Battle of Verdun
Germany wants to weaken the French Army to the point of exhaustion
21 February - 18 December 1916
author Paul Boșcu, January 2015
During the battle of Verdun the German Army launched a series of attacks designed to weaken the French Army to the point of exhaustion. While the Germans initially had success, capturing important ground from the hands of the French, the Somme offensive forced them to direct reinforcements to that sector. During the final phase of the battle of Verdun the French soldiers managed to recapture a lot of the lost ground. In the end the Germans suffered almost as many casualties as the French.

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The battle of Verdun was the largest battle of the Western Front of World War I fought between the French and German armies. The fighting lasted for 303 days, and it remains one of the bloodiest battles in human history. During the battle, the Germans attacked the French army in the Verdun area. At first the Germans had some success, capturing Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux. But as the battle progressed the Germans had to redirect troops from the Verdun area to the battle of the Somme. In the final phase of the battle, the French managed to recapture much of the lost ground, including Forts Douaumont and Vaux.

The balance of power on the Western Front was changing, because although the Germans had strengthened their forces in the west after their successful campaigns on the Eastern Front, the BEF was also expanding. It now had around a million men under arms – a total of thirty-eight infantry divisions and still growing. Nevertheless the French remained the dominant ally, with some ninety-six divisions under the command of General Joseph Joffre in January 1916.

There was no denying that the French had borne the brunt of the war on the Western Front since August 1914. By comparison, the British contribution had been negligible: those battles in which they had been involved, such as Neuve Chapelle or Loos, barely registered as skirmishes when compared to the titanic clashes in the Artois and Champagne.

Amidst all the mayhem and destruction, the sophistication of the bombardment had also taken a step forward with the widespread use of gas shells on battery positions, to suppress the fire of the French guns during the German attack across No Man’s Land.

Almost encircled by ridges and hills on both banks of the Meuse, Verdun was also protected by rings of forts. The strongest, in theory, was Fort Douaumont, perched on a 1,200-foot height located to the north-east of the city, on the right bank. However, the strength of the forts was illusory. Many of their guns had been removed to provide extra firepower for the French autumn operations of the previous year.

After the initial French debacles, General Philippe Petain, known for his pragmatism, would probably have preferred to implement a controlled withdrawal. However, as an unambitious officer who shunned intrigue and ostentation, Petain was ideally suited to the role in which he was now cast. He understood modern firepower and was trusted by his troops. His very presence at Verdun lifted morale and he inspired renewed confidence in the Verdun forts as the backbone of a 'Line of Resistance'. French artillery was concentrated to give the Germans a taste of attrition.

In planning the Verdun offensive, the German General Staff had undoubtedly been aware that once summer arrived, they could expect Entente offensive operations to commence on many different fronts, including the Western Front. The German General Staff basically had no reserves. Once an offensive began somewhere else, it could be stemmed only by the diversion of resources. So far, the Germans had been able to use their still substantial superiority in firepower to compensate. But the guns, like the men, would have to be diverted when the next offensive began.

In December 1915 it had been decided that there would be a huge Anglo-French offensive on the Western Front to coincide with simultaneous offensives by the Russians and the Italians. Joffre had selected the Somme area where the British and French would fight side by side. This was alliance warfare and Douglas Haig, the British Expeditionary Force commander, was left with no option but to comply if the union was to survive and prosper. Yet neither Joffre nor Haig would have the chance to dictate what was about to happen on the Western Front. At the start of 1916 the French position at Verdun was not healthy.

The new year saw a new team at the heart of the British military. In London, General Sir William Robertson had been appointed as Chief of Imperial General Staff. General Sir Douglas Haig had been promoted to command the BEF. The two would work in harmony, united in their belief that the prevailing strategic situation meant that the bulk of British resources should be devoted to fighting the main enemy – Germany – in the deciding theatre of war, the Western Front.

From the British perspective, the Ypres salient was the more obvious sector from which to attack, not least because it was closest to the Channel ports and the British Expeditionary Force’s supply lines. But militarily Britain was the junior partner of the coalition. French’s replacement by Haig promised an improvement in Anglo-French relations. When Haig met Joffre in February 1916 he readily agreed that the attack should be in Picardy, astride the River Somme, where the two armies met.

A generally quiet sector since 1914, the great fortress at Verdun had been denuded of most of its guns during the desperate combing out of heavy artillery for the autumn offensives of 1915. The whole sector was only defended by four divisions and two brigades of Territorial troops. There had been a definite complacency at Joffre’s headquarters despite warnings as to the inadequacy of the French defences.

