The New Year brought reorientation to the thoughts and plans of the respective belligerents’ general staffs. After the successes on the Eastern front in 1915, Falkenhayn shifted the strategic “Schwerpunkt” for 1916 back to the Western theatre. He had come up with a truly diabolical plan. For its far smaller population, France could simply not draw into uniform the same number of bodies as Germany could, and hence she would be critically vulnerable in a battle of attrition, designed not to conquer ground or reach a strategic aim but solely to slaughter the greatest number of men in the shortest time.
A suitable location for the abattoir to be established Falkenhayn believed to have found at Verdun, the city on the Meuse River a few miles east of the Argonne Forest, which had been a fortress since Roman times. Her fortifications were modern, updated the last time in 1885, when the addition of a second ring of forts, at a slightly larger distance from the city, gave her a total of twenty-one steel-and-concrete girded complexes. The fate of Liège and Namur earlier in the war, however, had convinced GQG that the forts’ artillery might better be used on the field of battle, and most of the guns had been dismantled. The Battle of the Frontiers in August 1914 had sidestepped the town for the most part and the eastern slope of the Argonne Forest had become a quiet part of the Western theatre, many of the forces stationed there having been recalled to Paris in late August 1914, to Manoury’s new Sixth respectively Foch’s new Ninth Army, and by 1916, only the three divisions of XXX Corps remained.
For OHL, the attractiveness of the town lay in its location less than twenty kilometres distant from a German-controlled railhead, which ensured a steady flow of personnel and supplies. The Crown Prince’s 5th Army was reinforced by the addition of six new divisions to their normal ten divisions, and the artillery corps gathered approximately 1,200 guns and three million shells for an initial front of about ten miles: from the hamlet Brabant, north-west of the town on the Meuse to the village of Ornes east of it, six miles as the crow flies. Due to the smallness of the attack front, which translated to one gun per less than fifteen metres, it was expected that no French troops could survive the curtain of fire and that the advancing German regiments would encounter little resistance. The French, however, could not afford not to reinforce the front, since “if the French gave up the struggle, they would lose Verdun; if they persisted, they would lose their army” in the maelstrom. (14)
After the usual period of bad weather, the German bombardment began on February 21, 1916. A quite impressive affair, it was estimated that a million shells fell upon the French lines and forts before a single German soldier was spotted. But some local troops of XXX Corps were well-prepared and deeply dug in, and hence not only survived the barrage but subsequently defended their lines vigorously. On the whole, however, the German attack made steady progress; had it been an all-out attack, 5th Army might have gained Verdun in a matter of days.
But the design called for a bloodbath, not a victory, and the German offensive became eerily lethargic, enticing the defenders to consign more of their troops to the massacre. Still, by February 24, the first trench zone was taken as was,
a day later, Fort Douaumont, supposedly the core of the French defence on the right flank, “by a lone German sergeant of the 24th Brandenburg Regiment who, blown into the fort’s moat by a near-miss, decided to explore the interior, found it occupied by only a handful of French troops and bluffed them into surrender.” (15) Rumours of the fort’s capitulation immediately spread to the city, and garrison and townspeople alike began to pack their belongings.
Had Verdun been evacuated on this February 25, many lives might have been saved. On the same day’s morning, however, Castelnau arrived, sent by Joffre to Verdun to assess the situation. He could not know that his decision was in
Falkenhayn’s interest when he concluded that the town must be held – why, exactly, nobody knew – and put stoic Philippe Petain into command. The British army at the Somme was asked to take over the Tenth Army’s front line so that units of the latter could reinforce the town.
The map below gives us a picture of the initial situation, February 21 and the development of the campaign. The French Third Army secures the left flank of the town [Square A 3, ¶] and VII Corps’ 20th and 67th Infantry Divisions [AB 2, ¶] defend the line between Avocourt, east of Third Army, and the left bank of the Meuse. The front east of the river is, as mentioned above, defended by XXX Corps, with its 72nd ID just east of Brabant, 51st ID between Beaumont and Ornes and 14th ID to the south-east, at Dieppe. The right, eastern flank is being held by two divisions of II Corps.
Petain arrived February 27. His first order was to recover the 350 heavy and 442 light guns the forts had possessed and add to them any other artillery that might be found. Their fire was to be concentrated directly upon the attacking German infantry, less on tactical targets like command positions or bunkers. His second measure was to ensure arms and provisions, and the road leading southward from Verdun, on the left side of the Meuse, to the town Bar-le-Duc
became the principal route of supplies for the battle. It became known as the “Voie Sacrée”.
