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First World War: 1916: Verdun

Verdun was a French fortress town against whom the Germans under Falkenhayn launched a massive attack in February, 1916. The aim was to draw the best French troops and destroy them and then move into France. But the French under Petain (who in 1940 became a national disgrace) resisted stubbornly. The Germans called off the attack in June 1916. The losses? France lost 3,15,000 men. The Germans, 2,80,000.

 The French move forward

An eye-witness: ...the soldiers fell over like tin soldiers. Almost all our officers get hurt or killed and many of our men get killed because of their own artillery fire, which is too close and therefore causes many victims...


 A dead French soldier dangles from a barbed wire

An French eye-witness: ...soon the losses became more and more. Every soldier is simply waiting in quiet acceptance for the grenade that has his name on it. And everywhere there is screaming and moaning, sirens and crackle, dirt and blood, death an dying...


A French soldier describes the horrors of a bombardment: ...When you hear the whistling in the distance your entire body preventively crunches together to prepare for the enormous explosions. Every new explosion is a new attack, a new fatigue, a new affliction. Even nerves of the hardest of steel, are not capable of dealing with this kind of pressure. The moment comes when the blood rushes to your head, the fever burns inside your body and the nerves, numbed with tiredness, are not capable of reacting to anything anymore. It is as if you are tied to a pole and threatened by a man with a hammer. First the hammer is swung backwards in order to hit hard, then it is swung forwards, only missing your scull by an inch, into the splintering pole. In the end you just surrender. Even the strength to guard yourself from splinters now fails you. There is even hardly enough strength left to pray to God....


 A trench after a skirmish

An eye-witness recalls: ...There is nothing as tiring as the continuous, enormous bombardment as we have lived through, last night, at the front. The night is disturbed by light as clear as if it were day. The earth moves and shakes like jelly. And the men who are still at the frontline, cannot hear anything but the drumfire, the moaning of wounded friends, the screams of hurt horses, the wild pounding of their own hearts, hour after hour, day after day, night after night....


 French soldiers during the Battle Of Verdun

An German eye-witness: ...We all carried the smell of dead bodies with us. The bread we ate, the stagnant water we drank. Everything we touched smelled of decomposition due to the fact that the earth surrounding us was packed with dead bodies....

 These soldiers have a close shave as a shell lands near them

A German eye-witness: ...The losses are registered as follows: they are dead, wounded, missing, nervous wrecks, ill and exhausted. Nearly all suffer from dysentery. Because of the failing provisioning the men are forced to use up their emergency rations of salty meats. They quenched their thirst with water from the shellholes. They are stationed in the village of Ville where every form of care seems to be missing. They have to build their own accommodation and are given a little cacao to stop the diarrhoea. The latrines, wooden beams hanging over open holes, are occupied day and night – the holes are filled with slime and blood...

A neutral contemporary feels: …that they, within the framework of this World War, are involved in some affair, that will still be considered horrible and appalling in a hundred years time. It is this Hell of Verdun. Since a hundred days – day and night – the sons of two European people fight stubbornly and bitterly over every inch of land. It is the most appalling mass murder of our history…

A soldier: …One of the trenches is so filled with wounded and dead bodies the attackers have to use the parapet in order to be able to move forward…

 These German soldiers seem full of enthusiasm for the war

An German soldier tells: ...One soldier was going insane with thirst and drank from a pond covered with a greenish layer near Le Mort-Homme. A corpse was afloat in it; his black countenance face down in the water and his abdomen swollen as if he had been filling himself up with water for days now....

 French soldiers captured by the Germans

A witness: ….the latrines cause major problems. They are completely blocked up and smell terribly. This stench is fought with chlorinated lime and this smell mixes with the battlefield smell of decomposition. Men even wear their gas masks when using the latrines…

 French soldiers try to cut through a barbed fence

A French soldier: …and during the summer months the swarms of flies around the corpses and the stench, that horrible stench. If we had to construct trenches we put garlic cloves in our nostrils...

 Men and horses both wear gas masks

A German soldier: … you could never get rid of the horrible stench. If we were on leave and we were having a drink somewhere, it would only last a minute before the people at the table beside us would stand up and leave. It was impossible to endure the horrible stench of Verdun...

 The French look at the remains of a German plane and its pilot at Verdun

A German officer: …the number of defectors increases, the front soldiers become numb by seeing the bodies without heads, without legs, shot through the belly, with blown away foreheads, with holes in their chests, hardly recognisable flab’s, pale and dirty in the thick yellow brown mud, which covers the battlefield…

 Captured German soldiers

A German soldier: …in the drumfire bravery no longer exists: only nerves, nerves, nerves. When anyone is exposed unto such trials and tribulations he is no longer of any use as an attacker or defender…

 German soldiers move to the front

A French soldier: …everyone who searches for cover in a shell hole, stumbles across slippery, decomposing bodies and has to proceed with smelly hands and smelly clothes…


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