A Battle to Remember
Updated: Nov 18, 2022
On Veteran’s Day, I remember the men who fought in the worst battle in human history. In ten months, more soldiers died at Verdun than the American military lost during the entire 20th Century.
There’s a story of a young Marine at the Chosin Reservoir in the early stages of the Korean War. With his division surrounded, temperatures below zero, and the odds of his survival dwindling, a journalist asked him, “If I were God, what would you want for Christmas?" The shivering and sunken-eyed Marine whispered, “Give me tomorrow.”
Today is Veteran’s Day and I’ve been writing this piece all day, remembering the men who never saw “tomorrow.” I’ve also been thinking about the origins of this sacred day -- born from the devastations of the First World War.
On the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month of 1918, the First World War came to an end. A year later, Britain, America, and other nations marked November 11th as a day of remembrance. Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, or Veteran’s Day, no matter what you call it, it’s a time to reflect on war and the men and women who fight and die in war.
For me, the First World War is the line of departure between the old and the new world. After 1918, collectively speaking, people thought and acted differently; they became modern, cynical, and less romantic. Earnestness was out, irony was in. 40 million casualties will do such things.
Between 1914 and 1918, half of all Frenchman aged 20 to 32 were killed in action. Think about every friend or classmate you had in high school and college, then imagine that half of them died in combat within a span of four years. And for the ones who lived, most were wounded. “This is not war,” a soldier on the western front wrote home, “it is the ending of the world.”
The First World War caused entire societies to collapse (Russia and Germany), empires to crumble (Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian), and armies to nearly implode (France). In 1914, five great monarchies dominated Europe. By 1918, four of them were gone.
How did this happen? In the simplest terms, World War I was a war of complete annihilation, accelerated by the destructive powers of machines. Tanks, planes, U-boats, and dreadnoughts replaced horses, wagons, and ships. Cataclysmic Artillery replaced cannon, while machine guns and poison gas replaced rifles and cavalry charges. These advances in military technology made killing more efficient, and therefore, political stability more perilous.
War had become cold and mechanized. Gone was the pageantry of the 19th Century. Gone were the bright uniforms, pluming hats, rattling sabers, white horses, and assumed chivalry of warfare. War was no longer the “great game,” a young Churchill wrote about in the 1890s. War was a dark dystopian battle for national survival. And no battle in this war unveiled the darkness of man versus machine like the Battle of Verdun.
In his 1962 masterpiece, The Price of Glory -- a book that left me shaking and breathless -- Alistair Horne wrote, “it is probably no exaggeration to call Verdun the worst battle in history.”
As I sit in a coffee shop writing this piece, I’m grateful to be warm, dry, and safe. I have a full belly and I’m quite sure I’ll see tomorrow. I feel a million miles away in time and distance from those poor guys who never saw tomorrow at Verdun. This is their story. Please remember it.
Bleed the French White
By Christmas of 1914, four months had passed since the war’s first salvo. Any chance of outmaneuvering the enemy on the western front had ended for both sides. As trenches and bunkers were carved deep into the earth from Belgium to Switzerland, the war grinded to a bloody crawl.
By 1916, as stalemate set in, killing the enemy was no longer a means to a maneuverable end, it was the end. The strategic goal was to obliterate the other side’s entire society, kill all their men, and forever end their way of life. Then, the logic went, you would “win.” But as the poet and soldier Edmund Blunden wrote in hindsight, neither side had won. "The war had won," he lamented.
This body count strategy reached its apex in 1916 with two major battles: The Somme (British vs. German) and Verdun (French vs. German). Casualties totaled more than 2 million. Overlapping each other, The Somme lasted five months, while Verdun lasted ten. Almost a year of shrapnel, machine guns, and poison gas; of reeking corpses, putrid water, and mass psychosis. 1916 was a year in hell.
