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The legend of Verdun

In 1916, in one of history’s longest and deadliest battles, 300,000 French and German troops died for a few acres of France. The ghosts still linger.

1914-15

Understandably, the 2014 centennial memorials to the loss and sacrifice of the First World War dwelled in this country on Britain’s contribution. France’s role was often obscured; but, in fact, the French bore the brunt of the German onslaught for virtually the whole of the first two years. In the “Battle of the Frontiers”, the initial, ill-conceived and overzealous offensive by France in the summer months of 1914, its army lost 400,000 men (more than the total number of British killed in the whole of the Second World War) and a further 600,000 were wounded, went missing or became prisoners of war.

The next year, 1915, extended the fruitless and bloody offensives against a German line well entrenched and backed heavily with machine-guns and superior artillery. The line stretched in a continuous belt from the Channel to the Swiss frontier, occupying a large area of industrial northern France, and reaching to less than 100 miles from Paris. This was intolerable for the French, and, supported by the rapidly expanding British Expeditionary Force, their troops hurled themselves repeatedly against unbreakable German positions. French generals called it grignotage, or “gnawing away”, though British critics likened it to “chewing at a steel door with false teeth”. Casualties soared: in one battle, Loos, the British lost 50,380 men to the Germans’ 20,000. By Christmas 1915 the French army had lost 50 per cent of its regular officers.

1916

This was to be a bloodier year still, the most costly one of the whole war – for both sides. It was the year of the Somme, and of Verdun. Between the Battle of the Marne in 1914 and General Erich Ludendorff’s last-gasp offensive in 1918, the Germans attacked only once to break the murderous stalemate called the Western Front: at Verdun on 21 February 1916. Sometimes likened to Stalingrad in 1942, Verdun usually doesn’t appear on British and US screens, because it was almost exclusively a “French v Germans” affair. And yet, perhaps above all the other First World War battlegrounds, the ghosts here refuse to die. They have been preserved largely by the character of the battle, which retains an evil reputation as the longest in any war, and the most intense in its horrors.

Another factor peculiar to Verdun is that, whereas the fighting on the Somme, and elsewhere on the Western Front, took place in ephemeral trenches all but effaced by the passage of time, here it swirled around a ring of 19 huge forts, 14 of them reinforced with concrete. They gave the city its reputation at the time as the world’s most powerful fortress. Two of these bases were Forts Vaux and Douaumont, the latter reputed to be the strongest in the world.

Verdun’s sinister fame as the most atrocious battle in history also derives from the sheer concentration of the battlefield: over a period of ten months from February to December 1916, an area smaller than Manhattan was subjected without let-up to the most intensive artillery bombardment ever experienced. Most of the men who died there did so without ever seeing the enemy.

The German commander-in-chief, General Erich von Falkenhayn, devised a bizarre strategy for his men’s assault in February 1916; it was not to break through, nor even to capture a key city, but to lure the French army into a trap where it would be “bled white” by superior German firepower. The trap was the defence of a bastion that, for strategic, historic (and moral) reasons, the Grand Quartier Général – France’s wartime headquarters – could not afford to give up. The city of Verdun lay only 150 miles along the direct route from Paris, in a temptingly exposed salient on the Western Front.

The very choice of words by General Falkenhayn, “bleed the French army white”, suggested the image by which this battle would for ever be associated. However, Verdun “bled” the attacking Germans in almost equal measure. Yet, well beyond the war of 1914-18, Verdun would stand out in French memory as the amulet signifying supreme courage, and supreme sacrifice.

Taking the French by surprise, the 5th Army, under the command of the German crown prince, Wilhelm, opened its offensive on 21 February 1916 with three elite corps and 1,200 heavy guns, all concentrated on a front just eight miles long. The German assault infantry were used as bait in the trap to draw the French forces into the grinding machine.

Before they could reach the main line of Verdun’s forts, they had to capture the Bois des Caures, and on the first day much of the firepower from the unprecedented concentration of artillery was directed against this one, small wood. It was held by two battalions of French chasseurs, just 1,200-strong. They were commanded by Colonel Émile Driant, a former deputy for Nancy and writer who had tried in vain to warn Marshal Joseph Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, about the threat of an attack. Against impossible odds, Driant held the Bois des Caures for two days until most of his men were dead. Killed at the end of its defence, Driant became a hero to the French. Today, tucked away in the solitude of a clearing in the woods, the concrete bunker that served as his command post still stands, displaying scars from the crown prince’s heavy guns.

Just behind the Bois des Caures lay Beaumont, one of the nine villages in Meuse completely destroyed during the Battle of Verdun. Today, in springtime, you can still catch occasional glimpses of apple and lilac blossom amid the rampant undergrowth: the only traces of the orchards of this small agricultural community that somehow survived the 1916 bombardment. Like most of the other villages, there remains only a signpost to recall Beaumont’s existence.

