Verdun 100 Years: the Illustrated London News - Kathryn's history blog

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Verdun 100 Years: the Illustrated London News

If the Verdun fort had been an important French symbol before the First World War, it was nothing compared to the icon it was to become. A strong fort since Roman times, it had also been the last to fall in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1 and was protected not only by its supreme fortifications, but also by the dense woodland which lay to its west and south. Its mistake in the Great War was its position on an outcrop of the front line, which left it exposed to the German Army on three sides.
French troops in Verdun, ILN, 9/12/1916
The Battle of Verdun, which opened on 21st February, 1916 was the first of a new kind of battle. Gone were the open battles of movement, as had been seen at the Battle of Mons in 1914. Erich von Falkenhayn, the German Chief of Staff, set his sights on an eight mile sector, curving around the north of Verdun and its associated forts. From here a 21 hour bombardment was launched and German troops poured into the area with the specified aim to “bleed the French white”. The French leaders Joffre, the Commander in Chief, and Petain, Commander of the Second Army, were desperate to hold on to the symbol of French strength, vowing “they shall not pass” and inadvertently supporting Falkenhayn’s battle plan.

For Douaumont from the air,
ILN, 24/6/1916
It took four days for Fort Douaumont, the largest of Verdun’s 19 fortresses, to fall to the Germans. This was beyond anything the French leaders had believed (or let themselves believe) possible. Despite the heavy casualties caused by the German artillery, the town itself never fell from French hands. The furthest the Germans advanced was Fleury in July 1916. From this moment, the German Army had to split their focus on the front line. The reason for this was of course the Battle of the Somme. The offensive was moved forwards in order to relieve the pressure on the French. Within British history Kitchener is heavily criticised for this decision: many of the New Armies were deemed unready and the plans for a walking attack were naive, but the French would argue the attack was necessary to overcoming the German onslaught in Verdun.

The German advance on Verdun (source)
From here, the tide of the battle was certainly turned. The German leadership became fed up of the high cost of such a slow battle and Falkenhayn was replaced by Paul von Hindenburg in August. The French slowly regained their lost ground and in December they finally reclaimed Vacherauville and Louvemont which had been lost at the beginning of the battle in February. After 300 days and approximately 300,000 lives lost, the Battle of Verdun finally ended on 18th December in much the same position that it had started in. The French were the acclaimed victors, but the cost had almost broken not only the French Army but also the French spirit.

The Battle of Verdun is largely sidelined in British histories, which focus instead on the devastation which occurred on the Somme, in the more northern British sector of the front line. The two battles, however, can’t be seen as completely separate from each other. Without the struggle for Verdun, the Somme assault would have happened months later and could have had a much different result, particularly considering the particularly wet autumn of 1916.


However, during the war, and especially within the first months of the battle before the Somme, the Battle of Verdun was widely reported in the British Press, as these extracts from the Illustrated London News show. This is a particularly interesting news outlet, not only because of its photos but also as it was a weekly publication that provided in depth looks at topical news stories. It regularly provided updates on the situation in Verdun, as it did with the other many battles, but as a subject of British press censorship, it often searched for a positive angle to even the hardest periods of fighting. This can be seen in the below photo of the French Army cooks, who were described as 'heroes' with 'steady intrepidity'. Despite the losses experienced in the trenches, there were still heroes to be found behind the lines, who could be used to boost domestic morale.
French Army cooks, ILN, 11/3/1916
This image also suggests one of the limitations of the developing scope of battlefield photography. It was often difficult to set up a cumbersome press camera in the action and there were restrictions on what detail could be shown. Thus, it was both easier and safer to take a photo like this away from the front line.
Joffre, ILN, 3/6/1915
Further still from the trenches, this photo of French commander Joffre was published in June and dominated the paper's front page. It shows a man in control, under the headline of 'The Master Mind of the French "High Command"'. It is visibly staged, but is done to show him "in action", his table filled, presumably, with battle plans. However, one thinks that this could have done nothing for the reputation of the generals as distant from the front, and not in touch with the men on the ground. Here, Joffre is surrounded by his luxurious headquarters, a whole world away from the mud of the trenches.

The panorama below illustrates this contrast. Published in April, the accompanying article described the 'heroic French Army defending Verdun has withstood some sixty days of violent onslaughts and bombardments'. It again heroises the French and demonises the German attacks, but with no mention of the French artillery's counter assaults.

'The Stricken Field of Verdun', ILN, 29/4/1916
The headline of the panorama treads a delicate line. It evokes sympathy for the French forces in their 'stricken field' but with the blame squarely fixed on the Germans, uses this emotive response to inspire British support for the French and encouragement for them to fight on. It must also be noted the amazement the Illustrated London News' readership would have had for these photos. Photography was a relatively new to media coverage and images like this gave closer access to the war than had been imaginable just a few years previously. Part of the response to such images would no doubt have been excitement about the new technology and therefore would have peaked the public's interest in both the war, and the newspaper itself.

Fort Vaux lost after 'magnificent defence'
ILN, 24/6/1916
A common problem throughout the war for the press censors was deciding what bad news could, and should, be published. Especially during the Battle of Verdun, the public had to be told that the battle was not a success but could not be told the extent of the devastation. The adjacent image shows the ruins of Fort Vaux, lost to the Germans in June. The ceding of such important territory was reported, but emphasised in the headline was the 'magnificent defence' by the French. Heavy casualties were also alluded to in the article, but the focus was again on the 'German dead', which was 'out of all proportion to their gain'. No word on French's heavy losses in a fruitless defence.

'The Glorious Tricolour', ILN, 30/12/1916
Despite the increased use of photographs published during the First World War, the Illustrated London News still used sketches, which had been its original form  of imagery. Such illustrations didn't have to depict the reality of the situation and instead were often used to demonstrate the mood of a situation. The long awaited victory in the Battle of Verdun was an emotional and patriotic moment in French history, but one that could not have been depicted through photography on the ground. The victory was a relief, but it was by no means the end of the war and there could be no relief of troops who had to continue to defend their precious territory. The headline reads 'The Glorious Tricolour: An Allegory of Victorious France'. It is reminiscient of Delacroix's famous painting 'Liberty Leading the People' and evokes the spirit of the people's victory of the French Revolution.

The Battle of Verdun was already occupying a sacred position in French national memory. A century later, the ossuary at Fort Douaumont preserves the memory of the French resilience and the longest battle of the First World War. The French Army and the French spirit, were pushed to the limit but they overcame the German challenge that threatened the symbolic heart of the nation.
Fort Douaumont on the centenary (source)
Kathryn

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