A century ago, Europe was busy killing itself—a nightmare we still live with today
One hundred years ago today, the bloodiest year yet in Europe’s long history was coming to its painful conclusion. On December 17, 1916, the guns fell silent around Verdun, a wrecked fortress-city in northeastern France, for the first time in 10 months.
The catastrophe had commenced on February 21, when German forces launched what was supposed to be a limited offensive around Verdun. The Western Front had grown static by the end of 1914, when the quick, decisive victories that all Europe’s armies anticipated would occur failed to materialize. Unable to achieve breakthroughs, soldiers on all sides dug in to avoid shells and machine gun fire. Soon the opposing trenches ran from the Swiss frontier all the way to the English Channel.
Throughout 1915, efforts by the French and British—especially the former, who had lost so much of their territory to the invader in the opening months of the Great War—to regain ground ended in agony, with offensives petering out against German fire and entrenchments. A year into the war, it was evident to any wise observer that the conflict had become a stalemate. Victory would come to the army that endured the brutal struggle the longest.
German generals accepted this horrific logic first, realizing that the war was now about attrition, not finesse. On the orders of Erich von Falkenhayn, Berlin’s top general, German forces initiated the Verdun offensive not to gain ground, not to break through, but simply to bleed France white. Falkenhayn correctly assessed that France would fight doggedly for Verdun, an ancient fortress-city, thereby allowing the Germans to operate a meat-grinder that would run until the enemy ran out of men.
That part of Falkenhayn’s vision worked as predicted—at least at first. Initial German advances were met with dogged resistance, and Verdun quickly became a rallying cry for all France: On ne passe pas—They shall not pass—was the national watchword that year. The fury of French counterattacks startled the Germans, and by the spring French generals had established a rotational system, moving units into the Verdun meat-grinder then getting them out before they completely collapsed. As a result, virtually every division in the French army fought at Verdun at some point in 1916.
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