The advent of a period of heavy snow and rain on the date of the originally intended attack militated against the effective deployment of the German artillery that was essential to the success of the attack. It forced a 9-day postponement. These precious few days allowed the French the chance to realise what was about to happen and belatedly to concentrate their forces. By the time the Germans attacked, the French had eight divisions and over 600 guns on the east and west banks of the Meuse.

For the first half of 1916, it was another general, the German Chief of General Staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn, who would control the agenda of the war. With Russia apparently tamed, Falkenhayn was intent on seeking a decision in the west. Falkenhayn still considered Britain the main enemy, but seriously harming the British war effort remained problematical. Eventually, he resolved to attack the French, reasoning that he would knock ‘England’s best sword out of its hand – France!’

Falkenhayn had been encouraged by the series of successes on the Eastern Front in 1915. He believed that, although total defeat of Russia was an unlikely prospect, his armies had achieved enough to render her at least quiescent during 1916. Serbia, too, had been reduced to a shadow, while the position of Austria-Hungary had undoubtedly improved. Falkenhayn and his staff believed that the French nation and her democratically elected politicians were not strong enough to withstand the terrible rigors of war for much longer. They would put the matter to the test in 1916.

For all the successes the Central Powers achieved on other fronts in 1915, the overall strategic situation remained the same: Russia obstinately refused to make a separate peace and hence Germany was still doomed to fight on two fronts. In these circumstances Falkenhayn was convinced that the war would have to be ended before 1916 drew to a close, or Germany – but even more likely Austria- Hungary and Turkey – would simply collapse under the weight of the immense burdens of war.

In the assessment of their military opponents, German intelligence suggested that Britain’s new ‘Kitchener Armies’ were not militarily competent. They were also aware of the generally good morale still prevailing in the British units. In contrast, the Germans looked down on the French divisions, considering them both unskilled in the military arts and low in morale. This view may have been wrong, but it was widespread in the German High Command, which did not lack in self-confidence, assessing their own troops as both highly skilled and well motivated in action.

Throughout 1915, Falkenhayn had seen the western front as the decisive theatre of the war. He now assumed that the Austrians would guard his back against a severely weakened Russia, while he concentrated Germany’s efforts against France. The fact that he did so in the very month when his relationship with Conrad von Hötzendorff, the Austrian Chief of the General Staff, reached its nadir meant that his decision was not coordinated with his principal ally. Conrad overran Montenegro and then readied his army for an operation much more to Austrian liking, an attack on Italy in the Trentino. The pressure on Russia eased.

The fact that Falkenhayn’s strategy did not join up was largely outside his control, but its assumptions were logical enough. Much more perplexing are Falkenhayn’s proposals for turning these ideas into operational practice. After the war, in his memoirs, he claimed to have written a memorandum at Christmas in 1915, in which he said that he intended not to take Verdun but to suck the French army into the defence of the city and so bleed it to death. But the fact that he ordered his troops to advance as far as they could contradicts this. As a result they suffered heavy casualties, almost as high as the French.

During the planning process for what would be the Battle of Verdun, Falkenhayn developed a new concept of warfare. He would launch an assault on the salient that protruded around the fortress town of Verdun on both banks of the River Meuse. There a potent mixture of tactical necessity and national pride would force the French to launch counterattacks that would in effect bleed their army to death. Whether the French counterattacked at Verdun or attempted to relieve the pressure with a major attack elsewhere, the Germans believed that the effect would be the same – huge losses, unsustainable for the French nation.

The German Fifth Army, commanded by Crown Prince Wilhelm, would launch the attack on the east bank of the Meuse to swiftly seize the commanding heights using relatively small numbers of infantry in open order, accompanied by flamethrowers and backed by overwhelming artillery fire on the French front line until the actual moment of assault, at which the guns would switch to the Second Line positions.

It is open to debate whether Falkenhayn actually meant to seize Verdun. His decisions to strike the initial blow with only nine divisions, to keep reserves under his own control and to restrict the assault to the right bank all indicate that this was not his principal aim. On the other hand, Crown Prince Wilhelm was encouraged to proceed with planning on the assumption that the objective was to capture Verdun 'by precipitate methods'. Not for the first time, nor indeed the last, confusion about strategic purpose infected German offensive operations.

A British intervention was not particularly feared, as Falkenhayn doubted that the BEF was ready for serious fighting on a continental scale. Above all, it was intended that German casualties should be kept to a minimum. As Falkenhayn succinctly put it: ‘Our object… was to inflict upon the enemy the utmost possible injury with the least possible expenditure of lives on our part.’ Obsessed with secrecy, Falkenhayn denied his subordinates access to the overall plans. The result was that many in the German High Command on the Western Front either did not understand or did not endorse his overall strategic approach. But Falkenhayn was determined to minimise intelligence leaks and secure strategic surprise. To this end he also allowed preparations to be made for several other offensives up and down the Western Front, thereby muddying the water for the Entente. They guessed an offensive was coming, but could not pinpoint where the blow would fall.

