TIME alfred eisenstaedt

Ghosts of World War I: Revisiting Verdun, 50 Years Later

LIFE.com presents haunting color pictures -- made 50 years after the guns of World War I fell silent -- from the town of Verdun, where one of the war's costliest battles took place.

In the spring of 1964, LIFE photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt — who served as a German artilleryman during World War I and saw action in the terrible fighting at Passchendaele — and correspondent Ken Gouldthorpe traveled to Verdun, in northeastern France, where one of the costliest battles of WWI took place five decades before. Here, 100 years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which precipitated the cataclysm, LIFE.com presents Eisenstaedt’s quietly powerful color pictures from Verdun: images of an idyllic landscape that still bears the scars, and seemingly harbors the ghosts, of “the war to end all wars.”

Of all the battle sites along the 350-mile sweep of the Western Front [Gouldthorpe wrote in the June 5, 1964, issue of LIFE], none has come to symbolize the carnage and futility of World War I’s fighting more than the fields and hills of Verdun. Here the Germans tried to bleed the French army to death. . . . Today in an ossuary near Douaumont, even now smelling of death, rest the bones of 130,000 unidentified casualties from both sides: skulls, thighs, and — almost indistinguishable — the hobnailed sole of a soldier’s boot. Th erupting shells of a thousand bombardments killed and dug up and mixed and then reinterred the bodies until they intermingled inseparably beneath the mud. [But] not all the memorials honor unknown soldiers. In the wall of Fort Vaux . . . a couple of poppies from nearby fields decorate a plaque [picture #17 in the gallery] to one French victim of Verdun. It says, simply, “To my son. Since your eyes were closed mine have never ceased to cry.”

French veterans of World War I revisit Verdun, 1964.
Alfred Eisenstaedt—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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