The Battle of Verdun During World War I

The Battle of Verdun During World War I

Larry Holzwarth - November 26, 2019

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
The destruction in and around Verdun sur Meuse was endured for a year, with little gained by either army. Wikimedia

19. Nothing was gained by either side in the nearly year-long battle

The Battle of Verdun raged for 303 days, and ended with the two sides where they had been when it started. Neither side gained any territorial advantage. The French had defended the historically important position, despite having planned to detonate both forts Douaumont and Vaux before the battle began. Both went through the battle with detonation charges installed, but not fully wired, while the battle raged around and within them. The Germans had intended to cripple the French Army through attrition, instead, they suffered nearly as many casualties within their own army, and it was a blow to German morale.

The battle had been one of the first in history to rely on the support of fighter aircraft, and Petain had early on in the fighting demanded air support. When the battle began German aircraft dominated the skies over the battlefield, but the French overcame them by having their flyers operate in squadrons, known as Escadrilles, and forever changed air war tactics. The Germans were forced to operate in squadrons as well. Both sides developed improved anti-aircraft fire and tactics over the course of the battle, and both sides’ pilots developed the techniques of shooting down their opponent’s observation balloons.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
The bleak landscape surrounding Verdun evidenced the scope of the bombardments from both sides. Bundesarchiv

20. The destruction at Verdun was nearly total

During the period between late February and late December, 1916, the German and French armies facing each other at Verdun fired approximately 10,000,000 shells at each other from their mortars and guns. The total weight of the artillery battle alone was over 1.3 million tons. In the relatively small area of the RFV, where the fighting had occurred, desolation followed the battle. The artillery barrage over ten months literally changed the lay of the land. Where forested areas had stood before the battle, there was treeless expanse. The grassy hills which stood on both banks of the Meuse, and in which the French artillery had been entrenched, were devoid of vegetation.

It should be no surprise that of the combined casualties of over 800,000 (to use an average of several estimates) more than 70% were the result of the artillery bombardments. That total does not include the number of men who were victims of shell shock, many of whom never recovered their mental health following the war. A French officer who arrived with 175 men in his unit reported 34 survivors following an artillery barrage, “several half mad”. Hills which had been gently sloped and rounded at the top were altered to resemble barren volcanoes.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
Volunteers of the American Squadron in the spring of 1916. Wikimedia

21. The French assigned an American volunteer air squadron to serve at Verdun

The unit which changed its name in December, 1916, to Lafayette Escadrille served in the French Aviation Command during the battle of Verdun. During the period of the battle, it was known as the Escadrille Americaine, or American Squadron. It flew in French airplanes, and it was commanded by a French officer. Its members were American volunteers and former members of the French Foreign Legion. Its existence caused an official diplomatic protest by the Germans to Washington, since the United States was officially neutral, hence the change of name following the battle of Verdun.

The squadron had its first casualty of the war over Verdun, when American pilot Victor Chapman, flying a Nieuport, was shot down and killed near Douaumont. He was not the last. The American Squadron was part of the French aviation command and remained under French control until it was disbanded in early 1918 and its pilots absorbed into the American Expeditionary Force, which developed its own air wing of observation and fighter planes, again using French airplanes. The American Squadron served at Verdun from the spring of 1916 until September, being involved with most of the heaviest fighting, before the French assigned it to another section of the front.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
Artillery barrages, including gas barrages, continued after the Battle of Verdun ended in December. Bundesarchiv

22. The Battle of Verdun ended, but the shelling around Verdun went on

Beginning in early 1917 the German batteries which remained in the area, in the positions they had occupied a year earlier, shelled the French positions, and the French responded in kind. The Germans maintained nearly four hundred batteries, and the bombardments were once again supported with observation aircraft, both airplanes and balloons. Aerial bombing expanded over the lines of both sides, adding to the joys of life in the trenches. In the summer of 1917, the Germans added mustard gas shells to their arsenal. Mustard gas is heavier than air, poisoned the soil when it settled into the ground as a liquid, and remained active for weeks.

