February and November are my two least favorite months. November because it confirms that yes indeed, winter has arrived. February, although the year's shortest month, just seems to hang around teasing that spring might arrive. in the meantime, I present this blog post with three historical events for the month of February.
Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 in Hardin County, Kentucky and on November 6, 1860, he was elected the 16th president of the United States. The southern states however, bitterly opposed Lincoln as president. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina was the first of eleven states to secede and the Confederate States of America became a reality. The American Civil War erupted in April, 1861 and Lincoln lead the north during the four year long struggle. The Confederacy surrendered April 9, 1865 but Lincoln is assassinated on April 14 and dies the following morning.
On February 15, 1989, the Soviet Union finally withdraws it's remaining troops from Afghanistan after a nine year struggle. They had invaded on December 24, 1979 in support of the Soviet-Afghan Friendship Treaty but mujaheddin fighters fiercely resisted. After nine years of fighting, the Soviets finally retreated while fifteen thousand Soviet soldiers were killed during the war.
On February 21, 1916, the Battle of Verdun began. At the time, Germany was fighting a two front war in western Europe and Russia in the east. Germany's initial war strategy in 1914 depended on defeating France in a six week campaign by hurling most of their army west. Following their anticipated victory and forcing a French surrender, the next phase involved moving the army east to defeat Russia. However, as often happens in war, the plan ran into serious difficulties right away. The French, aided by the unexpected entry of English forces, fought the Germans to a standstill at The Battle of the Marne in September, 1914. The Russian army fought with unanticipated vigor on the Eastern Front and the war settled into the stalemate of trench warfare.
Realizing that the Allies would eventually defeat his country in a war of attrition, Erich von Falkenhayn, Germany's military leader, devised a plan. France did not have the military capacity to alone defeat German armies. Meanwhile, the British Empire was equipping and training an all volunteer army numbering in the millions. Flakenhayn considered England to be France's best sword and so determined to defeat France before England grew stronger. He devised a strategy to attack the French fortress town of Verdun, knowing the French would fight to the last man to defend it. Thousands of German artillery pieces opened a rain of shells on French soldiers to annihilate them without Falkenhayn having to commit large numbers of his own infantry. Unexpected early success gave way to over optimism, and German commanders ordered their own soldiers forward just as French resistance stiffened.
The battle degenerated into an artillery duel with neither side able to gain the upper hand as terrified infantrymen tried to survive in a wilderness of muddy trenches and rain filled shell holes. Opposing lines moved back and forth and the village of Fleury changed hands sixteen times during the fighting. By late June, the British build up in the Somme region of northern France, began siphoning off German strength to meet this threat. When the British army attacked on July 1, 1916, it meant Verdun would survive although fighting, albeit on a smaller scale, continued until December 1916.
The Battle of Verdun became the longest of World War One and the horror of what happened in such a small area, would be unsurpassed. French casualties were 400,000 to 350,000 German with 300,000 men killed; German hopes for a quick and decisive victory, were once again dashed. While walking most of this old battlefield, where shell crater lips overlap and old trenches remain, I sensed a brooding malevolence in the gloom of the still shattered forests.