As most people get ready to celebrate Christmas in their own way spare a thought for the men who in December 1916 were stuck in wet and rat infested trenches with no warm or dry clothing nor the comfort of a heated shelter. They were in The Hell named Verdun.
The French offensive (21 October – 19 December) The Battle of Verdun is considered the greatest and lengthiest in world history. Never before or since has there been such a lengthy battle, involving so many men, situated on such a tiny piece of land. The battle, which lasted from 21 February 1916 until 19 December 1916 caused over an estimated 700,000 dead, wounded and missing. The battlefield was not even 4 miles square. From a strategic point of view there can be no justification for these atrocious losses. The battle degenerated into a matter of prestige of two nations literally for the sake of fighting……
|A French soldier: …everyone who searches for cover in a shell hole, stumbles across slippery, decomposing bodies and has to proceed with smelly hands and smelly clothes…|
The losses on French side are enormous but eventually the front breaks open: Bezonvaux, the Bois de Hassoule, the Bois de Chauffour and Louvemont are recaptured by the French troops.
|A German soldier writes to his parents: …An awful word, Verdun. Numerous people, still young and filled with hope, had to lay down their lives here – their mortal remains decomposing somewhere, in between trenches, in mass graves, at cemeteries….|
Tuesday – 19 December The German army Command reaches the conclusion that at Verdun a complete defeat had been suffered. More than 11,000 German soldiers and officers have surrendered; they often did not even come out of their shelters to fight anymore. At that date the German army is definitively thrown back in its original positions. The Battle of Verdun has come to an end.
The last major battle fought by British and Allied troops in the depths of winter was in 1944. On 16th December, at 5.30 a.m. on a cold and foggy morning, from Monschau to Echternach, began the Battle of the Ardennes, also known as “The Battle of the Bulge” or “The von Rundstedt Offensive”.
On 19th December, General Eisenhower decided, with the agreement of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, to temporarily redistribute command responsibilities within his ground forces. The units deployed to the north of the line Givet-Prüm would be placed under command of Field-Marshal Montgomery, Commander of the 21st Army Group, and the units deployed in the south were to be commanded by General Bradley, Commander of the 12th US Army Group. From the very next day, the Field-Marshal ordered the British XXX Corps, commanded by General Horrocks, to leave Holland, to swing towards the combat zone, to occupy defensive positions between Givet and Maastricht, and to prevent the Germans from crossing the River Meuse.
On 24th December, early in the morning and not far from Dinant, the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, supported by US tanks and the Royal Air Force, crossed the River Meuse and stopped an armoured column of the 2nd Panzer. It was the first encounter between British and German troops in the Battle of the Ardennes. The German Army was never to cross the River Meuse and the tactical objective was no longer Antwerp and its port but Bastogne.
It’s Christmas ! But there is no respite. On all fronts the fighting is conducted with the same relentless fury.
How different it is today for us in our secure island where most people walk a few paces to take a hot shower or bath, where fresh clothing is within reach and we can have as many hot or cold drinks as we want.
It is important to remember at this time of the year those who gave their lives in major conflicts so that we can enjoy our Christmas celebrations with our families in peace.
We should also not forget the real reason we celebrate Christmas.
Merry Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year to you all.