A small city in the Meuse department of north-eastern France
whose name is forever associated with one of the longest and deadliest battles in human history. Verdun is for the French, and the Germans, what the Somme
are for the British and their Commonwealth allies. Like those places, Verdun stands for the madness and brutality of industrialized warfare of unprecedented proportions. It marks a turning point in human history, and, like Auschwitz
, a fall from grace.
More background info:
cf. also Ypres
and the Somme
– like for the battles fought in those parts of the Western Front, this website cannot give a full account of the military minutiae or a detailed chronology. There are numerous other sources that can provide such details. Here a rough summary has to suffice:
Verdun is ancient, going back to pre-Roman times, and has repeatedly played an important role in history, including in military terms. Its citadel was first constructed in the 17th century. Verdun was the site of battles with the German (Prussian) arch-enemy before, in particular in the late 18th century.
In the 19th century the city was surrounded by a string of further fortifications especially on the hills to the north-east beyond the right (east) bank of the River Meuse that flows through the city. These fortifications include in particular Fort Douaumont
(Fort de Douaumont in French), the largest of them all, and Fort Vaux
(Fort de Vaux).
After the costly early battles of the war in 1914/15, in which Germany
failed to achieve the quick decisive victory over France
that it had hoped for – in part thanks to the British
Expeditionary Force and the Belgian
resistance in Flanders
– the Germans halted their attempts at forward movement and went on the defensive by digging in and fortifying. Trench warfare had begun, in which the front line hardly moved for the next three years.
Verdun had at that time been well equipped and supplied; but after the easy fall of the forts of Liege and Antwerp, the French supreme commander deemed the forts at Verdun less significant and ordered them to be downgraded, with guns and troops to be moved elsewhere, leaving only a rump force of troops and only the heavy artillery in place with reduced supplies of ammunition, and the machine-gun positions remained unmanned.
At the same time, the German command’s strategic thinking was such that they assumed the French would try to defend Verdun at all costs for historical and prestige reasons alone, and so decided to concentrate their attack on Verdun, primarily in order to inflict maximal casualties on the French in a “war of attrition”. Whether it was really their plan to simply “bleed the French dry” as was later claimed, or if the original intention had been to actually take the city of Verdun, is still a matter of contention.
In any case, the attack launched by Germany
on 21 February 1916 was massive. In the first few days alone some 2 million shells were fired in what they called “Trommelfeuer” (roughly ‘drum roll fire’), i.e. constant shelling involving all sizes of ammunition at a frequency that could be several explosions a second, and often no pause at all for 12 hours or more.
In this hell of shells raining down, the bodies of soldiers hit by them were literally blown to pieces, often even repeatedly, i.e. the dead were further dismembered by the constant heavy shelling. Hence so many ended up “missing”. To this day, unidentifiable human bones are found in the ground of the Verdun battlefields. And so unidentified skeletal remains are still being added to the ossuary of Douaumont
The landscape was utterly altered too: what had been woodland became a moonscape of mud, water-filled shell craters, scorched remnants of trees, shrapnel and scattered human remains.
The Germans managed to advance and eventually took Fort Douaumont
meeting no resistance. The French supreme commander Joffre was sacked (partly due to his miscalculations about Verdun) and replaced by General Pétain, who ordered in reinforcements. The initial massive disadvantage in terms of artillery was slowly compensated until the French were also able to maintain “Trommelfeuer” shelling and launch counter-attacks. This carried on for months. Some places in the hills changed hands several times over. But no decisive break was made by either side.
On 1 July the Anglo-French launch of the Battle of the Somme
began to the north-west of Verdun. This forced the Germans to move some of their artillery and several divisions of soldiers to the defence there, weakening their strengths at Verdun. The German attack was halted altogether in August and efforts became purely defensive.
The French upped their resolve and after a period of only minor attacks during the following months they eventually pushed against the Germans towards the end of the year and managed to retake the lost forts of Douaumont
and the front stabilized again in December and the battle ended.
In a way, then, it had all been for nothing. A massive “Materialschlacht” (‘battle of material’) lasting almost eleven months, all for almost no territorial gain or loss. And that at a frightening human cost. Casualty numbers are always contested in such circumstances, but the figures suggested are often around 800,000 on both sides, with around 300,000 killed or “missing” (i.e. also presumed dead).
Still, for France
it was more of a victory, as the French had stood their ground and repelled the Germans. The “war of attrition” had not bled them dry, and the casualties on the German side were as high as on the French side, so the Germans had rather bled themselves dry by this costly battle.
