A small city in north-eastern France on the banks of the Meuse river, Verdun was the site of the longest battle of the First World War. But, as William Buckingham explains, there is more to Verdun than the 1916 clash that bears its name…
The cathedral city of Verdun lies atop a rocky bluff overlooking the River Meuse 140 miles east of Paris, where the broken country of the Ardennes begins to fall away to the rolling chalk uplands of the Champagne region. Today the sleepy provincial town is famous for its role at the centre of Operation GERICHT, the German codename for the opening phase of the First World War battle of Verdun. The latter commenced at 4am on Monday 21 February 1916 with a salvo of shells from German naval guns emplaced in thick woods 17 miles north-east of the city, one of which landed in the yard of the Bishop’s Palace next to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Verdun.
The fighting dragged on for five months until the Germans finally abandoned their offensive in July 1916 (or nine months if the French counter-offensives that restored their line to something like the pre-battle status quo in November 1916 are included). Whatever the end point, the fighting at Verdun cost in the region of 700,000 French and German lives, arguably the most costly and intense of the entire conflict; the very name has become synonymous with Pyrrhic victory won at horrific cost, as exemplified by the tag ‘Verdun on the Volga’ applied to the battle for Stalingrad 26 years later in the Second World War.
Here are seven things you ought to know about Verdun…
Verdun has existed for more than 2,000 years
The site of Verdun was dubbed Virodunum (roughly translated as ‘strong fortress’) by the Celtic tribesmen who occupied the site from 450 BC and the settlement was renamed Virodunensium by the Romans when they occupied the site in 57 BC. By the 4th century AD the strategic military outpost had developed into a prosperous civil settlement on the road linking Reims and Metz. Construction of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Verdun began in 990 amid the Roman ruins and, in conjunction with the cathedral cities of Metz and Toul, Verdun became part of the Holy Roman province dubbed ‘The Three Bishoprics’ and was elevated to free imperial city status in 1374 (a collective term used to denote a self-ruling city that enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy).
Surprisingly, given the geographical distance, medieval Verdun was a major hub for the Europe-wide trade supplying young boys to Islamic Spain to be castrated and employed as slaves known as eunuchs, who were frequently employed as servants or guards in harems. Less controversially, Verdun also gained fame for producing sugared almonds or dragées. Likely building on the Roman practice of eating honey-dipped almonds at festivals, dragée production was initially at the behest of the local apothecary’s guild who used them to offset the bitter taste of medicinal concoctions. The sugary treats were also distributed at noble christenings and later became a popular wedding staple, representing the bitterness of life and sweetness of love. Large copper vessels used in the manufacture of the confection in medieval times are today displayed in the city’s municipal museum and souvenir packages of locally produced dragées are still on sale in Verdun.
Roadmap of Verdun and its surroundings in 1755. From a collection of maps drawn for King Louis XV by designers from L’Ecole des Ponts-et-Chaussées. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
Verdun was a bone of Franco-German contention long before 1916
The 843 Treaty of Verdun that divided the Carolingian Empire into three parts saw Verdun assigned to the Central Frankish Realm before being incorporated into the Germanic Eastern Empire in 923, where it remained for the next six centuries with the Germanised name of Wirten.
Verdun returned to the Gallic fold in the closing stages of the Valois-Habsburg Wars of 1494–1559 when Henri II annexed Verdun and the remainder of The Three Bishoprics in 1552 – although the Germanic claim lingered on for a century until the Treaty of Münster in 1648 formally acknowledged French sovereignty at the end of the Thirty Years’ War.
German involvement with Verdun was rekindled in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789. In July 1792 a largely Prussian army led by Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, invaded France and on 29 August laid siege to Verdun with a force of approximately 60,000 men and 40 guns. Verdun was garrisoned by a unit from the Loire region commanded by 52-year-old Lieutenant-Colonel Nicolas-Joseph Beaurepaire, a retired royalist officer who had returned to serve the revolution. The garrison consisted of just 44 men, the remainder having deserted en route to Verdun.
