Verdun 1916 is as iconic to the French as the Somme battles of 1916 are to the British. Verdun lies in the kink of the L-shaped front line in Lorraine, part of the French Sector in 1916. The Meuse valley has always been a thoroughfare from East France to Paris and Verdun had been a Roman town with a permanent garrison before Gaul became France. Vauban built his forts to defend Louis XIV's France at Verdun in the 17th Century.
The German plan, as devised by von Falkenhayn, was to attack the French psyche and to bleed the French Army dry in a battle of attrition since he believed the French Army would never withdraw from Verdun. The battle opened with the German artillery concentrating their fire on the fortresses and, once these had been destroyed, the line was to be occupied by German troops. The initial battle plan did not include ‘hand to hand' fighting. The concentration of German guns at Verdun was over seven times that used by the Allies on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
The forts were to the north, south and east of the town. The French army had stripped them of their guns as the upgrade required was deemed too much when it had been discussed in 1915. The battle opened at 0715 on 21 February 1916 having been delayed by the weather: the ground was already covered with deep snow, a blizzard still raged and mist lay over the whole landscape. Over 1 million German troops were in the vicinity awaiting the call to advance, while at Verdun the French army had only 250,000 in the Verdun sector. In the first phase of the battle, the Germans fired over 1 million shells, 100,000 per hour, using 1,400 guns on a front of 40km (by contrast the British only fired 1.3 million in their build up to the Battle of the Somme). The Trommelfeuer (Drumfire) was the heaviest and longest artillery barrage of the Great War to that point.
The first day did not go as well for the Germans as they had expected. The concentration of shell-fire was meant to destroy all life in the French front-line defences, but the 'blanket of shells' had not been consistent enough, there remained stubborn and heroic pockets of resistance, and the German infantry were disturbed to meet such dangerous opposition. With great dash, several French units attempted counterattacks, but their means were too small. However, it took the German XVIII Corps all day to clear Lt Colonel Driant with his Chasseurs out of the Bois des Caures, so spirited and flexible was their defence. The French artillery, too, had improved their shooting and were reinforced. Flanking fire from French batteries on the left bank of the Meuse was starting to cause trouble: the weakness in artillery of the German VI Reserve Corps on the left bank, an economy of Falkenhayn's, was now a distinct disadvantage. The French machine guns kept up a murderous fire. On 23 February they held up the infantry of the German XVIII Corps which was pressing forward, wave after wave to be scythed down. Official German records speak of this as a 'day of horror'. By 24 February, the French had to bring up more reinforcements, the French 37th African Division (Zouaves and Moroccan Tirailleurs) filled the gap left by the 72nd Division. The artillery slowly fell silent, the evacuation of the wounded became more and more difficult. The German artillery cut the only full-gauge railway out of Verdun. Eventually the vanguard of the 20th Corps arrived from Lorraine and was thrown into the battle. Fort Douaumont fell to a small detachment of Brandenburgers during the afternoon of 25 February.
As the outer forts fell, the local commander, General Langle de Cary, requested an order to withdraw. Instead, he was sacked. The French supreme commander, Joffre, appointed Petain to command the defence of Verdun on 25 February. Petain, a divisional commander in 1914, promoted to Corps commander and then Army commander in 1915, had a reputation for being cautious especially as modern warfare weaponry favoured the defender over the attacker. Ordered to hold Verdun at all costs, his pledge, ‘ils ne passerons pas' earned him acclaim as his artillery led the defence, backed by expert organisation of manpower and supplies. To do this he arranged a 50 mile supply route from Bar-le-Duc, christened ‘La Voie Sacrée' which he kept open 24 hours a day so that the troops could be rotated through Verdun together with ammunition and supplies. One truck would pass along the route every 12 seconds. The option of using the standard gauge railway was denied him, it had been seriously interrupted since 1915.
Instead of outflanking the Voie Sacrée, von Falkenhayn opted for a head-on attack in order to achieve his battle of attrition. In March the battle was resumed with added intensity, but again the German advances were pushed back. The German artillery was now flagging under the extreme difficulties of moving forward over the violently cratered ground, especially when a thaw turned the clay to deep mud. Worst of all, the French had increased their heavy guns in the salient from 164 to more than 500, and they were shelling the German infantry with continuous and effective flanking fire from the left bank of the Meuse, in particular from the forts on the Bois Bourrus ridge.
Of the 330 infantry regiments in the French Army, 259 fought at Verdun.
Von Falkenhayn committed German troops to cross the Meuse and attack the high ground, ‘Le Mort Homme' on 29 February, but that led to even more casualties. The German wounded streamed back 'like a vision in Hell', Franz Marc, the painter, wrote in a letter from the Verdun front on 3 March, 'For days I have seen nothing but the most terrible things that can be painted from a human mind.'
He was killed the next day by a French shell.
The French were gradually wresting back air superiority over the battlefield. Some sixty of the top French air aces were banded together into the famous Groupe des Cigognes (the Storks).
When the attack on Le Mort Homme started, it did so with a bombardment comparable to that of 21 February. The Germans soon took the Meuse villages of Forges and Regneville and advanced towards the bare ridge of Le Mort Homme on its north-eastern flank. The French 67th Division gave ground too readily following the bombardment, and over 3,000 of its men surrendered. On 14 March the frontal assault on Le Mort Homme began. German reserves were flowing more freely now, and it seemed there was no limit to the men and shells they were willing to expend to gain possession of this desolate hill. The cost was terrible: by the end of March, 81,607 Germans had been lost and 89,000 French, with a high proportion of senior commanders as casualties in this compressed battle area. During April, the summit of Le Mort Homme became a long-drawn out battle of desperation as the contestants swayed backwards and forwards between the two crests, and the artillery of both sides turned the hill into a smoking wreck. On 3 May, over 500 German guns opened fire on Côte 304, one of the crests of Le Mort Homme, a front of little over a mile. The bombardment continued for two days and a night. Those French infantry who lacked deep shelters suffered very high casualties. Within three days, Côte 304 fell to the Germans and by the end of May, the Germans had taken the entire ridge.
