Battle of Verdun

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The Battle of Verdun (French: Bataille de Verdun, IPA: [bataj də vɛʁdœ̃], German: Schlacht um Verdun, IPA: [ʃlaxt ˀʊm vɛɐdœŋ]) was one of the major battles during the First World War on the Western Front. It was fought between the German and French armies, from 21 February to 18 December 1916, on hilly terrain north of the city of Verdun-sur-Meuse in north-eastern France. The Battle of Verdun ended as a French tactical victory. However,as pointed out in 1996 by French Verdun historian Alain Denizot in his doctoral thesis "Verdun,1914-1918", it can also be perceived as a costly stalemate in terms of strategic results. The German High Command failed to achieve its two objectives: 1) to capture the city of Verdun and 2) to inflict a much higher casualty count on its French adversary. By the end of the battle, the French Second Army had rolled back the German forces around Verdun, but not quite to their initial lines of February 1916.

In all, Verdun resulted in more than a quarter of a million battlefield deaths (163,000 French and 143,000 German combatants) plus at least half a million wounded, amounting to an average of 30,000 deaths for each of the ten months of the battle. This duration made it the longest and one of the most devastating battles in the First World War and also in the overall history of warfare. Verdun was primarily an artillery battle: a total of about 40 million artillery shells were exchanged, leaving behind millions of overlapping shell craters that are still partly visible. In both France and Germany, Verdun has come to represent the horrors of war, like the Battle of the Somme in the British consciousness. The renowned British military historian Major General Julian Thompson has referred to Verdun as "France's Stalingrad".

The Battle of Verdun popularized General Robert Nivelle's: "They shall not pass", a simplification of the actual French text :" Vous ne les laisserez pas passer, mes camarades" ("you shall not let them pass, my comrades"), on record in Nivelle's Order of the day of 23 June 1916. (in: Denizot, 1996, "Verdun 1914–1918", N.E.L., Paris, ISBN 2-7233-0514-7). At the beginning of the battle, on 16 April 1916, General Philippe Pétain had also issued a stirring Order of the day, but it was optimistic: Courage! On les aura ("Courage! We will get them"). General Nivelle's admonition, on the other hand, betrayed concern for the command problems he was facing at the time. Nivelle's appointment, in May 1916, to head the French Second Army at Verdun had been followed by several instances of collective indiscipline occurring among his troops. This unprecedented disquiet would eventually reappear, but in greatly amplified and widespread form, with the French army mutinies that followed the unsuccessful Nivelle offensive of April 1917.


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