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Over a hundred years ago, on February 21, 1916 at 7:15am, the battle of Verdun began and became one of the longest, one of the bloodiest and one of the fiercest battles of the First World War for the French and German armies.

To achieve his aim Falkenhayn needed to target a part of the French front where strategic necessity and national pride combined. The ancient fortress city of Verdun on the River Meuse was just such a place.
At 4 am on 21 February 1916 the battle began, with a massive artillery bombardment and a steady advance by troops of the German Fifth Army under Crown Prince Wilhelm.

Worth watching this video.   

The Germans start the biggest battle in history with an artillery barrage of over 1000 guns on a 20 km front. The Battle of Verdun is the first major German offensive since the Race to the Sea and Erich von Falkenhayn has high hopes to break through the French lines. The French credo is: "lls ne passeront pas!" – they shall not pass!

General Philippe Petain was then given command of the French Second Army at Verdun. Petain had a reputation as a master of defense and organised his forces to defend in depth by establishing a series of mutually supporting strong points, rather than pushing all his troops into the vulnerable front-line trenches.
On March 6, the Germans renewed their offensive, this time on the west bank of the Meuse. The already terrible battlefield conditions were made worse throughout March and April, as persistent rain turned the area into a quagmire. In late April, General Robert Nivelle took over French command from Petain and began large-scale counterattacks. This offered the Germans a chance to return to Falkenhayn's strategy but by this time all sense of the original concept was lost, replaced by a fixation to take Verdun.
On June 24, the Allied bombardment began on the Somme. The German offensive at Verdun was reduced in order to reinforce the Somme front. Nivelle seized his chance and attacked. His Second Army had artillery superiority and he employed new tactics based on specialist infantry sections armed with light machine guns, rifle grenades, mortars and light field guns. Even so, the Germans were not prepared to give ground. Casualties rose as villages such as Fleury changed hands several times. There was also terrible fighting for the forts taken by the Germans earlier in the battle before these too fell to the French. 
The battle of Verdun ended on December 15, 1916, as winter conditions and results of fighting on the Somme made further activity impossible. The French had lost 377,000 men and the Germans 330,000. Falkenhayn's plan to destroy the French army had failed. Even worse from a German perspective, the heavy losses at Verdun combined with even greater casualties suffered on the Somme to create a manpower crisis within the army that would become increasingly difficult to resolve as the war continued. 
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Here are some testimonials from French soldiers who fought in Verdun: 
An anonymous French Staff Officer,describing the first German attack at Verdun: 
"Thousands of projectiles are flying in all directions,some whistling,others howling,others moaning low,and all uniting in one infernal roar.From time to time,an aerial torpedo passes,making a noise like a gigantic motor car.With a tremendous thud,a giant shell bursts quite close to our observation post,breaking the telephone wire and interrupting all communication with our batteries.A man gets out at once for repairs,crawling along on his stomach through all this place of bursting mines and shells.It seems quite impossible that he should escape in the rain of shell,which exceeds anything imaginable;there was never such a bombardment in war. Finally,he reaches a less stormy spot,mends his wires,and then,as it would be madness to try to return,settles down in a big crater for the storm to pass. 
Beyond,in the valley,dark masses are moving over the snow-covered ground.It is German infantry advancing in packed formation.They look like a big grey carpet being unrolled over the country and as they deploy,fresh troops come pouring in.There is a whistle over our heads.It is our first shell.It falls right in the middle of the enemy infantry. 
Through glass we can see men maddened,men covered with earth and blood,falling one upon the other.
When the first wave of the assault is decimated,the ground is dotted with heaps of corpses,but the second wave is already pressing on.Once more our shells carve awful gasps in their ranks.Then our artillery bursts forth in fury.The whole valley is turned into a volcano,and its exit is stopped by the barrier of the slain." 
Private Eugéne Bouin, May 1916, Verdun: 
"You can't imagine the landscape around us, no more vegetation, not even a ruin; here and there, a stump of a tree trunk tragically stands on the ground riddled with thousands and thousands of shell holes touching each other. No more trenches or casings to find your way around. Between us and the Germans, no barbed wire, everything is pulverized as the cannonade goes on. But more active than the bombardment, worse than the lack of supplies, is the stench that lingers, heavy and pestilential, that squeezes your guts, lifts your heart, prevents you from eating and even drinking. We live in a huge mass grave where only filthy flies gorged with blood and big rats gleaming with fat look like they're enjoying themselves: everything is stinking with rotting corpses, human waste of all kinds, dust from explosives and gas slicks."
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Private Romain Darchy: 
"After the storm, we found only a head in a red pond, a few remains of limbs at the bottom of the shell hole, and nameless shreds of mud. That's all that was left of our poor comrades. The violence of the explosion had driven them into the ground, three of them had entered almost completely into the walls of the pit, packed like rags.I see what were just now two living beings and are now nothing but a pile of mud and blood. Their remains were hastily gathered together in the moonlight and in the evening we said goodbye to them.We have seen so many of them that the blood dulls, the heart becomes blasé. 
