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The Battle of Verdun: Warfare in the Industrial Age

The Battle of Verdun, fought from February 21 to December 18, 1916, was not only the longest battle of the First World War, but the longest in modern history. It has become a symbol of the unimaginable brutality and futility of industrial warfare, where men were fed into the fires of battle like so much grist to the mill. But Verdun was also a major milestone in military history for the use of cutting-edge technologies and innovative tactics that foreshadowed the future of warfare in the 20th century.

A New Era of Mechanized Warfare

Verdun saw the large-scale use of many technologies that were still in their infancy. Military aircraft, first deployed on a small scale in 1914, were used extensively for reconnaissance, artillery spotting, and even bombing and strafing enemy positions. The French commander, General Philippe Pétain, relied heavily on aerial photographs to track German troop movements. One two-seater Caudron G.4 is known to have taken over 1,000 photographs in the course of 38 missions over Verdun 1.

Railways also played a critical role, with the French moving an average of 83,000 men and 23,000 tons of material into Verdun each week 2. The "Voie Sacrée" (Sacred Way), the only road leading into the city, saw non-stop traffic of 3,000 trucks per day. Motorized ambulances, another innovation, were used to evacuate the wounded. Communications were coordinated via 400 km of telephone lines laid by the French Signal Corps 3.

Verdun was also the first land battle in history to involve the use of chemical weapons on a large scale, with the Germans firing over 100,000 diphosgene gas shells in June alone 4. Both sides made extensive use of flamethrowers, high explosive shells, and shrapnel. In this sense, Verdun was a chilling preview of the mechanized carnage that would define 20th century warfare.

Verdun by the Numbers

The massive scale and intensity of the battle is evident in the numbers:

Statistic Value
Troops involved ~2.4 million (1.14 million French, 1.25 million German) 5
French casualties 377,231 (162,308 killed, 216,337 wounded) 6
German casualties 337,000 (100,000+ killed) 7
Artillery shells fired 60-70 million (~150 shells per minute) 8
Explosives used 1,350,000 tons (equivalent to 1/10th of all munitions used in WWI) 9
Battlefield area ~75 square km (29 sq mi)

To put this in perspective, more French soldiers (162,308) died at Verdun than the entire U.S. military lost in Vietnam (58,220) and Korea (36,574) combined 10. The number of artillery shells fired at Verdun was greater than the total fired by both sides in the 4-year U.S. Civil War 11. An average of 70,000 shells were fired per day – nearly 1 per second for 10 months straight.

Centralized Battle Management

Verdun also saw the emergence of new defensive tactics and modes of battle management. General Pétain instituted a system of "bataille conduite" (conducted battle), where frontline commanders communicated by telephone with a central headquarters that managed reinforcements, supplies, and artillery support. This allowed for more flexible and responsive decision-making than the rigid, pre-planned offensives of the past.

The French also employed an elastic defense-in-depth, rather than trying to hold a fixed frontline. This involved a thinly-manned front zone, backed by a battle zone of strongpoints and artillery, and a rear zone for reserves and supply. It foreshadowed German defensive tactics in 1917-18. As one historian put it: "Verdun was the cradle of the modern system of artillery tactics." 12

The Battlefield Today

A century later, the landscape around Verdun still bears the scars of the battle. Vast swathes of the battlefield are pockmarked by craters and shell holes. Rusting fragments of barbed wire, shrapnel, and military hardware can be found everywhere. Nine villages, deemed too damaged to rebuild, were declared "villages that died for France" and left abandoned. Their names are inscribed on a memorial in the middle of the shattered wasteland.

At the heart of the battlefield is the massive Douaumont ossuary, inaugurated in 1932 by French President Albert Lebrun. Beneath its vaulted ceiling lie the bones of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers, gathered from across the battlefield. Through small windows, one can gaze upon neat piles of femurs, skulls, and other bones – a visceral reminder of the human cost of the battle. Towering over the remains is a 46m high granite tower, topped by an observatory with a view over the battlefield. Inscribed on a plaque are the words: "Sie haben nicht durchkommen" (They did not pass through) – the French rallying cry of the battle.