Once in control of the heights above the Meuse, the massed German heavy artillery could dominate the whole battlefield and Verdun itself. Special arrangements had been made to ensure that throughout the next phase of the offensive the German guns would be able to maintain a constant heavy bombardment, with shells continually lashing down on the French front lines and harassing their communications.

Falkenhayn wanted the attack to be restricted to the east bank of the Meuse, at least in the initial stages, as he doubted he had sufficient troops for such a large-scale effort on both banks. There was a clear divergence of view here with that of the Fifth Army staff, who not only preferred the idea of a simultaneous assault on both banks, but also seemed more intent on swiftly capturing the Verdun fortress than on ‘bleeding white’ the body of the French Army.

When the German bombardment began, it was far more concentrated than that which the French had employed in their wide-front autumn offensives the year before. Gradually, the shelling built up to a crescendo. What followed was to some extent an anti-climax as the German patrols felt their way forward, investigating the situation, not committing masses of troops that first night. The Germans overran the Bois d’Haumont, but stalled in the neighbouring Bois des Caures, where the defence was led by Colonel Émile Driant. A second terrible bombardment lashed Driant’s positions in the morning. This time the German assault was pressed home in earnest.

The German field guns and trench mortars continued firing on the French forward positions. ‘The trees are mown like straw; individual shells disengage themselves from the smoke; the dust produced by the earth that is thrown up forms a fog which prevents us seeing very far’, reported G. Champeaux, an artillery liaison officer with the 164th Regiment of Infantry at Herbebois, on the right of the Bois de Ville. ‘All day, we hunch our backs... We have to abandon our shelter and go to ground in a large crater; we are surrounded by wounded and dying whom we cannot even help.’

Verdun marked one of the first appearances of the German stormtroopers, a specially trained elite intended to feel the way forward, infiltrating centers of resistance and employing the flamethrowers premiered at Ypres in the summer of 1915. German planners had been too cautious, limiting infantry operations on the first day to strong fighting patrols which would employ infiltration tactics to seek out weak spots in the French line. Only the VII Reserve Corps commander, von Zwehl, disregarded these orders and showed what might have been achieved. He deployed storm troops just behind the fighting patrols and, in five hours, secured the Bois d'Haumont.

Driant was an inspirational figure as he coordinated the resistance. Here is an account of his death from an eye witness: ‘I had just fallen in a shell hole, when a Sergeant who was accompanying Colonel Driant and was walking a pace or two in front of him, fell in the same hole. I distinctly saw Colonel Driant throw out his arms exclaiming, “Oh my God!” then he made a half-turn and collapsed behind the hole, facing the wood. His body being stretched out flat, we could not see it from inside the hole, owing to the amount of earth that had been thrown up all around. We wanted to get him down into the shell hole with us without leaving the hole ourselves. When we had cleared enough earth to be able to look out, we could see the colonel. He gave no sign of life, blood was flowing from a wound in his head and also from his mouth. He had the colour of a dead man and his eyes were half closed.’ (Sergeant Jules Hacquin, 56th Light Infantry)

In the Bois des Caures, Driant's shrewd use of strong points instead of continuous trench lines enabled the surviving French to defend that position obstinately against the Germans. Von Zwehl was again the pace-setter, bursting through a regiment of French troops at the Bois de Consenvoye. He then seized Haumont to tear open a gap in the French first line and expose the left flank of the Bois des Caures. During the late afternoon Driant was killed whilst endeavouring to withdraw his shattered battalions to Beaumont.

Much of the French front line had crumbled but despite terrible casualties the defenders were inflicting increasing losses on the Germans, especially among their key storm troops. The Germans came up against an intermediate line that had only recently been created on General Noël De Castelnau's orders and so was not marked on German maps. The dogged defence of Herbebois by the French was overrun.

The 37th African Division began to reach the battlefield to shore up the depleted units of the French XXX Corps and, ominously for the Germans, powerful French artillery was massing on the left bank of the Meuse. In the short term these developments were of scant comfort to the French. Samogneux and Beaumont fell and, in barely three hours, the French second position broke apart.

For the first time, a major offensive was coordinated with airpower, used in three ways that would subsequently become more or less standard in warfare: air superiority over the theater through overwhelming numbers, which in turn enabled bombing and artillery spotting. This last was done in two different ways. Six artillery observation units of airplanes were employed, in addition to seven balloon units deploying fourteen observation balloons. All of this had been done before. What was completely new was the fact that the Germans used planes to bomb enemy positions.

