The Symbol of the First World War
“Verdun is the symbol and the apogee of World War I. It is undoubtedly the only name that will still be remembered in centuries to come” - Guy Pedroncini.
For historian Guy Pedroncini, who disappeared in 2006, the Battle of Verdun will remain etched in the collective memory and symbolise the First World War for future generations. For historian Antoine Prost, “the 1914 war is Verdun”.
The Battle of Verdun became world-renowned from the very time fighting began. In just a few weeks it came to symbolise the courage and suffering of the Verdun soldier, resisting, blocking off the road to Verdun from the Germans under a deluge of shrapnel and faced with an overwhelming number of attackers. Suddenly, the fate of the homeland was being decided in this few square miles, but the soldiers of Verdun realised they had to withstand the attack at all costs, despite being less well armed and in far smaller numbers. The attacking forces were most astonished to discover, on this land which had already been flattened by the strength of their artillery, groups of soldiers taking them from the rear, hindering their progress and putting everything they had left into this fight, despite their decreasing numbers, in a David versus Goliath-like battle. News of the Battle would soon spread worldwide.
300 days et 300 nights
The noria set up on the Voie Sacrée (Sacred Way) was used to transport nearly 2.5 million French soldiers during the 300 days and nights the battle lasted. Two thirds of all French soldiers fought in Verdun, which is one of the unique aspects of this page in the country’s history. For both servicemen and civilians, in France and abroad, the Battle of Verdun was the Battle of France. It was about fighting to protect your own land rather than conquer someone else’s, a fight which could only be applauded in France and supported by the rest of the world.
In 1931, the Deputy and Mayor of Verdun, Victor Schleiter, who received various international tokens of recognition and was a key player in the reconstruction of Verdun, declared “Verdun is the magic word that brings crowds to their feet whenever it is uttered abroad”. Indeed, as of 1916, in the aftermath of the fighting which went on in the early days of the battle, the glorious resistance demonstrated by the soldiers of Verdun gave rise to a surge in solidarity and admiration for the French soldiers charged with defending the ‘heroic city’, ‘defender of freedoms’. This national and international enthusiasm was no less strongly felt when the war ended. According to André Maginot, the Battle of Verdun had made the city the ‘capital of victory’. Indeed, the body of the Unknown Soldier was also chosen at Verdun. Tokens of international recognition flowed in and Verdun became, and has remained ever since, the most decorated city in France.
The Century of Verdun
For others, such as film director Patrick Barberis and historian Antoine Prost, the 20th Century was the ‘century of Verdun’, hence the title of the documentary the two produced together on this period in the city's history. Through its very scale and its symbolism, Verdun was the inaugural event of the 20th Century. Indeed, it was as a result of the hostility born in the trenches of Verdun that Hitler, appealing to Germany’s spirit of revenge, conceived his national socialist ideology which would result in the Second World War in continuation of the First.
The symbolic impact of the Battle of Verdun is still strong today, despite the gradual loss of all those it made heroes. As Hervé Lemoine highlights in his report in favour of founding a centre of French history, as far as today’s historians are concerned, the French nation built itself up ‘from Verdun to Verdun’, from the 843 treaty to the battle of 1916, from the division of the vast Charlemagne empire of which France and Germany were born to the consolidation of the country following the fighting of 1916.
Indeed, after the ‘French moment’, which was also the ‘German moment’, came the ‘European moment’, from Verdun 1916 to Verdun 1984, from the confrontations of war to the Kohl-Mitterrand handshake in front of the Douaumont ossuary, a symbol of the Franco-German reconciliation and of friendship between these two peoples, witnessed at a site where so many lay dead below. Only on the battlefields of Verdun would a complete and definitive reconciliation ever take on any real meaning.
As a result, Verdun came to be considered a universal city.
The Battle, for which it provided both a subject and a setting, had radically and irreparably marred the landscape, the scars still clearly visible today. The various cemeteries, ossuaries, monuments and forts in the area are testimony to the severity of the fighting and the price at which the defence of the country by « ceux de Verdun, citoyens et gardiens de la terre » (‘the people of Verdun, citizens and protectors of the land’), in the words of historian Marc Ferro, came.
An extraordinary place
The events which took place in Verdun, from the treaty to the fighting, from the fighting to the reconciliation, make it a truly extraordinary place in terms of both French and European history, not to mention the history of humanity itself. The City of Verdun is now hoping to have the entire Battle of Verdun battlefield listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site owing to the extraordinary double testimony it bears for the world, namely the testimony of the suffering caused and pushed to its limits by the madness of war and the testimony of the possible reconciliation and the necessary tolerance between the peoples involved.