Mustard gas was not usually lethal, unless the victim was exposed to a large dose, and it caused both internal bleeding and external through lesions and blisters. It also caused blindness and painfully dry eyes. Those exposed to fatal levels of the gas, or its oils in the ground, often took several agonizing weeks to die, and there was little the medical professionals of the day could do to help them. Allied forces began using mustard gas in autumn 1917, and for the rest of the war the Allies launched more gas attacks than the Germans, aided by the prevailing winds of western Europe, which typically blow from west to east.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
The remains of Fort Douaumont and the shell-scarred area around it in December, 1916. Wikimedia

23. Over 100,000 men were listed as missing from both sides

During the period of fighting known as the Battle of Verdun (February – December 1916) more than 100,000 men were officially listed as missing in action. Nearly all of them were actually killed in the fighting and their bodies were never found. The artillery bombardments were so devastating that as it reshaped the soil it buried the dead and the living wounded, collapsed the walls of trenches, and the roofs of buildings. Other times it disinterred the bodies which had been hastily buried, or had been swept under the soil during preceding bombardments. In 1932 an ossuary containing the skeletal remains of at least 130,000 unknown dead from either side was dedicated.

The battle area continued to deliver up skeletal remains of the soldiers who died in the battle for decades following the end of the First World War. One of the unknown victims of the battle was chosen for interment in 1920 in France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris. Bones continued to be found during excavations for various reasons into the 21st century, and when found, they were typically placed in the ossuary, which was erected at Douaumont, near a cemetery where many of the dead were buried in the aftermath of the battle.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
Another image of the destruction surrounding Verdun in 1916. Wikimedia

24. The French reforested some of the battlefield after the war

During the 1930s, as France recovered from what was then known as the Great War, parts of the battlefield were reforested, an effort which revealed many of the bodies which were either buried at Douaumont, or the bones discovered placed in the ossuary. Several small villages which were completely obliterated during the fighting were never rebuilt. The efforts at reforesting portions of the battlefield were largely successful in some areas, but the majority of the area remains as it did when the battle ended, though overgrown with vegetation. The existence of massive shell holes can still be seen, covered with green.

It is estimated that the battlefield still contains the remains of approximately 100,000 of the men who died during the battle. Total casualties during the fighting are still contested by historians, due to the manner casualty lists were prepared by the military commands of both armies. German lists did not include what was considered by the reporting officer to be lightly wounded, since such categorization was not defined in field manuals, and other lists specifically excluded those considered to have been slightly wounded.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
French survivors of the battle fought alongside Americans in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive later in the war. Wikimedia

25. Like all of World War I, Verdun was a special kind of horror

The battlefields of World War I were in many ways foreseen during the siege of Petersburg and Richmond in the American Civil War; two entrenched armies possessing firepower so devastating that assaulting the other was foolhardy. During the First World War, the rain of death from the sky was constant, either from artillery shells of up to then unheard-of size, bullets and bombs from aircraft, poison gas wafting on the wind, and many others. Disease was common, as were accidents as the industrial age went to war. Men lived, literally, in the ground, which was often cold, wet, mud.

During the height of the fighting at Verdun, in the spring of 1916, when German attacks were still pressing forward a French Lieutenant confided his thoughts to his diary. Alfred Joubaire wrote in his diary on May 23, 1916, “Yes, humanity has gone mad. We must be mad to do what we are doing. What massacres! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to express my feelings. Hell cannot be so terrible. Mankind has gone mad!” It was his last entry. The 21-year-old French lieutenant was killed during German shelling, one more victim of the Battle of Verdun.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Paths of Glory: The French Army 1914 – 1918”. Anthony Clayton. 2003

“General Headquarters, 1914-1916 and its critical decisions”. Erich von Falkenhayn. 1919

“What Was the Battle of Verdun”. Alan Wakefield, Imperial War Museum. February 6, 2018. Online

“The Battle of Verdun”. Raoul Blanchard, The Atlantic. June, 1917. Online

“A Brief Look at the Battle of Verdun”. Memorial de Verdun, Champ de Bataille. Online

“The Battle of Verdun, 1916”. Michael Duffy, A Multimedia History of World War One. August 22, 2009

“France commemorates centenary of WW1 Battle of Verdun”. BBC News. February 21, 2016. Online

“The Price of Glory: Verdun, 1916”. Alistair Horne. 1962

“The Myth of the Great War”. John Mosier. 2001

“Battle of Verdun”. Article, Henri Bidou, Encyclopedia Britannica. Online

“Removal of WWI Battle of Verdun from French curriculum sparks outcry”. David Cazan, The Telegraph. March 24, 2019. Online

“Verdun: Hell and Patriotism” The Irish Times. May 18, 2016. Online

“Battle of Verdun Passes Hundred-Day Mark”. Henry Wood, United Press International (UPI). May 31, 1916. Online

“A Tour of the Eerie Villages France Never Rebuilt After WWI”. Mark Byrnes, Bloomberg. March 21, 2014. Online

“French Victory at Verdun”. Henry Wood, UPI. December 18, 1916. Online

“The Battle of Verdun”. Alan Axelrod. 2016