- - Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A century ago this week, the Germans in World War I launched one of the most vicious attacks on French forces in a battle that had begun on Feb. 21, 1916, and would last until Dec. 18. Known as Verdun, a heavily fortressed area along the western front in northeastern France, the battle had no strategic significance in the war, only the German belief that the area had psychological importance to the French, who had proudly occupied the area since Roman times. Wearing out the French there, the German military leaders thought, would take them out of the war.

The German offensive during the week of March 20 was significant because it literally collapsed the French 29th Division that had kept the confrontation a stalemate for the first month. Nothing like the Verdun battle — in terms of its length, armaments, loss of life and sheer agony — had ever typified warfare before. In the first eight hours of battle on Day One, for instance, the Germans fired 2 million shells into the area — only 10 kilometers square — that would be ground zero for 300 days. In the first days, they deployed 140,000 troops as well as planes, artillery guns and ammunition trains that were incalculable.

Fortunately, the French recovered after the March 20 debacle, with the remaining nine months a seesaw endeavor eventually abandoned a week before Christmas by the Germans, who realized that Verdun could not be taken.

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But the price for both sides was staggering, with conservative estimates ranging from a loss of life for the French of 360,000, for the Germans, 340,000. One French officer on March 31 detailed what he saw from a protected blockhouse of two knolls known as Pepper and Talou:

“There is no living soul on these hills. Neither the Germans nor the French can retain a foothold on the slopes. The patrols that have tried to search the hills sleep their last sleep there. And what a frightful sleep. Shells bursting near the bodies throw them high in the air. As seen through field glasses, they seem to be perpetually suspended in the air, owing to the indescribable palpitation of the hillside. Now and then limbs which have been torn off leap higher than before. Never was there such a dance of death as this.”

As for the men in the trenches at the bottom of these knolls, the situation was unbearable:

“The men occupying these dugouts appear to be in a perpetual trance, due to the explosion of the never-ending cascade of shells. They are really crazed, and the officers have the greatest difficulty in preventing them from delivering an assault on the German lines on the other side of the hills, which would be bound to fail.”

To be sure, Americans knew about the horrors of Verdun — but in Page Two newspaper stories. The news dominating the American press in 1916 was Mexico, where rebel leader Pancho Villa tried the patience of President Woodrow Wilson. So much so that he sent Gen. John J. Pershing into Mexico with troops to get “Villa dead or alive” for atrocities committed against innocent American citizens. The policy was wholeheartedly endorsed by the public, although its execution was faulty, with Villa never captured and troops remaining for 10 months.

Even when Wilson turned his attention to European matters, he saw not the horrors of trench warfare as illustrated by Verdun but the aggravation that submarine warfare bestowed on the high seas. And in his Fourteen Points speech that would serve as the basis of his war goals, Wilson gave only scant recognition to Verdun’s horror by referring to the need for the reduction of armaments.

Not surprisingly, documents relating to World War I from an American perspective rarely mention Verdun’s shocking stories because our entry didn’t occur until four months after the battle was over. In place of highfalutin speeches, such as Wilson’s commitment “to make the world safe for democracy,” researchers would be better advised to read the comments of a French soldier at Verdun:

“You eat beside the dead, you drink beside the dead, you relieve yourself by the dead, and you sleep beside the dead.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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