The World War I Ghosts of Verdun Continue to Haunt the French Psyche

First World War doctors in the field
For 11 months, the French armies firmly held their ground in Verdun against German attacks. This World War I battle claimed nearly a million lives.

Verdun is one of the battlefields that hosted brutal encounters between the Allies and Axis Powers during the World War I. Yet, it is the one battlefield that has left a lasting imprint in the history of the France and in the psyche of the French.

Today, the area still has that air of melancholy that leaves visitors a relentless haunting image to last a lifetime. Even the seeming serene rolling hills and valleys will give an unaware spectator that nagging sense of tragedy, the Telegraph reports.

Verdun was a fortress for the French. The Germans chose to claim it seeing the strategic military advantage they could garner once they conquer Verdun. Yet more than the military benefit, the Germans saw the political and emotional value of the place to the French.

The German Chief of the General Staff during the first two years of the World War I, Erich von Falkenhayn, was even noted for his remark that the French would “throw in every man they have” to defend Verdun and that the French would “bleed to death” in doing so. From previous battles with the French, the Germans strongly believed that the French would suffer more casualties with little German artillery-fire.

And indeed, the French did everything in their power, come hell or high waters, to protect this strategic area in the Western Front against German aggressors. The Telegraph reports that the battle stretched from February 21 to December 18 of the year 1916. The Germans first claimed victory when they successfully captured the core of the French defenses in Verdun, Fort Douaumont.

File:0 Verdun - Cimetière de Douaumont (1).jpg
The Douaumont Cemetery is one of the reminders of the 11 months of brutal firefight during the German Attack on Verdun in 1916. Almost a century has passed, but the battle continues to haunt the French psyche.

The initial attack commenced the fight to the death where the victory of the battle is decided on who is the last man standing, German or French. Attack and counter-attacks were launched without one side desiring to raise the white flag. The shrinking battlefield  bled of the blood of soldiers from both sides in a seemingly never-ending fight for life, country and ideology.

One German soldier got tangled in a reverie that the battle would only come to halt when “the last German and the last French hobbled out of the trenches on crutches to exterminate each other with pocket knives”.

In the vicious battle where no side is willing to risk the lives of their rank-and-file and where defeat is a desperate option, where the total casualties were said to be about 700,00 and the wounded were numbering to about 900,000.

Verdun left behind a scar on the French psyche, a reminder of a once sad and bloody part of history. Among those who recall the incident were General Henri-Philippe Pétain and Captain Charles de Gaulle. When the dominant countries were poised to launch another world war a quarter of a century later, both would be at opposite sides.

Despite the sad tale that the future generations only get to read in the history books and hear from surviving veterans, Verdun was also a story of bravery. The French proved their relentless spirit in holding their fortress against their enemy. The Germans found out at a very costly price the stubborn spirit of their adversary.

In 1984 French President François Mitterrand and German President Helmut Kohl tried to reconcile for the sake of peace the violent history between two countries. The Douaumont cemetery once again became a symbolic site only this time of reconciliation and not of war.

Sometimes, it is easy to forgive but not to forget. And according to Patrick Bishop, the ghost of the past will forever haunt the French psyche.


Siegphyl is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE