The Battle of Verdun ~ art, death and pollution


The Iliad’s first vignette of agony (of two hundred and forty battlefield deaths described), tells of a Greek soldier Diores. He is hit by a stone that shatters the bones and tendons of his right ankle, perhaps thrown, not even a sling shot used in the ghettoes of Gaza and the West Bank. Diores falls back stretching a hand out to his comrades, but Peirous, the Thracian who had wounded him, thrusts a spear into his belly spewing steaming bowels onto the dusty ground. Darkness veils his eyes and death is strolling in when Thoas bounds up and spears Diores again, this time near his stupid nipple. The bronze point tears his lungs apart, Thoas hauls out the quivering spear then draws his sword and, up close and personal, splits the belly, spilling Greek guts, long and ropey, pale as tripe . . . and so Diores dies, one of the first of countless young men.[1] Nostalgia is curtailed. These young men were bereft of having a Facebook page or Instagram account, their names have no associated image, no likes, no commentary or back story, they float as words on the sea of language.



The cathedral city of Verdun, east of Paris, is posed on a rocky bluff overlooking the River Meuse. From around 450 BCE. Celts used this strategic position (called Virodunum, ‘strong fortress’). Two thousand years later, the city constructed state-of-the-art fixed defences (1624) when the western end of the rocky bluff (including the Abbaye de St Vanne) was flattened to make way for a fortified Citadel. Verdun, the ancient capital and key to the Champagne Plain and Paris, became sacred ground. It was the last stronghold Prussia seized in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. A few years later, the fortifications were modernised at huge cost.

A decade later yet more fortifications were built. Fort Douaumont was constructed on a ridge just over four miles north-east of Verdun. This was the highest and largest fort in Verdun’s two concentric rings protecting the city and key to the city’s defences. The elongated polygon shape had a 12-metre-thick concrete roof using 280,000 cubic metres of special purpose concrete. It held a barracks kitchens and bakery, an infirmary, telegraph station, water reservoir, armoury and numerous ammunition stores. It was thought impregnable.

The war had been going on since early August 1914 in Belgium and then France and then reaching the Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and Africa. Finally, it was Verdun’s turn. Bad winter weather had delayed the German commander von Falkenhayn’s surprise attack, but at 4am, 21st of February 1916, German naval guns started to shell the city.[2] Yet days later, Fort Douaumont was still only manned by a maintenance crew of 56 troops and a few gunners. The highest-ranked soldier in the fort was an NCO. On the 25th of February, a German reconnaissance party found the observation posts unoccupied. A Sergeant entered alone and wandered the empty tunnels until he found the artillery crew, which he captured. Douaumont, the key fort, was lost without a shot being fired, a very costly mistake.

The French resisted German attempts to take Verdun itself desperately. More than three quarters of the French Army fought there at any one time with huge losses. ‘Over the next 10 months, but mostly in the next four months, the Verdun ridge was hacked and ploughed by 32 million shells. In places, it has been estimated, 10 shells fell on every square centimetre. By the end of the battle – the longest single battle in human history – more than 300,000 French and German soldiers had been obliterated in an area of 50 square miles. Most are still there, pounded into the sand and chalk of western Lorraine.’ John Lichfield [3]

When the battle for Verdun ended, December 1916, the two armies stood a few hundred yards from where they had started, but sporadic fighting went on around the city until the end of the war.

The monumental Ossuary lifts a high tower (curved like an artillery shell) above a long, polished gallery holding at each end vaults stacked with the bones of 130,000 bodies, visible through windows outside. I know bones feel pain, two friends have died in the last two years, agonising deaths despite medical interventions though cancer riddling their bones. Al those dead, some dying instantly, before pain could be recognised, most slowly, even gradually, years after the battle. Bandying about numbers of dead cannot help imagine the pain of one soldier, or the pain of grief for one person’s friends, family, and fellow combatants.

‘Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unshareability, and it ensures this unshareability through its resistance to language . . . Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.’ Elaine Scarry [4] She writes, that between the two extremes of pain and imagining, ‘can be mapped the whole terrain of the human psyche.’


I feel the need to write a poem here:

All those bodies, each incredibly complex
with countless moving parts of the universe
once upon a time. Many were missing parts
when they stopped and all are now missing
thirst and hunger, fear and pain.
Each desiccated nerve, sliver of bone
and smudge of dried blood are
by now well acquainted with oblivion.

Despite the accumulation of riches
in the lexicon, if words inevitably fail
to translate a single moment of a kill,
colloquial silence can be even less authentic,
the mouth sometimes does eject a truth.

What has been lost? And what is being lost every day?
Errors are being made, conflicts rage around the world,
murders succeed, domestic violence cannot be stopped.

A nurse’s view

Winifred Kenyon the daughter of a Major-General volunteered for France, aged 23, as a cook before working as a nurse. Sylvie Pomiès-Maréchal has published extracts from her private diary, which starts with optimism and naiveite, as with so many soldiers.[5]

March 1915: Bar-le-Duc is quite a large town and doesn’t seem to have suffered in any way from bombardment, though we’ve been told there’s hardly a house left between this and the front. And here I come to a very sore point. We are 30 miles from the firing line and, up to now, have hardly ever heard the guns living through a historic moment.

June 25: another strenuous day; at one time this afternoon, I felt that I couldn’t go on any longer and that I couldn’t anyhow stand the theatre. For we had another man to have his thigh amputated today and he died just as they were finishing. And operating till 3.30 this afternoon, that was interesting though, as part was trepanning. But it meant no time off again.

February 29, 1916: The biggest battle ever known is going on now. We guessed that an attack on Verdun was planned, as the fact that the Germans tried to cut the railway all pointed to it. Now we know. There has been the most tremendous attack conceivable, huge guns first, blowing everything to pieces, and men beyond all count. 

The work here is terrible. Such wounds and a great many cases of gas gangrene and in spite of amputations, we have had a lot of deaths. It is simply awful, for the number of wounded is impossible to cope with and they lie unattended to for days and there are no hospitals nearer than Bar, as Clermont has been shelled.’

March: The battle of Verdun is still going on, but people are now pretty confident that it will never be taken. The Germans have been simply throwing their men away, while the French haven’t called up their reserves at all. The German credit is rapidly going down, while the French has gone up.

July: Still no signs of a general break up, it’s appalling to think of another winter of it, but if something doesn’t happen soon, there seems little chance of anything else.

Surviving Verdun

The composer Maurice Ravel completed his patriotic Piano Trio just before he went to war. Rejected as too old and unfit to enlist, he joined Hemingway, Dos Passos, EE Cummings and Somerset Maugham, as too blind, old or short to fight. Ravel became an ambulance driver, dodging shells between the front and field hospital at Verdun, carting about shattered men.

Tombeau de Couperin suite for solo piano composed between 1914 and 1917, began as a tribute to the dead composer but he ended up dedicating each movement to a friend who had died in the war. Verdun affected him deeply and ended progress on a number of ambitious important projects.

The war had profound effects on music generally. Arnold Schoenberg was called up at the age of 42. He supported the German war effort and carried out his military duties as a musician in a military ensemble. In 1914, he viciously denounced the music of Bizet, Stravinsky, and Ravel: ‘Now comes the reckoning! Now we will throw these mediocre kitschmongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German God.’[6]

The English composer Gustav Holst was 40 in 1914 and was rejected as unfit for service, while his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams, a year older, enlisted as a Private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He served in France and Salonika as an orderly and stretcher bearer, where the sound of artillery damaged his hearing.

Elgar was too old for military service, but signed up as a special constable in the local police. He composed patriotic music including ‘A Song for Soldiers’ which he later withdrew. His wonderful Cello Concerto, sounding like a threnody to me, was composed in the immediate aftermath.

Dying at Verdun

I have a soft spot for Franz Marc. I had a poster of one of his horses in my room at university where I studied philosophy and sociology. He intended to study philosophy and theology, but decided to become a painter instead and entered the Munich Art Academy in 1900. (If only Hitler had been accepted by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts seven years later).

By early 1911, Marc had already developed his colourful symbolist themes. That year he and Kandinsky founded Der Blaue Reiter in Munich. They shared similar ideas on art believing that art should possess a spiritual dimension. (See Kandinsky’s text ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’, 1911). Other members included, Gabriele Münter, Alexej von Jawlensky, Alfred Kubin, Paul Klee and August Macke (a friend of Marc and Klee, was conscripted and killed soon afterwards in the Champagne, September 2014, aged 27).[7]

In spring 1914, Marc and his wife bought a small house in the Bavarian countryside where they were very happy. He was even taming the local deer, but it didn’t last long. That August, Marc volunteered at the outbreak of war. He believed in the war. He hoped it might lead to spiritual catharsis and redemption through suffering.[8]

Marc wrote and drew extensively at the front, though focused on nature and landscape.

