Terror of the Past, Ruins of the Future

By Chris McArn

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The longest battle of World War I was the battle of Verdun in France. This battle lasted from February 1916 through December 1916 and became the battle that helped to covey the idea that the conflict was not a war of attrition. Men were thrown into battle with the goal of weakening an enemy even if there was little chance it was going to lead to a break through. It was an attempt to bleed out the enemy in order to attain victory. 750,000 soldiers died fighting for both sides during the battle of Verdun and some of them were never recovered after the fighting had stopped. This all-out war brought new technologies to the war front that caused destruction, death, and terror on an unseen scale. The notebooks of Louis Barthas, a French soldier who fought and lived through all the major battles of the war, including Verdun. gives a firsthand account on the terror he experienced at the hands of these weapons. The terror and destruction that Barthas describes can be seen on the battlefields still today, the destruction that remains from this one battle, all brought about by the terrible technology of war.

Barthas fought in every major battle of the western front during the Great War and he talks about his experiences at each of them, but I found his notebook on his time at Verdun to be full of the fear he and his fellow soldiers had when facing weapons such as planes, better artillery, and a mystery weapon that he never identifies. The invention of the plane and its use in battle opened a new arena of combat that had never been seen before. Planes fought in areal combat against each other, but in Barthas’ case, the planes were used as spotters, and the enemy’s were a hated sight. While he was taking cover in the trenches, Barthas and his fellow Poilu, “had to conceal anything that would reveal our positions: tools, arms, mess kits, packs, everything had to disappear, and ourselves, too, under penalty of receiving an unannounced avalanche of shellfire”(Barthas, 197). Planes were finding the positions of French soldiers and relaying it to their artillery men, who in turn would bomb them. Barthas had to hide in the mud and feared these planes. They had to watch out from above as well as in front of them, and during his time there, Barthas noted the lack of French air support in the area, allowing the Germans to constantly watch and bomb them whenever they moved positions. The artillery that often followed the planes, was a huge development and change from earlier cannon artillery. World War I artillery could shoot from much farther and could be hidden from sight and hit with no warning. During one such shelling, Barthas states, “we expected to be pulverized at any minute. It was a matter of being caught in a salvo”(Barthas,      198), and in the case of his friends, “a big 105 shell which explodes so close that the boyau collapses, burying Jalabert and Sabatier”(Barthas, 204). They were under constant pressure and danger from an enemy they could not fight against. The close calls took their toll on the men and led to a new disease known as shell shock, or post traumatic stress disorder as it is known as today. These weapons were faced on a daily basis and were responsible for most of the deaths in the war. During the war there were also new weapons that were tested that would later make appearances in a deadlier form during World War II. These unknown weapons were even more terrifying to Barthas and his fellow Poilu because they were different, and there was not a known way to combat these weapons. When Barthas encounters the unknown weapon, “what kind of devilish device was this, which we hadn’t encountered before-and never did again afterward? Doubt-less it was some new kind of rapid-firing cannon which the Germans never used again (too bad for them),”(Barthas, 198). Their part of the line was targeted for the testing of this weapon and they would rather be under intense shelling, because at least they were used to it and knew how to protect themselves from it; or they had accepted their fate with it. Not only did the new weapons destroy the psyche and terrify the soldiers like Barthas, they left lasting scars on the battlefields they were used.

Going to Verdun gave me an appreciation for the terror that Barthas talked about in his notebooks. There really is no way to understand the scale of destruction that this war took on the world, and Europe specifically. As we traveled to Fort Douaumont and stood on top of the massive fort that was a central point during the fight, we observed how the land around it was shelled so much that the turrets, that used to be flush with the surface of the ground, stuck out about the cratered surface of the fort. Surrounding the fort are craters that show just how bad the shelling was. Because of the severity of the shelling, the soil is so acidic that most plants cannot grow on or around the fort. There is grass covering it but nothing else until you get farther outside the outer trench. Another example of the intensity of the shelling was the destruction of the town of Fleury. It was completely leveled and the civilians that fled from the town never returned because there was nothing left for them to return to, it was never rebuilt. Now there are markers where houses and roads used to exist but they were obliterated, there are still craters that fill with water every time it rains and the surface of the town looks like that of the moon.  Fort Douaumont is still standing, somewhat in ruin, because of its construction. It started as a stone fort but was fortified with concrete and gun turrets before the battle broke out in order to keep the armaments up to date. With these reinforcements the fort was able to withstand the shelling of the Germans, and the French, but it did so in very poor condition. Looking at the turrets of forts Douaumont and Froidterre are covered with dents and bullet holes from shells and shrapnel. The amount of damage that the shells and grenades that were caused to these forts in an effort to take them and destroy them. Forts like these may have survived the battle, but were death traps for soldiers inside. The weapons of the Great War left irreparable damage on the landscape of Europe and serve as a reminder to their destructive power.

New weaponry that was used in the war destroyed and terrified the soldiers of the war because they had to learn to adapt and survive under such terrible circumstances and these weapons left so much damage to the terrain that it is still visible one hundred years later. This constant pressure changed men into beasts and, “on both sides they fought like cannibals, with a cruelty perhaps greater than in the long-ago times of the barbarian invasions”(Barthas, 202). The violence and destruction of World War I left a legacy in Europe. People are always reminded of the amount of death and destruction the war caused. Optimists thought it would be the war that ended all wars but it became a precursor for another terrible conflict that would ravage the world a few decades later.  The scarred landscape still present at Verdun reminds us that the optimism was misguided.

Works Cited

Barthas, Louis. 1978. Poilu. London: Yale University Press.

 

About Stephen Norris