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Great Battles of History: The Battle of Verdun

Updated on February 28, 2019
Marja Radic profile image

Original historic article by bachelor of history and art history!

French troops attacking under artillery fire
French troops attacking under artillery fire

People often do things whose consequences are not aware of. Also, people do the things whose consequences see and they do them because they want to realize their intentions. I'm not sure in which category Battle of Verdun is, the first article in Great Battles of History series. I hope it’s the first one. Well, we will never know, won’t we?

What we do know for sure I bring you in this article: the causes, course, and the aftermath of the longest battle of the First World War. You will have the opportunity to read the thoughts of soldiers, but I must warn you: some parts of the text could be disturbing.

Battle of Verdun - first of its kind in history

During almost the whole of First World War from the Battle of the Marne in September 1914, the stationery war was led: the enemy army was located in the trenches fighting for every meter of land. Until then, victories are gained by defeating the enemy army on the field or by the occupation of key areas.

Since the Battle of the Marne stopped German advancing, and front line stabilized, the stationery war was no longer possible. The deep defensive positions did not allow the enemy to be chased from the field, and another problem was the lack of reserve forces which enemy brought quicker to the vulnerable point than attacker could exploit the breakthrough.

Because of this, victory in the Great War was possible only if the opponent is exhausted, brought into thinking about seeking peace at any price. The highlight of this war of attrition was the Battle of Verdun, a town in the east of France.

The battle was showing the new type of battle that lasted 10 months, from 21 February to 18 December 1916. For the first time new weapons are used: flamethrower, used to force opponents to leave their defensive positions; phosgene, carbonyl chloride, a colorless gas that smelled like mowed hay that has caused death by asphyxiation and 77-mm field guns, designed to support the infantry, but because of the shells they could not cross the terrain.

Battle of Verdun had the sense of artillery duels while the role of the infantry was to occupy the conquered zone. How difficult this conflict was best describes a maximum of the German advance which was no greater than 8 kilometers and that both armies had only 4 kilometers of conquered territory.

The German attack was led by the 5th Army under Crown Prince Wilhelm and General Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of staff and the main person responsible for operations.

General von Falkenhayn did not think the German economy and morale of his soldiers would endure more than a year. He refused to attack the British Expeditionary Forces because he had to use a greater number of troops which wasn’t possible before the winter. So he decided to eliminate the British with the submarine war and to systematically exhaust the French reserve forces. This would eventually force them to seek a peace treaty, which was the main von Falkenhayn’s motive for the battle.

Bunker in Fort Douaumont
Bunker in Fort Douaumont

Verdun was not randomly selected. It was an easy target because it is surrounded by the river Meuse on three sides, and it threatened to German communication lines. There is also a great historical and emotional significance of this town:

  • In 843 Verdun agreement was created that the Frankish empire divided into three parts
  • It is the biggest French fort from the time of Louis XIV.
  • The Prussians conquered it in 1792 that prompted the Republican revolution in Paris
  • It was under siege in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870

Quiet preparations, loud attack

Before the attack, the Germans were preparing in silence. Artillery was hidden in the woods and the onslaught troops in the bunkers. With only nine divisions the emphasis is put on huge amounts of heavy artillery and big shells. Over 1,400 pieces of heavy guns, large 305 and 420-millimeter guns, 500 mortars that could shoot 45 kg of a heavy explosive grenade. Von Falkenhayn’s goal was to capture hills east of the river Meuse to inflict the heaviest losses to the French artillery counterattacks.

The French have had some knowledge about the operation, but they underestimate what will happen to them. In the time of the first attack, trenches were incomplete, a few soldiers were present, and most guns dismantled and used on open other fronts.