Meanwhile Petain had been promoted on 19 April to command the Central Group of armies and was replaced as commander of the French Second Army by General Nivelle, commander of the French III Corps at Verdun. Nivelle immediately appointed Mangin, commander of the 5th Division, to retake the forts.
22 May saw the first attempt by Mangin to retake Douaumont. It failed as the Germans had made preparations for this attack and the French artillery could not touch the inner workings of the thick-hided fort. On 26 May, Joffre and de Castelnau visited Haig to find out when he would be ready to launch the long-awaited offensive on the Somme which now, because of the French involvement at Verdun, must become primarily a British responsibility. Haig agreed to bring the date of the battle forward to 1 July.
When the Germans attacked again in June, Fort Vaux was to fall after an epic struggle on 7 June involving machine guns and flame-throwers in pitch darkness, but this was the limit of the German successes.
The Russians opened their Brusilov offensive on 4 June, the Austrian armies fell back and Falkenhayn was forced to send three divisions from the West. The knock-on effect was felt in Verdun where the German offensive decreased in intensity. The German Fifth Army attack towards Fort Souville on 22 June, this time using a heavy barrage of shells containing phosgene gas - the most deadly used in the whole war. In the end it did not prove as effective against the French gas-masks as had been expected; the guns, placed everywhere on high ground were soon clear of the gas, which sank into the hollows. The Germans attacked early on 23 June on a narrow front with 30,000 men, who included the newly arrived Alpine Corps under Dellmensingen. They captured Thiaumont and obtained a footing in the village of Fleury, and some were even able to to fire their machine guns obliquely into the streets of Verdun itself. The front was too narrow, the reserves too few and this attack petered out.
The British opened their bombardment to precede the Battle of the Somme as another German offensive was planned. Falkenhayn was now unable to increase the flow of ammunition and fresh divisions to Verdun.
On 11 July, the attack renewed on a narrow front, preceded by a night bombardment of the French artillery with phosgene shells. As the gas rolled across the French positions, their guns fell silent one by one. The Germans advanced confidently but the French had been waiting. The German troops were swept by a barrage from the French 75s. With their new and effective gas masks, the French artillery had tricked the German advance with their silence. The battle was nevertheless intense, a group of thirty German troops managed to gain the outside of Fort Souville, from where they could see Verdun Cathedral and the river Meuse. No reinforcements came to their support so they had to withdraw.
On 13 July, Mangin launched an attack to retake Fleury; he used the 37th African Division. Unfortunately, the artillery preparation had been rushed and the attack was a failure, the French having to withdraw after taking heavy casualties. The German offensive to consolidate their hold on the Fleury-Thiaumont front was launched on 1 August. On the left, the German advance almost reaches Fort Tavannes, but on the right, they had no success. Control of Fort Thiaumont went back and forth and a decision was taken by the German High Command to wind down the offensive and 'go into defensive mode' as the supply of shells and reserves failed to arrive due to the British battle of the Somme.
Von Falkenhayn was dismissed in August and sent to command the armies in the Carpathian Mountains. He was replaced by Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff.
Nivelle decided to make another attempt to retake the outer forts. He used a creeping barrage with the advancing troops just behind the shell fire. In addition he used 400mm Creusot-Schneider guns mounted on rails 6km from Verdun. These guns had enormous penetrating power and helped to soften the German defenses. On 19 October, the artillery prepared the way for the battle to retake Fort Douamont. When the initial bombardment ceased on 22 October, the remaing German field guns revealed their positions as they opened up on the expected French infantry attack. When the French artillery bombardment resumed, these guns were destroyed giving the infantry attack, once it started, a better chance of success. Douamont fell to the Regiment d'Infantery Coloniale du Maroc on 24 October. On 25 October the first attack to retake Fort Vaux was defeated by the well-sited German machine guns. Ludendorff decided to withdraw from Fort Vaux, destroying most of the fort with explosives, on 2 November.
In December when the last French attack took 11,000 prisoners and 115 guns as they took the German lines, the French had pushed the Germans back to their original positions before the battle began in February. 18 December is acknowledged as the last day of the battle, the day the Germans finally accepted defeat. The Battle of Verdun was the longest single battle during the Great War.
In all the French casualties were 550,000, the German 434,000. Each side losing 60,000 killed.
In the defence of Verdun, the French Artillery fired 23 million shells, most of them (16 million) fired by 75s batteries. In response, during the entire battle, between February and November, the German artillery had fired 21 million. No tactical or strategic advantage had been gained by either side.
A postscript: Finally, to illustrate how Verdun was also in the German psyche: General von Stupnagel, who had been a captain in the attack on Le Mort Homme, was governor of Paris in 1944. Involved in the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler on 20 July, he was sent to Berlin under guard. Breaking the journey at Verdun, von Stupnagel attempted to commit suicide on Le Mort Homme hill. Unfortunately he only succeeded in blinding himself. He was taken by the Gestapo from the hospital in Verdun to his trial and execution in Berlin in August 1944.
Images slide show.
This article is based on a talk given by Peter Caddick-Adams to the Yorkshire Branch of the Western Front Association.
Article and images contributed by Peter J Palmer.
Discuss this article on the WFA's Front Forum