Kicking off this war of attrition at Verdun was Field Marshal Erich von Falkenhayn. An introverted East Prussian with a Kaiser-inspired mustache, Falkenhayn devised a ruthless plan of attack for Verdun. His goal was never to take the city of Verdun; instead, he would attack and capture the high ground, and then await the inevitable French counterattack. When they did counterattack, he famously declared, we “will bleed the French white.”
Located 160 miles east of Paris along the Meuse river, the Verdun sector included dozens of mutually-supporting concrete forts which dotted the landscape like an oval eight miles deep and thirty miles across. Its defenses were state of the art and symbolized French resilience against their ancient German foe.
Although Verdun's strategic importance is debated, nearly every historian agrees that Verdun held nationalistic importance for the French people. More than one thousand years before, in 837, the Treaty of Verdun parceled out Charlemagne’s empire and formed the borders of modern France. The Germans had also laid siege to Verdun in the 18th and 19th Centuries, adding to the city's history. As a result, Verdun mattered to the French people and would be defended at all costs and to the last man -- just as Falkenhayn had hoped.
As February 21, 1916 approached, Falkenhayn massed a battle-ready army never before seen in world history. In seven weeks, more than 1300 trains moved 300,000 German troops towards Verdun. 1200 artillery guns (from monster 440mm mortars to 155mm howitzers) were placed beneath camouflage. More than 2.5 million shells were stockpiled.
To add perspective, the entire active-duty U.S. Marine Corps today consists of 48 artillery guns – all 155mm.
On February 21st, Falkenhayn's 1200 guns roared, belching shells across an eight mile front. French survivors described the large shells sounding like locomotives as they passed overhead. For six straight days, the Germans fired forty shells a minute! By the end of the first day, entire quadrants vanished. Thousands of shells hammered hilltops until the earth swallowed the hills whole, only to vomit the debris back up into the sky until flesh, metal, and wood spewed across a deceased landscape. It’s as if the Germans had declared war on the French and on nature itself.
The Verdun battlefield, according to a French pilot who observed it from above, “seems to belong to another world. Every sign of humanity has been swept away. The countless towers of smoke remind one,” he wrote, “of Dante’s hell.” As if that wasn’t enough, Alister Horne writes, once the Germans began lobbing shells of poison gas, any remaining leaves withered and even “the snails died.”
As 2 million shells pulverized the earth along a eight mile front, the Germans began their infantry attack to kill any remaining Frenchmen at close range.
Racing up from deep bunkers and peaking above their trenches, the defending French saw faceless metallic men attack from the lifting smoke. The Germans wore helmets like iron workers while metallic objects – hatchets, hammers, and brass-knuckled bowie knives -- clanked like heavy wind chimes from their kit. They also carried a new weapon: the flame thrower.
These minsters of death were the Sturmtruppen, or Storm Troopers. And like the flame throwers they carried, at Verdun they made their first (and not their last) debut on the 20th battlefield. Through a storm of steel and incineration, the Storm Troopers mission was simple: slaughter the French with flames, bullets, and blades -- and do so with exterminating precision.
The initial German attack at Verdun was depersonalized, unromantic, systematic, and ruthless. This was industrialized war, a dystopian, almost steampunk style of killing.
They Shall Not Pass
Though the Germans made great gains in the opening weeks, the French, led by General Phillipe Petain, would not quit. As Petain flooded more reinforcements to save Verdun, Falkenhayn consolidated his position to await the inevitable French counterattack. It came, as he predicted, again and again... Then the Germans would counterattack again and again... “The two nations flailed at each other with all the stored-up rage of a thousand years of Teuton-Gaul rivalry,” Alister Horne wrote. “Like two stags battling to the death, antlers locked,” he continued, they battled on and on and on, slugging it on on a small piece of France, eight miles wide.
Despite the German onslaught of steel, the French held their ground desperately, firing 15 million shells in the battle’s first five months, and echoed their supreme general’s sentiment that the hated Germans “shall not pass.” And while the French fought with the same ferocity as the Germans – and with the resolve of defending their homeland – they paid an awful price.
