Verdun: myths and memories of the 'lost villages' of France

Ninety years ago today, a German shell dropped on a small French village, the start of 10 months of carnage. John Lichfield looks at a battle that has come to symbolise the horrors of warfare
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On a heavily wooded ridge above the river Meuse, 170 miles to the east of Paris, there is a village of ghosts. The 50 houses which once stood here disappeared in a sheet of flame 90 years ago this week. Each home is now represented by a square of grass and a sign, marked with the name and trade of a villager: "Legrandidier, vigneron (wine grower)" or "Dupuis, Jean-Baptiste, maçon" (mason).

This is Douaumont, one of the "lost" villages of 1916. Four miles to the south-east is the small town of Verdun.

Ninety years ago this morning, a German shell looped high over the ridge and fell on to the town. During the following 10 months - mostly during the following four months - the Verdun ridge was hacked and ploughed by 32,000,000 shells. It is estimated that in places 10 shells fell on every square centimetre. Nine evacuated villages - and 300,000 French and German soldiers - were obliterated in an area of about 50 square miles.

At the end of the battle, the two armies stood a few hundred yards from where they had started. For the French, the word "Verdun" still symbolises, according to viewpoint, the murderous futility, or the impossible heroism, of the 1914-1918 war.

When the war ended, the blood-soaked moonscape of the ridge was not cleared or reclaimed (as were the "British" battlefields of the Somme or Passchendaele). The whole Verdun battlefield - rolling, desolate farmland before the war - was planted with conifers. The ridge was to be a permanent memorial, frozen in time, so that future generations would never forget.

The forests have now grown dark and tall but if you wander, or peer, among the trees, you find that the ground is still perforated like a giant cheese-grater. In many places, you still see the zigzag lines of the trenches. Deep beneath your feet there are scores of thousands of young French and German bodies, pounded into the sand and chalk of western Lorraine.

The nine villages of the Verdun ridge were never rebuilt, but according to the French state they still exist. Douaumont is still in the dictionnaire national of French communes. It has a mayor and an electorate (descended from the original inhabitants) and an annual fête on the site of the village main street.

Marie-Claude Minminster, 51, has been mayor since 2001. "We keep alive the memory of Douaumont because it was a place where people lived for 1,000 years before the war came," she said. "We want to preserve the memory of what people did here, their joys and their sufferings. Every year, our fête is attended by the relatives of the villagers of 1914 who return from all over France. What worries us - and we ask ourselves this question all the time - is the future generations. Will they still wish to continue to preserve the memory of Douaumont? How long will they care about what happened at Verdun?"

The First World War is passing over the horizon of living memory. Only four centenarian, active-service veterans survive in Britain, and only six in France (none of whom fought at Verdun). The question of how and why we commemorate the war which shaped the modern world - how we separate memories from myths - is becoming more acute and more confused.

A nine-month-long festival of commemoration will start today with a "concert for peace" in Verdun Cathedral, attended by the opera singer Barbara Hendricks. There will also be a series of lectures by historians who will try to winnow myths from reality. Myths about Verdun there seem to be aplenty.

Myth one. A recent French popular history calls Verdun the "greatest battle of all time". Was it? In terms of overall, murderous scale, it was rapidly eclipsed by the Somme, which began 200 miles to the north-west on 1 July 1916, helping to draw German forces away from Verdun. Something like 1,200,000 soldiers (British and Empire, French and German) were killed, wounded or captured on the Somme - compared to a total of 700,000 on both sides at Verdun.

Myth two. French popular memory tends to dwell on Verdun as the emblematic and most destructive "French" battle of the war. Was it? Yes and no. French casualties in 1915, the year before Verdun, totalled 1,500,000; victims of a scattering of blundering, poorly planned offensives in Champagne, Artois and the Vosges. These stupid, costly battles have disappeared from French popular memory.

Verdun was more murderous than any one of them. And yet, if you do the simple arithmetic, French casualties in 1915 come to 125,000 a month - far more than the monthly average at Verdun. Total French casualties in the 10 months of Verdun were 375,000 - about 40,000 a month, or 90,000 a month for the meat-grinding of the intense, first phase of the campaign.

Myth three. Verdun, the town, has been portrayed by both French and German generals and historians as a strategically and psychologically vital French stronghold. Was it? The importance of Verdun to the French was mostly something invented during and after the battle. One of the brightest of a new generation of young French historians of the war, Jean-Yves Le Naour, points out that Verdun was within a lightly defended and strategically meaningless salient - or bump - in the trench lines running from the Channel to Switzerland. The town was relatively unimportant. Its main claim to fame pre-1914 was that it was the sugared almond capital of the world. (It still is.)

Verdun only became vital because so much national prestige, and blood, on both sides, was expended on it in 1916. The myth of Verdun as a historically crucial town going back to the time of Charlemagne was "glued on after the battle", says M. Le Naour.

Why, then, has Verdun become so lodged in the French popular memory and imagination? Part of the answer is that Verdun - despite 170,000 French deaths - was a French "victory" in a war in which victories were scarce.

