Verdun, 100 Years Later

By Sam Colleran

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Verdun, for Louis Barthas, was a hell on earth that even surpassed that of his previous two years in the trenches.  Barthas, who was an average salt of the earth poilu, had the unique experience of living through all four years of the Great War as an infantry soldier. This makes his perspective on Verdun especially important, as he truly saw the full extent of the war on the Western Front.

As a recent tourist of the Verdun area, I have had the unique opportunity to examine and compare Barthas’ image of Verdun with the current one. Through this I seek to contrast the evidence we have today of the Battle of Verdun with what Barthas experienced.  Obviously there is a difference between Verdun at war and Verdun after war, however after 100 years there is a serious risk of the whole battle fading from the area’s aura. The truth is, to fully understand the scope and brutality of the Battle of Verdun, one must not only visit the sight, but also read primary accounts about how the area looked, smelled, and sounded during the thick of the 1916 battle.

The Verdun of Barthas was one where all of the grisly aspects of war were amplified. The weather was ferocious, leading to a variety of ailments in the soldiers. The German shelling was not only terrifying, but it also killed numerous French. The dead soldiers, the bodily waste, and the rain combined to form a horrible area for the soldiers who were confined in the trenches.

Additionally, the mental and physical toll was steep even on those soldiers who would survive Verdun. Barthas describes the aftermath of a nearby shell explosion: “It coursed through my whole body, from my rattled brain, to my heavy heart and lungs, all the way down to my rubbery legs.”(Barthas pg 201) Others experienced nervousness, temporary insanity, and a host of other mental issues as a result of the constant shelling.

My experience at Verdun was, as one would expect, quite different and far less trying. I traveled there not by marching but in a bus. My food was not confined to whatever the rations there were, rather, what the best sounding restaurant was. I didn’t hear a single shell explode and none of my comrades fell. I did however, see a lot of the same things that Barthas had. I saw the holes in the ground and the scarred landscape that were the aftermath of the significant shelling that the area took. I walked in a communication trench and saw the forts that were crucial to the defense of Verdun. These however, were only seen in the aftermath of Verdun. The shell holes were not filled with mud and casualties, the communication trench not busy, and the forts under no manner of attack.

These three pieces of evidence we have left over from the Battle of Verdun are significant because even after nearly 100 years they still illustrate the intensity of the conflict. Walking through the communication trench, aided by the vast knowledge of our guide, I was able to envision the chaos that would erupt after a shelling with soldiers rushing to the front and medics and casualties rushing to the rear.

Thus, with a combination of the visual aid of being there in person, and the account from a source like Barthas, it is possible to get a more complete picture of the conflict than one would through a visit or primary accounts alone. It was for instance, difficult for me, never having been to war, to imagine the intensity and violence of shellfire. Barthas writes about it: “Shells of every caliber, fired by both sides, fell without respite. This dark abyss seemed like a volcano in constant eruption, and there we were, hanging right on its rim.”(Barthas pg 194)

From this I cannot only hear the battle; I can also picture the emotional and mental burden of it and the physical toll that it would take on some of the participants. With a firsthand view of the former battlefield however, I can truly see the size and effect of the battle. The mogul-like landscape reveals the strength of the shells that fell on the area and further emphasizes the mental and emotional impact that they had on the soldiers. It truly took the two of them together for me to get a complete and empathetic understanding of the battle.

In essence, the reading of WWI primary accounts and visiting of the sites are not only important to keep the war in our memory. They also serve the crucial task of creating a complete understanding of the battles. Without understanding the battles, one cannot possibly understand the war.

 

 

About Stephen Norris