“The battle of Verdun was the longest, if not the bloodiest, single battle in World War I. Launched by the German Fifth Army on 21 February 1916, it did not come to an end until the final French counterattack was ended on 19 December 1916. For most of 1916, German and French soldiers fought tooth and nail for a few square miles of terrain around the French fortress city of Verdun, in what was the quintessential “battle of attrition” of World War I. Most units of the French army and many of the German army fought in what was described by both sides as the “hell of Verdun.” Between the battle’s start and the end of August (when the Germans ceased offensive operations), some 281,000 Germans and some 315,000 Frenchmen were killed or wounded. . . .” – Dr. Robert Foley, Dean of Academic Studies/Head of Department at the Defence Studies Department, Joint Services Command and Staff College (JSCSC), the Defence Academy of the UK. Dr. Foley is author of “Verdun: The Killing Field.” 66(9) History Today (September 2016). https://www.historytoday.com/robert-foley/verdun-killing-field
A word about the American veteran who penned the following 8-paragraph essay:
Like the combat warrior whose name has been entrusted to me, dad was an Army Veteran. But he also served as a medic in the USAF. And some years before brain cancer came calling, several autumns before my mom accepted the thanks of a grateful nation for dad’s faithful and dedicated service, dad wrote these 8 paragraphs about a return visit he made to soldiers who died in combat in what was to have been the last war. Ever.
“The 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month”[i]
by Carl H. Bloeser, M.P.H, M.A.P.A., U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force veteran, 1939-2014
It was on the 11th day of the 11th month sixty nine years after the Armistace that I found myself once again at Verdun. I had traveled there the previous night under a full moon that did its best to illuminate plowed fields and meadows that were covered with a low and concealing fog. The only movement I could see off the road was a tractor slowly plowing in the distance with its lights disappearing and then re-appearing as it moved along the edges of crafted rows. A thousand ghosts had to enjoy the serenity and the tranquility of that night.
Verdun was ahead and it was late. As in earlier years I would look for a room in a loft and one above the [b]ar and a place to eat. The small hotel I chose brought life to the night in a town where death had consumed so many. The chill so common to that part of France in November was broken by the laughter and the talking of a family around a long and ancient table close to where I had chosen to finish my day with a glass of wine and a sandwich.
Early on the eleventh day of the eleventh month I went out to walk the streets. The very best of Europe I have often found in the quiet of early morning. It was cold. I had to wonder how many armies slept and drank and did what armies do in the streets and the shops and the bars and the homes all in sight of the towers of Verdun’s cathedral. The only sounds I heard were the voices of Arabs talking and laughing with each other. I wondered if they were from Algeria or Morocco or from some other place far from home. In that, we both had something in common. The smell of the morning was from the bakery making [croissants.] The day was just beginning . . . the hour of eleven on the eleventh month of the eleventh day sixty nine years later was still off in the distance.
It was time to return to the warmth of the hotel and a hot cup of coffee. As I passed through the hotel door the proprietor didn’t look in my direction. After all, over many years numbers of people must have come and gone through that door at all times, days and seasons. One more wouldn’t warrant his attention. Breakfast appeared to be his morning obsession. As he walked from behind the hotel bar he seemed determined to maneuver the half-smoked and dangling cigarette away from the coffee pot he carried. Morning bread was already on the table along with jams and jellies of various types and colors in petite bowls of clear crystal. Creamy butters with curled ridges adorned the small plates next to each bowl. At each end of the table two white bowls filled with boiled eggs stood in command over his temporary work of art. Silver, plates, cups and cloth napkins were gathered on a small table nearby. Nothing was packaged. What an insult that would have been to this man. Everything was in its proper place. It was time for the morning breakfast concert to begin. Only then did he look up, say good morning and slowly limp from the room.
After breakfast I toted my bag to where the car was parked, opened the door, tossed the bag in the back seat and reached for an open map. I decided that the day would center around visits to towns and villages of the living, monuments to those who had died, and to those places where the dead are buried. I knew from visits long before [that] I wouldn’t have to drive far in any direction.
As I approached my first mark on the map I found an area in which to park. Walking toward the first place to visit I remember looking up at a nearby building. Of many frosted windows one caught my eye. Lace adorned its glass. A small smiling face pressed her nose against the window and smiled to this stranger walking in the cold. I smiled back. Her smile warmed the moment.
