks (green/pink) of the Meuse River. Bitter fighting took place between Cote 304 and Mort-Homme on the left bank after the first German offensive stalled (right bank). Terrain between the two west bank strongholds was nicknamed, the  "Ravine of Death". Here the 153 R.I. lost 35% of men over 16 days.  

Not until August 1916 did the French High Command change their strategy from defence to reconquest with improvements in artillery, mortars and supplies up and down the 'Voie Sacree' or 'Sacred Way', which was a heavy transport road or 'lungs of the battle' . In order to ensure Verdun's lifeline, 8,000 thousand men worked along the 70 kilometres 'Sacree' route including working in nearby quarries.

 More sanitised statistics: one day in March, 1916 some 4,000 trucks, 2,000 cars, 800 ambulances, 200 buses, all travelling at 15 km/hour, helped transport 13,000 troops, 6,400 tons of material and 1,500 tons of food (Le Memorial de Verdun).

The Memorial de Verdun opened in 1967. Although it does have a fair share of momento-style historical exhibits such as German and French weaponry (flamethrowers were used by the Germans for the first time!) and uniformed mannequins, the Memorial does try to educate the visitor in a reasonably balanced way presenting at times both the French and German aspects of the Verdun hell. Justifiably, the Memorial argues Verdun's importance in French history: because of General Petain's 'Noria' reinforcement system, whereby French troops rarely had consecutive tours of duty at Verdun, nearly 80% of French troops in World War I experienced the terror of Verdun.

Men could suddenly sink in the mud up to their hips and die if not pulled out by their comrades usually using their rifles as ropes!

 On the ground floor of the Memorial de Verdun there is a full-size diorama of forlorn trench life which allows visitors to feel the horrible-hell of Verdun.

Both women and children are remembered in the Memorial de Verdun. Verdun's "White Angels" or nurses numbered 100,000 and, along with another 10,000 nuns, staffed 1,400 hospitals with a 10% mortality rate due to their close proximity to the battlefields. "War godmothers" sent parcels to soldiers with no family and it's estimated that France had 1,100,000 war orphans in the year 1919 (Memorial de Verdun). Pathetically, in 1922 the French Senate denied women the vote!

 A special feature of Verdun was the 28 forts that were built in two circles around that the city earning it the name "fortress city". However, on 5 August 1915 the French High Command reclassified Verdun as a "fortified region" believing that the fort system was in effect, putting too many eggs (heavy weaponry) in the one basket. Fort Douaumont was the largest fort with a complement of 477 men and 7 officers; however, in Feb. 1916 only 68 infantry defended it led by a non-commissioned officer. Designed to have two retractable/rotating artillery turrets, Fort Douaumont only had one was manned in Feb. 1916. Side bunkers were meant to have 4 x 75 mm fieldguns but all were gone before the first German offensive in February 1916. French pride suffered a near knock-out blow when the fort was captured in a German commando-style raid by 19 officers and 79 soldiers without a shot being fired! Fort Douaumont was retaken after heavy fighting by the Moroccan Colonial Infantry Regiment on 24 October 1916.


Aerial shot of Fort Douaumont with evidence of heavy artillery bombing.

Inside the fort conditions were cold, damp, smelly (artillery, cooking and latrines) and noisy from artillery hits above.

One of two massive 155 mm Galopin turret guns within the maze of tunnels at Fort Douaumont.

The same retractable/rotating Galopin turret gun from above.

The skeletons of trenches still haunt the hills surrounding Fort Douaumont. One should still tread warily around Verdun as there are still millions of shells unexploded as indicated on 'Zone Rouge' signs. A Department of Deminage has lost some 630 'demineurs' in efforts since WWII to clear the 81,000 hectares site.







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