Verdun, France (1916 AD)
The Battle of Verdun was actually a campaign that lasted nearly a year and was one of the bloodiest engagements of World War I. One of the largest offensives launched by the Central Powers on the Western Front, it involved over two million soldiers, cost nearly a million casualties, and resulted in no strategic change of significance in the trench warfare stalemate which had bedeviled both sides since the outset of the war. The successful defense of Verdun, despite the casualties, was attributed to Henri Petain, who later went on to serve as marshal of the French armed forces. The restored fortresses of Verdun, which were all-but flattened by artillery shelling during the battle, are among the most popular World War I military sites anywhere.
The region between Germany, France and the Low Countries has been one of the world’s bloodiest frontiers since earliest times, and as a result has historically been one of the most heavily fortified. The wars became ever more terrible with the advent of gunpowder weapons, which increasingly made fixed fortifications obsolete. This didn’t stop the region’s residents from attempting to build them, and one of the greatest, was the massively fortified French city of Verdun.
By early 1916, World War I had already been raging for well over a year, and the Western Front had settled into a stalemate of trench warfare. All attempts at breaking through by either side had failed, but that didn’t stop the Germans from trying again. This time their target was the city of Verdun. Surrounded by a ring of immense, heavily armed fortresses, this French bastion jutted deep into German territory, and blocked one of the main routes towards Paris.
The campaign began on February 21, 1916, and was one of the largest single military engagements in history. Well over a million soldiers fought on each side of the battle. After some initial German advances, the battle stagnated by March. Their greatest success was the capture of Douamont, one of the largest and strongest of the French defensive positions. Throughout the rest of the year, much of the French efforts, led by Marshal Petain, were spent in trying to retake this key position, which was eventually retaken in October at great cost.
By the time the German campaign was called off, it had lasted ten months, and in the end failed to achieve its objective. The casualties on each side were staggering: an estimated half a million French and four hundred thousands Germans by the time the battle was over, with seven hundred thousand total killed in action. In the end little changed from a strategic standpoint, and Verdun remained a thorn in the side of the Germans for the rest of the war.
The Verdun Fortress can be traced back to the reign of Charlemagne, and perhaps even earlier. It was fought over many times, including during the Napoleanic Wars, Franco-Prussian War and World War I. Virtually the entire site was laid waste during the latter, and most traces of the old citadel on the surface are long gone. However, extensive sections of Verdun’s underground fortifications can still be visited, from trenches to bunkers to a labyrinth of communication tunnels. Also on site is the Doaumont Ossuary, where the unidentified skeletal remains of over 100,000 soldiers are stored.
The Verdun Battlefield spreads out to the northeast of the city of Verdun, approximately 160 miles east of Paris. The primary visitor destinations are the fort (actually known as Fort Douaumont) and the Douamont Ossuary. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.verdun-tourisme.com (official tourism website of the city of Verdun.