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Verdun, a duty to history

Verdun, a duty to history

Verdun , « never again! »

The battle was still raging, having already made news worldwide as well as the history books. It would remain etched in both the collective memory and also, first and foremost, of course, in the memories of those involved, forever. ‘Never again’ was the pithy yet explicit expression that was heard so many times from the mouths of those who had experienced the reality of what it referred to, ‘the hell of Verdun’. Now that these soldiers have all passed away, it is important that we make the generations of today and tomorrow aware of what was the major event of World War I, namely the Battle of Verdun and the horrific realities that came with it. It is an awareness of the realities of war that brings us to reflect upon war and the tragedy that comes with it.

For this reason, over and above the oft-cited duty of remembrance, society today has a duty to history and with it a duty to explain, to teach the facts accurately, as they actually happened, with a pressing need to preserve all remaining traces and symbols of combat as accurately as is possible with no ideological ramifications of any kind.

 The witnesses of Verdun

Ex-serviceman and writer Maurice Genevoix told of the suffering caused by the fighting of World War I in his work ‘Ceux de 14’ (The Men of 1914). In just a few words he summaries the sacrifice required of the men of his generation when he says, ‘What we did was more than you could ask of men but we did it’.

However, during the war and in the years that followed, up until recently in fact, the need to remember the fighting and to honour the soldiers, both those who lost their lives and those who survived, was at the heart of the concerns of the nation as a whole and particularly for servicemen. Recounting their experiences had become something of a duty and failure to do so would have felt like a betrayal of their comrades who had not returned from the battlefield. Beginning in 1916, Maurice Genevoix wrote an eye witness account of the fighting of 1914 entitled ‘Sous Verdun’ (During Verdun), which gives a day-by-day account of his own experience as a young officer and the everyday reality of the battles in which he fought in Argonne, Vaux Marie Farm and later Les Eparges. In the aftermath of the war, many accounts attempting to describe the horrors of war were published. The servicemen who wrote such accounts were suspicious of grandiose positions and legendary tales and were primarily concerned with sharing the story of ‘their’ war and their suffering. Remembering and passing the memories on to future generations was their duty.

The Verdun Medal

Of course, the various authorities were also concerned about ensuring that the memory of the soldiers lived on.

On 20th November 1916, right in the middle of the war and in the heat of the battle, the Conseil Municipal de Verdun (Verdun Municipal Council) which was, at the time, located on the Rue de Bellechasse in Paris, now the headquarters of the Department of Veterans Affairs, decided to introduce the Verdun Medal, awarded to ‘great leaders, officers, soldiers, everyone, hero or unknown soldier, living or deceased…’. The City of Verdun, ‘inviolated and now standing on its ruins, dedicated the medal as a token of its recognition’.

“Verdun, on ne passe pas” (Verdun, they shall not pass) inscribed on the reverse of the Verdun Medal, from the words President Raymond Poincaré at the underground citadel in Verdun on 16th September 1916

A few weeks previously, Head of State Raymond Poincaré, had visited the underground citadel to award the City of Verdun the Légion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre, along with various decorations from foreign powers. In a now historic speech, he acknowledged Germany’s defeat at Verdun a few months ahead of time with the words, ‘These are the walls against which the supreme hopes of Imperial Germany were shattered. This is where they sought to achieve a resounding a dramatic victory. This is where, with a quiet firmness, France told them ‘you shall not pass’. The expression “Verdun, on ne passe pas” (Verdun, they shall not pass) became the motto inscribed on the Verdun Medal.

On 26th April 1922, the Conseil Municipal decided that the medal would be awarded to ‘soldiers of the French and allied armies who served between 31st July 1914 and 11th November 1918 in the Army of Verdun, the sector spanning the area between Argonne and the St. Mihiel hernia, in the area that came under gunfire (excluding air bombings)’. As part of the same movement, the ‘Livre d’or des Soldats de Verdun’ (Gold Book of the Soldiers of Verdun) was created and a Livre d’Or commission set up to review the cases put forward by servicemen and their families who wished to apply for it. Even today, almost a hundred years after the battle, descendants of former servicemen request copies of pages of the Livre d’Or featuring the names of family members who fought in the war.

Verdun and the Unknown Soldier 

It was also in November 1916 that the idea of laying the body of an unknown soldier to rest in a prominent position was first voiced. The idea would be developed and eventually adopted by the National Assembly in 1919. It was finally decided that the Arc de Triomphe would be the perfect resting place for the unknown hero, who was chosen in the highly symbolic Verdun from among eight servicemen ‘who were unequivocally known to be French but whose personal identity it had not been possible to establish’ and who had fallen in the eight major sectors in which the fighting of World War I took place (Artois, the Somme, Île-de-France, Chemin des Dames, Champagne, Lorraine, Verdun and Flanders).

On 10th November 1920, in the underground citadel, soldier Auguste Thin chose the 6th casket in front of him, the number 6 being significant as he belonged to the 6th corps and the 132nd IR, the figures in the latter adding together to make 6.

Corporal Auguste Thin, in the presence of André Maginot, was charged with selecting the unknown soldier at the underground citadel in Verdun

The chosen casket was transferred to Paris and solemnly taken to the Arc de Triomphe on 11th November 1920, to be laid to rest there definitively in 1921. An eternal flame was positioned on the tomb and was lit for the first time on 11th November 1923. Every year, the eternal flame is taken from Paris to Verdun by a procession and burns in the crypt of the city’s memorial to the dead from 1st to 11th November. The other seven bodies were buried at the Cimetière Militaire National (National Military Cemetery) in Verdun.