***

By 24 February, the fourth day of the battle, the attacking German infantry had reached the approaches to Fort Douaumont. A quarter of a mile across, the fort’s eight-foot-thick concrete carapace could resist even the Germans’ 420mm “Big Bertha” howitzer, the heaviest artillery in the army of any combatant. Douaumont mounted a 155mm gun and twin 75s in retractable steel turrets, as well as numerous smaller guns and machine-guns; in its vaults, it could house a whole battalion of infantry. But unknown to the Germans and the French local commander alike, Douaumont, the world’s most impregnable fort, was, by a series of almost incredible errors in February 1916, virtually undefended.

On 25 February the fort was captured, without a single death, by a handful of Prussian infantrymen led by Eugen Radtke, a 24-year-old lieutenant. Wandering down an unprotected tunnel, Radtke penetrated to the centre of the edifice, capturing an ancient guardian and his skeleton crew. It was one of the most remarkable feats in the whole war. (After many abortive attempts, Douaumont was recaptured in October; its recovery is estimated to have cost the French as many as 100,000 men.)

On the day Douaumont fell, General Philippe Pétain was appointed to take over the threatened Verdun sector, even though he was stricken with pneumonia. He was regarded as an officer who would not waste the lives of his men in vain offensives, unlike most French leaders at that time; yet even he could not resist the strategy that called for unit after unit to be poured into Verdun. In his memoirs, he records the anguish with which he watched from the balcony of the town hall as three-quarters of the French army marched past up the road from Bar-le-Duc – the future “Voie Sacrée” – towards the terrible attrition of Verdun.

Each kilometre of the Voie Sacrée is now marked by a cairn surmounted with the helmet of a poilu, an infantryman.

With Pétain’s arrival, French resistance stiffened and the German attack got bogged down. But still, battalion after battalion had to be thrown into the defence of Verdun. Pétain’s own regiment, the 33rd, was decimated. Among the casualties was a gangly young captain, Charles de Gaulle, wounded, gassed and taken prisoner near Douaumont. De Gaulle was then a fervent admirer of Pétain’s economy with lives. A generation later in the Second World War, as leader of the Free French and of Nazi-occupied Vichy France respectively, they became bitterest enemies.

In March the French began to hit back at the attacking Germans with flanking fire from long-range artillery on the west side of the River Meuse. As in so many battles where the original impetus is lost, the attacking commander now ordered an extension of the front. For the next three months, the fighting swayed back and forth across a small ridge already ominously known as Le Mort-Homme. The aim of “bleeding France white” seemed to become obscured as German losses spiralled, too. It was as if the battle, removed from human control, had assumed a murderous authority all of its own.

All through April and May the killing continued, the French sticking with desperate determination to the toeholds protecting
Verdun. By the end of March, little over a month into the battle, the French had suffered 89,000 casualties; but the Germans, too, had lost 81,607 men. By 1 June the casualty figures had risen to 133,000 and 120,000, respectively. So much for Falkenhayn’s doctrine of bleeding France white. Now, with the honour of das Vaterland so deeply challenged, his strategy shifted to one of capturing Verdun regardless of cost.

At the beginning of June he launched a final, all-out attack on Verdun, the immediate objective being Fort Vaux. The smallest of the forts, Vaux had lost its water supply and had all its guns knocked out by the 420mm “Big Berthas” long before the assault began. But, for seven days, its garrison of 600 men under Major Sylvain Raynal held out in its underground corridors, under attack from gas and flame-throwers, and contributing one of the most heroic episodes of the battle, until thirst forced them to surrender.

On 1 July, in what became known as “the Black Day of the British army”, nearly 20,000 men lost their lives on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a gallant but disastrously conceived offensive to take pressure off Britain’s allies at Verdun. Yet still Prince Wilhelm’s troops battered on. Their last attack, on 12 July, finally narrowed down to about 30 men atop Fort Souville, the last fortification before Verdun, and well within sight of the twin towers of the city’s cathedral. Then, at last, the Germans abandoned their costly offensive.

Verdun was saved; it was the turn of the French to go over to the attack. On 24 October, Fort Douaumont was recaptured. It is estimated that its recovery cost more than 100,000 French lives. By 19 December the Battle of Verdun was over. It had achieved nothing: a few ruined acres of France, with 800,000 casualties across the two sides, over ten months. The longest, and possibly the deadliest, battle in history, it could be judged the unnecessary battle in an unnecessary war.

