According to some reports, which are now being questioned by certain historians, the Germans had another motive in attacking the city. The Chief of Staff, Falkenhayn, is alleged to have claimed that his intention was to ‘bleed France white’. From the icy days of February, through to the sweltering heat of May, the German artillery unleashed a series of relentless bombardments the like of which had never been seen before. The resulting injuries are too horrific to begin to describe – one can only imagine the long-term effects on the soldiers of witnessing such horrors! – and the losses (on both sides) total over 700, 000.
The scale of the slaughter and the vileness of the whole campaign cannot be underestimated but, long after the war was over, one man was unjustly left to shoulder much of the blame. Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, eldest son and heir of Kaiser Wilhelm II, was the commanding officer of the Fifth Army, which played a major role at Verdun. Undoubtedly due to his high profile as the Kaiser’s son, the Crown Prince was portrayed on numerous Allied propaganda posters as the ‘monster of Verdun’ – illustrations showed him devouring women, children and babies, and laughing demonically at the carnage. The notion these posters invoked became a myth and, later, the Crown Prince was known as the ‘butcher of Verdun’ or the ‘laughing murderer of Verdun’.
In reality, within a few weeks of the initial attack, the Crown Prince was disgusted by the slaughter and, concerned, too, for the welfare of his own men, he repeatedly wrote to the General High Command requesting an end to the campaign but his requests were ignored:
“Consequently, I soon did everything in my power to stop the attacks; and I repeatedly gave expression to my views and the deductions to be drawn from them. In this matter I stood somewhat opposed to my then Chief of Staff, General Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, and my representations were at first put aside; the orders ran, "Continue to attack." "
As early as November 1914, the Crown Prince had written (sincerely quite justifiably, I think): “Undoubtedly this is the most stupid, senseless and unnecessary war of modern times. It is a war not wanted by Germany, I can assure you, but it was forced on us...” , and, unsurprisingly , his memoirs, written in exile soon after the war, show his bitterness as the unjust allegations heaped upon him.
“The laughing murderer of Verdun? So that’s what I am, is it? One might almost come to believe it is true after hearing the calumny so often. It cuts me to the quick because it concerns what I have saved as my last imperishable possession out of the war and out of the collapse. It touches my unsullied memories of my relations to the troops entrusted to me. It touches the conviction that those men and I understood and trusted each other, that we had a right to believe in one another because each had given his best and done his best.”
He goes on to recount various episodes which demonstrate his concern for his men and the rapport he had with them.
So many atrocities were committed by all sides in the First World War, that it seems that it is simply because he was the son of the equally unjustly vilified Kaiser, that the Crown Prince was made the scapegoat for the particular horrors of Verdun. In truth, he was one of the few commanders who petitioned for an end to the slaughter and by 1916 he was actively trying to create a peace accord and bring that whole pointless war to an end. Verdun was butchery...but Crown Prince Wilhelm was not the butcher.