The 1916 Battle of Verdun in the Lorraine département of France, almost defies a brief description. The titanic struggle, which took place around the ancient fortified garrison town of Verdun, was the longest battle of the Great War - 10 months, 21st February to 18th December 1916. It was also the most costly in lives, with a total of over 700,000 casualties (380,000 French and 340,000 Germans) with the numbers of killed and missing being 160,000 French and 100,000 Germans. All this fighting took place in a war zone of only 100-sq. km. (40 sq. miles). The Verdun Sector is bisected by the river Meuse and partially surrounded by a semi-circle of hills.
The Battle of Verdun was the only major offensive that the Germans launched on the Western Front in the years 1915 - 1917. It was a battle that was fought with extreme ferocity by both sides for reasons that neither of the protagonist nations could justify strategically to the impartial observer, and it cost the two protagonists in men and materiél far more than the actual military situation warranted. Indeed, the subsequent effect of the battle on the fighting morale of the participating soldiers seriously jeopardised, in the long term, the fighting efficiency of both the armies.
For the French nation, the Verdun sector of the Western Front had a deep psychological importance. It had been lost to the Germans after the debacle of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and had only been recovered in 1873 by the payment by the French of huge war reparations (£200,000,000). Subsequently, a massive system of fortifications and defences had been developed by the French in the Verdun area, and up-dated prior to 1914, to make the whole area secure against invasion.
In January 1916, this fortified zone formed a deep salient - The Verdun Salient - into German-occupied France in which were deployed 200,000 French troops. In the salient were located 19 large 'arrow-head' shaped forts, 10 smaller forts and the citadel town of Verdun. Unfortunately, in 1915, many of the heavy guns of the garrison artillery had been removed and dispersed elsewhere on the Western Front. The forts were manned by skeleton garrisons of elderly and second line troops.
In late 1915, the Verdun Sector was classified by the French as 'a Quiet Zone' despite the warnings by informed local opinion - both civil and military - that a massive German offensive on this front was a strong possibility, and the resources available were quite inadequate to repel such an invasion. The whole Verdun Salient was completely open to the German artillery from all three sides.
For the German Chief of Staff, Field Marshal Erich von Falkenhayn, the battle for Verdun was seen as a chance to inflict serious losses on the French army - the so-called 'bleed them white' strategy. It was intended that this would bring about a collapse of the French Army, which in turn would seriously compromise its British and Russian allies. He claimed, 'England's best sword [would be] knocked out of her hand'. He further conjectured that this would then precipitate peace talks with terms favourable to the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey). The actual capture of the town of Verdun was not his prime objective - although many of his commanders in the field believed it was - it was the terminal attrition of the French Army that he was after.
The other optional strategy for the Central Powers was to attack on the Eastern Front - either Moscow, or the Ukraine - but Falkenhayn chose the Verdun option; it was code named Operation Gericht (The Scaffold). In view of vast booty that the Ukraine would have offered to the severely blockaded Germany war economy, Falkenhayn's option of attacking Verdun was assuredly wrong in the long-term.
Falkenhayn's preparations for the attack were meticulous and totally ruthless. His main aim was to totally destroy the garrison forces, and the large numbers of reinforcements that he knew the French were bound to send in, by the most destructive artillery barrage that had ever been mounted. By greatly expanding the existing railway network of the area, the Germans were able to mass seven army corps and more than 1200 guns, on a frontage of only 20km (12 miles), with a reserve of 2.5 million shells. Many of the guns, howitzers and mortars were of a high calibre, discharging shells of 1 ton and over. To protect his troops (led by the experienced 5th Army) from counter- and preemptive-barrages from the French artillery, Falkenhayn sheltered them in deep dugouts (Stollen).
Another impressive initiative was to concentrate large numbers of the aircraft of the German Airforce in the Verdun Sector. These would support the advancing troops by the destruction of French observation- and reconnaissance- aircraft and balloons, and provide vital reconnaissance on the French Army's dispositions. They would also bomb vital transportation links.
The German attack
All these preparations by the Germans came to their culmination when, at 7am. on the 21st February 1916, after more than a week's delay due to atrocious weather, the German artillery began a 21-hour relentless barrage of high explosive and toxic gas on the French positions in and around Verdun ; the first heavy shell fired hit the cathedral. At 4pm. the barrage lifted and the advance elements of one million men of the German Crown Prince Wilhelm's Fifth Army moved forward in their 'pickelhaube' helmets and 'feldgrau' uniforms on a front of 12km (7.5 miles).
The German advance was relentless and the French Army's traditional response of 'L'attaque à outrance' (immediate counterattack) was repeatedly smashed by the German artillery. French casualties were enormous: whole units of the French Army were simply eliminated. Nevertheless, the German advance was slowed in places, most notably by the efforts of Lt. Col. Emile A. C. Driant's two Chasseur battalions amongst the trees of the Bois des Caures, on the north-central part of the Front Line. Driant subsequently became one of the most fêted French posthumous heroes of the Verdun saga.