After a day-long bombardment the Prussians offered a chance of surrender, which Beaurepaire publicly and volubly rejected, but Verdun’s citizenry showed rather less revolutionary zeal and voted to accept the offer. Beaurepaire was later found shot dead in his quarters, either by despairing suicide or at the hands of the townspeople depending on the account. He was nevertheless lionised as a hero of the revolution and today a commemorative statue remains in place on the Pont de Verdun over the River Loire in Angers.
Verdun surrendered on 3 September 1792 (after the town council took the decision to surrender following a stormy meeting on 2 September) and remained in Prussian hands for just over a month until liberated in the wake of the French victory at Valmy by Général François Kellermann on 14 October 1792.
Verdun again found itself in the front-line during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. The city was besieged nine days before the battle of Gravelotte (18 August 1870) led to Maréchal Achille Bazaine’s 180,000-strong portion of the Armée du Rhin being trapped in Metz, 30 miles to the east. Starvation forced Bazaine to capitulate on 27 October after a 69-day siege while Verdun held out until 8 November before accepting a Prussian offer of surrender with full military honours.
The Treaty of Frankfurt, signed on 10 May 1871, obliged the French to hand over most of the territory in the eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and to pay reparations of five billion francs within five years, with a portion of north-eastern France remaining under Prussian occupation to guarantee payment. In the event the French government paid off the reparations two years ahead of schedule and the final increment of the Prussian occupation force to withdraw from French territory was the garrison of Verdun, which marched out of the city on 13 September 1873.
Signing the Treaty of Frankfurt that ended the Franco-Prussian War. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Verdun’s fixed defences: the Trident programme of their day
Verdun’s involvement with state-of-the-art fixed defences goes back to 1624, when the western end of the rocky bluff including the Abbaye de St Vanne was razed to permit construction of a fortified Citadel and outlying works inspired by the work of Jean Errard de Bar le Duc, the father of French fortification building. The city’s defences were then remodelled in Vauban’s standard geometric design from 1664 to 1692 and Verdun’s transformation into a fully-fledged military garrison town was arguably complete with the construction of a barracks to house a permanent garrison in 1739. The Citadel is still occupied by the French Army today, with the subterranean levels housing an interactive museum dedicated to the 1916 battle. The monumental Vauban curtain walls and some of the outer works also remain largely intact.
The loss of Alsace and Lorraine moved the French border from the River Rhine to just 25 miles east of Verdun, with the latter straddling the shortest and most direct route from German territory to Paris. In 1874 the French Army therefore embarked on a programme of military construction that transformed Verdun’s defences from a decrepit 17th-century Vauban fortress to 22 cutting-edge defensive works garrisoned by more than 6,000 men in just over a decade, at a cost of 45 million francs. At this point, however, two coincidental scientific and technical advances conspired to nullify the French effort and expenditure: first, the development from the 1850s of high-quality steel cannon barrels with internal grooves called rifling extended the range and accuracy of artillery manifold.
Second, the patenting of picric acid based explosive by Eugène Turpin in 1885 provided a tremendous increase in destructive power. Instead of the round, solid shot used hitherto, modern artillery was therefore able to fire streamlined, explosive-filled projectiles capable of inflicting severe damage on brick and stone masonry even when covered with a thick layer of protective earth. Verdun’s new defences were thus rendered obsolete at a stroke by what the French dubbed the ‘torpedo shell crisis’ of 1885.
The French responded to the torpedo shell crisis by hardening their existing forts with a special reinforced concrete from 1888 and constructed all subsequent works of the same material. By 1914 the fortified zone extended up to six miles from Verdun and contained 32 major defensive works manned by 4,865 men. These were augmented by 114 protected artillery battery positions deploying a total of 407 mobile field guns, eight reinforced concrete ammunition storage bunkers, 25 supply depots, an airfield, a dedicated training and storage facility for observation balloons, three concrete-protected command posts and numerous similarly protected infantry shelters, all linked by a specially constructed network of roads and narrow gauge railway lines. In all the French government spent up to 820 million francs on Verdun’s defences between 1874 and 1914.
