Everywhere it was a time of waiting. Cold and despair gnawed at the peoples of the Old World, where the winter of 1916-17 clung cruelly, as apparently endless as the war that had gripped Europe since August 1914. Men had then gone eagerly to battle, expecting swift victory. But two and a half years of fighting had killed five million of them. Those still living waited wearily in the frigid early months of 1917, hoping for peace.
Since the scything sweep of the German armies through Belgium and France had been stopped at the River Marne in September 1914, the Great War in Europe had settled into a grisly stalemate. Slanting from the Channel to the Swiss frontier, an unmovable line of battle had congealed across northern France. Throughout 1915, four million men burrowed into trenchworks along that line drew rivers of one another's blood, but neither the Germans on the one side nor the French and British on the other could breach the opponent's defenses.
Seeking to resolve the deadlock in 1916, Germany had launched a plan to turn the very impenetrability of the French defenses into the instrument of French destruction. The scheme was as logical as it was horrible: attack at a point which the enemy must defend at whatever costs; besiege that point indefinitely, bleeding France dry; thus rely, ultimately, on the numerical superiority of German manpower as the guarantor of victory. So began the siege of Verdun in February 1916.