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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

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“They are leaving at an alarming rate”: European NHS workers on the winter crisis, austerity, and Brexit’s impact

“It’s a house of cards, and we’re getting closer and closer to the point where it’s all going to collapse.”

This winter, for the first time in five years, Joan Pons Laplana, an NHS project manager and transformation nurse from Norfolk, “went back to working the front line” because his hospital “had no nurses”. As was the case in many other NHS hospitals nationwide, wards were closed, non-urgent appointments and operations cancelled, and their resources focused on A&E.

“We managed to put a plaster to stop the crisis, but now we need to catch up with the patients and operations and everything,” he says. “And that's like a catch-22.” NHS England recommends a working capacity of around 85 per cent in hospitals to absorb the winter’s patients rise, but Pons Laplana’s hospital is “constantly” working at 90 per cent, he says. “It’s a high stress environment, constantly low on resources and doctors. And now we don't have enough staff.” He sighs: “It’s getting more and more difficult to deliver safe care. At the moment, we’re playing Russian roulette.”

Originally from Barcelona, Pons Laplana has lived and worked in the UK for 17 years. He is one of around 62,000 EU citizens who currently work for the National Health Service, according to House of Commons statistics. Amid the winter crisis and severe financial pressure, the NHS’s next big problem is already unfolding: the prospect of Brexit is driving European NHS workers away. Within England’s NHS services, EU nationals make up almost 10 per cent of doctors, more than 7 per cent of nurses and 5 per cent of scientific, therapeutic and technical staff. Almost 10,000 EU workers had already left the NHS when NHS Digital released its 2017 data last autumn.

“If none of the EU citizens were [in my hospital], I can say without any exaggeration: you could absolutely close tomorrow”, Dr Peter Bauer, 47, a consultant anaesthetist in a Brighton hospital who has worked in the NHS since 1999, tells the New Statesman. In his hospital, he says, the proportion of EU staff is “phenomenal”: “Well over 50 per cent of senior staff is European, it’s about three quarters of the people. It would be disaster.” Mary, a 37-year-old British nurse from London, says her clinic, which employs many Europeans, is struggling to find a cover for her colleague on maternity leave: “Recruitment has fallen massively since Brexit.” With the British government still unclear on citizens’ rights, it is unlikely to stop there.

The ability of competent, skilled European staff to move seamlessly to the UK from the continent, thanks to the EU's freedom of movement, has been “a boom for the NHS”, Bauer says. Recruiting elsewhere (something the NHS has already started doing) will bring additional costs, visa requirements and various other complications that freedom of movement was designed to avoid. “You need these people! If you can't recruit Europeans, you then have to go out of the EU, and it's much more costly and difficult. It's a house of cards, and we're getting closer and closer to the point where it's all going to collapse.”

“If EU citizens like myself decide to go, it would take about 4,200 years to close the gap.”
Peter Bauer, consultant anaesthetist, originally from Germany

Recruitment from European countries has fallen rapidly. For instance, the number of incoming EU nurses fell by 92 per cent after the referendum, contributing to a shortfall in those able to fill the 24,000 nurse vacancies in England alone.

“For the first time, we have seen a reduction in the pool of EU citizens working for the NHS, and that is critical”, says Bauer, who teaches at medical school and has observed the “mismatch of numbers” in terms of graduates – especially a lack of British graduates. “If you want to fill the increased demand with British graduates, you would have to hugely enhance the capacity of British universities to train doctors, and then you would have to put them through specialty training, and that would take decades.”  It takes “about fifteen years” to train an anaesthetist like himself. He laughs: “If EU citizens like myself decide to go, it would take about 4,200 years to close the gap!” Mary, the British nurse, agrees: “Come 2020, we're going to be in serious, massive crap.”

Jettie Vije, a Dutch national who works as a GP practice nurse in Norfolk, meets the “occasional old patient” wanting to discuss Brexit: “They say, ‘Isn’t it great that we’re leaving the EU?’” Vije has been in the UK for four years, which is less than the five-year threshold for settled status; so “great” may not be the best word to describe her situation “I try to keep it on the medical side and not to discuss whether leaving the EU is good or not”, she says. “I am here to do my job as a nurse.”

“I try not to discuss whether leaving the EU is good or not. I am here to do my job as a nurse.”
Jettie Vije, GP practice nurse, originally from the Netherlands

Every EU citizen in the UK knows others who have left. “On a daily basis, I can see that people are leaving”, Pons Laplana says. Portuguese workers at his hospital are “leaving at an alarming rate”. An Italian colleague of Bauer’s is applying to a job in France (“He is probably going to be gone very soon” ); another one, a Czech colleague, has gone part-time, working four weeks in Czech Republic and four in the UK. “The direction isn't for people to be drawn into the UK”, Bauer says.

