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Verdun – 1916 slaughter starts

The battle of Verdun was one of the longest costly battles in World War I. As the Allies were planning to end the war with a massive summer assault in the Somme valley, the Germans on February 21 poured their might into a furious attack at Verdun, a fortress of immense national importance to France.

French defenders hung on grimly as General Robert Nivelle famously declared “Ils ne passeront pas!” – they shall not pass. The French inexorably regained their lost territory over 10 months but at a terrible cost. When the Germans withdrew to reinforce their defences at the Somme on December 18, more than 300,000 German and French soldiers lay dead.

Modern estimates put Verdun casualties at between 976,000 and 1.1 million during 1916. About 70 per cent of men were killed or wounded by artillery – Germany launched 2 million shells in the opening bombardment. Thundering artillery could be heard as far away as 160 km as between 40 and 60 million shells were fired over the next 10 months. Pulverised hills were reported to have gushed fire like volcanoes.

Survivors suffered severely from shell shock.