Verdun was a slaughterhouse to rival Ypres and The Somme, yet unlike those dismal blots on British military history its name, to the French who fought it, stands for glory: a glorious refusal to admit defeat, a glorious commitment to 'l'attaque' at all costs, a glorious obsession with defending the motherland come what may.
It is still not clear what Falkenhayn had in mind. His original proposal to the Kaiser is the War's first description of attrition as a winning strategy: he suggested - correctly - that Verdun possessed such iconic value for the French that they would expend any number of men in order to defend it. But the Crown Prince and the vast army which launched a surprise assault on the wooded hills north-west of the city in February 1916 were under the impression that their objective was to capture Verdun as quickly as possible. Only when Falkenhayn denied him the reserves he needed to finish the job did the Crown Prince realise that this was meant to be a different kind of battle.
The Germans assembled 1,500 guns and constructed over 100 concrete underground bunkers to conceal their front-line divisions. They brought several hundred train-loads of munitions up to the battle-area. All this was done in six weeks and in complete secrecy. A few of the French forward troops knew that something was brewing, but their higher command chose to ignore them. Joffre - a man of vast girth and vast complacency - believed that the Germans thought Verdun's forts were so numerous, so well-planned and so strong that they could not be taken.
But Joffre, like the Crown Prince, had not guessed Falkenhayn's real intention. The Verdun battle was not meant to be won in the usual way - by the capture of ground. It was meant to be won by the simple and cynical expedient of drawing French troops onto the German guns and obliterating them. It was to be the 'Mill On The Meuse'.
The battle lasted 300 days and is reputed to be the longest continuous engagement in history. Over 60 million shells were fired into a patch of hills which were soon divested of every shred of nature and humanity: every tree, every plant, every village, every house and every pathway was annihilated by high-explosive and drenched with poison-gas. The evidence is still there; hectare after hectare of overlapping shell-holes, great lumps of shattered concrete and the remains of trenches twisted and torn by the bombardment. For the French troops, tramping up to oblivion, Verdun soon became a byword for doom. Yet still they came and still they fought; they believed that they alone stood between France and disaster. Falkenhayn had been right.
But he was also wrong. The French Official War History gives the total number of French casualties as 377,000, of which 162,000 were killed. The German losses were calculated by Winston Churchill as 373,000, of which at least a third were killed. Falkenhayn had not expected that the French would give as good as they got. By August the German attack had faltered and by Christmas the entire area was back in French hands.
The Verdun battlefield has been preserved as it was. Erosion has done little to soften the landscape. My five friends walked round the trenches, shellholes and ruined forts, slowly shaking their heads. This was destruction on an industrial scale; neither the landscape nor the combattant nations ever really recovered. Verdun is one place where the scale, fury and senselessness of the First World War is still disturbingly visible today.