Yet over the interwar years it justly came to be seen as France’s “finest hour”. Under Pétain’s noria system of rapid relief, three-quarters of the 1914-18 French army passed though l’enfer de Verdun, witnessing its carnage. Veterans’ associations kept alive its memories. But at the same time, because of the losses suffered in the battle, its symbolism also came to play a baneful role in the defeatism that brought France low in 1940. Forts Vaux and Douaumont had displayed remarkable success in standing up to bombardment by the heaviest Krupp guns. This suggested to André Maginot, the old soldier with a limp from a wound in the leg at Verdun who served three times as minister of war between 1922 and 1932, that the only way France could survive another war would be to surround herself with a chain of such forts. Yet the “Maginot Line” coupled a defensive strategy with defeatism – as represented by the octogenarian hero of the battle, Marshal Pétain. As one young officer, Second Lieutenant Raymond Jubert, wrote shortly before he was killed at Verdun:

They will not be able to make us do it again another day; that would be to misconstrue the price of our effort. They will have to resort to those who have not lived out these days . . .

***

What were the lessons of Verdun, if any? In 1940, Hitler’s smart new generals, such as Heinz Guderian, tackled the problem of static warfare with a blitzkrieg technique of fast-moving armoured attack. They went round the side, and back, of Maginot’s costly fortresses, making them capitulate without firing a shot. Verdun fell in a matter of hours, France after a six-week campaign. But Hitler missed the main point, militarily: never make a fetish of any fortress, any stronghold, so that you become committed to hold it however unacceptable the costs.

The capture of Verdun in 1916 would have been unlikely to have caused France to lose the war. Yet in the Second World War, Hitler’s orders to his generals not to surrender an inch of ground, led to repeated disasters – beginning with the sacrifice of Friedrich Paulus’s entire 6th Army at Stalingrad, which eventually brought about the destruction of the Third Reich.

And yet, in the heart of the French army, the myths and the slogans of Verdun, chimeric as they were, persisted well into the 1950s. Brave young paras died at Dien Bien Phu in the First Indochina War with Verdun on their lips.

 

Verdun today

On the handful of hills bordering the city on the sleepy Meuse, just 150 miles from Paris, the big guns on either side exacted hundreds of thousands of French and German casualties over the ten-month duration, so torturing the soil that after the war whole sections of the land defied all attempts to return them to cultivation.

Today Forts Vaux and Douaumont, scenes of some of the bloodiest fighting of the battle, are kept open to the public. Battered and crumbling, they stand like Shelley’s Ozymandias: monuments to the folly, pride and heroism that epitomised what we still call the Great War. Each year, visitors in their thousands still troop through their rugged casemates. One French writer, Jean Dutourd, taken to Verdun as a boy, claimed:

No historical remains I have seen since, however impressive, not even the Coliseum or the Temples of Paestum, moved me so profoundly as the forts of Vaux and Douaumont.

Nearby stands the spooky ossuary housing, heaped in vaults visible to the casual eye, 100,000 unidentified victims of the battle.

In the half-dozen or more times that I’ve been to Verdun since writing The Price of Glory, the grim majesty of the place – and its sadness – have never failed to haunt me. The ghosts refuse to be exorcised. On many trips there I noted that no birds sang, as did others who were with me. Two things repeatedly brought a lump to my throat. One, on the wall of Fort Vaux, is a small ceramic plaque, placed there by an unknown mother: “À mon fils; depuis que tes yeux sont fermés, les miens n’ont cessé de pleurer” (“To my son; your eyes closed, and since then mine have not stopped shedding tears”). At some point, it was destroyed by some heartless vandal. The second is a German military cemetery. In it stand a number of stones bearing not the usual Teutonic cross, but a Star of David: memorials to Jewish soldiers loyal to the kaiser who died for Germany at Verdun. It appals the mind to reflect on the probable fate of the kith and kin of these valiant patriots less than a generation later.

On 22 September 1984 the then German chancellor, Helmut Kohl (whose father fought near Verdun in the First World War), and President François Mitterrand of France (who was taken prisoner by the Germans near Verdun in 1940) stood at Douaumont, holding hands for several minutes in the driving rain. The huge stature of Kohl next to the slender, nimble figure of Mitterrand seemed like a tableau out of Franco-German history; the gesture of reconciliation was a memorable one between two foes who had torn Europe apart three times in a century.

Since then, the killing fields of Verdun have become a healing place for Europe’s self-inflicted wounds of the past. To symbolise this, the small memorial chapel formerly known as Saint-Nicolas de Fleury, erected on
the fragments of the old church in one of the battlefield’s lost villages, has been renamed “Notre-Dame de l’Europe”. Even the song
of birds can be heard once more.

Alistair Horne’s “The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916” was first published in 1962. The following year, it was awarded the Hawthornden Prize – the first time that a work of non-fiction had been selected for it. The book remains in print, published in paperback by Penguin

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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