Sunday, 21 February 2016, marks 100 years since the start of the great Battle of Verdun — the longest battle in human history and one of the bloodiest during World War I. In observance, here is the story about how the people of Verdun honored my grandfather’s WWI service — just as they have for so many others.
A REPLY FROM A TOWN IN FRANCE
One day, a distinctive looking envelope arrived postmarked, “Prioritaire Document, Chalons en Champagne, CTC Marne.” The return address said, “Amicale Meusienne des Anciens Combattants, ‘CEUX DE VERDUN,’ 55400 Gussainville.” It had been five months since sending our inquiries to the towns of France, and I knew instantly the envelope carried an answer our family had been eagerly waiting for. Composed in French, the note card inside translates as follows:
Commission of the Golden Book
Enclosed is the medal as well as an award diploma, including the number in the order of inscription in the Golden Book of the Combatants of Verdun.
A listing in the name of the combatant will be recorded in the file located in the interior of the crypt of the Victory Monument of Verdun.
His name will be inscribed in the Golden Book which is in the Room of Honor of the Town Hall of Verdun.
Secretary of the Commission of the Golden Book of the Medal of Verdun
Ninety-one years after his world war service in France, Lieutenant Glenn Alonzo ROSS, 23rd Infantry Machine Gun Company, Second Division, A.E.F., who is my maternal grandfather, had been awarded, posthumously, the Medal of Verdun by the Commission of the Golden Book of the Combatants of Verdun.
The note from Mssr. Michel was in response to an inquiry placed five months earlier after making a completely unexpected discovery.
Way back in 2009, I was curiously flipping through one of my favorite “go-to” books, American Armies and Battlefields in Europe, published by the American Battle Monuments Commission. In the book’s final chapter, called “Miscellaneous,” and inserted randomly between technical tips for using this guide, and a long multi-page list of war monuments, was an unpretentious two-paragraph snippet, sub-titled “Medals Issued by the towns of Verdun, St. Mihiel, and Chateau-Thierry.” Buried so deep in the book, it first struck me as an afterthought. I had never noticed it before.
The first paragraph reads exactly as follows:
The cities of Verdun, St. Mihiel and Chateau-Thierry have issued special medals which are available to all American veterans who served in the general vicinity of these cities during the war. These medals may be obtained by writing and sending some proof of service in the American Army and in the region to the mayors of the cities concerned, who will place the letter in the proper hands. A small fee is charged for the cost of the medal.
The second paragraph describes simple criteria for these medals: Proofs of service within defined boundaries around Verdun and St. Mihiel, respectively, as well as around the general vicinity of Chateau-Thierry. Through research, I had accumulated plenty of evidence proving conclusively that my grandfather had fought in each one of these places.
Clearly, these awards must have been very important for the local townspeople. After all, twenty years after wars end, these medals were important enough for the ABMC to announce them in their book in 1938. I wondered, is there any chance these medals are still supported? Would any contemporary mayor in France give time to such a random inquiry from overseas? For many reasons, it seemed unlikely. But, the more I thought about it, the more determined I became to find out.
RESEARCHING THE MEDAL OF VERDUN
Identifying the present day mayors of Verdun, Saint-Mihiel, and Chateau-Thierry was simple enough on the Internet. And, once I thought of using Google with search terms in French, I found two sites with information about the Medal of Verdun. To my surprise, one site in particular had a link to an official application! The site remains accessible at this link:
The Medal of Verdun http://verdun-1916.chez-alice.fr/frameg/medaille.html
Through rough translation, French to English, I understood the opening question to ask, “If your father or grandfather was in the Great War in Verdun in 1916 and he never requested the “Medal of Verdun,” do you know that their children or grandchildren can still do it?” The suggestion of availability was intriguing. But, my grandfather’s machine gun battalion hadn’t arrived in France until December 1917, and I knew his unit had not participated in the great battle of 1916.
