hollande i merkel.jpg
Photograph: EPA/IAN LANGSDON

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande met Sunday at the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War I, marking 100 years since the campaign claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

The Battle of Verdun lasted more than nine months, pitting the German and the French against one another on a small area of north-eastern France that still shows signs of the combat.

French historians say that the remains of thousands of soldiers are still scattered across the former battlefield. The bloodbath claimed 300,000 soldiers on both sides; 400,000 others would be wounded in a battle that typified trench combat in attrition warfare.

On Sunday, Merkel said Verdun was a symbol for, "the unbelievable atrocity and futility of war, as well as for lessons learned and French-German reconciliation."

Hollande said the site was at once a representation of, "the worst, where Europe was lost 100 years ago, and also the best, where the city has been capable of investing in and uniting for peace and friendship between France and Germany."

For the scale of destruction, the Battle of Verdun is considered by historians to have had limited strategic use, changing the front lines of combat very little. But it has taken on symbolic value as a site of reconciliation. In 1984, French President Francois Mitterand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl clasped hands over graves.

In an extensive daylong ceremony, Merkel and Hollande honoured the casualties and sent a signal of lasting German-French cooperation after the wars of the 20th century. The two countries have been the driving force behind greater European integration.

The leaders visited a cemetery for German soldiers in the morning. They were accompanied by two children from each country as they laid a wreath under a grey sky and pouring rain. In the afternoon, they visited the newly redesigned Verdun Memorial in the village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont.

One of the main elements of the ceremony is the inclusion of 4,000 young people, in order to pass on a historical consciousness of a battle that none of the combatants are alive to remember. Volker Schloendorff, a German director who helped organize the ceremony, told dpa that the remembrance of Verdun was in the hands of the younger generation.

"The important thing is to take the ceremony from the politicians and the military and give it to the youth," Schloendorff said. "It's not about flames that will be rekindled. It's also not about national anthems being played for the umpteenth time. It's about the 15 minutes when the youth will fill the cemetery grounds."

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