Small Medals for the Largest Battle
By David L. Burrows
Historians consider the 1916 Battle of Verdun in northeast France as the longest single battle of WWI. Prior to the massive conflagration, the French city of Verdun represented historical significance to the nation. The French reinforced the area around Verdun with twenty major forts as well as numerous smaller ones along the eastern border of the nation.
Chief of the German General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn rationalized initiating the battle in a memo sent on Christmas, 1915. He determined he could inflict maximum casualties on the French by forcing a battle that would require them to defend the area around Verdun.
The battle opened on February 21, 1916, when more than 12,200 German guns opened fire on an eight mile perimeter around Verdun. The ensuing stalemate in the trenches would suck in three fourths of French divisions to serve there.
Within six weeks, the Germans walked into an undefended Fort Douaumont, marking the low point in the battle for the French. They were forced into an impromptu — but successful — defense of the area, utilizing shell holes and trenches for cover.
While many French prisoners were taken during the course of the battle, Falkenhayn did not achieve the five to two kill ratio he promised in Christmas memo that would force the French army to bleed to death. Having underestimated the French defense, the battle degenerated into a terrible carnage on both sides. By April 1916, the French had suffered 133,000 casualties. The Germans had lost more than 120,000.
By late spring, the battles around Verdun continued to rage. On June 1, 1916, the Germans launched a massive attack on Verdun, advancing to within 2 miles of the city’s cathedral.
At this time, however, the British opened a battle for the Somme that would dominate the area. The German Army had given all that it had — and yet, their attack faltered. By July 14, the Germans called off their offensive, and Falkenhayn was dismissed. The French recaptured many of their forts and, by December, the German’s efforts ground to a halt. This was after 600,000 to 700,000 German and French troops were lost (in equal proportions), however.
COMMEMORATING A BATTLE
As the situation at Verdun improved, it was decided an unofficial French commemorative medal would be issued. Whereas the French government issued campaign medals, it did not issue medals for battles or events within a campaign. For this reason, any Verdun medal is considered a commemorative medal issued by the City of Verdun as a gesture of honoring the courageous soldiers who saved the city.
In November 1916, the Mayor of Verdun instituted the design of a medal to be awarded to veterans of the French or Allied armies who served between July 31, 1914, and November 11, 1918, in the Verdun sector between the Argonne and Saint-Mihel. Where confusion arises for collectors is that the official medal was designed by S.E. Vernier. While it is the most commonly found version of a Verdun medal, many other engravers saw fit to produce their own designs that were commercially available (rather than given by the City of Verdun). At least 8 different wearable versions as well as table medals exist that can be collectively called “Verdun Medals.”
THE ONLY “OFFICIAL” VERDUN MEDAL
The “Golden Book Commission” issued a medal and certificate (without charge) to those who qualified. The first medal was a non-wearable 37mm example in a leather pouch. It was presented along with a certificate. This was the only official medal that the Commission issued.
The obverse of the Gold Commission Medal depicts a long- haired women with a sword in her right hand wearing an Adrian helmet used by the French Army. The famous motto On ne passé pas (They Shall Not Pass) is found on this medal (as well as on most other Verdun medals).
The reverse shows an image of the city gates and the main entrance into the city of Verdun. This is imposed on a sunburst of rays and the name “Verdun.”
A later, wearable Vernier medal ( 26.5 mm diameter) was suspended from a ribbon comprised of the French national colors,red, white, and blue. The obverse of the wearable version did not have the “1917” date as did the unwearable variety. Many of the wearable Vernier medals were presented in small red boxes marked “Medaille de Verdun” in gold letters.
AND ALL THE OTHERS
Beyond the common Vernier strikes, collecting Verdun medals gets more complicated. Many popular medals were sold as mementos to the general public for the benefit of Verdun veterans and veteran societies. They are often found with tri-color ribbons of red, white, and blue with many adopting the Verdun ribbon. Types include the Vernier, Augier, Prudhomme, Revillon, Anonymous, Rene, Rasumny, and Steiner versions. In an attempt to help the Verdun collector, the difference between each will be explored.
The Prudhomme Medal is 27mm bronze circular planchet with the head and shoulders of a helmeted uniform figure representing the French Republic facing left on the obverse. A laurel branch and Verdun 1916 can be seen. The reverse is inscribed Aux Glorieux Defenseurs de Verdun (To the glorious defenders of Verdun) below a plaque imposed on roses.
The Augier Medal is a 30mm bronze planchet with the obverse depicting a soldier holding a rifle with cannon in background. The inscription On Ne Passe Pas runs along the left side. The reverse shows the Verdun City gates with open laurel branch and Verdun above the towers.
The Revillon Medal is somewhat smaller than the first three examples, with the silver planchet measuring 22mm across. It shows a crowned female figure holding a sword and scepter with Verdun at the top and On Ne Passe Pas along bottom border. The medal exhibits high relief on both the obverse and reverse. The reverse depicts a charging soldier holding rifle with the inscription En Avant at top. Both sides have Revillon’s maker’s mark.
Another version of the Verdun Medal is named, “Anonymous,” since it carries no maker’s mark. The 27mm silver medal depicts a French soldier in helmet in high relief against a stone wall with Verdun at top. The reverse has a rectangular tablet in the center and the motto, On Ne Passe Pas, imposed on laurel wreath around the top and sides.
The Rene Medal is strikingly similar to the Prudhomme version. The circular gilt medal has a laterally pierced ball suspension. The obverse depictsthe head and shoulders of a helmeted uniformed figure facing left. The helmet has laurel branches with Verdun – On Ne Passe Pas around edge. The date 1916 is seen at lower left. The reverse has a plaque imposed on a flaming torch with oak and laurel wreath inscribed, Aux Heros De Verdu (To the Heroes of Verdun). All of these later versions are harder to find. To add to the confusion, the Rene Medal is sometimes called the “Marie Stuart” version.
One of the rarest versions is the Rasumny Medal. This 28mm bronze medal shows an extremely high relief soldier holding a rifle across chest with the gates of Verdun in the background. At the top is theinscription, Verdun – On Ne Passe Pas. The maker’s name is found under the city gate on the left side of the medal. The reverse is a simple open wreath. Some examples show the date 1914-1918 with a Verdun shield inside the wreath.
One of the hardest to find is the Steiner Medal. Measuring 29mm in diameter, the bronze medal has the typical Verdun legend in addition to “Steiner” marked on the lower right of the obverse. The reverse shows a stylized fortress under a mural crown with a Legion of Honor Cross on some ruins.
The most common of the table medals is the Heroes of Verdun by Charles Pillet. This table medal is noteworthy since it was made by the Paris Mint to honor the heroes of Verdun. The 68mm medal is dramatic when compared to wearable Verdun commemoratives. The obverse has two female figures representing the French Army and the French Republic. They stand united fending off the Imperial German eagle. The town of Verdun lies in the background. The inscription translates to Verdun They Shall Not Pass 1916. The reverse has medallions featuring General Petain, General Nivelle, and General Castelnac. The inscription translates, “The Glory of Heroes Verdun 1916.”
Not only a turning point in WWI, Verdun represents a large loss of life and casualties on both sides. It only seems fitting that so many commemorative medals were produced to memorialize the longest battle of the war.