The Second Battle of Verdun: Scorched Earth Around Esnes-en-Argonne 1917

Most cursory histories which mention the Battle of Verdun are referring exclusively to the First Battle of Verdun in 1916, one of the largest battles (and costliest, in terms of human life) fought during the Great War. However, there was a Second Battle of Verdun, often referenced as such only in French resources, which was launched on 20 August 1917, and which lasted a little under a month – pushing the line back to its 1916 position by launching an offensive from Esnes and surrounding regions. This localized assault quickly resulted in the capture of Côte 304 – a hill which provided a strong defensive position – and the regaining of several French villages which had been mostly devastated by this point.

A map showing the movement of the line in the first two weeks of combat; it would move a little bit further by the end of the battle on 18 September 1917. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Esnes-en-Argonne was effectively reduced to ruins by this point in time, as were neighboring communities like Montzéville and Béthelainville; the architecture generally amounted to a mass of ruins in the former two, while there was an untouched street in Béthelainville (pictured). Between the 1911 census and that of 1921, the combined populations of these three communes was effectively halved, as a result of casualties of the war combined with desertion of the bombed-out towns. The attrition continues to this day; the combined population of these three communities was 1,251 in 1911 – and stood at a mere 468 in 2016.

I was delighted to find a complete set of LSU’s SDV Series 41 slides in my big accession last week; I had not seen reference to this set previously, but its primary focus is on the sites of the Second Battle of Verdun. Pictured are scenes from Esnes, Côte 304, and surrounding villages – and the critical damaged they suffered is palpable. Indeed, the final slide in the series (arbitrarily ordered by myself, since there is no “official” chronological numeration such as in most other SDV sets) features “Esnes Calvary”, very likely a precursor to the Nécropole nationale d’Esnes-en-Argonne, built in 1920 to house the remains of 6661 French soldiers, most of whom died at Côte 304 and Mort-Homme.

The Germans would never retake these positions, but the fighting around Côte 304 and Mort-Homme was intense, and left the surrounding landscapes were rendered barren – the ground around the battlefields was blanketed with 120,000 tons of steel; at the front, over 4 million shells were fired, to the tune of over 1/2 billion francs. It would be heralded as one of the greatest localized total victories for the French – and one of the costliest, as the land regained was a wasteland:

Once again, your thoughts are welcome on the new gallery format, with English captions appearing in a gallery that can be navigated through with the arrow keys. To resume – these pictures show the damage that was done during this brief offensive; whole villages were effectively wiped out, and the Esnes Chateau which had been the centerpiece of the town for generations was reduced to a shell, though the wine cellars there served as an Aid Station for the wounded of the battle. In the map which precedes the anaglyph gallery, one can see some of the locations pictured, and their relatively close proximity:

The region in which the Second Battle of Verdun pushed back the German lines in 1917. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Anaglyphs

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