Underfoot the contrast is less marked. There are pathways criss-crossing the hill but on either side, barely hidden by the bracken, shell-holes pock the earth side-by-side, often over-lapping. There are zig-zag indentations among them: the traces of trenches which once protected the French soldiers defending the position. But not very well, and not for long.
The Germans’ surprise onslaught at Verdun was meticulously prepared. On the 21st of February 1916 a hail of one million large-calibre projectiles all but obliterated the French outposts on the right bank of the Meuse. A few brave units somehow survived the barrage and held their positions for a day or so, but the sheer weight of the German shock-troop attack (which used flame-throwers for the first time) forced them into retreat, death or capture. The Germans were on their way to the forts of Verdun.
But, as often happened, their plans contained a fatal flaw. Concentration on the right bank gave the French artillery on the left bank (where I was standing) a priceless opportunity to shoot into their flanks. The French artillery were first-class; the opportunity was not missed. And so, a fortnight after the launch of the assault, Falkenhayn’s grand plan had to be changed. The German army would, after all, have to attack the left bank and wipe out the French guns.
It was easier said than done. Even after the Germans’ artillery bombardment had removed every shred of cover, the terrain favoured the defenders: each slope, each hill captured at unthinkable cost in death and injury simply revealed another slope, another hillside with lines of French troops firmly entrenched. Week after week the battle for the commanding heights continued. The French slowly gave ground, bit by bit, but never gave in. The attack abated in May after 81,000 German casualties.
What happened next is notorious: the battle on the right bank reached unheard-of levels of ferocity. The forts were captured and re-captured. The butcher’s bill grew to unprecedented levels, enough to give the most sanguine commanders pause for thought. The village of Fleury, by now a mere smudge on the landscape, changed hands sixteen times between June and August. Conditions were atrocious: men died of thirst in the height of summer and perished from sub-zero temperatures as winter drew on.
What is extraordinary in this sorry tale of carnage is the relentless determination of the troops on both sides. While the commanders dithered, covering up their mistakes and hedging their bets, the men in the ravines fought like panthers: the Germans would not admit defeat, the French would not be defeated. Two martial nations met head-on; neither would give way. In hindsight we are struck by the similarities which challenge our stereotypes: here we see the French, for whom ‘elan’ was supposedly all-important, resisting superior forces, superior artillery and superior battle tactics in a nine-month display of dogged implacability. The German troops, allegedly dull and robotic, instead showed verve, imagination and flair in ceaselessly trying to outwit their opponents.
The more thoughtful Germans had known since March that they could not win. By December their hopes had evaporated and the most bloody campaign in modern history petered out. The French gained the upper hand and brought the battle to an end by taking 11,387 prisoners in a single day. Some German officers complained about their uncomfortable conditions in captivity. Mangin replied: ‘We do regret it, gentlemen, but then… we did not expect so many of you’.
Standing on that hillside nearly a hundred years later, my friends and I were quiet as we contemplated the endurance, fortitude and – there is no other word – bravery - of the soldiers on both sides. Later we wondered if we were living, as Europeans in 2015, with the echoes of Verdun. Could it have been the memory of Verdun, a battle of mutual annihilation, which inspired the grand idea of the European Union? We are used to thinking of the EU as the outcome of the Second World War, yet the confrontation between France and Hitler’s mad ambitions was embarrassingly brief.
At Verdun both countries tried their hardest to murder each other’s young men. Once started, the ‘mill on the Meuse’ was obviously pointless, but neither side knew how to bring the slaughter to an end. Perhaps both France and Germany were frightened by what had been unleashed. Perhaps they realised that a common border works better as a protection for both than as an invitation to either. Perhaps it was the dreadful memory of Verdun that provoked these ancient enemies, two generations later, to bury the hatchet.