The building of the living wasn’t that far from the graves. Close-by a painted sign read “Cimetieaes Militaires Francais.” Buried there were those who died in the “War to end all Wars.” They would never know of that failure nor did they know that their sons and daughters would join them soon in Flanders [F]ields. A late fall leaf had landed on a boundary wire. The frigid wind poked at it to join the dead. A gentle mist fell from the wire as though shedding tears for those buried here. A small bird nearby searched for food – but even it did so in silence. This was indeed a place of the dead. The eleventh hour had come and gone. . . .
Carl H. Bloeser. “The 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month.” Unpublished work. Copyright 2001. Repost 11 November 2018 by Charles LK Bloeser at https://combatresearchandprose.com.
[i] Dad died from brain cancer before he could put the finishing touches on this essay. As such, the version of dad’s essay that first appeared on LinkedIn/Pulse contains a parenthetical note that the essay is a “work in progress.” A ninth paragraph that is not necessary to this essay and which doesn’t follow the textual pattern of the 8 paragraphs presented here – has been excluded. The 8 paragraphs presented here are as dad wrote them – except for minor typographic adjustments for clarity and the decision to use common spelling of “croissant.” Because this essay was created after Jan. 1, 1978, copyright protection is asserted on behalf of Carl H. Bloeser from date of creation, i.e., 2001. Endnotes are not part of the original manuscript but have been added to provide further context. Endnotes by Charles Bloeser https://charlesbloeser.com
[ii] Dr. Robert Foley is Dean of Academic Studies/Head of Department at the Defence Studies Department, Joint Services Command and Staff College (JSCSC) at the Defence Academy of the UK. Inter alia, Dr. Foley was awarded the Royal Historical Society’s Gladstone Prize for his work, German Strategy and The Path to Verdun (Cambridge, 2004).
In the preview to a 2012 article about the Battle of Verdun, Dean Foley provides this summary: “The battle of Verdun was the longest, if not the bloodiest, single battle in World War I. Launched by the German Fifth Army on 21 February 1916, it did not come to an end until the final French counterattack was ended on 19 December 1916. For most of 1916, German and French soldiers fought tooth and nail for a few square miles of terrain around the French fortress city of Verdun, in what was the quintessential “battle of attrition” of World War I. Most units of the French army and many of the German army fought in what was described by both sides as the “hell of Verdun.” Between the battle’s start and the end of August (when the Germans ceased offensive operations), some 281,000 Germans and some 315,000 Frenchmen were killed or wounded. The battle ended in obvious defeat for the German army, which led to the replacement of the German chief of the general staff, General Erich Falkenhayn. . . .” Military History: Battle of Verdun | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0021 (published online February 2012); preview accessed Jan. 1, 2018 at: http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0021# (endnote not original with author of essay)
[iii]Dr. Foley explains that “. . . the British historian A. J. P. Taylor once described the battle of Verdun as “the most senseless episode in a war not distinguished for sense anywhere.” Id. (endnote not original with author of essay)
Feature Image of Verdun Ossuary accessed 11 November 2018 at http://roadstothegreatwar-ww1.blogspot.com/2013/12/18-december-1916-battle-of-verdun-ends.html (“Right at the heart of the Verdun battlefield is the massive Ossuary. This was inaugurated in 1932, and inside the base of the building are collected the bones recovered from this battlefield – an estimated 130,000 skeletons. Walking around the building one can peer through the small windows to see these grisly reminders of the bloodshed here. Through some of the windows can be seen neatly piled long-bones; through others jumbles and scraps of bones as well as skulls.” http://www.ww1battlefields.co.uk/others/verdun/)
A Dare . . .
The featured image from just one alcove of the Douaumont Ossuary at Verdun offers up a sobering challenge. It dares us to see how many fellow human beings, French and German, we can count among the bones. But no matter how many brothers and sons and uncles and fathers and husbands and lovers we can count, the image still isn’t satisfied. Now it demands that we take that number and calculate for each of the fallen our best estimate of how many fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters and lovers and lost-loves have, in one generation after another spanning the last 100 years, been changed because their loved one didn’t come home. Or . . . if he did, because the man who came home was not the man who went to war.
Charles Bloeser is a lawyer and the researcher behind the creation of combatresearchandprose.com, a new open-source applied research initiative examining combat and those marked by it. His most recent publication, in August 2018, reports how a cancer-stricken, combat-haunted Vietnam veteran fell between the cracks in a modern jail. It’s an account that, from that warrior’s deathbed, he asked author to share with those best able to keep the same thing from happening to others. STRIFE, at the Department of War Studies, Kings College London, gave him a way to do that.