Verdun, a battlefield to the excess of man

Verdun, a battlefield to the excess of man

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Title: Attack under gas. L.S.U. 87. Verdun.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Creation date : 1916

Date shown: 1916

Dimensions: Height 4.4 - Width 10.6

Technique and other indications: Silver print on glass. Stereoscopy. : Universal Stereoscopy. Serial number 87.

Storage location: Army Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Paris - Army Museum, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais - Photographer unknown

Picture reference: 05-533933 / 2003.19.29

Attack under gas. Verdun.

© Paris - Army Museum, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais - Photographer unknown

Publication date: September 2007

Historical context

German sights: despair of France and the United Kingdom

When General Erich von Falkenhayn launched the great offensive on Verdun on February 21, 1916, his proclaimed objectives were clear. The operation code name is Gericht, which literally translates to "tribunal", but whose figurative meaning can be understood through an expression like jüngste Gericht, " Last judgement ". It is that the Verdun site (Virodunum Castrum), which fell to Attila in 450, underwent no less than ten sieges over the following centuries. Hundreds of thousands of dead, victims of shells, machine guns, mud or gas, are buried on site or nearby, phantom spectators of a war that has not yet ended, contrary to German plans, to deploy the extent of its ravages.

Image Analysis

The handwritten title given to the shooting refers to the poisonous gases, the use of which, inaugurated by the Germans at the beginning of 1915 in Russia, then in Belgium, in Ypres, spread in the following months among all the belligerents. The range extends from simple tear gas to chlorine compounds. One of them, called "Croix-verte" gas, was precisely used in large quantities on June 22, 1916 in the Vaux sector, very close to Verdun - hence a hypothetical dating of the image. This first offers a strong white / black contrast to the eye, which divides it horizontally. In the upper part two clouds stand out, certainly corresponding to the aforementioned gases. The most important, located on the left, threatens the combatants with its supplied tablecloth, compact, well seated on the ground and yet mobile, like crawling. The men can be seen in Chinese shadows in the center and right of the image. The tilt of the bodies shows that they are heading towards a median or thicket clearly targeted by artillery fire. Equipped with protective equipment, their mission is to attack enemy trenches surprised and neutralized by the prior chemical attack. Taken at a distance that makes it impossible to read details, the shot shows, however, quite to the right of the image, two peculiar figures. One, with raised arm, asks: movement intended for another wave of attackers, or gesture of the struck down soldier? The one next to it, at the very edge of the frame, has a hunched back and bent knees: an injured man, paralyzed perhaps?


The "chopper" caught on the spot

“There human flesh had been crushed, torn to pieces; in the places where the earth had drunk from the blood swarms of flies swirled […] everywhere debris of all kinds, broken rifles, shattered bags from which escaped tender letters and cherished memories kept preciously and which the wind dispersed ” (in The War Notebooks of Louis Barthas, cooper, 1914-1918, p. 286): through this extract from Louis Barthas's notebooks relating to the fighting on hill 304, the site of famous clashes during the Battle of Verdun, it is the general significance of this cliché that can be clarified.
For the combatants, the battlefield appears to be a place of unheard-of violence, beyond human comprehension. What do they weigh in the face of swirls of deadly gas as tall as ten men? The inability to identify firsthand the camp to which they belong is a corollary reality: they are no longer warriors, but targets for the weapons produced by formidable antagonistic destruction industries. Their arrangement on the edge of a stretch of horizon - itself a sample of a front of several hundred kilometers - speaks volumes about the extent of their powerlessness in the face of gas here, shells and machine guns elsewhere. The soldiers seem in fact to extract themselves from a matrix of black earth and to be doomed only to return there.

  • battles
  • War of 14-18
  • Verdun


Malcolm BROWN, Verdun 1916, Paris, Perrin, 2006.Gérard CANINI, Combattre à Verdun: The daily life and suffering of the soldier, 1916-1917, Nancy, Presses universitaire de Nancy, 1988.Henri CASTEX, Verdun, Years Infernal, Paris, Imago , 1996. Raymond JUBERT, Verdun (March-April-May 1916), Paris, Payot, 1918. Olivier LEPICK, The Great Chemical War, 1914-1918, Paris, Presses universitaire de France, 1998. Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, the First World War, volumes I and II, Paris, Fayard, 2004. The War Notebooks of Louis Barthas, cooper, 1914-1918, Paris, La Découverte, 1978 (reprint 1997).

To cite this article

François BOULOC, "Verdun, a battlefield to the excess of man"

Video: Verdun Battlefield: The Fall of Fort Vaux