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.
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.
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!’
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.