Last Wednesday, many gathered in the Wasserman Cinematheque, where the History department and the Film, Television and Interactive Media program co-hosted the North-American film premiere of “Verdun, They Won’t Pass.” The film is a historical documentary created by Serge de Sampigny, a French filmmaker who has written and produced three historical documentaries previously. Prof. Paul Jankowski (HIST), whose work deals primarily with the history of modern war, was the contributing historian for the documentary. 

Both he and Sampigny attended the documentary screening and answered questions posed by the audience afterward.

The 10-month long Battle of Verdun, on which the documentary  is focused, was fought between Germany and France during World War I. In 2016, the battle will reach its 100-year anniversary. 

Between the two armies, approximately 300,000 soldiers died during this engagement. The battle itself took place near the city of Verdun-sur-Meuse in north-eastern France.  German forces, commanded by General Erich von Falkenhayn, sought to utilize their strong artillery and strategic positioning to draw French forces into hostilities designed to exhaust their resources and armed forces.

De Sampigny distinguished this anniversary from the 50th anniversary on the basis of an entirely different political word climate. “In 1966, when people commemorated the 50th birthday, the French had something else in mind. They were thinking about reconciliation with Germany [after World War II]. … we are very good friends with Germany now,” he said during the presentation.

Much of Jankowski’s work deals with the history of modern war. Jankowski describes his approach to historical research as an attempt to account for as many historical factors as possible by utilizing sources from and methods of traditional, cultural and social history, with the aim of contextualizing war.

“Traditional military history studied outcomes. Why did Napoleon lose at Waterloo? What explains this? … I think there’s a place for that. More recently, history has become a study of much more … What does it say about the societies that waged these battles? What does it say about the mental universe of the soldiers on the field? What does it say about the diplomacy? What does it say about the ways of thinking? In other words, the history of war is now a history of the societies and minds that fought it,” Jankowski explained to the audience.

In an interview with the Justice, Sampigny spoke about the absurdity of the battle and the struggle of historians to understand how and why the battle occurred.

“Nowadays, it seems to all of us … absurd, such bloodshed. But, the soldiers one century ago accepted the fight. The question for me was: why?” As such, the documentary, just as Jankowski’s book (‘Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Greatest War’) focuses on the ‘myth of Verdun.’ Sampigny described the myth as the notion “that the French, all together equal before death, fought in Verdun to protect the fatherland which was very threatened and that they would be united in this.”

Moreover, Sampigny enumerated the necessity of studying this battle in particular: “From the French point of view, we have to get rid of this myth and try to consider the battle by itself.”

Jankowski added, “It’s also important in French memory because it is a defensive battle. The French didn’t start this battle; the Germans did. The French didn’t start this war; the Germans did.”

Sampigny explained the difficulties of producing this documentary. He noted that the film needed to strike a delicate balance between being “critical and indulgent.” Sampigny clarified that the battle has taken on the connotation of being purely irrational and hellish in the eyes of the general public due to the lack of knowledge regarding the battle’s intricacies. While he sought to explain the French motives in extending the battle to the extent they did, he was careful not to romanticize such efforts in the film. 

The French fought to defend Verdun, which was seen as lacking in any strategic importance outside of any symbolism.

Sampigny explained further that he struggled “to find films, … [as] cinema was very new in 1916. … My solution was to film that field like it is nowadays. And the other thing was to find some cinema films which were filmed 10 years after the war with actors who were former soldiers most of the time and were filmed precisely on this battlefield.”

After the screening, one audience member inquired about the possibility of a strategic necessity in defending Verdun. Jankowski quickly responded that there was a minimal chance that German forces would have been able to or desired to advance past Verdun.

Jankowski dispelled a common misinterpretation of the new scholarly works on the Battle of Verdun and delivered a thought-provoking message: “What we call the myth is not meant to be a pejorative term. … These things arise naturally. It’s not a matter of conscious lying or fabrication or propaganda. It’s entirely understandable. Historians have an obligation to say, ‘Yes; here’s the legend; now let’s look at what actually happened.’”

Some of the lessons to be learned from lengthy World War I battles are shrouded in military strategy and a lack of access to resources. 

As such, the efforts of individuals like Paul Jankowski and Serge de Sampigny can help these historical lessons to be accessed. 

Sampigny concluded his interview with the Justice with one such reflection: “Even if we can’t imagine [the battle] because it is so mad, it can very quickly happen.”