Franz Marc, sketchbook from the front

One of his last letters accepted death: ‘I understand well that you speak as easily of death as of something which doesn’t frighten you. I feel precisely the same. In this war, you can try it out on yourself – an opportunity life seldom offers one…nothing is more calming than the prospect of the peace of death…the one thing common to all. It leads us back into normal “being”. The space between birth and death is an exception, in which there is much to fear and suffer. The only true, constant, philosophical comfort is the awareness that this exceptional condition will pass and that “I-consciousness’ which is always restless, always piquant, in all seriousness inaccessible, will again sink back into its wonderful peace before birth… whoever strives for purity and knowledge, to him death always comes as a saviour.’[9]

The German government identified notable artists to be withdrawn from combat for their own safety. Marc was on the list but before orders for reassignment could reach him, he was on a reconnaissance mission east of Verdun in the spring of 1916 when he was fatally wounded by shrapnel, dead aged 27.

Twenty-one years later, the Nazis seized 130 works by his works and included some of them in their Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibitions. His inclusion was controversial, for Marc was a painter widely liked and an officer who had died fighting for Germany. One of his most important paintings, Der Turm der blauen Pferde (Tower of Blue Horses from 1913, a large work, 200 by 130 centimetres), was removed from the exhibition after protests from a German officers’ association. Hermann Göring took possession but the painting disappeared in 1945.[10]

Franz Marc, Tower of Blue Horses, lost

The German Poet Hugo Ball wanted to fight but failed the medical three times. An early poem was titled, ‘Splendour of the Flag’, he thought the corrupt world could be refreshed by ‘abandoning itself to the primitive energy released by the conflict.’ He had the same youthful naivety as Marc had.

Visiting Belgium to see the front for himself in November of 1914, Ball was shocked. He wrote, ‘men have been mistaken for machines; it is the machines that should be decimated, not the men’, and ‘the world had fallen prey to diabolical madness.’ [11] He retreated to Zurich and started the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. ‘The beginning of Dada was really a reaction against mass murder in Europe.’[12]

Surviving Verdun

Fernand Léger was a stretcher-bearer at Verdun. He had a different attitude to Marc, writing: ‘There is no more cubist war than this one, which more or less literally divides a guy into several parts.’ wrote of, ‘the evolution of our poor frail bodies under the effect of artillery fire. We are panic stricken by the noise. In the past, warriors made horrible faces to frighten the enemy. It was a visual fear. Now we are all still the same, but it is an acoustic fear. The tremendous shell detonations are more frightening, I’m sure, than the danger they can cause.[13]

‘Now the war is an utterly grey, colourless thing, without any change or novelty. It is something like a vast graveyard where countless gravediggers all dressed in the same uniforms mindlessly kill and bury.’

‘This war is the perfect orchestration of all the traditional and modern means of killing. It is utterly and completely clever . . . There are in Verdun quite unexpected subjects to paint that can only satisfy my Cubist inspiration. For example, you can see a tree with a chair on top of it . . .  the comical nature of Verdun as an academy of Cubist painting!’

Being badly gassed and hospitalised, Léger became a camouflage officer. He later wrote, ‘Nobody actually saw the war, everybody was hidden, camouflaged, concealed, on all fours, mud-coloured; eyes were useless and could see nothing. But everybody ‘heard’ the war.’[14]

Other artists caught in the war but surviving included: Oskar Kokoscha, a rider; Max Beckman, a male nurse; André Derain, a gunner; Charles Camoin, a camouflage artist; and Otto Dix, a German patriot who signed up. The artist George Grosz rejected the war from the beginning yet was conscripted into service, while Beckmann and Dix enthusiastically enlisted. Dix became a machine gunner on the Somme, was wounded a number of times. He won the Iron Cross then became a pacifist. His print series Der Krieg, were published in 1924 from his drawings at the front, and influenced by Francisco Goya’s The disasters of war (c.1810–20). They show the brutality and his images of badly damaged veterans show the cost.

The German artist Käthe Kollwitz supported the war initially. She even helped her son Peter enlist by lying about his age. He died ten days after she last saw him, at the start of the war in a futile battle called the Massacre of the Innocents.[15] She became a socialist and pacifist.

