Verdun: hell and patriotism

The story of one of the largest first World War battles on the Western Front is being seen in a wider context

On a train journey across north-eastern France during the first week of August 1926, Joseph Probst, a German Catholic peace activist from the Baden region, observed: "Our hearts are rent as we traverse the front.

"Verdun, the great killing field, with the poignant memory of its forts, Vaux and Douaumont, flashes across the screen of our memory; the most awful hours of the war, whose anniversary, to the day, it was."

Intriguingly, Probst was on his way to a large Franco-German and international peace congress hosted by Christian Democrat politician Marc Sangnier at the village of Bierville near Paris that month.

His meditation, published in French later in the year, was remarkable for a German because, when Germans wrote of the Western Front at this time, they more usually referenced the Somme as a touchstone of sacrifice.


For the French, Verdun was and remains synonymous with patriotism certainly, but also with “hell”.

Irish visitors to Paris will be familiar of course with the Arc de Triomphe and probably also with the tomb of the Unknown Soldier who has lain there under its arches since November 11th, 1920, its perpetual flame ceremonially rekindled every evening in a ritual inaugurated in 1923.

How many Irish visitors will know, however, that this anonymous solider died at Verdun in 1916?

On November 10th, 1920, at the Citadel, the fortress in the heart of the town of Verdun, a place of relative respite for French soldiers during the battle itself, a young corporal of the 132nd regiment, Auguste Thin, stood in a room with a row of eight tricolour-draped coffins, each one holding the remains of an unidentified (or unidentifiable) victim of the massacre.

As bid by his superiors, he placed flowers on the bier of the one he chose to represent all of France’s war dead, including the disappeared. How was a man to make such a choice freighted with emotion? Thin fell back on a very practical logic, adding up the numbers of his unit regiment 132 to get six before placing the flowers on the sixth coffin. These were the remains that made the train journey to the capital that evening for burial with pomp and pathos – complete with a fictive family of real widows and orphans in the procession – on Armistice Day, the next day.

During 1916 itself, the bloodletting at the forts and hills around Verdun was understood straightaway by the French public as epic. Verdun was neither the costliest nor most decisive French battle of the war. In fact, 50 per cent of the Frenchmen who died in the Great War were already dead by the end of 1915. However, Verdun was the most universalised experience of the war due both to its length and, most of all, due to Gen Pétain’s decision to rotate as many units as possible through the sector in order to preserve unit cohesion.

Thus, over 70 per cent of the French Army served at Verdun. Beyond its limited military value, Verdun was a great defensive battle where the French were doing nothing more, and nothing less, than keeping France in French hands. Stories of desperate resistance and heroic death fired the popular imagination.

Solidarity only went so far though. One soldier-diarist who was unimpressed in 1916 by the "whitewashed nonsense" of some semi-official instant bestsellers on Verdun was socialist barrelmaker Louis Barthas of Narbonne. Barthas was one of the poilus, the French term unanimously applied to the soldiers as an affectionate and knowing reference to "the unshaven" hairy soldiery.

Published in France in 1978, and now available in English translation under the title Poilu (2014), Barthas' improvised diary – he turned his notes into a coherent narrative during his leave back home in the south – includes an account of a harrowing fortnight in "the charnel house" in May 1916. Home and fighting fronts held on though. Pétain's messages of defiance – "Courage, on les aura!" and "They shall not pass" – entered French popular culture where they have remained lodged ever since.

Later, Jules Romains' influential novel Verdun (1938), wrought as a kind of total account of the battle around the story of two French student friends Pierre and Jean emphasising humanity through hell, reinforced the mystique.

Before it was a “site of memory” though, Verdun was an all too real and literally gut-wrenching experience in which modern artillery –23 million shells in the first six months alone – eviscerated not just fortifications but men.

Already in the winter of 1916-17 Corporal Robert Perreau wrote that the summit of the Mort Homme hill "resembled in places a rubbish dump in which there had accumulated shreds of clothing, smashed weapons, shattered helmets, rotting rations, bleached bones and putrescent flesh".

As Verdun was never really a quiet sector, no recuperation could begin before 1919. Local Catholic bishop Charles Ginisty was appalled at the prospect of "sacred remains [being] abandoned to this desert" and spearheaded a cross-community war charity to give fitting homage to the [French] war dead.

It began with clearing up the ghoulish mess of disembodied men blown apart by exploding shells. The Douaumont ossuary, the largest and best known of a range of memorial sites around Verdun, a major portion of which was inaugurated in 1927, houses the bones of at least 100,000 men. These are glimpsed through glass apertures in the floor of the 450ft-long vaulted hall which is mounted in the middle by a lantern tower.

In this context, the torch-lit silent marches of veterans of the 1920s seem like a fitting response. With the brief "Locarno honeymoon" of the mid-to-late 1920s, the period of official detente between France and Germany ushered in by their peace pact of 1925 (for which foreign ministers Aristide Briand and Gustav Stresemann shared the Nobel Peace Prize), it was even possible to invite the German there under the banner of "no more war".

Such "patriotic pacifism" also marked a stunning silent movie Verdun, visions d'histoire produced by Léon Poirier in 1928. It was filmed over 11 months on location at Verdun and the director got use of French troops stationed at Verdun but also assembled veterans to re-enact the battle.

The film left French audiences dumbstruck and moved by the first real depiction on screen of soldiers’ suffering. After 1930, though, with the Depression rampant and Hitler on the rise, what were veterans to do with such noble sentiments now, especially when the new German leader himself cannily appealed to veteran solidarity by sending a delegation to Verdun’s 20th anniversary in 1936?