However, the article continued, explaining some expanded qualifications: “On 20 November 1916, the city of Verdun created this commemorative medal which is not an official medal, but the badge of ‘Soldiers of Verdun’… the medal is only for French or allied veterans who found themselves on duty in the Verdun area in the zone subjected to gun bombardment between the Argonne and St. Mihiel between 31 July 1914 and 11 November 1918.”
From this rather modest webpage, I learned that descendants may still be eligible to apply for this honor on behalf of their grandparents, and that my own grandfather’s service in 1918 qualified. Plus, I now had in hand an official application form.
CREATION OF THE MEDAL OF VERDUN AND ITS MEANING
The history of the Medal of Verdun is interwoven with the history of the Battle of Verdun itself.
As background, German General Erich von Falkenhayn developed a battle plan for attacking Verdun, France, a city protected by a ring of underground forts. Begun in mid-February 1916, and ending in December, the battle of Verdun symbolized for the French the strength and fortitude of their armed forces and the solidarity of the entire nation. After a few short weeks, the battle took on a life of its own, with small groups of men on both sides fighting local battles in constant struggle for their lives, and protection of the territory they occupied. Verdun is still considered by many military historians as the ‘greatest’ and most demanding battle in history. In the end, the front lines were nearly the same as when the battles started while over 300,000 French and Germans were killed and over 750,000 were wounded.
At 7:15 a.m. on 21 February 1916, a 10-hour artillery bombardment by German guns began. In that space of time, about 1,000,000 shells were fired (some say 2 million), all concentrated along a front only 19 mi (30 km) long by 3.1 mi (5 km) wide. One-million shells in 10 hours. The great Battle of Verdun had begun.
Instead of a quick German victory, the battle raged intensely for 303 days, from 21 February to 18 December 1916, and is the longest running individual battle in human history and one of the bloodiest during World War I.
On 20th November 1916 — right in the middle of the war and in the heat of this battle — the Conseil Municipal de Verdun [Verdun Municipal Council] which was, at the time, located on the Rue de Bellechasse in Paris, decided to introduce the Verdun Medal, awarded to “great leaders, officers, soldiers, everyone, hero or unknown soldier, living or deceased…” “The City of Verdun, inviolated and now standing on its ruins, dedicated the medal as a token of its recognition.”
A few weeks previously, Head of State Raymond Poincaré, had visited the underground citadel to award the City of Verdun the Légion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre, along with various decorations from foreign powers. In a now historic speech, he acknowledged Germany’s defeat at Verdun a few months ahead of time with the words, “These are the walls against which the supreme hopes of Imperial Germany were shattered. This is where they sought to achieve a resounding dramatic victory. This is where, with a quiet firmness, France told them ‘you shall not pass’.” The expression “Verdun, on ne passe pas” [Verdun, they shall not pass] became the motto inscribed on the Verdun Medal.
As part of the same movement, the ‘Livre d’Or des Soldats de Verdun’ [Golden Book of the Soldiers of Verdun] was created and a Livre d’Or commission set up to review the cases put forward by servicemen and their families who wished to apply for it. Even today, almost a hundred years after the battle, descendants of former servicemen request copies of pages of the Livre d’Or featuring the names of family members who fought in the war.
Importantly, the great Battle of Verdun in 1916 was but the first of several large scale battles to significantly affect the fate of Verdun, which would include the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne campaigns of 1918 and involve hundreds of thousands of French and American troops. That is why, on 26th April 1922, the Conseil Municipal decided that the medal would be awarded to “soldiers of the French and allied armies who served between 31st July 1914 and 11th November 1918 in the Army of Verdun, the sector spanning the area between Argonne and the St. Mihiel hernia, in the area that came under gunfire (excluding air bombings).”
WHY RECOGNITION BY VERDUN IS IMPORTANT
For perspective, throughout its history the U.S. military establishment has authorized a limited number of foreign awards for wear on the uniform. As one may expect, medals of the towns of France are not among them. But, that is far from the point here.
You may ask, as an “unofficial” medal, was it important? Is it important today? An emphatic yes to both. Why? Here is what I learned…
First, the medal is a symbol of remembrance. The city of Verdun believes strongly in a duty of remembrance, that society today has a duty to history and with it a duty to explain, to teach the facts accurately, as they actually happened, with a pressing need to preserve all remaining traces and symbols of combat as accurately as is possible with no ideological ramifications of any kind.
