The town of Verdun, in the Meuse département, is an old Gallic oppidum. Its name, made up of ver or "ford" and dun(o) "height" refers to a place that dominated an old crossing point on the Meuse river. Known as Virodunum, the Gallo-Roman castrum was later fortified, but in vain, since in 450 Attila reduced it to nothing. In Verdun in 843, Charlemagne's grandsons signed the treaty for the division of the Carolingian Empire; the document is considered to be the first written evidence of the French language. Between 870 and 879, the city, in the possession of Lotharingie, was incorporated into the kingdom of France, before falling under the rule of the Othonian Germanic empire in 923. The town was the subject of a contest of power between the lineage of counts, from whence came Godefroy de Bouillon, and the episcopal princes, supported by the Germanic emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. A bloody revolt allowed the middle-classes to escape from under their power in the 13th century.
Henri II of France seized the town on the 12th June 1552 during the "Chevauchée d'Austrasie" (Austrasian wars). Charles Quint created the place de Metz on the 18th of October of the same year. Verdun thus became a border town, with the full threat of siege. In order to strengthen their power over the county, Henri and his successor, François the First, granted it special privileges and hastily modernised the medieval ramparts. Raised earth mounds and triangular bastioned flanks protected the walls from artillery fire; structures made of earth inside the square accommodated canons. One of the league towns during the Religious wars, Verdun would not submit until after Henri IV's conversion.
In 1611, Louis XIII renewed the town's protected status. In 1624, Richelieu decided to finish the Verdun citadel. He sent Marshal de Mardillac and engineers from Argencourt, Aleaune and Chastillon. The work lasted ten years: the old bastions were replaced by new ones, spaced at regular intervals around the citadel and linked together by a rampart.
Vauban stared modernising the town's defensive system in 1675. He added demi-lunes in front of the medieval fortified enclosure and, between 1680 and 1690, built its bastioned enclosure, applying the principle of defensive flooding. Most importantly, he created a dyke to stop the Pré l'Evêque and closed the three crossing points on the Meuse upstream from Verdun with three bridge locks, the Saint-Amans, Saint-Nicolas and Saint-Airy bridges.
Under the First Empire, Verdun, at some distance from the front, did not really interest the fortifications commission. It was only after 1815, when France was back in the same situation as in 1789, that the authorities undertook work to reinforce the town along the lines of Vauban's fortifications: the new gate was opened (next to today's Carrefour des Maréchaux), to the North -East, a curtain wall strengthened the demi-lunes on Chaussée and Minimes (now the rue de la Liberté and rue du 8 mai 1945) and three networks of counterscarp galleries were dug under the glacis on the Saint-Victor side (Jules-Ferry school).
During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, troops from Verdun (1,500 garrison soldiers, 2,000 mobile guards and 1,400 men from the national sedentary guard), consolidated by 2,600 survivors of Sedan, under the command of General Guérin de Waldersbach and General Marmier, defended the territory against the 10,000 recruits of the Prince of Saxony. On the 23rd September his army totally surrounded the town, commandeering the inhabitants of the neighboring villages to commit to investment. The town, besieged and under fire from 140 heavy artillery pieces, surrendered on the 8th November. It would be governed by the prefect of Bethmann-Hollweg until the 13th September 1873.
Verdun is to the French as the Somme is to the British and Gettysburg to the Americans. In 1874, the French government made rearming Verdun its top priority. It made General Séré-de-Rivières responsible for creating a defensive network from Verdun to Toul. And so, within forty years, the town became the strongest place in Europe: within a radius of 40 km around the town, the engineer built two rings of forts (19 in total, including 14 in concrete); seven kilometres of parallel underground galleries 20 metres below ground completed the structure (in 1888) with a railway network 185 km long with stone reinforced tracks for horse carriages and pieces of artillery. These alterations to the Meuse countryside were accompanied by social changes. The population and the economy became "militarised". There were soon to be more soldiers than civilians (27,000 compared with 13,300), the army became the largest employer in the area, the quarries and blast furnaces worked almost exclusively for the construction and arming of the forts and the countryside was used as a training ground for troops.
Verdun had been carefully designed to take advantage of its neighboring good defensive terrain with a series of some 60 greater and lesser mutually self-supporting strongpoints. The terrain surrounding Verdun supported his requirements for a killing ground. By reputation, it was the strongest fortress in the world.
