February 21st 1916. Germany forces launched a massive attack on French fortifications defending the city of Verdun. The battle continued for months and despite huge casualties on both sides–2,200 German dead and wounded in a single day–the last fortress never fell.
This most famous picture about the Siege of Verdun captured not only the moment of one soldier’s death, but also of the death of old-fashioning ideologies about war, courage and human agency. It shows a French officer being machine-gunned as leads his men in a counterattack on German position. Taken from a film footage, this image of frontline action became so famous that Stanley Kubrick recreated it in his Paths of Glory (1958).
In the art of Georg Grosz and Otto Dix in Germany, or Jacob Epstein’s The Rock Drill in Britain, the men who threw themselves at then enemy became dehumanized, mechanical monsters. In the First World War, and in this photo, the nineteenth century notions of courage and patriotism were challenged by and collided with stark modern reality. The mechanical efficiency of defense with machine guns, artillery fortifications and barbed wires was so much greater than the resources of attack with soldiers who had nothing to protect them but tin helmets. It was the end of an era, the end of an illusion.