Military History Battle of Verdun
Robert Foley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0021


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. The battle was also a great propaganda victory for the French, but one won at extraordinary human cost. Indeed, 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.” Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the battle has subsequently been used by modern France and Germany as a unifying experience for the two nations. As such an important battle in World War I in particular, and in European history in general, it has generated considerable interest from both military and civilian observers. However, the vast bulk of this literature has been in German or French, with only a few important studies in English. Some of the key German and French titles have been translated into English, but most have not been. Historiography of the battle has also suffered from the destruction of the German army archives during bombing in World War II. Until the recent return of the surviving archival records from the former Soviet Union, this has constrained research on the German side of the battle. Recent historiography of the battle has also been shaped by a general move away from operational military history toward a history of the battle from below that looks at the experience from the perspective of the ordinary poilu and Landser.

General Overviews

Unsurprisingly, since the end of World War I, the battle of Verdun has been the subject of numerous scholarly and nonscholarly accounts. The vast majority of these have been in German and French. In the interwar period, soldiers and a few scholars began research to understand the course of the battle. This was picked up again after World War II, particularly as the experience of the battle began to be used as a unifying factor for Germany and France.

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