The showpiece of Verdun’s defences was Fort Douaumont, constructed between 1884 and 1886 at an initial cost of just under 1.5 million francs. Located atop a 390-metre ridge just over four miles north-east of Verdun, Douaumont was the highest work in Verdun’s defences and was also the largest at 400 metres wide across the base of its elongated polygon shape and covering an area of 30,000 square metres. Hardening modification between 1887 and 1890 added a 12-metre-thick concrete roof using 280,000 cubic metres of special concrete and a subsequent upgrade added two huge retractable armoured gun turrets. The Fort was garrisoned by nine officers and 811 men housed in a two-level barracks. Other amenities included kitchens with a separate bakery, an infirmary, a telegraph station, a water reservoir, an armoury and numerous ammunition stores and other storerooms at a cost of 6.1 million francs – more than double the price of Verdun’s other forts.
Verdun – the first modern battle supplied by truck
The fighting in 1914 left Verdun in a salient or bulge in the front line projecting north-east into German-held territory, and the two mainline railway lines running into the city from the west and south were severed the following year. Verdun was thus left totally reliant upon a tenuous link to the town of Bar-le-Duc, 30 miles south-west of Verdun. Commanded by two officers, Major Richard and Capitaine Doumenc, the link to Bar-le-Duc consisted of a small railway with a metre-wide track called the Meusien and a minor dirt road running roughly parallel to it; by happy accident the road had been widened to allow two-way motor traffic in 1915.
By February 1916 Major Richard had presciently assembled a fleet of 3,500 motor trucks by commandeering civilian vehicles across France – no mean feat considering that at the outbreak of war in 1914 the French Army could only muster a mere 170 vehicles. Richard also designed a system for deploying the vehicles dubbed noria, the French term for an industrial waterwheel. The latter consisted of a wheel with bucket-like containers attached to the rim that rotated as the current filled the container; the dirt road from Bar-le-Duc thus became a stylised noria with the water containers replaced with motor trucks running in a never ending stream around the clock. At any given time half the available vehicles would be en route to Verdun loaded with supplies, while the other half headed away from the city loaded with wounded personnel or relieved units. Between 22 February and 7 March the trucks carried 2,500 tonnes of supplies and 22,500 tonnes of ammunition into Verdun and 6,000 evacuated civilians out of the city.
Although later immortalised as the Voie Sacrée (sacred way) by the patriotic French writer Maurice Barrès – a label that is now inextricably linked to the legend of Verdun – the dirt road was simply called la Route (the road) at the time. It was divided into six self-contained sections, each with its own repair workshops, mechanics, engineers and labour force. The carriageway was reserved exclusively for motor vehicles, with breakdowns being tipped unceremoniously off the road for repair teams to recover later; horse-drawn transport was banned (presumably to protect the unmade road from being ploughed by hooves), and the heavily laden infantrymen were restricted to marching through the fields alongside the road.
Around 10,000 labourers, many from Indo-China and Senegal, were employed to maintain the surface of the road. The work required an estimated 750,000 tonnes of stone over the 10-month span of the battle, much of it mined in local quarries and shovelled directly under the wheels of moving trucks.
The system worked, even when the sudden thaw of 28 February turned the road to liquid mud up to 18 inches deep. Over the following week 190,000 men flowed north into Verdun, a rate that settled down to a steady weekly flow of 90,000 men and 50,000 tons of material. At its peak of activity in June 1916 some 12,000 trucks were moving back and forth along the road around the clock, passing any given spot at rate of one truck every 10 to 14 seconds.