The inhuman armor protects us from feelings that are too human, and we don't think about it a minute later. And yet, we had shared everything, walked together, suffered in the same places, been buried by the same mine, stuck in the same mud. We had bowed our heads in the same gusts of wind. Our throats tightened and like a desire to cry. It is over.Tonight the lottery starts again, happy those who will bring back the right numbers." 
Private Carafray, stretcher bearer, 118th Infantry Regiment, November 2, 1916, Verdun: 
"On November 2, 1916, my team was ordered to pick up the wounded at the Vaux Redoubt in front of the fort. What a sad sight! The shell holes were so close together that they were touching each other. In each hole, one or more corpses, some on their backs, others on their stomachs. A few mowed down in a bayonet charge still have their hands clenched on the butt of their rifle. Others were knocked unconscious at their machine gun positions. Everywhere human debris, shredded limbs. From the half-leveled trench we are following, an arm, a leg, a head comes out here and there." 
Private Henri Herduin:
"My darling. Our division is broke, the regiment is annihilated;I have just lived 5 terrible days, seeing death at every minute; I will tell you this later... I am still the only commander of my company... I am now behind... Four days without food or drink and in the mud of the shells. What a miracle that I'm still here...". 
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Private Louis Corti, 30th French Infantry Battalion: 
"This morning we had a double ration of brandy. Imagine what an assault with a knife can be, those thin white steels at the end of the rifles held by our clenched hands. This fight is the worst that can be asked of our weak, trembling bodies. We take a deep breath before plunging into the unknown. I am afraid of the unknown, afraid to go out, afraid to fight.
With a kind of animal anxiety, huddled together, everyone falls silent. There are fifty of us piled so tightly together in this small space that we cannot make a move. Our feet, sunken in the earth, freeze with it.
Standing up, I open my eyes and the terrible reality appears to me, we are going to die. We end up walking in a half-sleep, unconsciously, without orders, without voice and without thoughts, like beasts. In this atmosphere where we feel the elusive death, we hear cries, orders coming from who knows where.The signal for departure has just been given. 
The rifle shots begin to ring out, and soon a sharp barrage of screams and shouts of horror falls on our units. Men fall, broken in two in their tracks, we have to cross the plain swept by the bullets, the corpses with dislocated limbs, the black face, horrible.We arrive very close to the Boche and a terrible hand-to-hand fight begins. The rifles can no longer be of use to us and it is with the help of our shovels that we strike.We see a whirlwind of men we don't recognise, we don't hear anymore. 
My nose and ears are bleeding, I'm crazy, I don't even see the danger anymore, I don't think of anything, my role is over.I see myself with broken loins, suffocating, digging the earth with my hands, and there, close to me, rises, monotonous, a child's complaint "I'm in pain, Mama, my God I'm going to die".What happened to my comrades? Did they leave? Did they die? Am I the only one alive in my hole?
In front of me, the family that I left at home and that I may never see again. I see my family again, my sleeping village, my children, and I tell myself that all the dreams we had together will never come true, that I will never see them again. And the anguish grips me deeply. ". 
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Here is a testimonial from a German Corporal, Karl Fritz:
"Fleury, near Verdun, August 16, 1916
We were brought up to a few kilometers from the Verdun front... You can't imagine what we saw there. We were at the exit of Fleury in front of the fort of Souville. We spent 3 days lying in the shell holes watching death up close, waiting for it at every moment. And this, without the slightest drop of water to drink and in a horrible stench of corpses. One shell covers the corpses with dirt, another exhumes them again. When you want to dig yourself a shelter, you immediately come across dead soldiers. 
I was part of a group of comrades, and yet each one prayed only for himself. The worst thing was the relief, the comings and goings. Through the continuous barrage of fires. Then we crossed the Douaumont fort, I had never seen anything like it before. There, there were only serious wounded, and it breathed death on all sides. On top of that, we were continually under fire. We had about forty men dead or wounded. We were told that it was not much for a company. Everybody was pale and had their faces undone. I'm not going to tell you more about our misery, I think that's enough. 
We were commanded by a certain Warrant Officer Uffe. We didn't see him. But the Lord came to my aid. We left immediately for Spincourt where we were loaded onto vehicles bound for Grandpont, then in two days we returned to our positions in front of Chapelle, where we are now a little better settled."
Today, the battle of Verdun remains the strong symbol of the courage and spirit of resistance of the French army, of our "Poilus" who fought in absolutely appalling conditions during 300 days and 300 nights of a nameless hell in which almost all the French army fought with an exceptional heroism. 
Gone but not forgotten, France does not forget these heroes who gave their lives for us and of which we are proud because thanks to their courage and their sacrifices, we live today in a world at peace.Nous n'oublierons jamais,vive la France.????
Footnote: I post this article, not because it is about our ANZACs but because it is a great insight into the horror that was the Western Front.
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