Monday, May 27, 2013

Verdun. Where 1916 can never end.

If you sometimes wonder how the world got into its current sad state I can point you to the very spot where things went so badly astray.  It is in a series of hills just east of the drab town of Verdun France.

The Great Powers - none of which rank as such any longer - blundered stupidly into the First World War.  Their diplomats had in utmost secrecy created an interlocking web of treaties and understandings that were nothing less than a Doomsday Machine for Western that put armies of millions to the march after an inept but implausibly successful terrorist act.

Brave men, those armies of 1914, "Lions led by Donkeys" as tragically belated wisdom had it.

But there were still rays of hope.  Nations were at war but civility in men remained in places. The Christmas Truce of 1914 where the guns went silent and soldiers from both sides sat down together showed a Europe that might have been and still could be.

But Verdun changed it all.  Having spent so dearly neither side could settle for less than a total victory, or for less than unstable, draconian "peace" terms.

Verdun was where France and Germany met in the longest, most intense, most concentrated battle of World War One, and perhaps in all of history.

The statistics are somehow both dry and appalling.  Both personal and surreal.

Nobody ever accurately tallied the butcher's bill.  But there is general agreement that there were half a million wounded.  And a quarter of a million dead.  Forty million artillery shells were fired into a small area.  I have seen various estimates...could there really have been 150 high explosive shells landing on every square meter of the battleground?  Could there really still be 12 million unexploded rounds sleeping beneath the now forested hills?

At the end of the battle Verdun looked like this:

And frankly many areas looked worse.  I picked an image with a few skeletal trees because other areas more closely resemble images of some other planet, of some of crater-scarred moonscape.

I have had a fascination with the place since reading Alistair Horne's superb The Price of Glory.  So when I had a chance I spent a few solemn hours walking on what Mr. Horne rightly describes as "one of the most haunted places on earth".

At the end of the war there was no effort to reclaim the land.  It was of no value for agriculture - the topsoil had been blasted off entirely.  And to remove the unexploded ordinance?  Impossible.  They are still finding it routinely just doing the most basic of forestry and road maintenance.  So it was left alone.

Walk with me a little while in the silent glades of Verdun, where it will always be 1916. With every step you tread upon the atomized remains of those long martyred Lions. Death is all around you.  Remember this.  Stray not far from the marked and monitored paths....

A turret in one of the great forts

Note the thickness of the armor in this observation cupola.  And that it was not enough.

Here are shell holes...almost a century later.

On the right is a park bench.  It is a place for contemplation.

concrete supports for trench walls.  Still standing in a zig-zag trench system.

It was spring time in Verdun when I was there.  But Alistair Horne was hear no birds singing.  And apart from a few small beautiful flowers you get no sense whatsoever of new life.


Little Lulu said...

Beautifully observed. Thank you for writing it.

Anonymous said...

I have read that the French deminers claim it will take 300 years to recover the UXO in France. This is just the UXO from WW-1.

Tacitus2 said...

The topic is understandably not widely discussed. I mean, do you really want jihadis digging for mustard gas? But yes, there are tons of stuff down there and every few years they lose some guys in the process of even minimal clearing. I saw metal here and there. I did not go near it.


Ken said...

Powerfully conveyed, sir. There are few people in all history more contemptible than those who gave us the Great War. I believed that even before I read Dreadnought and Castles of Steel, which not only confirmed my worst suspicions, but managed to take even Churchill down a peg or two.

John Robb (he of Global Guerrillas fame) is a smart and perceptive guy, but he writes about asymmetric warfare as though he discovered it. Gavrilo Princip and the Black Hand, for less than eighty dollars (1911, non-adjusted) American, gave us the 20th Century: a century of screaming whose monument is a mountain of skulls.

Tacitus2 said...

Indeed. We are still paying the price. All those problematic borders? Kurds over here, Shiites and Sunni on top of each other, Serb, Croats and so forth all over....

Not to mention the Russian Revolution.

Thanks a lot guys.


Goober said...

Or hitler.or the great depression, social security and the resulting current economic collapse. Or Vietnam. Or Mao... need I go on? There really must be a special place in hell for the seven men who could have stopped the madness but instead chose war.