The Swiss artist Félix Édouard Vallotton (who astounded me many years ago in the Musée d’Orsay) was associated with the post-impressionist group of artists called Les Nabi, founded by Paul Sérusier as a secret society. When World War I began, Vallotton (who had become a French citizen in 1900) volunteered for the army, but was rejected as too old. In June 1917, he accepted a commission from the French Ministry of Fine Arts to tour the front lines. The sketches he produced became the basis for a group of paintings, including Verdun (1917). This symbolist work shows the land burning under brightly coloured beams of smoke.

Félix Vallotton, Verdun, 1917

Léger survived to become a forerunner of pop art. He retained faith in technology, knowing it could cause destruction on a massive scale, but also as a way forward for progress to give peasants and workers a better life.

It is so curious the myriad ways the currents of culture and history meander, entwine, separate and survive.

The earth

The French soldier Henri Barbusse wrote at the time, ‘War is frightful and unnatural weariness, water up to the belly, and mud and dung and infamous filth. It is befouled faces and tattered flesh, it is the corpses that are no longer like corpses even, floating on the ravenous earth . . . Where there are no dead, the earth itself is corpselike.’[16]

‘Most [of the dead] are still there, pounded into the sand and chalk of western Lorraine.’ John Lichfield wrote, but bone is not all that’s in Verdun’s earth. There are still land mines and unexploded ordinance. The battlefield was considered too dangerous and abandoned. Fenced off and planted with black pines, it became known as the Zone Rouge. Within this zone, in the Place à Gaz, a huge cache of the 200,000 rounds of unused chemical weapons were set on fire. The soil has become dead and deadly. In 2007, scientists analysed the soil of this desiccated, lunar landscape and found it comprised 17 per cent arsenic, 13 per cent zinc, 2.6 per cent lead.

‘But life is encroaching on this ‘chemical burn in the landscape’. Tufted grass and powdered goblet lichen are incrementally pushing into the contaminated area. In the vanguard is ‘a soft and feathery moss known as ‘Pohlia nutans’, a ‘magpie plant’ that takes up the toxic heavy metals from the ground and accumulates them in its leaves.[17] Why? No one knows. But it is not just finding a way to live in this toxic soil; it’s actively cleaning it.’ Will Wiles writes quoting Cal Flyn [18]

By the 1950s, the chemical industry had become a major force in economic growth. ‘Modern chemistry has produced more than 350,000 different substances and for most of these, we simply have no idea of their exact impact on the environment or our health.’[19] The chemical industry consumes more than 10% of fossil fuels produced globally and emits an estimated 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions a year, more than India’s annual emissions.[20] Thousands of chemicals are found everywhere in the soil, water, air, our food and our food packaging.[21]

‘Billions of nurdles, tiny plastic pellets are afloat at sea, as dangerous as oil spills, yet remain unclassified as hazardous. ‘What will survive of us is love’, wrote Philip Larkin. Wrong’, writes Robert Macfarlane. ‘What will survive of us is plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain.’[22]

Millions in the developing world suffer in pollution ‘sacrifice zones’, due to the demands of the ‘developed’ countries.[23] Pollution is now responsible for one in six (human) deaths globally.[24] Moss is not enough.


[1] October 9, 2015: ‘Israeli troops shoot dead five young stone-throwing Palestinians on Gaza border.’ The author, ‘Before and after — the confidence of war’, To End All Wars: Poets respond to the Armistice Centenary, Eds., Dael Allison, Anna Couani, Kit Kelen & Les Wicks, Puncher & Wattmann. 2018, p71-2.

[2] ‘The 380mm naval guns were located in woods 17 miles north-east of Verdun and were likely the largest weapons deployed in the battle. With 50ft-foot-long barrels, the guns weighed more than 200 tonnes apiece and were mounted on massive traversable steel platforms. These were in turn rooted in huge concrete lined pits 20 feet deep that incorporated chambers for the sophisticated fire control equipment that allowed them to accurately hit targets up to 25 miles distant. The pits were linked to concrete-protected underground ammunition stores by light railway similar to those employed in coal mines; this was necessary because the 380mm rounds weighed around 1,600lb each (726 kilos).’

[3] John Lichfield, ‘Verdun’s storm of shellfire that obliterated 300,000 men’, Independent, 14 May 2014. In 2000, Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann calculated that the French suffered 377,231 casualties and the Germans 337,000, a total of 714,231 and an average of 70,000 a month. In 2014, William Philpott wrote of 976,000 casualties in 1916 and 1,250,000 in the vicinity of Verdun. (Wiki)

[4] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, OUP, 1985.

