08/19/2013 07:58 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2013

The Hell of Verdun

Next year will mark the centennial of the start of World War I. And 2016 will be the centennial of the Battle of Verdun. I visited the Verdun battlefield site (in France) with an excellent local guide, who helped me come up with this expanded description for the new edition of my France guidebook:

The Battle of Verdun (also called the "Battle of 300 Days and Nights") was fought from February through December of 1916. This was one chapter in a horrific "war of attrition," in which the leaders of Germany and France decided to wage a fierce battle knowing they would both suffer unprecedented losses...but each calculated that the other would bleed white and drop first.

During the "Hell of Verdun" (hell for troops and hell for locals), Germany and France dropped 60 million shells on each other here. While we have an image of rifle fire and hand-to-hand combat, most of the fighting was about shells bursting into lethal fragments. An estimated 95 percent of the deaths at Verdun were from artillery shrapnel. Shells were fired from as far away as nine miles, with poor accuracy. Death by enemy fire was was death by friendly fire.

Today, soft, forested lands hide the memories of World War I's longest battle. It's difficult to imagine today's lush terrain as it was just a few generations ago: a gray, treeless, crater-filled landscape, smothered in mud and littered with shattered weaponry and body parts as far as the eye could see. But as you visit, it's good to try.