The difference between the two types of artillery spotting was that the balloons were tethered over German positions. This enabled the observers to look down into the other side from a relatively stable platform, while the airplane could cover the entire battlefield. For this system to work, it demanded air superiority, and aircraft were pulled in from elsewhere so that the balloons and observers could be protected. With this much observation power, the initial barrage could be short. New targets could be acquired and destroyed as the battle continued.

The air over the battlefield was flooded with aircraft, and during the first week of the offensive they dropped 4,500 kilograms of bombs on targets the guns couldn’t reach. As the bombs in use at this time weighed about twelve kilograms, and weight was at a premium on the planes of the era, these totals represented a great many sorties. Twelve-kilogram bombs seem rather puny, but when it is considered that very few artillery shells in use carried even half that much in the way of an explosive payload, the effect was far from negligible. The planes in use in 1916 had the sort of aerodynamics that made extremely slow low-level flying quite feasible: under those conditions, bombs dropped from the air could be surprisingly accurate.

The German advance was very gradual – just 1-2 miles in the first three days. Then there was a terrible shock for the French, born of the sheer confusion of battle. Fort Douaumont was tactically the most significant of the forts, its glowering presence dominating the northern approaches to Verdun. The company of infantry attached to the fort had been despatched to help stiffen their front line and by some mischance had not been replaced, leaving the fort empty but for a few gunners. German patrols penetrated the outer defences of the fort and broke in to discover the building all but deserted. The great imagined bastion of Douaumont had fallen without a shot being fired.

The fort had only been completed in 1913 and was armed with a 155 mm gun, 75 mm guns and machine guns, all housed in steel turrets. The original brick construction had been covered with a thick layer of concrete which proved at least partially resistant to the huge shells that crashed down on its structure.

Although its guns were all but irrelevant, the psychological effect on both sides was considerable, while the military value of the fort lay in its position as an all-seeing observation point from which the German artillery could now be directed.The French fell back and the German advance continued until exhaustion and terrible weather brought it to a shuddering stop on the last ridge of hills only two miles from Verdun itself.

The Germans were falling into their own trap created by the ambivalence of the Crown Prince Wilhelm and the staff of the Fifth Army to the original intention of the offensive. They began to press harder and harder, tempted by the success at Douaumont, with the result that their losses began to rise. By the end of February, the German and French casualties had achieved a rough parity. This was not the German plan.

The capture of such a prize at minimal cost sparked national rejoicing in Germany. The attackers appeared to have a clear route into Verdun. The commander of the French Central Army Group, Fernand De Langle de Cary, had already advocated withdrawal to the heights to the east and south-east. However, the combative De Castelnau, at French General Headquarters, opposed this policy.

The news of the fort's capture spread panic among the troops in Verdun and even the first of the reinforcements arriving to strengthen the front. Depots of food were pillaged on the word that the Meuse bridges had been prepared for demolition and retreat was imminent. Verdun seemed on the point of falling.

At this point it seemed that the French were going to abandon the east bank of the Meuse to the Germans. However, Joffre’s Chief of Staff, General Édouard de Castelnau, was aware of what did, and did not, make military sense. Taking into consideration the likely impact of the loss of Verdun on French national morale, he persuaded Joffre that it must be held. This meant not only holding the last positions on the east bank but also ordering a policy of no retreat on the west bank, should the Germans attack there. It was resolved to place General Phillipe Pétain, in command of the Second Army, in charge of holding Verdun.

A well-organized, tenacious commander, Pétain had not had his career affected by his failure in the Champagne autumn offensives, and, more to the point, he had a reputation as a master of defence – clearly a useful attribute at Verdun. In deciding to stand at Verdun, the French were unknowingly falling for Falkenhayn’s snare, but they had little choice. Indeed, Pétain ordered his men to ‘Beat off at all costs the attacks of the enemy, and retake immediately any piece of land taken by him.’ Falkenhayn could have written this for him!

Pétain applied his methodical talents to sorting out the defences at Verdun. Massive reinforcements were moved up and Pétain ensured that they concentrated not only on front-line positions but also on creating a coherent system of defence in depth. His staff were ordered to ensure that the troops were constantly rotated so that no unit spent too long at the front. This meant that most of the French Army would gradually be introduced to the hell of Verdun, but not for long enough to break their morale or grind them to nothing.

Pétain deployed his vastly augmented heavy artillery on the west bank, tucked away in the hills, where they could fire en masse into the exposed flank of the German advance. The French flat-trajectory 75 mm guns were of little use against trenches, but Pétain reorganized them so that they could respond whenever the German infantry exposed themselves crossing No Man’s Land – then the 75 mms were as deadly as ever. So, just as the German guns were struggling with the enormous practical difficulties of moving forward across the shell-cratered battlefield in dreadful weather, the French artillery began to exert an equal and opposite force.

