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Perceptions of Verdun


The Battle of Verdun was the single longest battle of the Western Front of the First World War (WW1), lasting from February 21st to December 16th of 1916. The battle has been cited as the primary motivator for the Battle of the Somme, which was started to relieve pressure on the French troops at Verdun.[1] During the war, and afterwards, Verdun had been elevated to a position of utmost importance. Beforehand, however, it was not so highly regarded.

This essay will be examining how the German objective influenced the shifting symbolism of Verdun, how the industrial scale of the conflict prolonged and brutalised the conflict, how government propaganda contributed to perceptions of the battle and how the battle is perceived as a French victory.

This essay will ultimately find that Verdun’s status as a national symbol came due to a combination of the scale of the battle combined with French propaganda and the fact that it was a conclusive French victory.

Despite claims that Verdun was attacked in order to cause massive French casualties, the fact that there was no guarantee that Verdun was important enough at the time to warrant such a high defence, suggests that the German goals were different. Strategically, Verdun’s location made it a prime target for attack. It was difficult to defend and gave a wide staging point for an attack on France.[2] After the battle, Falkehayn (the German Chief of General Staff) stated that the true objective of the battle was to cause as many French casualties as possible.[3] The reason given for attacking Verdun was that it was a location of national importance. This assumption may be incorrect, as prior to the battle, it had only minor historical significance.[4] In this way, an excuse by a German leader may have formed part of the reason why Verdun has been perceived as having intrinsic national importance.

Verdun saw one of the largest assemblages of industrial warfare of that time.[5] The battlefield was home to 168 German planes (a record number at the time), and many thousands of artillery, ammo trains and other weapons of war.[6] Due to the industrial scale of the tools involved, the battle became drawn out, requiring the deaths of many soldiers on both sides. A quote by a French soldier shows how he believed no one could truly empathise with the troops on that field:

“People will read that the front line was Hell. How can people begin to know what that one word – Hell – means?”[7]

Casualty predictions are uncertain, as constant artillery barrages destroyed corpses and hid bodies under piles of soil, but casualties have been predicted to be over 337 000 each for both sides.[8] The scale of casualties and length of the battle (11 months) only quantified the horror to which the combatants were subject.

Verdun’s importance was initially in question as its defences before the battle were laid bare,[9] but political and civic society interest elevated the battle to national importance. Pétain (the French commanding officer at Verdun), as a pragmatic military leader, stated that he would be willing to abandon Verdun if necessary. He understood that the area was not so important that it should jeopardise the lives of his men. The President forbade him from taking any form of retreat.[10] Over the course of the eleven-month battle, Verdun saw huge interest by the President and Prime Minister who saw fit to give constant awards to a myriad of Verdun troops.[11] Verdun had become a national symbol, egged on by executive order and propaganda in magazines and newspapers.[12]

Verdun was ultimately a French victory in a war with rare conclusive victories.[13] It became a symbol of resistance[14] as, despite heavy casualties, France held the line. The entire French army saw Verdun at some point during the war, as Pétain guaranteed constant refreshments of troops.[15] In this way, the battle became a part of the collective psyche of not only the entire army but of France as a whole.

Ultimately, however, the battle was remembered more idealistically by civilians than the troops.[16] Government propaganda shaped national memory, but the memory of the soldier on the front was one more of grief than of glorious remembrance.[17]

Verdun, with the Somme, is seen as the turning-point on the Western Front. The German objective, if unclear, was ultimately thwarted, but not without causing an 11-month industrial scale battle which cost many people their lives. Government propaganda elevated the battle to national importance while the scale of the battle made it a part of the French military psyche.

Ultimately, its nature as a French victory (despite all the losses) cemented it into the history books as a symbol of national pride.



[1] The Battle of Verdun, History Learning Site, accessed Sept 11, 2015, http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/world-war-one/battles-of-world-war-one/the-battle-of-verdun.

[2] Antoine Prost, “Verdun” in Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past. Volume III: Symbols, ed. Nora (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 378.

[3] Ibid., 378

[4] Ibid., 379

[5] Verdun: myths and memories of the ‘lost villages’ of France, The Independent, accessed Sept 11, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/verdun-myths-and-memories-of-the-lost-villages-of-france-467285.html.

[6] The Battle of Verdun, History Learning Site.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Battle of Verdun and the number of casualties, accessed Sept 13, 2015, http://www.wereldoorlog1418.nl/battleverdun/slachtoffers.htm.

[9] Prost, “Verdun,” 379.

[10] Ibid., 379.

[11] Ibid., 380.

[12] Ibid., 380.

[13] Verdun: myths and memories of the ‘lost villages’ of France.

[14] Prost, “Verdun,” 381.

[15] Prost, “Verdun,” 382.

[16] Ibid., 384.

[17] Ibid., 384.