Verdun - The Sacred Wound



Verdun is the sacred wound of France. No other battle of the Great War would so define the trauma of loss, the bitterness of occupation and the Republic's desire to repulse the ancient enemy. It began in a rain of steel and ended with both sides exhausted but crucially France undefeated. It was the last battle the nation would fight alone and would, in the decades to come, help shape modern Europe. David Reynolds explores both the many meanings the battle generated in 1916 and the memory of loss that came to shape France and Germany in the post war years.

On February 21st 1916, this quiet part of the front, with its seemingly impregnable array of fortresses, was subjected to an almost unendurable bombardment. Industrial slaughter on an unprecedented scale. A million shells fall that day on an unprepared and increasingly panicked French army. Yet as the Germans advanced through torn up terrain there was still life and it was firing back.

What had been planned as an overwhelming breakthrough to crush French resolve and bring about a war of movement would escalate into 10 months of mutual artillery slaughter with soldiers scraping and burrowing into the earth to simply hold the line. It was a battle that made the name of Philippe Petain, ensured the majority of French forces marked by service there and ruined the reputations of its supreme commanders Erich von Falkenhayn, whose masterplan Verdun had been and Marshall Joffre, accused in Parliament of military failings and for presiding over terrible losses.

In the first of two programmes, historian David Reynolds travels to Verdun and its mournful battlefields to better understand what it meant for two nations to wage industrial warfare over a patch of land no bigger than the distance from Leeds to Bradford.

Producer: Mark Burman.

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How do you mark the sacrifice of so many? How do you live with the dead? No other battle so defined the French experience of the Great War as Verdun, which raged from February to October 1916, and didn't truly end until the war did. In the decades that followed both the voices of the veterans and a nation's mournful sense of sacrifice played out across the landscape of Verdun, most notably in its alarming and astonishing ossuary.

This great white tower, resembling a crusaders sword or a giant, bone white, I.C.B.M. filled with the remains of German and French dead, stands amidst the garden of memory that is the national cemetery. Yet the graves are unquiet. This was where Marshall Petain, saviour of Verdun, should have been buried but can never be. Both Petain and DeGaulle were marked by Verdun and their fates would be intertwined in the inter-war years. In the 1930s German and French veterans would meet and pledge no more war but such pledges were hollow promises cynically exploited by veteran trench soldier Adolf Hitler who would soon sacrifice his own troops in a battle often likened to Verdun, Stalingrad.

The battle and its memory have shifted in meaning over the decades, moving from national to trans-national and proving the most symbolic of staging grounds for amity and understanding between two old foes as they remade Europe after 1945.

David Reynolds stands in the shadow of the great Ossuary of Douaumont and journeys through a landscape of loss.

Producer: Mark Burman.