Above all, Petain grasped the importance of logistics. He reorganized the frail supply route into Verdun: the railway had been cut and all that was left was one arterial road – soon to be tritely christened the Voie Sacrée – along which countless lorries passed carrying the supplies and munitions needed to keep Pétain’s army in the battle. Petain was not a man for giving up. Taciturn and charmless, his disbelief in the doctrine of the offensive had denied him promotion in the pre-war army. At the war's outbreak, however, his refusal to be deterred by losses had won him rapid advancement, from the colonelcy of the 33rd Regiment, to, by 1916, command of Second Army.

Falkenhayn had wanted France to fight. He had not counted upon the French army’s fervor. Already on the 27th of February, the Germans recorded ‘no success anywhere’. The Germans sought to overcome the resistance of the French infantry by pushing their artillery ever closer to the front, through saturated ground that demanded ever larger teams of horses to move a single gun. An immediate result was appalling casualties among the gun-teams. Despite the growing weight of bombardment, the French line would not shift.

The Germans had advanced four miles and were within four miles of the city, but no increase in offensive effort could push their front forward. On the last day of February, Falkenhayn and the Crown Prince conferred and agreed on a new strategy that would be applied in the second phase of the battle of Verdun. Falkenhayn's belief that he could win a victory of attrition without exposing his own army to comparable loss was failing.

The French had already been drained by the combination of horrendous losses in the Battle of the Frontiers in 1914 and the failed offensives of 1915. French manpower was not a bottomless well and she could not afford that rate of loss for long. What turned Verdun from a breakthrough battle to an attritional one was France’s resolve not to abandon the town.

After a lull the Germans attacked again, this time including the west bank of the Meuse, reaching for the French artillery in the hills. Here the focus of the assault would be the ridge of Le Mort Homme (The Dead Man) and the rather more prosaically named Côte 304. The soon-to-be-denuded woods and hills would become another slaughterhouse. Sometimes the French would fall back, deterred by a particularly vicious bombardment that tore at their spirits. But they always seemed to have another battalion to launch a desperate counterattack, catching the Germans before they could consolidate. All German attempts to seize Le Mort Homme failed.

All the while, the French artillery was taking its own heavy toll on the German infantry. As days turned into weeks, the front line was never static, but neither did it move much. On and on the fighting raged, deep into April, with German assaults, French counterattacks, segueing into yet more German attacks. And still the rain poured down.

The Germans too adjusted their command structure at Verdun, giving General Max von Gallwitz responsibility for the left bank and entrusting the right bank to Bruno General von Mudra. April passed with Le Mort Homme and the neighbouring height, Cote 304, still beyond their reach.

The terrain on the west bank was different from that on the east: open and rolling instead of broken and wooded. Falkenhayn had been advised to include it in his original assault plan, for the reason that advances there could be easily gained. So they were on the first day of the assault, when the French 67th Division collapsed. However, the Germans were swiftly counterattacked, the ground was regained and once again the line stuck fast.

Simultaneous efforts on the east bank, in the direction of Fort Vaux, were equally ineffectual. The ruins of the village of Vaux changed hands thirteen times during March, and yet the fort itself still lay tantalisingly beyond German reach. Both the French and Germans were learning that the lessons of Liege and Namur were not as conclusive as they had seemed. Even quite antiquated fortifications could stand up to intense and prolonged artillery bombardment and buttress trench lines, if occupied by garrisons prepared to sit out heavy shellfire and wait for assault by unprotected infantry.

As fire increased from French artillery on the left bank of the Meuse — particularly from guns near the Bois Bourrus ridge and the hill known as Le Mort Homme — the Germans also regretted confining their first attack to the right bank. Falkenhayn provided more troops so that the offensive could be extended to the left bank. A major attack, centred on Le Mort Homme, would be made, followed quickly by a renewed push on the right bank towards Fort Vaux.

Pétain did not last long, for all his virtues. He demanded more, ever more, reinforcements from Joffre, who was desperate to conserve his reserves. Joffre was a man who did not brook continual demands, no matter how they were phrased. At the end of April he had had enough, but as Pétain was by then a national hero, he promoted him to command the Central Group of Armies. General Robert Nivelle took over the Second Army at Verdun. Nothing much changed. Pétain had set in train the necessary reorganization to secure the defence of Verdun as far as possible.