Second, in this case, we are contemplating honors from the local people of France – distinctly different to official federal level honors from the Government of France. The Medal of Verdun is a legacy of recognition from both the townspeople of Verdun who survived, and from their descendants today. Their forefathers fought and their families suffered unprecedented hell on earth. To this day, the people of Verdun remain deeply grateful to French and Allied veterans alike for their service and sacrifice, and for a defense and victory that necessarily came at such insanely high cost.
Third, the mission of the Commission of the Golden Book of the Medal of Verdun is to ensure that the memory of what happened at Verdun lives on. The Commission; the medal; the Golden Book in the Town Hall; the Memorial of Verdun; and, the file of honored combatants safely held in the Memorial’s crypt, are combined elements that together serve to honor in perpetuity each soldier who fought there, as well as to sustain the realization of the horrors inflicted upon Verdun 100 years ago. The Commission’s mission is as relevant as ever, and each of these working elements remains intact, open, and active today.
DOSSIER DE CANDIDATURE POUR LA MEDAILLE DE VERDUN
I got busy planning and creating a portfolio packet for the mayors of the towns of France, including Verdun.. The packets were complete with cover letters, detailed narratives of service, timelines — all duplicated in French and English versions — plus, copies of relevant official records. I believed it was important to present everything, well organized, with the first contact. Lastly, we obtained the witness of notary public for the cover letters to demonstrate the sincerity of our family’s earnest inquiry.
Weeks, then months went by, and I began to wonder if the packets ever reached their intended recipients. Did I even send them to the right people? Did they get lost? But, in time, and to my complete astonishment, each town responded one by one. The mayor of Verdun followed through, placing our inquiry in the proper hands just as the ABMC promised decades earlier in their book. Indeed, the Commission of the Golden Book of the Medal of Verdun responded with honors and gratitude for my grandfather’s service.
The Medal of Verdun is now proudly displayed in my mother’s home in honor of her beloved father. We thousands of descendants of veterans and citizens of Verdun share a common connection to the town’s momentous history of not so long ago.
THE PEOPLE OF VERDUN DO NOT FORGET!
With sincere appreciation,
— David Goerss
_______. “The Great War.” PBS. http://www.pbs.org/greatwar/maps/maps_verdun.html : 2016. [In English]
_______. “Verdun Medal, Vernier Version.” Medal-Médaille. http://www.medal-medaille.com/sold/product_info.php?products_id=10584 : 2016. [in English]
Didier, Giard. “The Verdun Medal.” Universal City. http://eng.verdun.fr/Universal-city/Verdun-and-World-War-I/Verdun-a-duty-to-history : 2016. [English option]
Halsey, Francis Whiting. The Literary Digest, History of the World War. 10 volumes. New York & London: Funk & Wagnalls, Inc., 1919. [In English]
Lenoir, R.V. “La Médaille de Verdun.“ La Grande Guerre de Maximin. http://verdun-1916.chez-alice.fr/frameg/medaille.html : 2016. [In French]
Lorain, Guillaume. “Objet du Mois – Novembre 2011: Les Décorations de la Ville de Verdun.” Verdun-Meuse.
http://www.verdun-meuse.fr/index.php?qs=fr/ressources/objet-du-mois—novembre-2011—les-decoratio : 2016. [In French]
Raynier, Pierre-Yves. “France: Médaille de Verdun – 1.“ Ordres, Décorations et Médailles, 1914-1918. http://www.medailles1914-1918.fr/france-verdun.html : 2016. [In French]
Shackelford, Micheal. “Medals of the Towns of France.” The Great War Primary Documents Archive. http://www.gwpda.org/medals/frenmedl/france.html : 2016. [In English]
United States Army. Center of Military History. “Miscellaneous.” American Armies and Battlefields in Europe. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1995. Digital images. U.S. Army Center of Military History. http://www.history.army.mil/html/books/023/23-24/ : 2016. [In English]