« They proceeded with their heads down and their gaze doleful, overwhelmed by their gear ... they didn’t say anything, they didn’t groan anymore; they didn’t even have enough strength to complain. One could see in their expressions an extraordinary abyss of pain ... those silent faces, crying out frighteningly: We have witnessed the unspeakable.»
Verdun, thrust upon the vanguard of “The Revenge”, became a central fortress in the General Staffs’ concerns. In 1914, Verdun had 28,000 servicemen for 13,000 inhabitants. The citadel was equipped with a network of tunnels measuring several kilometers and leading to underground barracks.
The military command constructed, in a vast circle that was 25 kilometers in diameter, a ring of 38 forts designed to fend off any enemy attack. This ring was reinforced by a multitude of shelters, served by a railroad network and supported by the formidable capacity of the fortress of Verdun.
In 1914, the war came banging at the gates of Verdun, which faced a deluge of artillery.
In September of 1914, the Fortified Region of Verdun – the border outpost city – found itself to be in the center of a fragile salient that was threatened at both of its flanks. From 1914 onward, tough battles were fought on the Heights of the Meuse.
In 1915, the German army launched its attacks at the flanks, in Argonne and on the crests of the Éparges. The mountains towering over the Meuse and Verdun would become the focus of the future German offensive.
Beginning in 1916, the eyes of the General Staffs turned toward Verdun, the key to victory. The forts taken by surprise and the structures crushed by the "bombing of Verdun" forced the combatants of Verdun to hide in the recesses of the ground, to hang narrow hoses from the slopes of the ravines and to defend every meter of destroyed tree groves throughout a 10-month ordeal.
On February 21,1916, German attack troops launched a powerful offensive in front of the fortified region of Verdun. At the end of a five-day offensive, the German advance was only five kilometers north of the city.
The front tightened up and the Germans attacked on the flanks during this entire winter month, but no breach was going to threaten the overall operation. After one month of fierce combat, the French came out – staggering and overwhelmed but still energized by a tremendous fighting vigor.
During April and May, a series of violent hand-to-hand fights pitted the two armies against each other. It was the Living Hell of Verdun, the crucible of ceaseless artillery and fire, fueled by impressive equipment brigades and long companies of men. In a few months of combat, those few acres facing Verdun became the symbol of the entire war, anchoring itself deep in the memories of French WWI troops and German soldiers. On June 23, the German attack forced the defense, the French Resistance reacted, and hand-to-hand combat added to the unrelenting bombardment. After a week, a final frontal offensive was attempted on the Ravin des Vignes less than 2,500 meters from Verdun. With a final burst of effort by a German army worn down from a five-month battle, the hope for victory was shattered ...
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