Richard North, 30/05/2016  

In solemn ceremonies yesterday, in the forests of eastern France, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel marked 100 years since the Battle of Verdun, determined to show that, despite the bloodbath of World War I, their countries' improbable friendship is now a source of hope for today's fractured Europe.

The 10-month battle at Verdun - the longest in World War I - killed 163,000 French and 143,000 German soldiers and wounded hundreds of thousands of others.

Between February and December 1916, an estimated 60 million shells were fired in the battle. One out of four didn't explode. The front line villages destroyed in the fighting were never rebuilt. The battlefield zone still holds millions of unexploded shells, making the area so dangerous that housing and farming are still forbidden.

The Battle of Verdun is to the French and Germans what the Somme was to the British, a battle which witnessed a million casualties in four months, with almost 20,000 British dead on the first day, 1 July 1916, when our soldiers stormed "over the top" in a vain attempt to take the German positions.

However, by the time Britain marks the Somme centenary, says the Guardian, the result of the EU referendum will be known.

But with three and a half weeks to go before the vote, it says, we should make the imaginative effort to understand the Verdun centenary too. Just as British soldiers died for France on the Somme, so French soldiers died for Britain at Verdun.

In a similar vein, it says, Sunday's reaffirmation of Franco-German reconciliation is an event that speaks for us, too. It is all too easy, after 70 years of European peace and 100 years after Europeans slaughtered one another on the western front, to ignore what has been achieved by Europe's common institutions in providing a stability in Europe that did not exist there before.

We in Britain, this thoroughly Europhile newspaper says, "have a responsibility to do our part to ensure that this stability and unity do not unravel. We should all remember Verdun".

And indeed we should remember Verdun, but not at all for the reasons the Europhiles would wish to impress upon us. The men who died there, and the many to who died afterwards in vile conflicts, deserve more than that.

The real reasons we set out in our book The Great Deception, where we remark that, despite the official hagiography of the EU firmly rooting its genesis in the post-WWII period, the First World War in general and the Battle of Verdun in particular was far more important to the intellectual genesis of the EU.

So vital is Verdun that we start Chapter One with an account of how, on 22 September 1984, two portly middle-aged men stood holding hands in front of the largest pile of human bones in Europe. One was the President of France, François Mitterrand; the other the Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl.

The reason why these two most powerful political leaders in western Europe were staging a well-publicised act of reconciliation before tens of thousands of graves was that the site of this ceremony was the ossuary at Douaumont, just outside Verdun in eastern France. 

This colossal battle of attrition had been launched in February 1916, when the French commander, General Philippe Petain, pronounced that the fortresses on the hills overlooking Verdun on the River Meuse were where the advance of German armies into his country would be brought to a halt.

His legendary words Ils ne passeront pas were endorsed the same day by France's prime minister, Aristide Briand. For nearly a year, the French and German armies battered each other to destruction in the most intense and prolonged concentration of violence the world had ever seen. French artillery alone fired more than twelve million shells, the German guns considerably more. The number of dead and wounded on both sides exceeded 700,000.

The impact of this battle on France was profound. Because of the way in which her citizen soldiers were rotated through the front line, scarcely a town or village in France was untouched by the slaughter.

Among the two and a half million Frenchmen who fought in the battle were France's future President, Charles de Gaulle, and Louis Delors, whose son Jacques would one day be President of the European Commission.

Present for several months fighting for the other side was the father of Germany's future Chancellor, Helmut Kohl. So deep was the wound Verdun inflicted on the psyche of France that the following year her army was brought to mutiny. Its morale would never fully recover.

And from this blow were to emerge two abiding lessons. The first was a conviction that such a suicidal clash of national armies must never be repeated. The second was much more specific and immediate. It came from the realisation that the war had been shaped more than anything else by industrial power.

As the battle for Verdun had developed into a remorseless artillery duel, trainloads of German shells were arriving at the front still warm from the factories of the Ruhr. The battle, and the war itself, became less a trial of men and human resolve than of two rival industrial systems. And the French system had been found sorely wanting.