At Fort Vaux within the Verdun sector, 600 French soldiers were under siege. 8,000 shells pounded the fort every single day. The French soldiers fought off infiltrating storm troopers down dark corridors with machine guns, stolen flame throwers, and anything else that killed. Cut-off from any resupply, the French soldiers finally surrendered the fort after they were forced to drink their own urine to survive.
On other points of Verdun’s defenses, Alister Horne writes about similar stories of desperation. After defending a hill for two days and “soaked in the icy mud under a terrible bombardment,” a French Captain wrote this to his mother: “I arrived there with 175 men, I returned with 34, several half-mad… [and] not replying anymore when I spoke to them.”
The Sacred Way
The resupply road to Verdun was nearly as bad as the battle. With Petain constantly rotating fresh troops into the meat grinder, the men could hear the guns as far as 100 miles away as they marched closer to the front along “the sacred way” – a “narrow artery” that sustained the very life blood of the French army. As fresh troops marched closer to Verdun, they noticed that all animals and vegetation had long died off. Then the air turned gloomy, the smell turned putrid, and the distant fires burned like funeral pyres upon the horizon. As they marched towards soot, ash, and death, one French officer wrote that Verdun appeared like “a strip of murdered nature.”
The final ten hour march to Verdun was always done at night to avoid the eyes of German planes and reconnaissance units. Plodding through the mud of shallow trenches “little deeper than a roadside ditch,” shells began to fall around them. As men around them exploded into fragments, the soldiers marched on, “trampling over the howling wounded that lay underfoot.” Some men, Alister Horne writes, fell into water-filled craters, sinking into the mud until they drowned. “If a comrade paused to lend a hand," he wrote, "it often meant that two would drown instead of one.” And God help them all when the Germans shelled them with gas.
When the accordion column of exhausted men finally completed the death march to Verdun, they arrived at daybreak and saw the dead eyes of broken men going the other way.
The Battle Ends
By the summer, about five months into the ten month battle, the German war machine began to stall as more troops were needed to fight the British to the north and Russians to the east.
Around this time, Field-Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, Chief of the German General Staff, declared that “Verdun has exhausted our forces like an open wound. The enterprise has become hopeless.” Dug in, the Germans continued a strictly defensive posture. And by October, the French had retaken Verdun's two major French forts -- Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux. Finally, on December 18th, the world had had enough and the battle ended.
The French claimed victory. They had held their ground at all cost.
More soldiers were killed at Verdun than America lost during the entire 20th Century. That means in just ten months, the French and Germans suffered more KIAs than the total number of American KIAs in World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam combined.
In the years following the Armistice, Alister Horne describes French veterans who returned to Verdun to commemorate the dead. Besides remembering the “glory and superhuman heroism, they remembered the horrors of the ceaseless shelling, the wounded men agonizing untended, the hideous mutilations, the runners not returning, the reliefs and ration parties not arriving, the thirst, the hunger, the stench, the misery, the fear; above all, always the shells.”
Why did I spend my entire Veteran’s Day writing about this horrific battle? First, because I’m astonished by the human resilience to carry on despite every reason to give up. Second, I'm inspired by the fellowship of soldiers under dire conditions. Finally, because reading about the horrors of war reminds me to be grateful in life.
Every time I get up early, or feel sorry for myself, or stress about work and life, I remember that Marine in Korea asking for “tomorrow” and the millions of German and French soldiers shivering in the slime at Verdun. I think of the lasting pain and suffering war causes to those who fight and die, and to the loved ones who lose them.
There’s a great quote I heard a while back and can’t recall who said it. “Most Americans spend their entire life trying to win the lottery without realizing they already have.”
Ignore the news. We live in a golden age, and history reminds us of that. If you don’t believe me, just ask the dead.