Carl Sandburg wrote one of his most unforgettable pieces using the names of places synonymous with the horrors of war, such as Austerlitz, Waterloo and Gettysburg. But the place he chose to put last in his haunting litany is the one that stabs at the heart of Western culture like perhaps no other: Verdun.
It was on this day in 1916 that the German high command abandoned its 11-month siege of the French fortress of Verdun at a strategic bend in the Meuse River about 30 miles south of the Belgian border.
The toll was staggering, especially by modern standards: an estimated 143,000 German dead out of 337,000 casualties; 162,000 French dead out of 377,000 casualties.
And the strategic result? Naught.
The name of the battle became and has endured – thanks in part to the remarkable history by Alistair Horne fittingly entitled “The Price of Glory” – as shorthand for the worst of the Great War and a two-syllable warning against the behavior of the reckless, prideful belligerents there.
Despite Sandburg’s elegy on the tragedy of the West’s forgetfulness, Verdun has never been fully covered over by time. Its name still stands above the grass.
The horrors of war are horrible but brave men fight them for our liberty.