In the 1930s, Verdun was not just history therefore but an oblique presence in politics. The cults of Pétain and of defensive warfare were two examples of this. Veterans – in other words, most of the adult male population – had generally spent some time under Pétain's command at Verdun and held him in high esteem. Philippe Pétain was a national hero and the poilus's friend.

France, a country with a rural majority up to the middle of the 20th century, had been saved at Verdun, in one popular version of the story, by the grit of the French peasants – the true France – who appreciated Pétain as one of their own, a man who valued work over talk, unlike the Paris politicians. As Pétain would tell the French in a famous radio broadcast in 1940, calling for old-time values: “The land, it does not lie.”

Briefly minister of defence in the early 1930s, Pétain inherited from a previous minister, André Maginot – an injured veteran of Verdun – the policy of building the defensive Maginot forts. Pétain’s upstart subordinate Charles de Gaulle who, at the age of 26, had been taken prisoner at Verdun in 1916, fell out with his mentor in the 1930s on this question of strategy.

By 1945, as is well known, roles were reversed. The second World War undid Pétain who, aged 84, took over as prime minister in a national emergency in June 1940 such was his prestige.

His government authorised negotiations for an armistice which set in train a course of events that partitioned France into occupied and unoccupied zones, ended democracy and made Pétain the titular head of the notoriously compromised (and collaborating) Vichy France regime.

Trying to limit the reputational damage done by his public handshake with Hitler at Montoire in October 1940, a Vichy propaganda poster asked sceptics “Are you more French than he is?”, clearly banking on the deep respect for the “saviour of Verdun” to assuage doubts.

De Gaulle, the rebel who saw German occupation as domination and not a new dawn, and denounced Vichy accordingly, returned to France as head of Free France in 1944 and it fell to him, in 1945, to commute Pétain’s death sentence for high treason to life imprisonment.

The gesture reminds us that many in the Resistance found it hard to jettison respect for Pétain completely. He died in 1951 in internal exile and never got his wish to be buried with the poilus at Verdun, though not for want of trying. There was at least one foiled attempt by hardline sympathisers to dig up his remains on the Ile d'Yeu and bring them to the hallowed ground.

The moral and military catastrophe of Nazism meant that, after the restoration of sovereignty in 1949, the only politically acceptable way for Germans to approach Verdun, with its awful losses and effective German defeat, was through the prism of Franco-German reconciliation within the European family. This has been a constant ever since within the European political project. The French are in the slightly more ambiguous position of both holding hands with the Germans – absolutely sincerely – to say “never again” while also honouring the French dead as patriots who endured or were eviscerated to achieve a great defensive victory for France against Germany, albeit at a hellish price.

"'Holding hands" is not just a folksy metaphor: famously, at Douaumont in September 1984, and in an apparently spontaneous gesture that made for an iconic photograph, French president François Mitterrand and German chancellor Helmut Köhl were moved by the occasion to hold one another's hands during the playing of the anthems. On May 29th, 2016, President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel opened the redesigned Mémorial de Verdun at Fleury-devant-Douaumont, the site of one of nine villages morts pour la France which were abandoned after the war.

The Mémorial originated with a group of French veterans led by writer Maurice Genevoix who, in 1967, feared that, as their generation died, the next generations would have no access to what Verdun "was really like". The resulting Mémorial used French veterans' testimony and assembled artefacts to tell the story without rancour – but from one side.

Cognisant of the internationalisation of the scholarship of the first World War, the Mémorial’s trustees consulted widely and have, for 2016, managed not alone to redesign the museum – adding a top floor encased in glass from which to view the actual battlefield and its still visible “stigmata” – but also rethought its mission, now including the German perspective and tagging displays in French, English and German.

It has taken over two years and has cost €12.5 million but the revamped Mémorial is careful to tell its own history too lest there seems to be a disrespectful rupture with the founders’ mission of 1967.

There have been internal tensions, inevitably, about the resulting balance. Proposals to add German names at the nearby ossuary – where there surely are German bones too – remain a step too far for some on the Mémorial’s board.

Beyond Verdun, local initiatives flourish too. Here, the State co-ordinating body Ireland 2016 collaborated with RTÉ to produce a series of affecting short films on "our" 1916 called Every County Has A Story.

In France, judging from the regional daily newspapers in particular, every commune (little and great) has a story too, be it of of locals’ time in Verdun, present-day schoolchildren’s tributes and even “rugbymen’s” pilgrimages to Verdun remembering lost lives of clubmen and forebears.

Alistair Horne, the prolific author on French history now aged 91, wrote the acclaimed Price of Glory in 1963, a book which framed English speakers' take on Verdun for a long time.

In it, he claimed that after repeated research visits to Verdun it was a place where he – and his companions – never heard birds sing.

It's an unsettling thought and an odd counterpoint to the title of Sebastian Faulks' novel Birdsong where it is the stubborn or blithe persistence of nature's chorus that makes the Tommies' experience of the Somme even more forlorn.

For mothers, and for so many others, Verdun produced a staggering weight of grief. Perhaps now nature will heal itself and the birds may sing again.

Dr Gearóid Barry teaches modern European history at NUI Galway. His book The Disarmament of Hatred on pacifism and the first World War was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012. He is co-editor, with Róisín Healy and Enrico Dal Lago, of Small Nations and Colonial Peripheries in World War One (Brill, 2016)