Fortress town in northeast France in the département of the Meuse, 280 km/174 mi east of Paris. During World War I it became a symbol of French resistance and was the centre of a series of bitterly fought actions between French and German forces, finally being recaptured September 1918.
Verdun became a first-class fortress after the experience of the Franco-Prussian war 1870, its ring of modern forts being one of the principal French frontier defences. In 1916 the Germans attacked it in great strength; it had great psychological value to the French and the Germans assumed that they would throw large masses of troops into battle rather than lose it. The German plan was not necessarily to capture Verdun but to decimate the French army by constant bombardment and attack. The battle continued for the rest of the year, both sides moving back and forth capturing and re-capturing forts and ground, until the fighting finally died away early December 1916. The French lost an estimated 348,300 troops, the Germans 328,500.
The front then remained relatively stable until the French launched an offensive to regain some of their lost territory August 1917. They succeeded in regaining the Mort Homme area by 12 September and captured about 10,000 prisoners and 100 guns. Although an attack launched north from Verdun would have liberated useful territory and threatened the German lines of communication throughout the war, German defences in this sector were extremely strong and it was not until September 1918, after the reduction of the St Mihiel salient, that a successful attack was launched as part of the general Allied offensive.
Western Front, 1914–1918