Verdun - "You Will not Let Them Pass"

As another German assault against Verdun began on the 23rd of June, 1916, French troops remembered the words of their General.  Believing that an attack would occur, Robert Nivelle had urged his men:

You shall not let them pass.

He wrote those words (in French) in his daily order:

Vous ne les laisserez pas passer ("You shall not let them pass").

At a later date, the phrase was somehow shortened to:

Ils ne passeront pas ("They shall not pass")

and ... the powerful words were attributed to Philippe Petain (instead of to Robert Nivelle).

However the words were delivered, French troops did not let the Germans pass.  This added even more casualties to the "battle of attrition."  As one soldier reportedly said:

If it goes on like this, we shan't have a man left after the war. (See "Open Wound at Verdun," an article published in LIFE magazine on March 13, 1964, at page 54.)

Although Verdun's casualties can only be estimated, at least 700,000 men were killed or wounded in action (including both sides). 

To that number we must add the many who were physically uninjured but emotionally, or psychologically, scarred by all the horrors they had seen and experienced.  Of the soldiers at Verdun, Philippe Pétain observed:

Their expressions, indescribably, seemed frozen by a vision of terror; their gait and their postures betrayed a total dejection; they sagged beneath the weight of horrifying memories; when I spoke to them, they could hardly reply, and even the jocular words of the old soldiers awoke no echo from their troubled minds.  (Alistair Horne, quoting Philippe Pétain, in The Price of Glory, at page 227.  See also Europe Between Democracy and Dictatorship, at page 55, where Conan Fisher includes the same quote.)

In fact, so many young men were traumatized, in some fashion, by Verdun (and other major battles) that an entire generation was impacted: 

Even for those who had not fought in the war but who had only witnessed the conflict as noncombatant ambulance drivers, journalists, or even as civilians at home, the horrors of the war left lasting marks. 

The slaughter had been so widespread and grotesque, and its reasons so illogical and incomprehensible, that a whole generation in Europe and the United States saw the war itself as the most significant event of their lives. 

As late as the 1970s, for people who lived through the experience, the expression "before the War" meant "before 1914." 

Even though the casualty figures for the United States seemed quite minor by comparison to the loss of a whole generation of youth in Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and Britain, America reverberated with profound social, political and cultural impacts from the war.  (World War I, by Rodney P. Carlisle, at page 301.)

Even the land was laid waste by all the fighting.  A pilot flying over Verdun reported what he had seen:

Every sign of humanity has been swept away ... roads have vanished like chalk wiped from a blackboard. 

See, also:

Verdun - A Vicious Battle

Verdun Must Not Fall!

Verdun - "Bleed France White"

Media Credits

Clip from BBC documentary, "Road to Verdun," copyright BBC, all rights reserved.  Clip online, via YouTube, and provided here as fair use for educational purposes and to acquaint new viewers with the documentary.

To cite this story (For MLA citation guidance see easybib or OWL ):

"Verdun - "You Will not Let Them Pass"" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Jun 02, 2020.
Awesome Stories Silver or Gold Membership Required
Awesome Stories Silver or Gold Membership Required
Show tooltips