By the Great War standards, the German advance was, initially, rapid; by the third day, 3 km. (2 miles) and on fourth day another mile, culminating in the fortuitous capture on the 25th February 1916 of the key defensive bastion, Fort Douaumont, by the renowned 24th Brandenburg Regiment. There was now a rapidly ascending casualty roll on both sides.
Loss of Douaumont
The loss of Fort Douaumont was an enormous psychological blow to French morale, both military and civilian, close to that it would have been if Verdun itself had fallen. Now, the way to the capture of Verdun town seemed open, and the fall of the whole Verdun Salient appeared a distinct possibility. Overnight, the question of any further retreat, or withdrawal from the Salient, became both a political and moral impossibility for the French people, the Army and the Government.
Petain enters the fray
Then, by one of those serendipitous chances of fate, on the 24th February 1916, the command of the Verdun Sector was given to General Henri-Philippe Benoni Omer Joseph Pétain. He quickly took control of his forces. He expressly forbade any further withdrawals and ceased the continual offensive activity (L'attaque à outrance). He then made the skilful use of the highly effective French artillery as the key to his defensive strategy. The battle was becoming increasingly costly to the Germans and it became clear to Falkenhayn and the German High Command that their 'bleed them white' policy had become a double-edged sword of dubious worth.
By the efforts of 13 battalions, Pétain also ensured that the vital single route of supply to the Verdun Sector - the famed La Voie Sacrée (The Sacred Road) - was kept open at all costs. Huge quantities of materiél and men passed along it in a ceaseless flow. It is said that every 24-hours, 1,700 lorries passed each way along it; one every 14 seconds, night and day. This was the route by which the wounded were repatriated and, at Pétain's insistence, their exhausted comrades strictly rotated; by this means 78% of all the French infantry regiments served in the Verdun sector during the battle (259 regiments out of 330).
Despite their success at Fort Douaumont, the German Army was checked in this part of the sector, so, on 6th March, they reoriented their offensive to the other (left) bank of the Meuse River, the Mort de Homme sector. After some success, on the 9th April they again readjusted their thrust to cover both the left and right banks of the Meuse. The cost in casualties to both sides soared to reach a heavy, but more equitable, burden. Soldiers on both sides lived a desperate troglodyte existence in the waterlogged shell holes that had destroyed almost all trace of their trench systems.
In the air, the rival aces spun out their battles and, often enough, crashed to the tortured earth in the flaming torch of their aircraft. The early German advantages in aircraft numbers and technology were eventually eroded to be closer to parity.
Irritated by Pétain's obstinacy in taking a cautious approach, in mid-April the French High Command promoted him to a Staff appointment, replacing him with General Robert Georges Nivelle. Nivelle was a 'high flyer' with important social and political connections, including the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.
The eventual failure of an attack by the French (led by General Charles Mangin) on Fort Douaumont (22nd-24th May) further depressed French morale already dented by the departure of Pétain.
Second German Attack
Then, on the 1st June the Germans launched another huge attack on the right side of the Meuse River and, after a prodigious struggle, Fort Vaux, another important French garrison, fell on the 7th June. The general air of gloom was further exacerbated by fall of the Mort Homme defences on the 8th June.
The fate of Verdun was further imperilled by other general advances of the Germans. But, despite a ferocious German attack by 13 regiments on the 23rd June in the Thiaumont front, during which the French used the toxic gas 'phosgene' for the first time, the Germans, now preoccupied with the British/French offensive on the Somme, finally began to acknowledge the battle for Verdun could not be won.
Taking advantage of this German preoccupation with the Somme, the French (Nivelle and Mangin) retook Fort Douaumont on the 24th October 1916 and Fort Vaux on the 2nd November. Further French advances took place in mid-December and by the 18th December 1916 the German lines were back to where they were five months previously.
Thus, the reputation of General Nivelle was made at Verdun, only to lead to disaster at the Champs des Dames Sector and the French Army Mutinies. These mutinies, which began at the end of April 1917 and eventually involved elements of 54 divisions, were provoked by Nivelle's ruthless disregard of casualties in the Champs des Dames Sector and led to his court-martial and exile to North Africa.
In the 1916 Verdun offensive, nine upland villages were totally obliterated and whole swathes of the woods and countryside so pulverised and contaminated with the detritus of war, human and material, that the land was declared irrecoverable. Over 80 years later, much of the land remains untilled and uncultivated and has reverted to woodland. A living, but strangely dead, memorial to those who fell there.
The bones of about 130,000 of the unknown dead of both sides in the Battle of Verdun are gathered in a specially built ossuary on Douaumont Ridge, the site of Fort Douaumont.