Nivelle had a more offensive-minded approach and sought to make major counterattacks to reverse the totality of German gains. This would have been playing into their hands were it not for the fact that the Germans themselves had lost the focus of their own operations: they had become intent in pressing on when a suspension of the offensive, or switching it to another area, might have been more logical. But the fighting had gained its own momentum: some progress forwards was necessary to maintain the morale of front line troops undergoing absolute torture. In essence the Germans had fallen into their own trap.

Petain's achievements in slowing the Germans were hardly extolled by Joffre, who wished him to adopt a more offensive stance. Joffre was also worried that the soldier rotation system was soaking up reserves required for the Somme.

After a heavier bombardment than that of the initial attack, the Germans took Cote 304 early in May and had seized the whole of Le Mort Homme by the end of the month, albeit at frightful cost. Finally, the Germans managed to encircle Fort Vaux, holding the ring of the Meuse Heights. The fort fell after a week of fighting. As was so often the case, the capture of one vital feature merely brought to prominence the next string of objectives, one more last line of defence stretching from the Ouvrage de Thiaumont strongpoint, through the dessicated remnants of Fleury village to Fort Souville. The Germans captured Fleury but could not take the fort.

Another officer who now strode to centre stage was Charles Mangin, a divisional commander nicknamed 'The Butcher' or 'Eater of Men' because of his belief in attacking regardless of losses. Rejecting Petain's wise advice to wait until he had enough men to strike on a broader front, Mangin — with the approval of Joffre and Nivelle — hurled his 5th Division into a murderous yet vain attempt to recapture Fort Douaumont.

‘We set off in clouds of white dust. So began our ascent to Verdun, an ascent to Mount Calvary which was to last ten days, ten days in which we had the feeling that we were being carried along on that gigantic supply chain which kept the battle regularly fed, like those bucket pumps in Mediterranean countries which bring the water up to the parched earth; ten days of piercing agony, which for me were more painful than the nine days that we were to spend in the heart of the battle. The worst mental suffering during wartime occurs when one’s thoughts run ahead of one’s actions, when the imagination has full rein to contemplate the dangers in advance – and multiplies them a hundredfold. It is well known that the fear of danger is more nerve-wracking than the danger itself, just as the desire is more intoxicating than the fulfilment of it.’ (Second Lieutenant René Arnaud, 337th Infantry Regiment)

The officer in charge of the fort was Commander Sylvain Eugène Raynal, who had already been badly wounded in September 1914 but whose idea of recuperation was active service commanding a vital lynchpin in the Verdun defences. Having run out of water, his garrison had few prospects of survival: ‘Towards 23.00 our artillery ceased abruptly, and the night passed away in a silence, more nerve-racking for me than the storm of battle. Not a sound, not a sign of movement. Had I the right to prolong resistance beyond human strength and to jeopardise unnecessarily the lives of these brave men who had so heroically done their duty? I took a tour of the corridors. What I saw was awful. Men were overcome with vomiting, for so wretched were they that they had reached the point of drinking their own urine. Some lost consciousness. In the main gallery a man was licking a small wet streak on the wall. 7th June! Day broke, and we barely noticed it. For us it was still night, a night in which all hope was extinguished. Aid from outside, if it came, would come too late. I sent my last message, the last salute of the fort and its defenders to their country. Then I returned to my men, “It is all over, my friends. You have done your duty, all of your duty. Thank you!”’ (Commander Sylvain Eugène Reynal, Fort Vaux Garrison)

German pressure continued unrelentingly after the fall of Vaux. The French defence faltered before an attack by the Alpenkorps, an elite German mountain division. Among the officers was Lieutenant Paulus, the future commander of Sixth Army at Stalingrad, in World War II. In the afternoon, the German advance petered out in the broken ground around the fort and, in the summer heat, thirst attacked the soldiers in the foremost positions gained. No water could be got up from the rear and, as night fell, the Alpenkorps gave up its effort to press onward.

The Germans knew that Joffre’s long-planned major offensive on the Somme was about to commence. A last desperate German thrust captured Thiaumont and Fleury, utilising the new weapon of phosgene gas shells to deadly effect. The shells were marked with a distinctive green cross and fell all around the French batteries, stemming much of their fire. The German infantry reached the ramparts of Fort Souville, but were ultimately forced back.

When Fort Souville was attacked, the Germans used shells filled with deadly phosgene gas — principally to silence the French gunners — and took Fleury. This success roused Nivelle to issue an Order of the Day which ended with the phrase: Ils ne passeront pas! (They shall not pass!) The Germans were indeed halted and contributed to their own failure by attacking on a narrow frontage with inadequate reserves. The German commanders ordered one more assault on Fort Souville. Some 30 soldiers reached the slope of the fort, within sight of Verdun, before they were pushed back, captured or killed. This was the nearest the Germans came to Verdun.

