The battle of Verdun began 99 years ago on this day in 1916. A battle that lasted 303 days, involved over 1.4 million troops and resulted in a quarter of a million casualties. Verdun was everything that was wrong about industrial warfare. The Germans planned it as an exercise in slaughter, because they knew that in order to win a war lives must be lost.
The painting above captures the excitement and anticipation of the French heading off to battle in 1914, when it was still a merry adventure. The American artist, Albert Herter, presented the painting as a gift to the railway company, and it is in the Gare de l’Est in Paris. The painting is all the more poignant as Herter lost his own son in the war. The exhuberant man firing in the air with his arms raised is Herter’s son Everitt. The old man on the right, holding a bunch of flowers, is Albert himself in self-portrait.
By the time Verdun began this exuberance had worn off. The Gare de l’Est was a death sentence, similar to Germans in WW2 being sent to the Eastern Front. Verdun became the French national meat grinder. Young men marched bravely in and came back dead, injured or horrified. The diary entry below captures the horror.
Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!
— Lieutenant Alfred Joubaire
Europe learned the lessons of the Great War, but not until after the second world war. This is why the European Union exists today. The EU is the most positive force for peace that has ever existed. It is more effective than the United Nations in achieving peace amongst its members. Long may it last.
“What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”; by Edna St. Vincent Millay
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.