Thursday, March 04, 2010

June 20, 2009 - Verdun, France

Verdun is a enduring French icon, seared into the national memory during WWI as a proxy for the wartime military fortunes of the entire country. Throughout France, streets, squares and other features are named for this town of 20,000 people in the Meuse department of the Lorraine region of northeast France. In pre-Roman times, the Gauls founded Verodunum ("strong fort" in Latin) on the rocky ridge that the present town of Verdun occupies. Later, in 843 CE, the Treaty of Verdun witnessed the empire of Charlemagne - pretty much the whole of Europe - being arbitrarily divvied up between his three sons. Around this same time, Verdun was at the center of a flourishing trade in the sale of young boys to the Islamic emirates of what is now Spain, who enslaved the boys as eunuchs. In 1552 Verdun was annexed by France and existing fortifications were progressively embellished over the years until, at the time of WWI it was believed to be invincible and so, at staggering cost in human misery, it was shown to be.
Five or six years before WWI began, the Germans had
settled on the Schlieffen Plan for an attack on France should the need arise. This plan promised a rapid penetration to the capital, Paris, ensuring a quick surrender. For good or bad, however, the plan was timidly executed when war did begin in 1914 and directly led to the stalemated mud and blood baths that continued for the next several years. In February 1916, attempting to break the deadlock, the Germans mounted a major offensive beginning an horrific 300 day battle that became, not just Verdun's finest hour, but a killing field for half a million men and the beginning of the end for German ambitions in the entire conflict.
Initially the French were woefully undermanned and quite ill-prepared for the onslaught which consequently went badly for them. General Joffrey was replaced by General Petain who, by June, had slowly reversed French fortunes until, by the end of the year, Verdun - and Paris just 120 miles to the west - were saved from occupation. This was effectively Verdun's last hurrah as a military stronghold for, in WWII, it was trivialized as the German armies swept by the entire area in just a few days on their way to Paris and occupation.
Close by Verdun is the final resting place for 14,246 American military in the WWI Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial. The cemetery chapel contains a memorial to a further 954 Americans whose remains were either never recovered or identified. More images here.

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