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

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Importance of Verdun

Today is the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Battle of Verdun. Using my editor's utilities, I can see that to-date, after 1,027 postings on Roads to the Great War, this will be our 84th entry to touch on Verdun. I've been somewhat at loose ends trying to come of with something new and fresh on the battle of 1916.   But I've recently come to the realization that Verdun is the most important battlefield of the Great War, not because – at least, not solely because – of the 1916 fighting there. And Verdun was not only an important factor in every year of the war, it was a strong influence on the pre-1914 planning for war and, after 1918, a strong factor in the planning for the next war. I was a long time coming to this realization because I have longed believed that it is quite evident that 1914's Battle of the Marne is the most important single battle of the war, since it precluded a quick victory by either side, and condemned the participants to a long, grinding affair.  However, I now realize Verdun, including the city, the fortified zone, and its immediate flanks shaped the conduct of the fighting throughout the war, and the way the war is remembered today.

Consider This List:

The Schlieffen Plan, on close examination, used highly fortified Verdun as the dividing point for the holding armies of Germany, south of the city, and the swinging pendulum through France, to the north and west. Verdun was to be outflanked and eliminated as a threat to the German rear.

1905 Schlieffen Plan – Verdun (Circled) Was Always Central

A.  The failure of the Crown Prince's 5th Army to take Verdun in the opening of the the decisive battle and then advance in support of the armies to the west gave General Joffre opportunity to withdraw in good order and time to prepare a counterstrike.
B.   The resulting Battle of the Marne was won by France between Paris and a Verdun that was still held by the French Army.
C.  The French failure to protect the eastern flank of Verdun (later known as the St. Mihiel Salient), however, would leave the city under constant threat for much of the remaining war.

Overlooked in many histories is the intense and manpower draining fighting on the flanks of Verdun throughout 1915 in the Argonne Forest, Woëvre Plain, and Meuse Heights.

France's most memorable battle of the war, fighting off the German assault at Verdun, consumed almost the entire year.

Fort Douaumont in Early 1916.  Over 120,000 Shells Subsequently Hit the Fort

A.  After the exhaustion of the 1916 battle, during which two-thirds of France's divisions served at Verdun, the French Army experienced mutinies, following the failure of  their spring offensive.
B.  The man called back to re-establish order in the Army was the hero of Verdun, Philippe Pétain.
C.  Despite the mutinies, the French Army's principal offensive operations of 1917 were waged to regain territory lost in 1916 around Verdun.

The main American battlefields of the war were around Verdun in the final two months of the war. When they were fought, the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Offensives were the two largest battles the U.S. had ever fought and contributed greatly to the German request for an Armistice. General Pershing understood that the Lorraine sector was the back door to the Rhine river and the heart of Germany.

A.  The "Verdun Experience" was sacralized in France, a combination heroic epic and tragedy to be avoided in the future at all costs.
B.  The Verdun fortresses, the two most important of which were actually captured in 1916, inspired the defensive Maginot Line.
C.  German veterans of Verdun, such as Heinz Guderian, however, would learn a different lesson for the next war.

The Voie Sacrée: Part of Verdun's Mythic Heritage

Looking at the full picture of the Great War, from its run up through the Second World War, it is quite hard to dispute that Verdun was its most important battlefield, and possibly the most significant of the entire 20th century.   


  1. That's a powerful way of rethinking Verdun. Makes it more central to the full history of the Western front.

  2. Succinct and insightful -- great post. I have photos taken by an American ambulance driver (AFS) who supported French troops from June - Dec of 1916. The unfolding of the battle and its affects on all who witnessed it are exceptionally powerful.

  3. I also obtained a small memorial clay vessel made just after the war. It was crafted in the shape of the Voie Sacre monuments (with the poilu helmet atop) and like a piggy bank, has a hole in the bottom so that it could be filled with the sacred soil of Verdun.

  4. It has powerful memories for me after my visit in 1999

  5. I visited Verdun in 1963 on a school trip. Much of the scarring from the fighting around the town was still evident. I'm sorry we did not spend a lot of time here. Our guides and teachers admonished us to remain on the paths at all times and to touch nothing we saw even if it looked harmless!

  6. My fascination with WWI started in high school when I read Alistair Horne's "The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916." I knew then after reading this excellent book that Verdun had to be the most important and impactful battle for both sides of the conflict. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to visit the site in September 1972 when our bus of college students, on its way to Vienna, stopped for only 45 minutes to check out the trenches. To say the least, I was in my element and pledged on that day to return for a more thorough examination of this amazing place.

  7. Moiser's book on the battle makes many of the same points.

  8. It will always be the Ossuary at Verdun for me... I saw it at the age of 4 in the 1950's and it has stayed with me since...