Verdun also led to changes in the high command in Germany
too, where the previous commanding general Falkenhayn was replaced by Paul von Hindenburg in August 1916 (who would later become president of Germany and as such played a role in the ascent to power of Adolf Hitler
Verdun has a lasting legacy. In Germany
it is frequently referred to as “die Hölle von Verdun” (‘the hell of Verdun’). In France
the battle is commemorated in a more patriotic form, but since WWII
, Verdun has also become a symbol of reconciliation … to the point that in a commemorative ceremony at Douaumont
in 1984 the then French president Mitterrand and German chancellor Kohl were holding hands for minutes in silence.
Commemoration for the general public takes many forms. The huge war cemetery and ossuary of Douaumont
are the core, but there are several other memorials both in Verdun and on the battlefields, many relics and what’s left of the forts can be explored and there is one excellent museum
about the Battle of Verdun and WW1 in general – see below.
What there is to see: Within the city of Verdun itself, commemoration of the Battle of 1916 is limited to a few monuments and a rather cheesy war-themed “ride” in the tunnels underneath the citadel. The main sites related to the war are outside the city in the hills to the north-east around Douaumont as well as at a site beyond the former front line at Camp Marguerre:
A large war monument can be found on the eastern side of one of the main bridges across the Meuse, Pont Chaussée, in the centre of Verdun. This monument consists of a large bas-relief of five soldiers. It’s associated with the line “on ne passe pas” (‘they shall not pass’), famously a command to the French troops to stand their ground. Originally dedicated to the 518 people actually from the city of Verdun who perished in WW1
, it now also commemorates victims of WWII
In the city centre at the western end of the bridge a short walk takes you to the steps leading to the upper town. At the top stands a tall monument with the word “Verdun” on the front and a statue of Charlemagne leaning on a sword at the top. But despite that much older historical figure this monument does commemorate WW1 and is known as the Victory Monument. Inside the pedestal is a crypt that once held the books listing the names of those who fought on the French (and American) side, which are now kept elsewhere, though.
The Cathedral (another Notre-Dame and one of the oldest cathedrals in the country) also contains some artwork depicting scenes from the battles. The citadel from the 17th century is not publicly accessible, except for the tunnels underneath (“souterraine
That’s more or less it in dark terms. But the main merit of the city is to serve as a base from which to explore all the war-related sights in the nearby hills.
in the central eastern part of France
, in the Meuse department, ca. 40 miles (60 km) west of Metz, ca. 60 miles (100 km) east of Reims
and 140 miles (220 km) from Paris
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: easy enough to get to as such, exploration of the war sites in the hills requires a car; not too expensive
Verdun does have a train station with regional train connections to Metz, or to a TGV station (“Meuse”) to the south of Verdun with connections to Paris
. While the city centre of Verdun is easily walkable, to get to the various war-related sites outside the city you really need a car (or motorbike).
Verdun is less than 4 miles (6 km) south of the A4 east-west motorway and connected to it by the D964 from exit 31 (“Verdun”).
Accommodation options in Verdun are plentiful and relatively affordable, but parking in the centre can be a big problem. Therefore I used the motel-like Hotel Orchidées a bit outside the centre but nearer to the road leading up the hills to the main war-related sites.
NOTE that you can purchase a “battlefield pass” (currently, in 2021, priced at 34 EUR) that allows access to all sites in Douaumont
that charge an admission fee, as well as to the underground citadel
in Verdun; that way you can save 6 EUR compared to the aggregate individual entry fees; but get this only if you really want to visit the whole lot. It is sold at the tourism bureau in Verdun, at each of the individual sites as well as online
Time required: For the city alone you wouldn’t need much time, but to explore the battle-related sites in the hills to the north-east of the city you need at least one long full day if you only want to cover the sites mentioned on this website, better two days to do it at a more leisurely pace. If you want to explore everything in depth and also go hiking deeper into the woods, then a couple of extra days would be advisable.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Comparatively minor WW1-related monuments can also be found north-west and south of Verdun, e.g. on Hill 304 or in the Argonne forest. There’s also an intact fort (Fort Falouse, not involved in the battle) south of Verdun as well as some trench reconstructions. But the closest major WW1
sites would be those in the Somme
region, a ca. three-hour drive away to the north-west.
The nearest other dark destination listed on this website, not related to WW1 but to WWII
, is the Surrender Museum in Reims
, ca. 60 miles (100 km) to the west of Verdun.
See also under France
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Verdun is pretty enough for whiling away a few hours of city walking, especially along the riverside or the pedestrianized alleys in the old town.
- Verdun 1 - by the River Meuse
- Verdun 2 - pretty chateau
- Verdun 3 - war memorial
- Verdun 4 - river
- Verdun 5 - riverside dwellings
- Verdun 6 - Porte Chaussee
- Verdun 7 - Victory Monument
- Verdun 8 - inside
- Verdun 9 - Cathedrale Notre Dame