Remembering Verdun

Verdun has left a deep imprint on French historical memory. The 1916 battle is seen as a symbol of French courage, sacrifice and national unity in the face of overwhelming odds. The French unknown soldier buried beneath the Arc de Triomphe was chosen from among the unidentified remains at Verdun. Streets, squares and metro stations across the country are named after the battle. Every French president through François Mitterrand made it a point to visit Verdun on key anniversaries 13.

The battle has also been depicted in numerous books, memoirs, artworks, and films. French intellectuals like Georges Bernanos, Henri Barbusse and Alain used their experiences at Verdun to reflect on the horror of war and the human condition. One of the earliest Hollywood movies about the First World War, "Wooden Crosses" (1932), was set at Verdun. More recently, Mathieu Amalric‘s experimental film "La chambre bleue" (2014) used the ossuary as a backdrop for an story about love and betrayal. As French historian Antoine Prost writes:

"The memory of Verdun is not just about military history. It plunges us into the depths of suffering and death, in that place where war attacks the very idea of civilization, where humanity itself is at stake." 14

A tragedy of the 20th century

In the final analysis, the Battle of Verdun was not just a tragic episode in a wider conflict, but a microcosm for the horrors of 20th century warfare. It showed how the harnessing of industrial technology and mass mobilization could enable slaughter on a scale never before imaginable. It exemplified what political scientist Raymond Aron called "total war" – a new kind of unlimited struggle between entire societies, fought to the bitter end 15.

Verdun was also a harbinger of the death of the old world of traditional European civilization. As modernity clashed with deeply-rooted notions of honor, masculinity, and nationalism, Verdun became a crucible in which an entire generation was forged, and an old way of life forever destroyed. In the haunting words of French soldier and writer Jacques Péricard:

"Verdun was no longer a battlefield; it was a vast scene of desolation lit by the flames of thousands of fires ignited by millions of shells. Nothing remained. No terrain, no shelter, no dugout, no trench; everything was pulverized. At every square meter, the earth was ripped open down to the rock. A war of ghosts in a dead world. On one side, the French ghosts, on the other the German ghosts, in front of them a no man‘s land haunted by death. Verdun was no longer of this earth; it was a hell colder than Dante‘s inferno." 16

One hundred years on, the ghost of Verdun still haunts us, a specter of the abyss of human self-destruction. As we reflect on its legacy, perhaps the greatest tribute we can pay to the hundreds of thousands who suffered and died there is to redouble our efforts for a more peaceful world – one where such horrors remain confined to the past, never to be repeated.


  1. Christina Holstein, "Walking Verdun: A Guide to the Battlefield" (Pen and Sword, 2009), p. 27
  2. Alistair Horne, "The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916" (Penguin, 1962), p. 171
  3. Ibid, p. 151
  4. Michael S. Neiberg, "Fighting the Great War" (Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 62
  5. Antoine Prost & Gerd Krumeich, "Verdun 1916" (Editions Tallandier, 2015), p. 9
  6. Malcolm Brown, "Verdun 1916" (Tempus, 1999), p. 86
  7. Ibid.
  8. Holstein, p. 32
  9. Roger Chickering, "Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914-1918" (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 80
  10. "America‘s Wars", U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Nov 2019
  11. James M. McPherson, "Battle Cry of Freedom" (Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 724
  12. Robert A. Doughty, "Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War" (Belknap Press, 2005), p. 156
  13. Pierre Nora, "Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, Vol. 3" (Columbia University Press, 1998), p.111-112
  14. Antoine Prost, "Verdun dans la mémoire des Français" in Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains, no 182, 1996, p.2
  15. Raymond Aron, "The Century of Total War" (Praeger, 1981)
  16. Jacques Péricard, "Verdun" (Editions Payot, 1934), p.63