Battle of Verdun
World War I redefined battles as the modern world knew them. Traditionally measured on a scale of hours or perhaps days, battles of the First World War lasted weeks or even months. The German offensive at Verdun proved to be the longest battle of the war. The Battle of Verdun was pointless militarily, significant only for the extreme loss of life inflicted on both sides.
Verdun was surrounded by steep hills and ridges, offering a strong line of defense, in addition to three concentric rings of underground forts. Each fort was well-sited and gunned, capable of holding up to a battalion of infantry. Some were constructed with eight foot thick concrete walls and equipped with artillery and guns mounted from retractable steel turrets. Subterranean passages linked the system of forts.
The German strategy at Verdun was not necessarily to take the city, but to “bleed the enemy white”, as General Erich von Falkenhayn put it. Verdun was, at the time of World War I, rated as the world’s most popular fortress. Its history as a fortified camp dated back to Roman times. In fact, Verdun was the key link in a chain of fortresses across the French line, even helping General Joffre succeed at the Marne.
Planning for a February 12, 1916 attack, the Germans assembled over 1,200 heavy guns of every type on an eight kilometer front. The Germans included forty-two centimeter “Big Bertha” mortars to this assemblage of artillery more powerful than any other in history. The evening before the attack, a heavy fog and blizzard removed fighting conditions for nine days. When the blanket finally lifted on February 21, 1916, the Germans pummeled Verdun with shells for nine hours straight.
While the Germans remained in concealed, reinforced, underground galleries, the landscape on the French side was bleak. Many of the defenders had been buried alive by the explosions of earth triggered by mortar shells. Tree trunks, mangled machinery, and dismembered human bodies and those of horses covered the muddy and shelled ground. The sky was overcast with debris, and shreds of uniforms, as well as human remains, hung from dead tree branches. Bowels, blood, and brains spattered the remaining soldiers. When the shelling finally ended, the German infantry advanced, expecting to find few survivors, armed with a new, secret weapon: flamethrowers.
With the German infantry advance, mass confusion ensued. Whole units were disappearing from their commanders and communication lines were breaking down. With this confusion, on the 24th of February, the second line of defense broke down and the 24th Brandenburg Regiment broke Douaumont, the world’s strongest bastion, without losing a man. With this French loss, General Joffre of the French was replaced with General Pétain. As a morale booster, Pétain assumed the direction of the battle, organizing troops and artillery, reoccupying outlying forts, and establishing the Voie Sacrée, or ‘Sacred Way’, to reopen supply lines.
Commanders on both sides were wavering by May, considering a ceasefire, but the battle charged on. On June 7th, Fort Vaux fell and on June 20th, Germans used diphosgene gas for the first time in the war, allowing deep advances for the Germans, who were, however, losing momentum in their offensive.
On June 24th, the British began their bombardment of the Somme, causing the Germans to halt reinforcements to Verdun. The French retook the remaining forts. In all, the French suffered 377,200 casualties and the Germans 337,000.
The reason the Germans chose Verdun as the location of their largest offensive thus far in the war was the psychological power it commanded. Because of its history as a foundation of French defense for hundreds of years the French would defend it to the last man. General Erich von Falkenhayn summed up the German objective at Verdun as a result of its psychological vulnerability when he said, “If we plan properly at Verdun, we can bleed the enemy white by forcing him to throw in more and more men, until he has given everything…”. Had not the French adhered to this practice, Verdun would have been surrendered early on in the battle. Casualties would have been stifled, certainly avoiding the mass murder that indeed ensued.
Another French mistake in so adamantly defending Verdun was its position in the French front as a salient. The French front curved out like a horseshoe around Verdun, allowing it to be attacked from three sides. Had the French sacrificed Verdun early on in the war, they could have straightened, and thus strengthened, their entire front. German penetration would have proven more difficult.
The French neared potential disaster at Verdun, only to be graced by a nine-day bout of bad weather. General Joffre at first ignored warnings of German mobilization occurring just outside of Verdun. When blizzard conditions delayed the German attack, the French were given time to set up a hurried defense; they scrambled together just quickly enough to avoid total annihilation. Even so, Joffre had left Verdun susceptible by failing to utilize its grand fortresses. Noticing the way the “impenetrable” Belgain forts had crumbled under the German “Big Bertha” shells in 1914, Joffre abandoned most of Verdun’s fortresses in favor of nearly defenseless trenches. Joffre’s inability to recognize Verdun’s fortresses as its greatest assets surely cost the French tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of lives and nearly cost them the battle.
The Germans first erred in their overestimation of the power of their artillery. To hear an account of a French soldier during the preliminary shelling of Verdun makes it easy to understand this overestimation: “…it was being swept by a storm, a hurricane, a tempest growing ever stronger, where it was raining nothing but paving stones." While the Battle of Verdun did indeed mark the greatest collection of heavy guns ever organized on a concentrated front, there were more French survivors than expected. One commanding colonel of the Germans told his first wave of infantry, “You will find nothing living out there; our artillery has killed every Frenchman.” In reality, at least half of the French soldiers at Verdun had survived the initial artillery attack. However, with the colonel’s words in mind, German infantry stormed the trenches half-heartedly, not expecting to face any opposition. Had the Germans been aware of such resistance, they would have made a more organized and coherent infantry attack. Especially considering the German secret weapon of flamethrowers, such an organized, full-fledged infantry attack would have effortlessly penetrated the remaining fifty percent of French soldiers. Capture of Verdun would have been ineluctable.
The most decisive point in the Battle of Verdun did not even occur on site. The British offensive at the Somme rescued the French at Verdun. The British offensive was so massive that the Germans were forced to divert attention from Verdun to defend their position at the Somme. Only because of this new, weakened state of the Germans were the French able to recapture a number of outlying forts and hold Verdun, eventually winning the battle. Had not the British launched their offensive at the Somme soon enough, the Germans might have had enough time to barely break through the final defenses at Verdun before refocusing forces elsewhere.
The outcome of the Battle of Verdun could not possibly have been predicted from its first day. Both the French and the Germans had numerous opportunities to sway the battle largely in their own favor. Overall, a lack of foresight and military competence, coupled with the novelty a war fought in trenches and mainly with artillery contributed to a bloody, disorganized, chaotic battle.
In the end, with nothing gained, the French troops were close to mutiny and the German army was severely crippled. At Verdun, the combination of history’s most powerful gathering of artillery and a waning French army provided for a senseless battle, outrageously costly in human life. Well put by historian Andrew Livesy, “It was a high price to pay for anything; it was an intolerable price to pay for nothing.”
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