By mid-1916 the German Army, like its opponents, was exploring the potential of the 'creeping barrage', which helped infantry advance towards objectives behind a moving curtain of fire. At the same time the Germans were placing greater emphasis on infiltration tactics. Specialist assault teams and storm troops were trained to bypass strong points and drive deep into enemy positions before striking them from the rear and flanks.

The British and French bombardment had opened on the Somme. Slowly, the German reserves that remained were deployed to counter the new Entente thrust. The Germans were held back and Fort Souville remained in French hands. Yet the Battle of Verdun was by no means over. Now it was the turn of the French to hit back. Time and time again the French attacked the Germans, who responded with characteristic aggression: the village of Fleury would change hands fifteen times in some of the worst fighting of the whole war before the French finally took it for good.

The French Army was learning all the time. New weapons were being issued to the infantry. The 1907 Berthier bolt-action marked a considerable improvement on the obsolete Lebel rifle. There were increasing numbers of the Chauchat light machine gun and the excellent Hotchkiss machine gun to help bolster firepower. Rifle grenades, mortars and 37 mm mini versions of the 75 mm gun were made available to act as close-support weapons. The infantry attack tactics had also developed, with less emphasis on a single wave of attack and more on specialist functions, with bombers, men with rifle grenades and ‘mopper uppers’ to eradicate any pockets of resistance and to ensure there were no Germans left concealed in captured dugouts.

In August, Romania's entry into the war on the Entente side precipitated the downfall of Falkenhayn, who had insisted this would not occur. He was succeeded as Chief of the General Staff by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. General Erich Ludendorff, who had helped mastermind most of the German victories in the east, knew how important he was to Hindenburg and demanded the title 'First Quartermaster General' rather than 'Second Chief of the General Staff’. He was also given joint responsibility for all decisions. From then on, Hindenburg's leadership became largely symbolic.

Ludendorff assumed almost dictatorial powers, wielding enormous influence over German political affairs, the economy and foreign policy as well as on military operations.

After visiting the Western Front in early September, Hindenburg and Ludendorff made crucial changes in German tactics and strategy. A strict defensive posture at Verdun was decreed. Falkenhayn's rigid linear defence tactics — holding ground at all costs and, when lost, recapturing it by instant counterattack — were superseded by a flexible zonal defence system. This included a thinly held outpost zone in front of the main battle or defence zone and strong counterattack formations kept close at hand but beyond enemy artillery range.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff also ordered the construction of new defensive positions behind the existing lines. These rear positions, embodying the latest principles of elastic defence, were built in great depth but reduced the overall length of front, enabling the Germans to achieve economies in manpower. However, to the German soldiers facing the inevitable French counterstroke at Verdun, these changes were of little immediate assistance.

By now the French artillery was dominant, since much of the German artillery had departed for the Somme. The next major thrust was the scheme of General Charles Mangin. His plan was cunning. A dummy attack, preceded by a major bombardment, would cause the hidden German batteries to open fire and thereby reveal their positions to the watching French reconnaissance aircraft. By the time the real attack was launched, most of those German guns had been silenced. When the survivors of the gas attack scrambled out they found themselves trapped behind the attacking French infantry who had already swept on. Thiaumont stronghold fell without a fight.

Verdun was hell on earth for the German infantry. Private William Hermanns of the 67th Infantry Regiment was based in the battered structure of the Thiaumont strongpoint: ‘The entrance was a mere hole in the scarred battlefield, and the silhouettes of cowering men constantly crawling in or out looked like huge ants in the dark. I descended an iron ladder some forty feet into the concrete cavern. It was an enormous place crowded with many hundreds of soldiers. Some lay on bunks sleeping, snoring and moaning. Some cluttered the passages between the bunks, chatting or writing letters. Others sat or knelt in corners, packing or unpacking their belongings. Here a flashlight, there a candle, match or cigarette dotted the dark with flickering islands of light, continually shifting in brightness. From this subterranean stronghold, a small patch of sky could be seen when one stood close to the iron ladder or looked through the shaft which contained the ventilator fans. A current of warm, stale air from 40 feet beneath brought to my nostrils the sickening smell of first aid medications. Every one of the chicken-wire berths was filled with mutilated, muddy, torn and befouled uniforms. A dismal sight. There was a man with closed eyes, a blood-soaked bandage around his head. Another beside him lay twisting in pain. I saw some lice-ridden men who had scratched their bandages off to ease the itching. The passages between the bunks were crowded. There must have been a thousand men there. Som

