100 Year Anniversary of #VERDUN : The Bloodiest Battle of the "Forgotten War." #WWI

Today, 100 years ago, the first shots were fired at a fort named Verdun.

The battle - arguably the most horrific in human history - would last for almost a year and would result in almost a million casualties. Only a portion of the dead were identified and buried - the rest were churned into the mud by the ceaseless pounding of shells. Their bones still emerge from the soil after it rains in the spring, as do the unexploded shells that failed to detonate during the battle. Tons of them, every year. Every once in a while, the war claims a new casualty when one of them goes off, struck by a plow, or killing the munitions crews who try to move and detonate them safely.

When I visited Verdun in 1996, I was struck by its serenity and beauty. Though you can still see the scars on the land, it seems almost impossible that such carnage happened here. If any place on earth is haunted, it would be this sad and blighted spot, the scene of such hell and horror. Verdun remained with me, sparking my imagination.

In 2012, I wrote a novel about an ambulance driver who witnesses the carnage of the battle first-hand, based in part on the experiences of some of the real writers of the Lost Generation. His experiences in the war are told through the letters he wrote to his wife. After a long silence, he finally writes to explain why he had been unable to contact her.

.¸¸•.¸¸.•´¯`• (¯`•ღ•´¯)•´¯`•.¸¸.•.¸¸.

November 2, 1916

My beloved Marcella,

I no longer fear hell. Its torments could be no greater than this place, this strange and alien landscape, this shattered ground upon which two massive armies have struggled for nearly a year, this soil, into which an ocean of blood has soaked.

I struggle to find words, for there are none which can correctly convey the magnitude of this horror. Not an inch of ground remains unmarred by the overlapping craters, scars upon the earth that can surely never heal. Hills have been pounded flat. The few trees still standing are blackened skeletons and there is not a blade of grass to be seen. The air is bitter with the stench of smoke, thick with the reek of death, for we cannot move the bodies as fast as the soldiers are slaughtered. Corpses fill the trenches at the front. The horses and mules are left to rot where they’ve fallen, torn and twisted by mortar shells, and the air is never free of the lingering acrid fumes of the gas bombs which flow into the craters and turn them into pools of death. I’m told the boys no longer try to help a comrade who falls into one of them; by the time they pull him out, he will already be dying, his lungs burned beyond repair.

It is the shells which cause the most casualties. Enemies who never see one another, launching mortars over a blighted stretch of poisoned earth. And when they strike, they tear flesh to shreds, wrench away limbs, and bury men alive in their trenches, an impersonal slaughter of thousands per day.

Our boys dug out a line of French infantry today. Their bayonets pointed up out of the soil to show where they had been entombed when a strike collapsed the walls of their trench. The man who launched the mortar will never know it, and he is likely to be killed by a shell the French launch just as blindly toward the German lines. I’m told the sound of the shells can be heard nearly one hundred miles away, but it seems to me the echo of this place reaches into infinity.

We hear the shells whistle overhead and the muscles instinctively tense for the explosion, but after a while, the body is too exhausted to tense any longer, but the nerves try anyway. Some of the men go mad with it. I never knew madness could be a mercy until I came to this place.

The earth trembles beneath our feet constantly, and night never falls here. The bombardment keeps it as light as day.

A year without stars.

The men are down to salted meat as rations, and they have no clean water. The thirst is maddening, and they fill their canteens out of puddles, stagnant marshes—wherever liquid can be found. It’s little wonder they almost all have dysentery, which does not improve the sanitary conditions.

One never-ending battle which has left over one-quarter of a million dead—nearly half a million, if you count the wounded and the missing. That is only the French losses; the German casualties number at least as many. The numbers stagger the mind, and it sometimes seems to me at least half of these casualties have passed through my hands.

The priests have the job of burying the dead, which we stack for them like cordwood. They have the unenviable task of searching the mangled forms for identification, letters from home, anything which will allow them to give a name to what no longer appears human.

My ambulance can hold three stretchers, two at the sides, and one suspended from the ceiling, or up to six “sitters,” though there have been times when bleeding men have clung to the outside of the truck itself, balancing themselves on the mud guards. I drive as fast as I can, but depending on the shelling, the hospital can be up to an hour’s distance away, over pockmarked ground. I always hope against hope this will not be the time the tire gets a puncture or the truck breaks down completely.

I arrive and open the doors to the back, and often as not find I was too slow. The medics sort the wounded into two groups: those with a chalked B for blessée, and those chalked M for mortel, which needs no translation. I wonder what it must be like for those men who can look down at their chest and read their fate.

When I first arrived here, I remembered every face of every young man who passed through my ambulance. I held their hands and said words of comfort. I kept their images in my mind when I prayed, if I had not gotten their names. Now their faces are blurs to me and I no longer pray. This place proves to me there is no god. A just and merciful deity would never allow a place such as this to besmirch the earth, and a god who would allow it is unworthy of our worship.

 Oh, Marcella, I do not wish to burden you with these thoughts. I think of our nameless little island, with you strolling among the seagrass, your hands lightly brushing over the tops of the stems, and it seems to me to be another world, one I travel to every night in my mind when I try to sleep. Your quiet voice echoes in my heart and I long more than anything to be in your arms. I wish to look into eyes which are not hollow from the endless, unspeakable horror of this place, not crazed with fear or glazed with pain. Eyes which do not hold the knowledge of the staggering evil of which man is capable. 

I was a fool, a thrice-damned fool, just as my father said I was. I curse myself for my shallow ambition in believing this experience would help my career, for I will never write of this. Had I any humor left, I would laugh at that young man who earnestly espoused the notion he could help ease the suffering caused by war. And I would scoff at his pacifistic views, for they lasted only until his safety was threatened.

I doubt I shall send this to you, for it contains much I’d rather you never knew. I will keep it with my things, perhaps tucked into the Bible I no longer read, and if I should fall, as have many of our crew, it will be sent to you, and you will know what I avoid when I write to you those carefully worded letters. But more importantly, know I love you more than I can say with simple words. Poets have attempted for centuries to find the perfect combination, and I don’t imagine I shall have more luck than they.

I hope to see you again, soon. It’s that hope which keeps me going.


.¸¸•.¸¸.•´¯`• (¯`•ღ•´¯)•´¯`•.¸¸.•.¸¸.

About the book:

Newly single, unemployed, and with her savings dwindling to an all-time low, Sara thinks things are finally looking up when she lands a job ghostwriting a popular politician’s biography, and rents the affordable island home of her favorite author, Seth Fortner, who mysteriously disappeared in 1925. Strange things begin to happen as objects break, go missing, and terrifying visions appear, making Sara wonder if Seth ever left, or if she is slowly losing her mind.

She gets no answers from his family who closely guards the secret of his disappearance. Through an old trunk of letters Sara discovers in the attic of her seaside cottage, Sara unravels the mystery and becomes caught up in a tale of greed, lost love, and the horrors of WWI. Will she be the one to break the “Fortner Curse” by helping Seth conquer his demons, and heal both of their hearts in the process?

Available from:


Ghostwriter - Lissa Bryan


Abe Books


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