"Victory is important to the legend of Verdun, but the battle achieved legendary status even before it ended," said M. Le Naour. "The Germans were on the offensive, for the first time since 1914. As a defensive battle, Verdun achieved a kind of moral status, as a symbol of French national resistance to the aggressor. All the regiments in the French army were rotated in and out of Verdun. It seemed as though the blood of the entire nation was coursing through one battlefield."

The German Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, claimed in his memoirs after the war that his aim was not to break through at Verdun but to kill French soldiers, and "bleed the French army white". This is now generally thought by historians to have been a lie to explain his defeat. His intention was to break through and destabilise the allies before the new Pals regiments of Kitchener's British volunteer army could enter the war.

The German army captured a handful of forts. They advanced by about four miles. From April, they were stopped, advanced again, pushed back, advanced again, and were eventually repulsed. Had the Germans broken through, the war might have been lost, but this is far from certain. More importantly, the fact that the French held firm, even at enormous cost, provided a huge moral boost to the French nation and a propaganda boost - at home and abroad - to the French government and to the leading French generals.

Verdun is important for another reason. The 1914-18 war brought slaughter to an industrial pitch of intensity not seen before. The new technologies of the 19th and early 20th centuries - barbed wire, machine-guns, powerful artillery and canned food - combined to allow huge armies to smash the life out of one another for weeks and months at a time. At Verdun, the sheer weight of firepower exceeded anything seen even in the murderous campaigns of 1914 and 1915. Artillery was assembled by the Germans, and later the French, on an unimagined scale. Tactical warplanes, flame-throwers and new, more efficient forms of gas joined the world's arsenal of butchery. "The logic of Hiroshima began at Verdun," said M. Le Naour. "It was at Verdun that the notion of industrialised mass destruction was pushed to its limit for the first time."

Between them, the battles of Verdun and the Somme ensured that the Germans could not win a military victory on the Western Front. Even so, the estimated 700,000 - some say over 900,000 - German casualties in the two overlapping battles of 1916 fell far short of allowing the French and British to win. That took another two exterminatory years and American intervention.

We British, naturally enough, tend to dwell on memories of the Somme. All the same, Richard Holmes, the great British historian of the Western Front, argues that there was "something particularly dreadful" about the distilled horrors of the small battlefield of Verdun. "The front was so narrow (less than 15 miles) ... Men might be killed instantly but without apparent damage by concussion; blown to tatters by direct hits; cut up as if by some malicious butcher; crippled by flying fragments of their comrades' bodies or shocked into babbling incoherence by a capricious hit which left them unscathed among the remnants of their friends."

Lieutenant Henri Desagneaux kept a celebrated diary of his experiences at Verdun. On 30 June 1916, he wrote: "Numb and dazed, without saying a word and with our hearts pounding, we await the shell that will destroy us ... There's death everywhere. At our feet, the wounded groan in a pool of blood. One, a machine-gunner, has been blinded, with one eye hanging out of its socket and the other torn out ..."

The First World War was the first in history in which trouble was taken to give soldiers individual graves (at least those who could be found and identified). This collision between industrialised, mass slaughter and democratic respect for the individual is the great paradox of the First World War, one of the reasons, maybe, why it haunts us to this day.

There is only one French cemetery on the Verdun battlefield but it is the largest First World War cemetery in Europe. There are more than 15,000 marked graves. In the morning mist, the geometrical lines of the crosses seem to come in endless waves, like troops rising from the trenches in the smoke of the battlefield. Animals - rabbits, foxes and deer from the surrounding memorial forests - have left meandering tracks in the snow.

Walking through the blocks of crosses, a strange sight appears through the fog. In one block, the gravestones are not shaped like crucifixes. They have elaborate, curled tops, like miniature mosques. The first gravestone is inscribed Moussa Diara ("Mort pour la France, Mai 1916"). There are 579 such graves, containing the bodies of Algerian and other colonial soldiers who fought at Verdun. Their presence is a jolting reminder - a codicil to today's headlines of suburban riots and cartoon demos - that Islam and France have a long history and that France owes much to its Muslim communities. In June, President Jacques Chirac will inaugurate a new memorial beside the cemetery to honour the Muslim fallen of Verdun.

After the Great War, the cemetery and other memorials at Verdun became a shrine to national sacrifice and resistance to the "Boche". It was only after the 1939-45 war that Verdun became something else: a shrine to Franco-German reconciliation, the place where President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl were pictured walking hand-in-hand in 1984.

Many of the events of this year will again, rightly, have a Franco-German theme. However, the power of such symbolism is waning. The notion of war between France and Germany now seems absurd. New generations of politicians (from next year in France; already in Germany) are taking power who had no experience of the Second World War, let alone the First.

Verdun - and the Somme - should be remembered nonetheless. Even for the internet-mobile-phone-cheap- air-fares generation, they are not distant events like Waterloo or Agincourt. As M. Le Naour points out, the infinite capacity for destruction of modern man was fully revealed for the first time at Verdun.

The presence of the Muslim graves - and the new Muslim memorial - is a reminder that humanity is frail and indivisible. Verdun is also a reminder of what happens when two causes collide, each driven by blind faith in its own righteousness and armed with the technologies of mass destruction.