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World War I Thursday, 5 November, 1998, 08:58 GMT
Verdun: Symbol of suffering
Battle of Verdun
The battle of Verdun was the longest battle of war and cost both sides many thousands of casualties. It was fought between the Germans and French from 21 February to 18 December 1916.

The German Fifth Army, under the command of General Erich von Falkenhayn, attacked the bulge in the French front line at Verdun, which was known as the Verdun salient.

The Germans wanted the battle to be a long one, with the intention of inflicting as many casualties on the French as possible.

It began with a 21-hour artillery bombardment all along the eight mile front.

The French desperately tried to defend the area because it was a key fortified frontier zone, but after the bombardment the outer ring of French defences had been destroyed and were taken with very little opposition.

France's Field-Marshal Joseph Joffre, who was himself concentrating on the battle of the Somme, entrusted the defence of Verdun to General Henri Petain and the Second Army.

After the Germans captured Douamont, the largest fort in the area, the French began a counter attack which checked the German advance.

The Germans then turned their attention to the west bank of the river Meuse, focusing their attack on Hill 295 (Le Mort Homme), six miles NW of Verdun. The French defended it bitterly, but Hill 295 eventually fell on 29 May.

General Nivelle replaced Petain on 19 April and the French continued to face repeated assaults throughout June. On 7 June Fort Vaux, three miles from Verdun fell to the Germans.

On 23 June the Germans attacked the heights which commanded the Verdun and Meuse bridges. They were repeatedly repulsed - with both sides losing hundreds of thousands of men.

Exhaustion combined with the increased demands for extra men for the Russian Brusilov offensive and the Somme offensive finally stopped the German advance.

On 24 October the French launched a counter attack and the Germans began to withdraw. The French recaptured Douamant and Vaux and by December had regained almost all the positions lost in February.

The battle cost in the region of 500-600,000 casualties and its name became a lasting symbol of suffering.

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