The futility of the battle of Verdun, and life, without God

August 1, 1992

Dear Friends and Benefactors,

In the course of a five-week tour of centres of the Society of St. Pius X in Germany, Austria and France, I was able two weeks ago to visit a fascinating historical site not apparently religious but without doubt designed by the Lord God to teach us all an immense lesson: the battlefield of Verdun. Alas, the lesson is not being learned.

Verdun is a little garrison town in North-eastern France tucked close under the southern frontier of Belgium and Luxemburg, and only 50 miles from the present South-western frontier of Germany. When France lost the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, the cession to Germany of Alsace and part of Lorraine brought the German frontier much closer to Verdun, which is why over the next forty years the French built a ring of underground forts amidst the hills to the west, north and east of Verdun. When the next war between France and Germany broke out in 1914, World War I, the powerful German armies broke into France (the French had hoped to invade Germany) but were stopped at the Battle of the Marne (with the help of an intervention of the Mother of God). Both armies dug in, so that a long line of trenches reached from the North Sea to the northern frontier of Switzerland. Trench warfare began, waged mainly by infantry on the ground being continually exposed to enemy shells from overhead.

Through the year 1915, Verdun held for the French. However, the Germans had pressed hard-both to the North-west of Verdun and to the South-east, so that it formed like a salient or bulge in the front-line. In 1916 the Germans decided on an all-out attack to carry Verdun, as being the centre-piece of French resistance on the whole front.

The attack was launched on February 21, 1916, with an extraordinarily heavy artillery onslaught designed to wipe out the French front-line. Thanks to their far superior organization and war-supplies, the Germans did succeed in advancing some miles in a few days, but thanks to some heroic fighting by the French soldiers, the Germans failed to make the decisive breakthrough they had hoped for.

So from March to December of 1916, as the Germans refused to back off while the French refused to give way, both great nations funneled the wealth of their resources and the cream of their man-power into the 75-square mile battlefield. Estimates vary as to the number of casualties in those ten months, but one estimate is of 420,000 men dead, and another 800,000 gassed or wounded. In any case the monumental Ossuary of Douaumont, built on the battlefield after the war was over by the Catholic bishop of Verdun to give decent housing to the anonymous bones of the thousands of corpses being continually discovered on the battlefield after the war, presently houses the bones, visible through the Ossuary's ground-level windows in heaps stacked by sectors of the battlefield, of 130,000 soldiers, and bones are still being disinterred.

Twentieth century wars may by now have hardened us to such statistics, but not even the 20th century has any other such concentrated carnage to compare with the Battle of Verdun. For if the First World War in general saw warfare become horrible as never before with the deployment for the first time in war of the full might and ingenuity of modern industrialism, eg aerial bombardment, flame-throwers, poison gas, etc., nevertheless these new horrors were particularly concentrated by the ferocity of the fighting at Verdun.

An estimated 60 million shells, grenades, mines and bombs so thrashed and whipped and poisoned the 75 square miles of battlefield-that for tens of years after the battle nothing would grow on the desolate lunar land-scape, littered with all kinds of military scrap-iron. Nature is now reclaiming her rights, and today green woods have mostly covered over the horror of desolation, but still today a glance amidst the trees in any direction for miles upon miles shows the tortured ground pockmarked with hillocks and pits and mounds and shell-holes for as far as the eye can see. Nine inhabited villages were wiped off the map, leaving not even ghost villages behind, the village of Fleury having been taken and re-taken fourteen times. They will not be re-built. There are too many unexploded shells remaining in the ground.

Upon the men who survived the fighting, the horrors of Verdun had a profound effect. The savagery of the industrialized weapons, the weight of slaughter and mutilation, and the littleness of the results achieved — by the end of the ten-month battle the front-line was much where it had been at the beginning — left the soldiers with a deep sense of futility and discouragement. The French army was never the same again — in 1917 it suffered from grave mutinies within its ranks and the German army was also fought to a stand-still at Verdun. True, the French had held Verdun, but at what cost! In 1917 the British had to take over the weight of the counter-attack, and when the Battle of the Somme also became a relatively fruitless mutual slaughter-house, then both French and British had to wait for the arrival of fresh armies from the U.S.A. before the war could be brought to an end.

To an end? The Treaty of Versailles concluding in 1919 "the war to end all wars" was, as clear-sighted observers immediately saw, so designed as to make sure there would be another war. It broke out in 1939 as “the crusade for democracy”, and resulted mainly in the great advance of Communism, enslaving Eastern Eruope!

