Verdun Was WWI’s Slaughterhouse
Verdun had served the French well as a defensive outpost in the past, but in WWI it became synonymous with insensible tactics that claimed 250,000 lives.
There is no quick route by which one may approach Verdun. No superhighway passes through this sleepy town, nor do any of France’s fabled “Trains de Grande Vitesse” stop here. There is only the local line, and even that humbled creaking route terminates in Verdun. In the end, one can only come to this hallowed ground slowly, by a small four-car train or by narrow two-lane road. This is as it should be. Some 250,000 men died in these few square miles of turf, and one should not rush into a graveyard.
Although even less well-known to most Americans today than are the almost-forgotten exertions of the American Expeditionary Force during World War I in places like St. Mihiel and the Argonne Forest, Verdun actually represents the apogee of the slaughter of World War I on the Western Front. It was both the longest battle of the war, officially lasting from February 21, 1916 through December 11, 1916 and the most costly single battle of the war, with estimates ranging from 900,000-1,100,000 men shedding blood on this small patch of ground that is only about twice the size of the battlefield of Gettysburg. It was, by any definition of the word, an obscenity.
Perhaps even more significantly, the impact of Verdun upon the people of France and Germany is crucial to understanding what happened over the course of the rest of the 20th century. Without Verdun the American casualties of WWI might not have been as bad as they were and our troops might not have been rushed into the fight before they were ready. The British-led Battle of the Somme might not have occurred, at least not the way that it did. The Maginot Line of WWII may have never existed, and the French might not have chosen static defense versus mobile warfare, a choice that doomed them in WWII. Indeed, without Verdun, WWII might have played out far differently. It is the epicenter of nearly a century of events and “what-ifs.” All of this and more make it an important battle to study.