Today la Route is the D1916 road and the events of 1916 are commemorated by an impressive monument featuring carved reliefs of the wartime truck convoys overlooking a junction at the northern end; another sculpture marks the terminus in Verdun proper. The 50-odd kilometre marker pillars running the length of the Voie Sacrée are also unique, each being topped with a bronze casting of a French steel helmet bedecked with victor’s laurels.
This picture taken in 1916 shows French soldiers unloading trucks near Verdun battlefield, eastern France, during the First World War. (AFP/Getty Images)
A pigeon decorated for gallantry
Initially constructed between 1881 and 1884 at a cost of 1.5 million francs, Fort Vaux was the smallest fully-fledged fort in Verdun’s defences, although it entered its trial by fire at a severe disadvantage. In August 1915 the French High Command ordered all Verdun’s defensive works to be rigged with emergency demolition charges for use in case they were captured by the Germans. Shortly after the battle of Verdun commenced on 21 February 1916 the demolition charge in Fort Vaux’s single retracting gun turret was detonated by a near miss from a German heavy artillery shell; the resultant explosion completely destroyed the turret and thus stripped the Fort of its primary armament.
On 24 May 1916 Major Sylvain-Eugene Raynal, a 49-year-old infantry officer who had been medically discharged after being wounded in October 1915, assumed command of the Fort. Fort Vaux was normally garrisoned by four officers and 279 men but the incessant shelling drove a large number of men to seek the relative safety of its interior. By the time a German attack effectively cut the Fort off from the French front-line on 2 June 1916 the number of occupants had increased to between 500 and 600 men, a spaniel named Quiqui and a small loft of four military carrier pigeons.
An epic five-day-siege then ensued, with the Germans occupying the Fort’s superstructure and beating off French relief attacks. Meanwhile Raynal’s men resisted German attempts to penetrate deeper into the interior of the Fort via a breach in a connecting corridor – in hellish underground fighting of a scale and intensity that occurred nowhere else on the Western Front.
The defenders’ ability to resist was severely undermined on 4 June when it was discovered that the Fort’s water cistern was almost empty – Raynal had not been informed of a fault with the cistern’s measuring gauge first identified back in March. The water ration was reduced to half a litre per man per day; some men were reduced to licking condensation from the concrete walls.
Despite this the garrison held out until 6.30am on Wednesday 7 June 1916 when Raynal was finally obliged to surrender. All of Verdun’s forts had large gates secured by locks turned by ornate bronze keys and Raynal sealed his surrender by handing the key to Fort Vaux to Leutnant Müller-Werner from Fusilier Regiment 39.
Raynal had been obliged to employ his carrier pigeons to maintain contact with the outside world after the Germans severed his telephone line. The last, Carrier Pigeon No. 787–15, was released on 4 June with the following message: “We are still holding but are under very dangerous attack by gas and fumes. Urgent relief is imperative. Do give us optical communication with [Fort] Souville, which does not respond to our calls… This is our last pigeon”.
Badly affected by fumes, the bird returned repeatedly to the release loophole in Raynal’s command post until, revived by the fresh air, it finally departed and promptly died after delivering its message. Awarded a posthumous Légion d’Honneur for its dedication to duty, Carrier Pigeon No. 787–15 was officially designated as Mort Pour le France (died for France) and preserved for posterity with the aid of a taxidermist. He was the only member of his species to be so honoured. In 1929 a dedicated plaque from the Société Française de Colombophiles (The Society of French Pigeon Fanciers) was mounted in the courtyard of Fort Vaux where it remains to this day, and brass souvenir replicas of the bird can be purchased from a shop located in one of the Fort’s galleries.
The world’s first artillery battle
While artillery was the biggest killer of the First World War, casualties were usually inflicted in the course of preparations for ground attacks. The battle of Verdun differed in pursuing a cold-blooded strategy of attrition that envisaged deliberately sacrificing German troops in a limited offensive designed to provoke a French response that could then be destroyed by massed artillery fire. To that end more than 1,200 German guns were secretly massed before Verdun by February 1916 along with a stockpile of 2.5 million shells brought up by 1,300 trains, sufficient for six days intensive fire. A further two million shells were to be fired over the succeeding 12 days, brought up by dedicated munitions trains at a rate of 33 trains per day.
