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.