The return of the artillery and arrival in line of the French XX Corps strengthened the defence considerably and also bolstered up the meagre sector reserve that was stationed at Souilly [B 4, ¶]. While the Germans had previously advanced six kilometres in six days, after February 27 their efforts stalled in the fire of the French defenders. Falkenhayn’s strategy had overlooked that, as it was clear at the latest since First Ypres, a well-trained defence, able to wield rapid-fire arms and artillery from entrenched and protected positions, could be overcome only under the acceptance of truly hideous losses. The pre-war fable of the superiority of the offence had literally collapsed in the heaps of bodies that lay dead in front of defensive installations. Many generals, mired in their suddenly obsolete beliefs, comprehended this in the abstract yet still failed to recognize it to the necessary degree when making plans. Far from becoming the crucible for the French army, Verdun inflicted equal losses to the Germans, who counted 25,000 casualties in the first week of combat alone.
Finding no success anywhere on the original front between Brabant and Ornes after the end of February, the Germans extended their attack to the area west of the Meuse, between Avocourt and Forges [AB 2, ¶]. There an assault by VII Reserve Corps on March 6 surprised and much perturbed the 67th ID, which had to be rescued by the reserves which counterattacked soon and regained the ground lost at and around Mort Homme Ridge, the principal summit of the high grounds at Verdun’s western flank.
At this time casualties exceeded 100,000 on both sides. France began to rotate her divisions in and out of the theatre – of the 330 infantry regiments in the French Army of 1916, 259 saw service in Verdun – while the Germans depended upon replacements which frequently exceeded 100% of the unit’s original establishment. A renewed German offensive secured the peak of Mort Homme on May 8th but failed to gain its southern slope, and a further expansion of the front, to the east of Ornes [C 2, ¶] finally yielded, after six weeks of combat, the fall of Fort Vaux on June 7. This success carried the Germans tantalizingly close to the nearest fortresses, Forts Thiaumont and Souville, which, however, resisted all German attacks. By now Falkenhayn’s original plan of one-sided attrition was all but a chimaera of the past; the fight took on the character of an industrial slaughterhouse. Not even the efforts of the famous “Alpenkorps”, the elite mountaineer corps from Bavaria, achieved a decisive success; their initial progress bogged down due to a lack of provisions [see the bold dashed line, the furthest advance of German troops, ¶]. It was June 23.
That day, 23 June, marked both the high point and crisis of the Verdun offensive. About twenty million shells had been fired into the battle zone since 21 February, the shape of the landscape had been permanently altered, forests had been reduced to splinters, villages had disappeared, the surface of the ground had been so pockmarked by explosion that shell hole overlapped shell hole and had been overlapped again. Worse by far was the destruction of human life. By the end of June over 200,000 men had been killed and wounded on each side. The losses had fallen more heavily on the French, since they had begun the war with a third fewer men than the Germans, but to both armies Verdun had become a place of terror and death that could not yield victory. The Germans made a final effort on 11 July, which reached Fort Souville, but it was beaten off.(16)
Petain was promoted out of the theatre in April and replaced by General Robert Nivelle, an artillery specialist. He planned a French counteroffensive for late autumn and sought to diminish the German forces opposite by drawing their reserves to other theatres. On the Eastern front, the Russian General Brusilov opened an initially successful offensive against the Austrian and German front south of the Pripet Marshes on June 4 and the British began the Battle of the Somme on July 1. Both of these new engagements reduced the German reserves, in general on the Western front and specifically at Verdun. Fifteen divisions alone were sent from France to the Russian front.
On August 29, Falkenhayn was sacked for the mismanagement of Verdun and replaced by the team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who sought for a way to get out of Verdun with their reputations intact. Their survey of the theatre in
September, however, clearly exposed French preparations for a large counteroffensive, a fact that “fixed” the German units in the Verdun theatre while the French were putting on the finishing strokes to their design. The storm broke loose on October 24, when Third Army under General Charles Mangin, now switched to the right flank of the front, reconquered Fort Douaumont the very same day. Fort Vaux was retaken a week later, but the same circumstances which had erstwhile limited the German success soon encumbered the French. The counteroffensive petered out, eventually, in December 1916, in difficult, hilly terrain just north of Forts Douaumont and Vaux, the slopes turning into mud by the autumn rains.
The tally of Verdun eventually climbed to 430,000 German and 540,000 French casualties, of which a great number – perhaps 50% – died. The eyes of the world, however, soon concentrated on a more exciting target, the Somme, where, since the beginning of July 1916, an even bigger butchery was in the making.
(14) (15) (16) John Keegan, The First World War, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361 (pbk.), pp. 279, 281, 285
(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)