[5] Sylvie Pomiès-Maréchal, ‘‘A white city of desolation’: Verdun as seen by three British nurses’, French Journal of British Studies, xx-1, 2015,

[6] Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, p60.

[7] Franz Marc wrote: ‘With his death, one of the most beautiful and wild curves of German artistic development abruptly dropped, which none of us are able to continue.’

[8] This was a common thought. The German painter Otto Soltau volunteered believing war to be part of the life force, but found the front ‘hideous’. He died on the Eastern Front in 1915.


[10] Edwin Redslob, an art historian who became Rector of the Free University of Berlin, wrote in 1977 that he had seen the painting in the Haus am Waldsee in Zehlendorf, Berlin, while still under Soviet occupation, i.e., in the first half of 1945, and the journalist Joachim Nawrocki reported having seen it in the adjacent youth hostel in the winter of the Berlin blockade, 1948/49, with two or three slits cut in it. Other statements and theories about the fate of the painting that have been published include its having been destroyed at Carinhall when Göring had the house blown up as the Russians advanced towards it in 1945,[12] its having been in the Prussian Chamber of Deputies, and its being in Switzerland, most likely in a bank safe in Zurich. (Wiki)

[11] See Geert Buelens, Everything to Nothing: the poetry of the Great War, revolution and the transformation of Europe, Verso, 2015.

[12] Ball quoted by Jonathan Jones, ‘The first world war in German art: Otto Dix’s first-hand visions of horror’, The Guardian, 14 May 2014. ‘I don’t want words that other people have invented. All the words are other people’s inventions. I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and vowels and consonants too, matching the rhythm and all my own. If this pulsation is seven yards long, I want words for it that are seven yards long.’ Hugo Ball, ‘Dada Manifesto’, read at the first public Dada event, Zurich, July 14, 1916.

[13] See Brigitte Macadré-Nguyên, ‘’The colour of tears’: Fernand Léger’s and D.H. Lawrence’s Experiences of the Great War’, Études Lawrenciennes, No 46, 2015, Translating Léger, Une Correspondance de Guerre ( Lettres à Louis Poughon, 1914-18), Paris : Les Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne, Hors-série Archives, 1997, p32.

[14] ’ Arnauld Pierre, Fernand léger, Peindre la vie modern, Paris, Gallimard, 1997. Quoted by Brigitte Macadré-Nguyên, 2015.

[15] ‘Peter Kollwitz died near Diksmuide on 23 October 1914 when the war had hardly begun. On that day, the German army was launching a series of savage attacks in an attempt to break through the British trenches around Ypres. Thousands of young German students marched into battle singing patriotic songs. But many of them were killed almost immediately, like 18-year-old Pieter Kollwitz. The Germans refer to this futile battle as the Massacre of the Innocents.’ Derek Blyth, ‘Hidden Belgium: The Grieving Parents’, The Brussels Times, 6 March 2022

[16] Henri Barbusse, Under Fire: The Story of a Squad, December 1916. Barbusse wrote it while recovering from wounds and it was first published as a serial in L’Oeuvre. It is is based on his experiences. He enlisted in the French Army and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Later, he became a pacifist.

[17] ‘The nodding thread-moss’ is a species of pioneer moss in the family Mniaceae. It has a cosmopolitan distribution being found on all seven continents.

[18] Will Wiles, ‘Trespassers Will Be Contaminated’ review of Cal Flyn, Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape, William Collins, April 2021.

[19] Vivian Elion, ‘The chemical industry is out of control’, February 3, 2022.

[20] XiaoZhi Lim, ‘How the chemicals industry’s pollution slipped under the radar’, Guardian, 22 Nov 2021.

[21] Tom Perkins, ‘Forever chemicals may have polluted 20m acres of US cropland, study says’, Guardian, 8 May 2022. ‘More than 3,000 potentially harmful chemicals found in food packaging’, The Guardian, 19 May 2022.

[22] Robert Macfarlane, ‘Generation Anthropocene How humans have altered the planet for ever’, The Guardian, 1 April 2016.

[23] Damien Gayle, ‘Millions suffering in deadly pollution ‘sacrifice zones’, warns UN expert’, Guardian, 10 Mar 2022.

[24] Damian Carrington, ‘Pollution responsible for one in six deaths across planet, scientists warn’, Guardian, 18 May 2022.

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