The Battle of Verdun

In Ghostwriter, Seth witnesses the Battle of Verdun while he serves as an ambulance driver for the AFS.

Verdun was arguably one of the most horrific battles in human history. It lasted for almost a year, two massive armies fighting over the same small bit of ground, with neither side emerging as decisive victor. Hundreds of thousands of casualties resulted; to this day, no one is sure of how many. Estimates range upwards of nearly a million.

The reason why the casualties were so high is because of the new type of warfare being waged. It wasn't the traditional style of battle, where two armies charge at one another firing their weapons. Some of that did occur, but the majority of the casualties were caused by artillery fire.

The German army's chief of staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, famously stated in his memoirs that his intention was to "bleed France white" by inflicting such enormous casualties that it would destroy the French army and morale. As it happened, the Germans lost nearly as many troops as the French. Some modern historians believe that von Falkenhayn used attrition as an excuse, when his motives were actually refusing to surrender because of the amount of resources already invested in the battle.

I wrote in my post on the Iron Harvest that somewhere around fifty million artillery shells were fired during the course of the battle. Along with conventional explosives, many of these shells carried poison gas. Phosgene and chlorine gas was the ones most frequently used at Verdun; mustard gas came later.

This was trench warfare. The soldiers lived in deep ditches, dug in zig-zag patterns. The conditions were horrifying. The bottom of the trenches rarely dried, so the soldiers fought, ate and slept in mud. Sanitation was primitive at best, with overflowing latrines dug into the sides of the trench itself. The soldiers suffered from dysentery and trenchfoot, and were tormented by vermin: lice, flies and rats that grew to the size of cats.

The dead, for the most part, lay where they fell. One French soldier wrote:

"You eat beside the dead; you drink beside the dead, you relieve yourself beside the dead and you sleep beside the dead."

The medics often couldn't reach the dead because of the constant shelling. A French soldier wrote of their predicament:

"At Verdun the ones who have suffered the most are the wounded and, along with them, the stretcher-bearers who transport them. Some of the bearers carry them from the front lines all the way to our post (1.5 kilometers); other ones take them in order to carry them off to Fleury and, having arrived there, the wounded have almost another 2 kilometers to go by stretcher before they can be transported by car. Imagine such a trip under the shells which hardly ever stop, through a landscape full of shell holes, tree trunks, and wrecked wire, through deep mud and, in certain areas, through clay where the stretcher-bearers sink down all the way to their waists, being forced to call for help to get themselves out of difficulty..."

The French tried to reduce the horrific mental toll the battle took on its soldiers by rotating units away from the front after a certain period of time. The Germans were unable to do that. As a result, some 70% of the French army saw service at Verdun as opposed to 25% of the German army.

The battle permanently altered the landscape and the scars can still be seen today.

An American pilot who flew over the battlefield wrote:

"...Nature had been ruthlessly murdered. Every sign of humanity had been swept away. Roads had vanished, and forests were fire-blackened stumps. Villages were gray smears where stone walls were tumbled together. Only the faintest outlines of the great forts of Douaumont and Vaux could be traced against the churned up background....only broken, half obliterated links of the trenches were visible."

The land which was once lush French farm country was left an alien moonscape of craters. The only trees left standing were shattered and blackened. Nine villages were destroyed during the battle. Six of them were never rebuilt. Today, only signs mark the location where they once stood.

Parts of the battlefield were so contaminated by chemical munitions, unexploded ordinance and human remains that it was designated a "Red Zone." In the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of Austrian pine trees were planted there; they were hardy enough to withstand the acidic soil.

The battlefield is still littered with the remains of the fallen. The Douaumont Ossuary (the building in the background) contains the bones of over 130,000 individuals found over the years, which are laid to rest in the crypts below.

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