Donald Horne, The Great Museum
The small country town of VERDUN lies in a bend of the River Meuse, 68km west of Metz. Of no great interest in itself, what makes it remarkable is its association with the ghastly battle that took place on the bleak uplands to the north between 1916 and 1918.
Long a frontier town, in the aftermath of German victory in the 1870–71 war Verdun and its environs became the most heavily fortified military region in France, the linch-pin of its northeastern defences. For this reason, and in order to break the stalemate of trench warfare, the German General Erich von Falkenhayn chose it as the target for an offensive that, in 1916, was the most devastating ever launched in the annals of war. His intention was "to bleed the French army to death and strike a devastating blow at the morale of the French people". He advanced to within 5km of the town, but never succeeded in taking it. Gradually the French clawed back the lost ground, but final victory came only in the last months of the war in 1918 and then only with the aid of US troops under the command of General Pershing.
Hundreds of thousands of men died in the battle, both French and German, to say nothing of the numbers scarred for life by their experiences. But it was particularly devastating for the French: the battle was fought on their native soil against the enemy who had humiliated them so badly in 1870, and it decimated the country's young male population. Most of the names inscribed on the thousands of sad memorials that stand in every village, hamlet and town of France belong to men who died at Verdun. It was also the battle that made the reputation of Philippe Pétain, the general who organized the defence of Verdun. Without it, it is arguable whether he would have become head of the collaborationist Vichy regime in 1940.
Pages in section ‘Verdun’: The Town, Practicalities, Battlefield, The Maginot Line, Fleury and the Fort de Vaux, Douaumont.
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