The Battle of Verdun was the longest sustained conflict of World War I. The battle, which lasted 300 days and cost more than 300,000 French and German lives in 1916, was also one of the bloodiest of “The Great War.”
The intense fighting and shelling near the tiny town of Verdun has permanently altered the region surrounding the Meuse River in northeastern France. The environmental destruction left by the battle led to the creation of the Zone Rouge—the Red Zone.
The Zone Rouge is a 42,000-acre territory that, nearly a century after the conflict, has no human residents and only allows limited access.
Before World War I, the landscape of Verdun was different.
“It was farmland,” says British historian and author Christina Holstein. “There was a very big garrison in Verdun, a peacetime garrison with 66,000 men, so they had to be fed. Verdun was farmed. It was not heavily forested.”
That changed with the onset of war in 1914. By 1916, French and German forces had amassed significant munitions in the area—millions of rounds of ammunition and heavy, cannon-size guns.
Holstein says the conflict at Verdun was the first of the great artillery battles of the war.
“During that time, the shelling never stopped,” she says. “Millions and millions and millions of artillery shells were fired.”
Even the trenches, where WWI soldiers famously took cover, were transformed by the constant shelling from both sides.
“At the start of the battle, there were trenches, but as the months went by with shells falling all the time in many places, there weren’t any trenches at all,” Holstein says. “The ground was just completely churned up. Any trees were smashed, and men took shelter where they could, in shell holes and in holes in the ground.”
Joseph Hupy, a geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire who specializes in military geography, agrees with Holstein. Before the war, he says, the area of the battlefield was an agricultural landscape dotted with small villages.
“Then the war came along,” he says. “All of these villages were destroyed by these explosive munitions, and the area was abandoned.”
When the war ended in 1918, the French government considered the time and cost of rehabilitating the land. Rather than attempting to remove all the shells and munitions in the area, the government ultimately decided on a minor forced relocation. The government moved people out of the area and created the Zone Rouge.
“Those villages were considered a casualty of the war,” Hupy says.
Without a human presence, the Zone Rouge transformed fast.
“To their surprise, they found the vegetation—trees, grasses, bushes and briars—all came back very quickly,” Holstein says.
Today, the Zone Rouge still bears the scars of battle. Unexploded shells litter the woods like oversized eggs, and the ground is cratered from the constant back-and forth-shelling of the Battle of Verdun.
Unexploded shells are still a danger to the few people who visit the Zone Rouge and those that live right outside the restricted area. Agriculture and “remembrance tourism” (focusing on Verdun and other battlefields) are major industries in the Meuse region.
“Every year, there are farmers that hit shells, and they get tied up in the tines and the tractors explode,” Hupy says. “I heard several stories of where people were plowing and a shell went off. They weren’t killed, but they had cowbells ringing in their heads from the shell going off.”
The French government actually has a special munitions-clearing agency called the Department du Deminage. The department clears unexploded bombs and artillery shells from World War I and World War II that litter the Zone Rouge and other parts of the country that suffered during the conflicts.
“If you go into Verdun, there are signs on the side of the road, where it looks like a shell,” Hupy says. “That is where if you are a farmer and you plow up one of these [shells] you take it away and you place it there. Then they come by and pick it up.”
According to Hupy, certain unexploded shells are more dangerous than others.
“The people who die in the munitions removal, they don’t really die from the explosive ones,” he says. “They die from gas shells.”
Holstein believes the Zone Rouge will never be fully cleared of its unexploded ordnance.
“They reckon that they have 300 years work ahead of them before they have cleared the whole battlefield,” she says. “And they never will.”
Different Trajectory of Development
Even though the area is closed to most human activities, it is a major destination for hunters who pursue wild boar and deer. In addition, since the land in the Zone Rouge has not been cleared, a thriving timber industry has sprung up in the region.
“Everyone needs their lumber products, and for the French, this is a great area to practice forestry,” Hupy says.
Hupy thinks that although the battle transformed the region, the current landscape of the Zone Rouge is a result of human activity that developed after the conflict.
“I have done lots of work in the Zone Rouge,” Hupy says. “I looked at how soils developed in that landscape afterwards. Basically what I wanted to see was ‘Did this landscape recover?’ The word ‘recover’ is not the right word. It got set off on a different trajectory of development.”
Both Holstein and Hupy do not see major changes in the Zone Rouge’s future. Holstein thinks there is a chance for the French to take greater advantage of the region’s military history.
“I suspect that what might happen is that certain areas are cleared a bit more and perhaps you get a 'discovery trail' or something like that so that people can walk around some of the main sites and get some information,” she says.
Holstein also thinks that the Zone Rouge’s light human footprint over the last 100 years might actually be one of its greatest assets.
“Because it has been abandoned and covered with trees, it is a microcosm of something that happened a hundred years ago,” Holstein says. “It is a bit like Sleeping Beauty. Things have just gotten frozen in time.”
Christina Holstein has written three books on the Battle of Verdun including Walking Verdun: A Guide to the Battlefield, and she has a fourth book on the conflict coming soon.
“Geography to me links people to the landscape, so what I do is I look at how military activities relate to the landscape,” Professor Joseph Hupy says of his work on military geography. “That could be how the landscape influences military activities or how military activities influence the landscape.”
material fired, scattered, dropped, or detonated from a weapon, including bombs and bullets.
weapons that launch or fire large projectiles, such as cannons or catapults.
projectile filled with explosives launched by a large weapon.
property or another valuable item that is possessed by someone.
specific place where violence is carried out, as part of a larger war or other conflict.
Battle of Verdun
(February 21-December 20, 1916) longest sustained conflict of World War I, fought between French and German forces in the Meuse region of northeastern France.
person who has been injured or killed in a specific incident.
to mix vigorously or violently.
place where a person or thing is going.
growth, or changing from one condition to another.
material that can quickly and violently expand due to a chemical change.
area used for agriculture.
migration of people from one place to another, as ordered by the government or international authority.
management, cultivation, and harvesting of trees and other vegetation in forests.
military post, or the soldiers who are stationed there.
hollow cartridge filled with poison gas, such as tear gas, chlorine, or mustard gas. Gas shells are most associated with World War I.
study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.
single person's lifetime use of natural resources.
to pursue and kill an animal, usually for food.
activity that produces goods and services.
extreme or strong.
the geographic features of a region.
precisely cut pieces of wood such as boards or planks.
complete miniature world.
military equipment, especially weapons and ammunition.
constant or lasting forever.
to seek or strive to accomplish.
any area on Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.
important or impressive.
to keep going.
land an animal, human, or government protects from intruders.
wood in an unfinished form, either trees or logs.
path of an object moving in space under the influence of such forces as thrust, wind resistance, and gravity.
to change from one form into another.
long, deep depression, either natural or man-made.
all the plant life of a specific place.
small human settlement usually found in a rural setting.
World War I
(1914-1918) armed conflict between the Allies (led by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France) and the Central Powers (led by Germany and Austria-Hungary). Also called the Great War.
World War II
(1939-1945) armed conflict between the Allies (represented by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union) and the Axis (represented by Germany, Italy, and Japan.)