It passed almost unnoticed this week, but 104 years ago began what was arguably the most terrible battle in the history of warfare, the battle of Verdun. The echoes of that conflagration continue to this day in France. A century on, the sheer horror of the tragedy is felt among families decimated and about villages depopulated or completely eradicated.
Verdun is an ancient city on the Meuse river, dating back well before Roman times. This fortress city still held almost religious significance even in the early 20th century in a country that had long since proclaimed its secularism in the Revolution.
In February of 1916 German military planners, believing the French would spare nothing in manpower and equipment losses to prevent them from taking Verdun and its network of fortresses, of which Fort Douaumont was the crown jewel, launched a massive assault, not so much to capture the city, but to create a human meat grinder designed to bleed the French army to death. The struggle turned a vast swath of France into a lunar landscape of trenches, shell holes, mud, and human wreckage that lasted ten months. In the end it cost the Germans as much in blood and treasure as the French, a combined million and a half casualties on both sides. It left the French depleted, exhausted, but victorious. By the time the battle was over, one French family in ten had someone who served at Verdun, many of them to die.
A dozen towns were swept from the landscape, foundations of their buildings all that remain today, with simple signs noting the site of a “village detruite” a destroyed village. At least one of those destroyed villages remains technically alive today, and a “mayor” continues to serve ceremonially.
One town, Vauquois, located on a rise called the butte de Vauquois, saw French and German forces dig in on opposite sides of that hilltop early in the war. For four years, at mere pistol shot distance, they dug trenches into the hill, and competing tunnels under the town, setting underground mines in an attempt to blow each other away. Today the village and the top of the hill are gone, leaving an enormous, gaping hole that looks for all the world like a volcano crater. Inside the hill the tunnels remain; the German tunnels down as deep as 120 meters, cut out of the rock with jackhammers and picks. Inside were barracks, cooking facilities, and machinery. Men lived underground perpetually, shuttling between the tunnels and the trenches above. I have been in those tunnels to a depth of about 15 meters. Above the tunnels, trenches and barbed wire remain.
For more than ten months the French struggled to pump a never-ending stream of men and equipment into the meat grinder of Verdun. A road from the town of Bar le Duc to Verdun was the main artery. One could stand along the road for the duration of the battle and a truck would pass every 14 seconds, day and night. They came to call it Le Voie Sacree, the Sacred Road, and today there is a marker of remembrance every kilometer.
Above all, the great killer of the First World War, what Europeans call the Great War, le Grand Guerre, was artillery. The volume of artillery fired is almost beyond comprehension. On some days, a million rounds were fired along the West Front, and it went on day after day after day. It turned farms, fields, and towns into a lunar landscape, churned the earth into a muck of destruction and human remains, and poisoned the earth with chemicals, metals, and toxic gas. It is estimated that half of all the shells fired into the earth failed to explode, instead being sucked into the mud from which, for more than a century now, the shells come to the surface each year as farmers plow their fields. Many of the shells remain “live,” some spewing poison gas. I know of one field that recently was closed to further cultivation because gas shells had been found leaking into the soil. There are many others. Each season the farmers dutifully collect the shells and pile them along the road for the military to collect and destroy. It is known as the Iron Harvest. I thought it was a myth until I saw it myself.
The scale of the battlefield is matched only by the enormity of the carnage, evidence of which is everywhere. In the woods, the trenches remain. Unexploded shells and grenades lie about, with bits of personal equipment, empty wine bottles, and unidentifiable wreckage. I have come upon the bones of horses; tens of thousands of them died during the war, victims as much as humans to the incessant and pulverizing artillery barrages that vaporized man, animals, and equipment.
If you walk through the woods and find a downed tree, something that has grown up since the war, you will see blues and greens inside the wood of the tree. These poisonous metals and chemicals have seeped into the tree from the ground as it grew. I have found human remains. They are still out there.
The battle of Verdun sprawled over a series of hills, each with a name. One such hill, Mort Homme, or Dead Man, was blasted so incessantly that when the battle ended it was 50 feet lower than when the battle began. Nothing was left, not a tree, not a twig, not a blade of anything living. All across the area there are “Red Zones,” still off limits to everyone today because of the quantity of still-live ammunition in the ground. And, of course, there lie also the remains of untold numbers.
There is another hill nearby, called simply Hill 304. Like Mort Homme, it was blasted alternately by both sides into near nothingness during the ten months of conflict. Since the war vegetation has grown up again. There are tall trees and lush green bushes. On a sunny spring day one might walk there now, not knowing what took place there a century ago. But something is strange about the place, and about Mort Homme as well.
At first, I was not sure. Then I realized what it was. One day I mentioned it to an elderly British fellow who, like me, spends time wandering the woods where the battle once raged. I mentioned it to him, and he stopped, and gave me a hard look. He said, “Yes! Yes! I have told other people and they say I must be imagining it.” But he wasn’t and I wasn’t.
On Hill 304, on Mort Homme, and in other places where the carnage of Verdun took place, the woods are eerily silent. Trees and flowers and shrubs are back, but not the birds. There is no bird song, ever. And there hasn’t been for more than a century.