I have spent many years studying the First World War (which wasn’t actually the first globally fought war, but whatever). I’ve been to the battlefields of the Western Front, seen the rows upon rows of headstones. And like a lot of Europeans, I have an ancestor somewhere amongst them. The First World War holds a special significance in the European psyche; it was supposed to be the war to end all wars – something that it clearly was not. It was Europe’s biggest failure, millions died because of an assassination in a country few were all that aware of, let alone cared about, and then when it seemed like the war was over the terms of the Versailles Treaty all but guaranteed a second world war, as proved to be the case. Even worse, the brutal fighting is not what ended the war, but a revolution in Germany, more the result of domestic supply shortages from blockade than the fighting itself – and the trigger of that revolution had nothing to do with the brutal combat. It is something that many Europeans who study it treat with a kind of sombre shame; and it is something we as a continent resolved never to forget.
Most would consider it disrespectful to make a game of it.
But Verdun is slightly more than just a game – it is as much of a learning tool as any book. Its developers have created the game to be more of a simulator than a shooter. It may be a WW1 FPS, but it is respectful, as accurate as the developers can make it. The games’ systems allow players to use the tactics of WW1 whilst experiencing a taste of fighting as a common soldier.
It is a very tactical game, and requires constant communication – something the soldiers of WW1 severely lacked. The weapons and maps are as accurate as possible. The only changes are that machine guns do not require two people to use, and they do not jam. It is also a taxing game; one cannot simply run at the enemy. As many generals of WW1 unfortunately failed to learn, running at machine gun fire only ends in death. But, like those generals, when participants die it’s just a case of sending in the next wave and hoping for the best, ignoring the total insanity of such a tactic. We spawn in waves, try to make it across no man’s land, fail, and die to the 3 enemy MGs pointed at our ranks. Over and over and over again, racking up 30 deaths a minute in an environment just over 100m wide. It is totally, utterly insane.
When playing Verdun I am reminded of the Ulster Division, a particularly notable WW1 unit fighting for the British. When the order came through to walk at the enemy behind a creeping barrage they ignored the order and charged the German trenches with great success – capturing not only the front lines but also the targets of two other allied units. But the other units in their regiment failed as they blindly followed orders. By the evening the Ulster Division was being flanked by German reinforcements and was running out of ammunition. They had to retreat, and lost a lot of soldiers doing so.
That is the situation that Verdun recreates over and over and over again. You could take it slowly, ducking from crater to crater until you reach the enemy trenches – but that usually doesn’t work even if you try the creeping barrage (though in the game, gas is more commonly used to provide visual cover) because you just get pinned down and shot, as does the next wave. And as happened on the Western Front. Those that charge the trenches get in, throw a few grenades and quickly realize that they’ve run out. Then they lose momentum and we have to retreat, losing about 5-10 soldiers in that retreat. This makes it a lot easier to understand the nature of the fighting than textbooks can manage as it is something experienced, not imagined. There was a futility not only created by the general’s strategies, but also in the blind faith many soldiers had in those orders.
For the most part, Verdun doesn’t do the worst of WW1 justice. It’s not loud enough, the roar of artillery shells and chatter of machine guns does not often dominate the sounds of war. Normally, you’ll hear some grenades, the odd mortar, and a lot of rifle shots. But in Verdun we make squads, level those squads, and as we level we gain access to better support. Better gas, going from tear gas to the infamous Mustard Gas. But also better artillery, moving from a couple of mortar rounds at lvl 1 to a dozen 75mm shells at lvl 75. When there are several such squads in the battle, Verdun shows the fighting of WW1 at its worst. The sound of constant artillery is deafening and each round shakes the camera as it explodes. It is not uncommon after a series of such matches to see someone in the chat say ‘that was intense, I need to take a break’ – just trying to aim under such conditions is almost impossible, and is genuinely taxing on the brain. That is when Verdun is at its best – when it shows a little portion of hell. In a your average 20 minute match with 32 players, 5-600 people will die. In these bite sized pieces of hell, that death toll will rise to 8-900 with disturbing ease.
There is something else worth noting about this game: players in Verdun do not treat it as a WW1 game –we treat it like CS:GO with rifles and trenches. Attrition means little, the battles in the game centre around it but the players don’t care about it – it’s all about objectives, and players take action to avoid attrition at every opportunity. To ‘bleed them white’, to quote a German general on German strategy at the Battle of Verdun,
means nothing to us. When I set up an MG pointed at the enemy spawn I don’t think ‘this will kill a dozen of them’ I think ‘right, this should stop them reinforcing the right side’. That says a lot about how things could have been different – WW1 was treated as a war of numbers. But players treat it as a war of objectives, frankly unable to face up to that aspect of fighting. Players don’t like it when teams camp in no-mans-land in an attempt to wear the enemy down, mostly because it is the strategy of attrition – which the game exposes as ineffective, pointless and a colossal waste of life. It is a shame that it took 3 years of such futile tactics for the generals of WW1 to realise this, whilst it takes players mere hours. It makes me wonder more about how the actual soldiers felt, knowing that their orders were insane – though I suppose the commonality of mutiny in the French ranks is my answer.
Verdun is an important game, because it shows more than any textbook how desperately meaningless those tactics were – and demonstrates with far more power than a red poppy why the war is remembered above all others. It can show a little slice of Hell, of Verdun. The developers state in interviews that they wanted to ‘give an impression of how the fighting took place, and the senselessness of the conflict’. They definitely succeeded.