History's Most Savage Siege - 10 Facts About the Battle of Verdun You May Not Have Known
History’s Most Savage Siege – 10 Facts About the Battle of Verdun You May Not Have Known

History’s Most Savage Siege – 10 Facts About the Battle of Verdun You May Not Have Known

Stephanie Schoppert - June 24, 2016

4. It included some of World War I’s most devastating uses of artillery.

History’s Most Savage Siege – 10 Facts About the Battle of Verdun You May Not Have Known


Approximately seventy percent of the 800,000 casualties at Verdun were caused by artillery. During their opening bombardment, the Germans launched two million shells. Compared to other engagements at that time, this became the largest and longest artillery bombardment yet seen.In fact, at the time of war, the two sides eventually fired between 40 and 60 million shells. Rumbles from the barrages were heard as far as 100 miles away, and soldiers described certain hills as being so heavily bombed that they gushed fire like volcanoes. Men were nearly disintegrated by the showers of artillery and thousands of bodies were unrecognizable. Those lucky enough to survive were often left with severe shell shock. “You eat beside the dead”, two French soldiers wrote, “you drink beside the dead, you relieve yourself beside the dead, and you sleep beside the dead.”

Many of those dead remain in Verdun today. A large stretch around the fortified city remains closed to the public today because of the amount of damage done to the environment by the shelling. While there were efforts to clean up the shells, shrapnel, unexploded bombs and bodies after the war the job was insurmountable. Even as far into the 1970s, there were continued efforts to clear the shrapnel and there were dumping grounds for farmers to put shells they found on their land. But in 2012, studies done in the area still found alarming levels of arsenic in the ground and the war, causing them to close off the area.

New cleanup efforts continue but still today farmers will come upon shells with their tractors. Some have barely escaped with their lives as the shells cause explosions which destroy their tractors as they ride them. Each year 900 pounds of shells are discovered by farmers and current cleanup crews estimate that at the current rate of cleanup, the job will take hundreds of years.

3. The French air force included a squadron of American pilots.

History’s Most Savage Siege – 10 Facts About the Battle of Verdun You May Not Have Known

The German Luftstreitkräfte dominated the skies during the early stages of the battle, but the tables later turned after the French assembled a force of more than 30 squadrons (escadrilles). One of the most famous of these was the Lafayette Squadron, mainly composed of American volunteers led by a French commander. At the time of the start of the Battle of Verdun the United States had not entered the war, but that did not stop many American pilots from volunteering to fight for the French.

Initially the French were skeptical about allowing American volunteers into their aerial force, but they did on a case by case basis. Eventually the skill of the American pilots and the desperate need for fliers won the French over and more pilots were allowed to join. Dr. Edmund L. Gros convinced the French that they would benefit from an entire American volunteer unit flying for France. The hope was that the unit would get public acclaim back home and convince the U.S. to abandon it’s neutrality.

First named N-124, and then Escadrille Americain, it was eventually changed to Lafayette Squadron in December of 1916. The unit was established on April 1st, 1916 and it initially included 38 Americans and 5 French from the French Foreign Legion. The squadron became famous for its Indian emblems on the fighters, dozens of victories, and Whiskey and Soda – two lion cubs that served as mascots. Lafayette pilots garnered over three dozen victories, many of which came after they were assigned to the Battle of Verdun in May of 1916. The unit was disbanded on February 8th, 1918.

2. The Battle of the Somme helped turn the tables at Verdun.

History’s Most Savage Siege – 10 Facts About the Battle of Verdun You May Not Have Known

On July 1, 1916, about four months after the battle of Verdun started, the French forces at Verdun were on the verge of falling. French General Joseph Joffre pleaded to the Allies saying that his army would soon “cease to exist.” Desperate to help the French and turn the tide of the war, the Allied forces decided to do whatever it took to relieve the pressure on Verdun. So the Allies launched a dangerous attack at the Somme River. Together with the Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front by Russia, the Allies hoped that the Germans would be forced to redirect troops at Verdun in order to defend the Somme River. The plan worked somewhat and the German generals did redirect divisions and heavy artillery to the Somme Riverfront. But sustained German attacks continued at Verdun.

The plans for the Battle of the Somme had been planned long before the Battle of Verdun but the French forces were supposed to take the initiative at the Battle with the British only acting as a supporting force. However, with the Battle of Verdun underway when the Battle of the Somme was supposed to take place, the French could no longer supply enough forces. The British, knowing that the French at Verdun needed help, decided to increase the size of their forces and make the attack on the Somme River anyway.

The Battle of the Somme ended up being one that was as devastating as the Battle of Verdun. The first day of the battle was the worse in British history with more than 57,000 casualties. The battle ended on November 18th due to poor weather, despite British advances. The Battle of the Somme exceeded the Battle of Verdun number of causalities, with more than 1 million between the Allied and German forces. However, the battle may have been successful because that same month the Germans did pull their forces from Verdun and allowed the French to recapture all of the forts at Verdun by December.

1. The battle ultimately destroyed nine French towns.

History’s Most Savage Siege – 10 Facts About the Battle of Verdun You May Not Have Known

The long and constant bombardment around the city of Verdun left in complete shambles the nearby towns of Beaumont, Bezonvaux, Cumières, Douaumont, Fleury, Haumont, Louvemont, Ornes, and Vaux. The amount of bodies and live shells in the ground also ensured that these villages were never rebuilt. They still appear on French maps and are even administered by volunteer mayors. Those wishing to be mayor must submit in writing their interest and why they wish to be the mayor. Some of the mayors continue on for generations in the same family. Besides a few pillars, all that remains today are just signs that show where main roads and buildings were once located.

Some people have moved back to the outskirts of the towns and areas where construction is still allowed. But most of the locations of the old towns are filled with memorials and carefully constructed paths that allow visitors to walk just outside the red zone in order to remember the towns that once were and the lives that were lost during the devastating Battle of Verdun. One substantial memorial exists at Douaumont and is called the Douaumont Ossuary.

Inside the Douaumont Ossary rests the bones of more than 130,000 French and German soldiers whose bodies were unable to be identified after the war. Plaques line the walls inside and tell the names of those lost at Verdun both during World War I and previous battles at the location. In front of the massive building is a cemetery where more than 16,000 crosses mark the graves of those who were able to be identified.