As the French drove forward behind a wall of shells, Private Hermanns’ account gives a vivid impression of the terror afflicting these exhausted German soldiers in the dank tomb of Thiaumont: ‘I heard the cry, “Poison gas!” I saw people around me putting on their gas masks. I adjusted mine, which still hung over my shoulder. There it was – a yellowish gas glimmering near the iron ladder. A gas bomb must have been thrown into the entrance shaft. The cry “Gas masks on!” electrified the whole shelter. Soldiers ran to get their masks, which they had hung on the walls and in the corners or laid on their packs. Many who had lost theirs on the battlefield began to cough. The wounded in the bunks tried to climb into the upper berths, while beneath the gas crept forward along its way, extinguishing one candle after another. Soon many were dying and the bunks and floors were filled with bodies over which the living stepped and stumbled in search of air. The alarm surged like a wave from bunk to bunk. Before long it had reached the farthest man, a hundred yards away. The panic was so great that I saw badly wounded men throw themselves onto the floor as though they wanted to drink in the gas, while others tore the masks from their neighbors’ faces. Some had a reddish foam oozing from their mouths.’

Fort Douaumont was blasted by huge French railway guns, their gigantic shells smashing home with a terrible devastating impact. In the end, the shell-shocked garrison evacuated the fort, which thus fell to the French. Even then it was still not all over. The French nibbled away at the German lines step by step. Fort Vaux was recaptured and, in a final flourish, the French charged forward nearly two miles.

Much of the ground lost between February and July was regained, and another attack carried the French lines two miles beyond Douaumont. The Germans, however, clung on to Le Mort Homme. This last convulsion brought the agony of Verdun to an end.

Even during the summer, while the original aim of the Verdun offensive had long since been obscured, the cost in blood had been too high for either side to risk national dishonor by becoming the first to terminate the battle. It had been a long year: the Germans had lost some 330,000 casualties at Verdun, the French around 377,000. For both sides Verdun had proved an almost unbearable trial.

Nobody had secured any discernible advantage from the slaughter. Falkenhayn's irresolution and failure to reconcile the means to the end had caused his original strategy to backfire; in the process he drained the lifeblood from the German Army as well as from the French. Indeed, neither side would completely recover from the battle before the Armistice that would end the war in 1918.

A high proportion of losses on both sides was the result of the French policy of conducting an ‘active defence’, counterattacking whenever possible.

Using the vocabulary of attrition was a way for Falkenhayn to rationalise the failure to achieve a breakthrough. France had allies in the west, Germany did not; and Germany, unlike France, was heavily committed elsewhere. The absolute numbers may have been in Germany’s favor, but the relative loss was not. Moreover, the battle of Verdun redefined both France’s commitment to the war, and the symbiosis between France and the Third Republic. ‘They know that they are saving France,’ a censor reported of the soldiers in July, ‘but also that they are going to die on the spot.’ The Anglo-French plan for the western front was to take out the salient bounded by the River Aisne to the south and the Somme battlefield to the north. In the end, the French managed to capture some of the lost ground because the Germans were forced to switch their resources on the Somme to counter the most serious threats they had faced in two years of warfare, not because they had been stopped by French arms at the gates to the city.

Local and particular experiences on the Somme and at Verdun had been hardened into a general doctrine. The allied generals had once again met at Chantilly to coordinate their plans for 1917. The broad strategy was to be unchanged from 1916: simultaneous attacks on all fronts to prevent the Germans switching resources from one to another. The offensive should begin in February to prevent a repeat performance of 1916, and no operation was to be delayed for more than three weeks beyond the start date.

French blunders were not limited to the chaotic period of the initial attack. On the 4th of September 1916, there was a terrible accident in the Tavannes rail tunnel. Since the rail line going towards Etain was unusable, the tunnel was used as a combination of aid station and shelter, with electricity being supplied by gasoline engines. The tunnel was a mixture of men, explosives, and gasoline. The wires carrying the electricity weren’t insulated. The Tavannes tunnel was a disaster waiting to happen. When it did, somewhere between five and six hundred men died.

By mid-summer the French had behaved exactly as von Falkenhayn had wanted them to, and, despite Pétain’s calm, sensible leadership, there were plenty of signs that the French Army was cracking. In fact, a great deal of the German success was a result of French bungling. But that would not be enough for the Germans.

The fall of Fort Douaumont was also the result of another muddle. If the position was going to be held, the forts should have been garrisoned. Even stripped of their weapons, they were formidable shelters. Douaumont could have provided a secure shelter for a battalion of infantry at least. Moreover, the one turret-mounted gun had not been removed and was still working. But the occupants of the fort consisted of fifty-seven soldiers, commanded by a noncommissioned officer. Incredibly, this was still the complement of the fort four days after the attack had begun.