But in that case, one might ask, the senselessness is not confined to the slaughter of Verdun, but extends to World War One as a whole, and to World War Two? Then it really was in vain that all those young men filled the Ossuary of Douaumont with their bones? Yes, if one leaves God out of the picture. And that is why the horrors of World War One drove many a young man without God to despair, and blew all lingering pleasantness of the Edwardian age to smithereens. The world was never the same again.

But as soon as one brings God into the picture, everything comes into clear focus. Firstly, as to the individuals, many of the young men who died amidst the heroism and sacrifice of war will have saved their souls which they could easily have lost if they had lived on into the corruption of the inter-war peace (lesson to be borne in mind for tomorrow's Chastisement). Secondly, as to the nations, to mention only the combatants at Verdun, France had ever since the 1789 Revolution been more and more defying God with her Freemasons and their secularism, while Germany had likewise been persecuting the Catholic Church with Bismarck's "Kulturkampf'. Both nations, before God, thoroughly deserved to be punished, and He would not have loved them had He left them unpunished (Heb. XII, 6). As it was, He tried twice in mid-war to mitigate the punishment, firstly by His Vicar Benedict XV offering to all the warring nations to mediate between them, an offer which they united in turning down; secondly by a special messenger, Claire Ferchaud, requesting France in particular to put the Sacred Heart on its flag, request likewise turned down but which, if accepted, would have brought a speedy end to the war, with Catholic justice instead of the treachery of Versailles.

Thus the godless nations had only themselves to blame for the false peace of 1919, for the ensuing hot war of 1939 to 1945, for the ensuing Cold War of the next several decades, for its sham resolution of a few years ago, and for its real resolution which we still await. On one thing the nations are all agreed - they want nothing to do with God.

Thus the battlefield exhibits at Verdun, well done though they are, hardly mention Him. His wrath alone makes sense of them, but He is the Great Absentee. Instead, the exhibits are made to teach the lesson of internationalism: Let us just get rid of the patriotism which set the French at the Germans' throats and vice versa, let nationalism and national borders vanish, let us on the basis of economic union establish political unity and thus we will build an international paradise, with peace and plenty for all!

Fond illusion! Godless internationalism will not solve , but will only compound, the problems of godless nationalism. Frenchmen and Germans fought so bitterly at Verdun not because they loved their country, but because they loved their country unwisely, with a love not moderated by a superior love of God and of His one true Church. The problem was not patriotism, but an unwise patriotism. For as long as all Europeans were Catholic, Christendom (that was its name) was essentially united, and wars within it were relatively minor affairs, at least when compared with modem wars. Had France and Germany in 1917 been more Catholic, they would have stopped the slaughter by accepting Benedict XV's offer, in fact they could have avoided war all together by asking Pope Pius X to mediate between them in 1914, before war broke out. As it was, they declared war, whereupon the British Foreign Secretary made his famous quote: "The lights are going out all over Europe and we shall not see them lit again in our generation". Within days Pope Pius X died of a broken heart. And by way of a solution to scorning our God, we are now being prepared and instructed to scorn also our country!

How blind men are when they do not have Jesus Christ and the light of the Catholic Faith! "I am the light of the world; whosoever followeth me walketh not in darkness but shall have the light of life" (John VIII, 12). What illumination in these few words of Our Lord! —Those who do not follow him walk in darkness, and will not have the light of life. Poor Europe!

But he consoled, the lights have not gone out entirely over Europe, a very few have been lit again in our generation, I mean at least the centres in France and Germany and Austria of the Society of St. Pius X, and in other countries of Europe which I did not this time visit, but which are all growing, not in spectacular fashion, but slowly and quietly.

For instance in Stuttgart, Germany, the Society's German District Headquarters is replacing its present allelujah-garage (German expression!) with, if you please, in a typical grey suburban-industrial area of a modem big city, hemmed in on all sides — with a brand-new pre-fabricated baroque church! Pre-fabricated baroque! Have you ever heard of such a thing? Well, go and see it in Stuttgart! And you may see up on the scaffolding young workmen — not workpersons but workmen — with dinkum blond pig-tails, happily painting baroque, with their ghetto-blaster on one side of them and a coca-cola bottle on the other!

Ah, dear readers, not all is lost. Pray hard, and we might even make seminarians out of young men with pig-tails and ghetto-blasters!

Have happy summer days, but do not take a vacation from loving God. He takes no vacations in looking after us!

With all good wishes and blessings, in Christ,