General Erich von Falkenhayn, the Chief of the German General Staff, devised the plan dubbed Operation Gericht ("place of execution"). The objective of Falkenhayn's plan was not to seize any vital point, disrupt communications, or encircle any French armies. His objective was simply to inflict massive losses on the enemy, an objective commonly chosen for a defensive operation. The Germans therefore would attack a point that the French would be compelled to defend by using every man available. This goal of attrition in the offense was distinctly different from the classic German offensive objective of rapidly destroying the enemy force. Falkenhayn recommended Verdun, on the heights of the Meuse River, as the point for the attack. Most importantly, the French, for reasons of national prestige, would defend their great fortress of Verdun regardless of the cost. If Falkenhayn's plan was successful, it would draw the French into a battle of attrition that would, as Robert B. Bruce observed in a Summer 1998 Army History article, "slowly bleed the French Army to death, inflicting such punishment that neither the French Army nor the French nation would survive Verdun."
Before the German attack on it in 1916, Verdun was in theory and to all outside appearances, one of the world's strongest fortresses. In practice, however, it was one of the weakest, due to the actions of the French Army's leadership. These leaders, who still believed in the power of the offensive and thoroughly failed to understand the value and utility of strong defensive positions, wanted to strengthen the forces committed to an upcoming French offensive. They therefore decided to relieve an artillery shortage by removing large amounts of weaponry from Verdun and its associated complex of strongpoints. In so doing, they essentially stripped Verdun's forts, particularly the flanking blockhouses, of their critical artillery defenses.
By October 1915, about 43 heavy and 11 field-gun batteries, and more than 100,000 rounds of ammunition had been removed from these sites. Inevitably, the defenders of Verdun and the French Army as a whole were to pay dearly for this deliberate weakening of their defenses when the German attackon the Verdun complex came in 1916.
The German offensive began on 21 February 1916 with a 9-hour artillery attack, the greatest bombardment yet seen in warfare. In response to the unfolding German attack, General Henri-Philippe Pétain assumed command of the French forces in the Verdun sector at midnight on the night of 25 to 26 February. When he was appointed to command the French defense at Verdun, General Henri-Philippe Pétain pledged, "They shall not pass!"
Of the two sides who confronted each other for 300 days during the First World War, the Verdun sector had the largest concentration of troops; between February and July 1916 losses under General Nivelle's command totalled 62,000 dead, in other words, 812 deaths a day. The civilian population had fled the town. Only the general staff occupying the underground citadel and the Fire Brigade stationed in the cellars of the Mairie remained in the besieged town of Verdun. The town would be awarded the Légion d'Honneur and the Croix de Guerre with palms by the President of the Republic, Poincaré, on the 13th September 1916.
The residual strength of the Verdun positions, and an all-out French effort to reinforce and hold Verdun, did enable France to repel the German attack. They did so, however, only at such a cost in human lives that the French Army was ruined as an offensive force, not only through the rest of the Great War but also into the Second World War. Petain sought to rebuild spirit by developing means of attacking withoutsuffering unsupportable casualties. He sought as well to reconfigure defensivemethods, avoiding the slaughter of Verdun.
The people of Verdun emerged battered from the fighting and peace returned. The French and American Red Cross and organisations from the Duchy of Luxembourg brought aid to the returning inhabitants: a canteen was set up in the railway station, a dispensary opened in rue Saint-Sauveur and a municipal cooperative association took up residence in the Town Hall. American troops remained until May 1919. The rebuilt cathedral, a reminder of the historic Verdun and a point of reference for the Poilu (slang term for a foot soldier) and the citadel, a symbol of resistance against the enemy, formed the basis of the city's memorial center, along with the military cemeteries, the national necropolis at Douaumont and battlegrounds such as the Bois-des-Caures.
The losses sustained by France at Verdun and elsewhere along the Western Front in World War I critically influenced French thinking and French reserves of demographic and psychological strength. In response, France reacted totally against its previous offensive philosophy and adopted a wholly passive and defense-only orientation. One tangible result of this response was that most famous 20th-century symbol of reliance on fixed defenses, the Maginot Line.
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