Particularly inferior had been the heavy guns, many dating back to the 1870s, able to fire shells at only a seventh the rate of their German counterparts. More and better guns became vital. But, as France's politicians found to their consternation, manufacturing them and the huge quantities of ammunition needed was beyond the capacity of an industry which compared equally poorly with Germany's. 

This had since August 1914, under the inspiration of Walter Rathenau, been put on a fully integrated war footing, under the control of a War Raw Materials Department. In the summer of 1916, therefore, a crisis-stricken French government gave an industrialist, Louis Loucheur, near-dictatorial powers to reform and develop the manufacturing base.

Before the war, Loucheur had been one of the early pioneers in the use of reinforced concrete. In a national economy dominated by artisan manufacture, he was one of the few French technocrats familiar with the techniques of mass production.

With all the power of the state behind him, Loucheur succeeded in his initial task, even building new factories to make the new guns. But improvements in production precipitated critical shortages of steel and coal, exacerbated by the German seizure in the first weeks of the war of around half France's industrial base in the north-east of the country.

Remedying these shortages required massive imports from Britain, and then from the United States. In turn, this placed considerable demands on shipping. All this required unprecedented economic co-operation between the Western Allies, leading Loucheur to conclude, like Rathenau before him, how far success in modern warfare demanded industrial organisation.

Thus, Loucheur came to reflect, industrial organisation was the key to waging war. From this he developed the idea that, if key industries from different countries, above all their coal and steel industries on which modern warfare so much depended, were removed from the control of individual nations and vested in a "higher authority", this might be the means of preserving peace.

Rarely, though, is Louis Loucher cited as one of the fathers of the EU, although in several important respects, his thinking was every bit as influential in the early stages as Jean Monnet who, as a political "fixer" is actually not known for his intellectual prowess.

But the point that emerges – or should emerge – is that the First World War was in all manner of ways unique. By the time Part II (otherwise known as World War II) had ground its way to its bloody conclusion, the world had changed to an extent unimaginable to the original authors of the ideas which led to the formation of the EU.

Crucially, the post-1945 world was divided into spheres of influence dominated by two super-powers, with the A-bomb and then the H-bomb delivered by unstoppable Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, holding the balance of terror which become known as the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

A third world war was now unthinkable because the outcome could so easily have led to the destruction of mankind as a species – the main survivors on the planet being the hardy cockroach.

It was that, not the now century-old reasoning of a long-dead industrialist which kept the peace in (parts of) Europe. It was certainly not the EU, which came formally into being only in 1992 with the Maastricht Treaty, or the EEC before it, which had little power and lacked any global reach.

It is significant, therefore, that the Battle of Verdun started on 21 February 1916 and is still cited as the reason why we should surrender our democracy (what's left of it) to a supranational construct based in Brussels.

By the time we reach the 100th anniversary of the end of one of the costliest battles of the First World War, on 20 December, this current stage of our rather less bloody battle for independence will be six-months gone.

Whether we succumb to the propaganda based on obsolete ideas, already redundant by 1945, at the end of World War II, is another matter. But the gravity of such issues deserves far more serious consideration than is being given by a media obsessed with shallow personality politics, turning this referendum into an extended game show.

Underlying this referendum are the hopes and dreams of millions of people, and before that, the premature deaths of many more millions, and the flawed political construct that emerged to try to prevent further slaughter.

The frivolous treatment by the media of such issues is an obscenity. Never, ever have we been so badly served by the Fourth Estate – not least by the Guardian which is so cavalier in its reminders.

Only just over a month ago, I placed these words anew on this blog and do so again without hesitation. It is now even more vital that real people should reclaim this debate and accord to it the seriousness that the media hasn't even begun to understand.

In the end, we either control our own destiny as a people, or others control it for us. That is what we must decide on 23 June 2016.

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