The First World War’s longest battle began 100 years ago this month in Verdun, northern France.
By the time it ended in December more than 300,000 had died and many more were missing or wounded.
More than 23 million shells were fired. Nine villages were wiped off the map. Huge craters and toxic munitions still scar and poison the land today.
In both France and Germany, Verdun became known as “hell”.
Rain and shells tore up the clay-rich soil into a landscape of mud littered with human remains. Men could slip and drown in flooded craters.
Historian Richard Holmes writes, “Evidence of death was all too abundant; splintered trees turned to gibbets, heavy with dismembered limbs and glistening ropes of entrails.”
Verdun ushered in a new kind of war. February saw the first use of flame throwers in battle. Many soldiers never saw the enemy, with both armies reliant on long distance heavy artillery.
And both sides used poison gas bombs that could kill in seconds.
The war was a terrible crime by all Europe’s imperialist powers—not least Britain. It saw horrendous battles.
German commander Erich von Falkenhayn later claimed that Verdun was a deliberate strategy to “bleed the French army dry”.
His French counterpart Philippe Petain—later the puppet dictator of Nazi-occupied France—prolonged the horror by constantly rotating in fresh troops. Almost the entire French army had served in Verdun by the end.
The bulk of recruits were from villages untouched by the history of revolt that had shaped France’s cities. But Verdun would breed despair, dissent and defiance.
A lieutenant later killed by a shell wrote in his diary, “Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!”
Some soldiers deserted to Spain, others deliberately injured themselves to be sent home. Those caught were shot. Some 600 French soldiers were executed during the war, mostly for self-harm.
There were also forerunners of the mass mutinies that would paralyse the French army a year later.
In June episodes of “collective indiscipline” hit five infantry regiments.
The even bloodier battle of the Somme shifted the war’s epicentre away from Verdun. But the film J’accuse, made during the war, was a powerful symbol of how it would haunt France long after.
The film ended with the war dead rising from their graves. The zombies were played by 2,000 real soldiers on leave from Verdun.
Within a few weeks, most of them had returned to the front and been killed.
The establishment used the sacrifice to try and boost patriotism, sometimes with success.
But for many veterans Verdun had discredited that establishment forever.Verdun survivors were part of a new left and mass strikes that shook France in the 1920s and 30s.
Troops from France’s colonies had sacrificed as much as anyone. Many rallied to new movements for independence.