To mitigate the wear-and-tear on the guns’ spare parts, barrels and repair equipment were stockpiled at five dedicated workshops close to the front and arrangements were made to ship pieces requiring more extensive repair back to factories especially configured to turn them around quickly for return to units.
The German pre-attack barrage was to be the heaviest artillery bombardment in history to date and was just part of a sophisticated fire plan intended to target every facet of the French defence. Approximately 200 minenwerfer (mine launchers) of 75mm, 170mm and 250mm calibre sited in or close to the German front line, backed by field guns of 77mm, 100mm, 105mm and 210mm calibre, were to obliterate the French front line trenches. Longer-range pieces targeted the French support trenches and positions and were to blanket known French artillery positions along with all the roads and tracks linking the French front line and rear areas.
Finally there was the siege artillery. These included a number of huge 305mm and 420mm howitzers – cannon with short barrels intended to throw shells in a high arc to maximize their impact – which were tasked to pound the French forts. There were also three 380mm naval guns nicknamed Lange Max (long Max), the same type of gun mounted in German battleships. These weapons were more accurate and had longer range than the howitzers and were therefore tasked to drop a steady 40 rounds per day into Verdun proper and to hit the roads and rail lines miles beyond Verdun on the west bank of the River Meuse.
The 380mm naval guns were located in woods 17 miles north-east of Verdun and were likely the largest weapons deployed in the battle. With 50ft-foot-long barrels, the guns weighed more than 200 tonnes apiece and were mounted on massive traversable steel platforms. These were in turn rooted in huge concrete lined pits 20 feet deep that incorporated chambers for the sophisticated fire control equipment that allowed them to accurately hit targets up to 25 miles distant. The pits were linked to concrete-protected underground ammunition stores by light railway similar to those employed in coal mines; this was necessary because the 380mm rounds weighed around 1,600lb each. One of the emplacements survives in its entirety in the Bois de Warphémont, signposted from the D618 road.
Aerial observation and counter-battery techniques also became more sophisticated as the artillery battle dragged on, especially on the French side. When a 420mm projectile failed to explode after burrowing into the glacis of Fort Moulainville French ballistic experts were able to swiftly back calculate the trajectory to pinpoint the gun and bring it under fire. On another occasion a swift counter-fire mission destroyed a German ammunition dump containing almost half a million shells.
A French soldier at the battle of Verdun wearing a gas mask, 1916. (Keystone/Getty Images)
Verdun and the selection of France’s unknown soldier
Having been the focus of one of the First World War’s most intense battles, Verdun also played a key role in the French national commemoration of the conflict. The idea of selecting an anonymous fallen soldier to represent the sacrifice of all those killed originated in 1916 and was officially acknowledged on 12 November 1919, a year and a day after hostilities ceased.
It was originally intended to lay the individual to rest in the Paris Pantheon alongside other notable French citizens, but a public campaign led to the base of the Arc du Triomphe being selected instead. Eight coffins containing unidentified remains selected from battlefields across the Western Front were laid out in one of the Verdun Citadel’s underground chambers. On 10 November 1920 Soldat (Private) Auguste Thien (from the 123rd Régiment d’Infanterie) selected the sixth coffin, reportedly after adding together the digits of his regiment’s number. The selected coffin was then transported to Paris where it lay in state until being interred on 28 January 1921.
The other seven sets of remains are interred in a special plot in the centre of the Faubourg Pavè military cemetery on the eastern outskirts of Verdun, which contains around 5,000 French First World War casualties and seven Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force aircrew killed on 8 March 1943.
William Buckingham is the author of Verdun 1916: The Deadliest Battle of the First World War (Amberley Publishing, 2016).
This article was first published by History Extra in April 2016.