Richard A. Koenigsberg
To read the complete paper Virility and Slaughter please click here.


“Men were squashed. Cut in two or divided from top to bottom. Blown into showers; bellies turned inside out; skulls forced into the chest as if by a blow from a club.”

“You eat beside the dead; you drink beside the dead, you relieve yourself beside the dead and you sleep beside the dead.”

“I saw a man drinking avidly from a green scum-covered marsh, where lay, his black face downward in the water, a dead man lying on his stomach and swollen as if he had not stopped filling himself with water for days.”

“To die from a bullet seems to be nothing; parts of our being remain intact; but to be dismembered, torn to pieces, reduced to pulp, this is the fear that flesh cannot support and which is fundamentally the great suffering of the bombardment.”

The Battle of Verdun (1916) was the scene of a mass slaughter. German General von Falkenhayn—convinced that the symbolic significance of the forts at Verdun would compel the French to defend them to the last man—told Kaiser Wilhelm that French forces would “bleed to death.”

At the Battle of Verdun, “virility” amounted to the willingness give over one’s body when one’s nation asked one to do so—obedience unto death. Joanna Bourke observes that the most important point to be made about the male body during the First World War was that it was “intended to be mutilated.”

The soldier is puffed up with words such as honor, duty, and masculinity—so that we can turn him into a sacrificial victim. As Carolyn Marvin puts it, “Sacrificial delegates become murderers so that we can kill them more easily.”

For their initial battle, the Germans brought up 2.5 million shells, and by June 1916 the artillery had grown to about 2000 guns. In just over four months of battle, a million shells had been pumped into a dedicated stretch of ground—an average of 100 shells per minute.

Verdun was captured by the Germans—then recaptured by the French. Nothing changed, except that there were 650,000 dead soldiers. When added to the Battle of the Somme, this made a death toll in 1916 of almost a million men; an average of more than 6,600 killed every day, more than 277 every hour, and nearly 5 men a minute.

One French officer described the Battle of Verdun as a “pure contest of French and German masculinity.” The two races had “put all their youth into the furnace, to test which is the strongest and most virile.”

Soldiers often are depicted as aggressive warriors. In actuality, the posture of the soldier at Verdun was one of absolute, total passivity; abject weakness (see descriptions of the experience of this war to the right).

Imagine the pathetic plight of those on the battlefield, confined within a narrow space that glowed like an oven for miles because of the constant artillery bombing. During “battles” soldiers spent most of their time hiding from the incessant shelling and bombardment rather than actually fighting.

A French Lieutenant described his situation: “Nearly all of our trench has caved in. We huddle in them to get at least a bit of shelter from the explosions.” He noted that before attacking his men were either “drunk, howling out patriotic airs, or weeping with emotion or despair.” One soldier remarked within earshot of the company commander: “Baa, baa, I am sheep on the way to the slaughterhouse.”