Today, February 21st, marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Verdun.
German advances in eastern France had created a salient at Verdun. Lying on the banks of the Meuse, Verdun was strategically important not only because of the ‘dent’ it had created in the German front line, but it was also the main crossing point for miles across the River Meuse. If Verdun could be taken, this could be significant for supply routes into France.
The French defences at Verdun were not as strong as they once were, and although they did have some warning of the impending attack, the German bombardment which began on 21st February signalled the start of German advances in the area. Seen by many as one of the hardest fought French-German battles during the First World War, the French defence slowed down the advance. Although the battle is generally seen as ending in December 1916, it would not be until November 1918 that the German army was finally pushed back to the position it had held prior to the battle. It is believed the number of dead or missing from both the French and the German sides was 305,440.
Although the battle involved French troops, word had reached soldiers in the British trenches – amongst them a soldier from Birmingham, Private Reg Smith, an employee of W. Canning Materials Ltd. Private Smith wrote several letters to his employer while serving in the army, nearly all of which were censored, and he wrote of Verdun in a letter dated 8th April 1916:
When it comes to proper fighting they’re done. The French have got ’em skinned at Verdun, that’s about the biggest bloomer they’ve made in this War. It has only got one ending to it and the longer it is postponed the greater will be their defeat.
The letters of Private Smith give a fascinating insight into a soldiers attitude to war. Writing to his employer the previous November, while working in H. Qtrs Company away from the mud filled trenches he wrote:
Sadly, as with so many others, Private Smith did not survive the war. He died of his wounds on his 25th birthday and in a note written by ‘E.R.C’, he was described simply as ‘one of the best’.
I am not really a SOLDIER now, it often makes me feel ashamed, we get looked after so much better, we have splendid Dugouts and coke fire, and we never have to do the digging under fire like we did at Messines … … the only consolation I have is when we do make a charge … we go with the first call and run out a telegraph line, so that you see they (the Company) can’t say that we are shirking it.