Mary, the nurse from London, works with colleagues from all over Europe, from Spain and Portugal to Romania and Poland. “Just hearing the conversations they have...  They feel they're not welcome here anymore,” she says, citing one who just moved to Ireland. “Despite what we say and how much we appreciate them, it really doesn't matter” she says. “They're nervous, so a lot of them are leaving.”

The ones who stay behind aren't just losing friends and colleagues to a political decision in which they had no say. Like every Briton, they are attached to their life in the UK as they know it, and to one of its greatest pillars: their employer and health care provider, the National Health Service. As the recent winter crisis has made years of under-funding more apparent and more critical, just like Brits, they worry the NHS may not recover.

European workers have been part of the NHS and British life for years – in Bauer’s case, decades – and have witnessed different government policies. When Bauer arrived in the 1990s, Tony Blair had just taken office: “Over the first ten years, you could see how pumping money into the NHS was leading to a huge increase in the capacity”, he says. There were “more beds, more nurses and doctors”, and small things, too – like “more hand washing basins”. “As the coalition government, and then Cameron, took power, you could see how the investment was scaled back”, he adds.

The NHS is already in dire straits due to the financial pressures exacerbated by austerity. Last September, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, estimated in the Guardian that the Health Service needed an emergency investment of £200m to £350m to avoid a winter crisis. It didn’t come – and non-emergency procedures were cancelled across the country in January. That shortfall is only the start however, and by 2020, the NHS will face a £20 billion funding gap. The Conservative manifesto pledge of an extra £8bn is considered by leading health think tanks and experts to be inadequate. Inflation and demand, which Bauer says “keep rising”, are deepening the gap.

“At the moment, we’re playing Russian roulette.”
Joan Pons Laplana, NHS project manager, originally from Spain

“When the demand is a lot higher than the funding, then there is a gap and that gap is getting wider and wider each year. That's what provoked the crisis,” says Pons Laplana, who has seen stress in his wards go “though the roof” with the pressures. “I reckon 50 of the team have been off at some point because of the stress”, says Mary, who had to take two weeks off around Christmas because she works in a department that treats life-threatening conditions and it all became too much. “We are GPs, we are counsellors, we are social workers... We're everything at the moment.” To add to the stress, the lack of funding and the nurses’ pay cap are making situations like Mary’s more precarious: she says she had to remortgage her house to pay for a £10,000 training that may allow her to be promoted. “To be able to make ends meet, a lot of the staff do extra shifts, some are working fifty hours to have the same quality of life that they had five, six, seven years ago, and pay the mortgages”, Pons Laplana explains. “But a lot of us are getting tired. Tired people make mistakes. And mistakes cost lives.”

These problems would exist without Brexit, but the decision to leave the EU will exacerbate the health services's problems in ways beyond simply driving workers away. The famed “£350m a week for the NHS” pledge wheeled out by the Leave campaign is credited with helping to win the election, but the drop in value of the pound and economic uncertainty mean that, as Bauer points out, “in actual numbers you're seeing so far a reduction of £350m a week” – less cash in the economy is likely to mean less cash for the NHS.

Mary says she is “immensely worried” about the possibility of the British government selling NHS contracts in a future US trade deal struck to make up for lost trade with the EU: “The essence of what the NHS is, care for all, that will go and the thought of that scares me to the bone.” Brexit, Bauer says, is an “unmitigated disaster”: not just because urgent issues like the NHS’ winter crisis are being overlooked by the “completely paralysed” government’s obsession with the UK’s departure from the European Union, but also because it will exacerbate such issues further. The Home Office’s tightening of migration rules will make it harder for the Health Service to hire critically needed staff, he sighs: “It's one more dimension of self-harm on Brexit.”

“EU workers are leaving at an alarming rate”
Joan Pons Laplana

For the EU citizens who are still here, the dilemma is twofold. Leave, because Brexit has made their future and right to work in this country uncertain? Or stay to see the Health Service they have put so much work in fall into pieces? “I worked very hard for three years to be in the managerial position I have,” Pons Laplana says. “If I go back, I will not have the same job. My home is here. My heart is British.” Vije doesn’t think it will come to her leaving, but until the deal is finalized, she cannot be certain: “I'm just waiting and watching.” Although Bauer doesn’t want to leave either, he has started on his contingency plan: getting German passports for his children. “I don't see a rosy economic future for them in the UK”, he says. “Britain is so divided now, the government is divided, the Tories are divided, Labour is divided, families are divided.” 

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” may work as far as the government’s negotiating strategy goes, but it also means EU workers are left in limbo. At a time when the NHS desperately needs staff, if the “really well trained, hard workers, well-educated” EU nurses and doctors to change their mind and go, they will be sorely missed, Mary says. “But then I think, what would I do?” She pauses. “Probably the same.”

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

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