Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Verdun: Total Battle in Total War

"The battle of Verdun is the battle of France."

It's a place of the identity of France, of France-ness, I would say. There was no battle before, and no battle after, which was so important in the French memory. So, you can't understand France without understanding Verdun.

The French troops were unprepared in Verdun. It sounds incredible, but that is the case. Why? Because the French High Command didn't expect any attack on this particular sector of the front. So the German attack was a complete surprise for French troops, and especially for the French High Command.

German troops had the advantage of surprise.

The Verdun Battlefield – 1916

Second, is the huge advantage in artillery that German troops had at the turning point of the war, especially in heavy guns. And the French Army couldn't match the German artillery.

I think the soldiers on the battlefield of Verdun – French soldiers or German soldiers the same – felt completely lost, completely abandoned. And we have to understand why. You have no ordinary trenches in Verdun. There are no trenches anymore because of the heavy bombardments. You have only pieces of trenches, and soldiers are alone or in small groups everywhere with no officers, no tactical links. So they feel completely abandoned on the battlefield. For example, there are no stretcher-bearers. No food. No letters. Nothing at all. So that is a very specific sort of battle.

I think that in the total war, the battle of Verdun was a total battle.

Published in France While the Battle Was Ongoing

I think that French soldiers were perfectly aware of the meaning of the battle. In their eyes, the battle was a defense of their women, their wives, the children, the French religion, the French soil. It looks very strange to us now, but for the French soldiers of 1916, it was very clear to them. The battle had real meaning.

Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau, University of Picardie, Interview


  1. I've been researching American ambulance volunteers who supported the French at Verdun -- amazing journals, letters, and photographs -- and to a man, the Americans feel immense admiration and sadness for what the poilu attempted and endured.

  2. All accounts of Verdun say it was THE battle. German strategy of bleeding the French army there coupled with the fact that a German victory there would cost France the war. Verdun placed enormous burden on the French army and affected overall Allied strategy. As originally conceived the Somme was to be a joint British French offensive. The losses suffered at Verdun compelled the British to stretch their line to free French troops for the battle. In the end six French divisions made the attack. The fighting on the Somme compelled the Germans to shift units north to oppose the British. Many of these divisions had been at Verdun. The attrition battle ultimately worked against the Germans; but Verdun coupled with failed offensive in 1917 could be said to have laid the ground work for the mutiny that followed the Neville Offensive.

  3. One of the best novels on Verdun is Jules Romains' "Verdun". I strongly recommend it.

  4. Ms Audoin-Rouzeau's early remark that "the French High Command didn't expect any attack on this particular sector" begs the enormous question - 'Why not?'. The answer, from popular literature on the battle, seems to be that (a) the Germans had made sure they 'owned' the air space above Verdun, so keeping the more obvious signs of impending assault from French eyes; and (b) CQG - specifically Joffre - wanted to carry on the fight on other fronts and so ignored as inconvenient all evidence pointing to an assault on the Verdun sector. So says conventional history: it would make for an interesting essay (perhaps by Ms A-R?) for this tug of war between preconception and evidence to be examined in greater - perhaps revisionist - depth.

  5. The town issued their medal for the forces that fought and defended Verdun. It simply states "ON NE PASSE PAS" (They Shall not Pass). In 1955 I visited the Douaumont Ossuary, at the age of 3 1/2 it was my first view of the cost of war.