The operation is called Gericht (Judgment) and it began on February 21. In the incredible eight-hour shooting were fired 2,000,000 shells on the 13-kilometer front from about 1,220 artillery tubes, of which half of that was heavy siege guns. German army used small units equipped with hand grenades, flame throwers and trench mortars that preceded the attack of infantry. They also had air support. How brutal attack said the testimonies of French soldiers:

„Men were squashed. Cut in two or divided from top to bottom. Blown into showers; bellies turned inside out, skulls forced into the chest as if by a blow from a club. “

„An artery of French blood was split on February 21 and it flows incessantly in large spurts. “

In the first two days the Germans did not come far, but after three days of the rolling barrage from the huge number of guns, they broke through the defensive line and capture 10,000 enemies and 65 guns. The French have thus been paralyzed, their defensive positions destroyed, and some have had to hide deeper in the shelters.

A key part of the city's defense, Fort Douaumont, was occupied on February 25 practically undefended. Pedestrians fled after the artillery barrage leaving a platoon gunner to defend by themselves. 300 German soldiers without firing a shot took the key of Verdun defense. But, the hills were not conquered.

Fort Douaumont before the battle of Verdun
Fort Douaumont before the battle of Verdun
Fort Douaumont after the battle of Verdun
Fort Douaumont after the battle of Verdun

French Grand Quartier General wanted to give up on the battle of Verdun, but then the Prime Minister of France, Aristide Briand burst in Chantilly in the middle of the night, woke up the main French army commander Joseph Joffre and demanded active defense. Joffre then appointed Henri Philippe Petain commander of Defense.

Once arrived on the battlefield, Petain found terrible conditions: there was only one road that led to the city. La Voie Sacree, (Sacred path) was the only link between Verdun and the rest of France, so Petain expanded it. Thousands of people have worked widening the road for a better flow of war supplies to the city. After that, 6,000 trucks could use the road.

Petain, realizing the intentions of the Germans, he answered with an ingenious tactic. Sending over 70% of the soldiers in the trenches of Verdun, he involved the entire nation into battle. Every family in France had something to do with Verdun as an amplifier of emotional importance for the French nation. Divisions on the front line were used by two weeks so that the soldiers had time to rest and restore power. Thus throughout Verdun passed 70 out of 96 French divisions on the Western front while the number of German divisions was 46 and a half.

French general improved poor logistics, but the conditions were still unfavorable. The fighting started again on March 5.

„You eat beside the dead; you drink besides the dead; you relieve yourself beside the dead and you sleep beside the dead. “

„People will read that the front line was Hell. How can people begin to know what that one word – hell – means? “

„To die from a bullet seems to be nothing; parts of our being remain intact; but to be dismembered, torn to pieces, reduced to pulp, this is the fear that flesh cannot support and which is fundamentally the great suffering of the bombardment. “

French trench at Cote 304, Verdun
French trench at Cote 304, Verdun

Falkenhayn refused to listen to the advice for attacking both banks of the river Meuse in February because he wanted to spare his infantry. Instead, in March and April, he tried to win the west coast of the Meuse, but this time he came across a well-placed French defense. The remaining forts are again equipped with cannons. Petain’s best units inflicted terrible opponent’s losses and successfully set fire to their artillery.

The biggest explosion of the war and counter-attacks

As a result, by mid-April, all the heavy guns on the German side were out of use. The biggest stroke on German artillery was the largest explosion of the entire war. French grenade fell between half a million artillery shells that were stored in the forest of Spincourt. Nevertheless, the Germans conquered hills Mort Homme and Kota 304 in the West Bank of the river Meuse. This attack, as we see, was a turning point in the defense of Verdun.

Attacks in April and at the beginning of May continued. There was a danger that the French army could “bleed to death”. German progress was slow, and Robert Nivelle took over the command of the French army.

Petain prevented that Verdun falls into German arms, and Nivelle set out to attack under the slogan Ils, not passeront (It will not pass). His goal was not only to defend Verdun but repel the Germans. In addition, he was an artillery officer; the French artillery was now more efficient.

As the fort Douaumont has fallen, the core of the French defense was the fort, Vaux. It is protected by a hill from which Germans could shoot the city and bridges that served as passages for war supplies. Soon it became the target of the German attack and fell on June 7. They continued progressing to forts Souville and Tavannes and came close to the town.

On June 23 Germans have taken their biggest attack by then where for the first time the shells stuffed with phosgene were used. They did not have much success, same as on July 11 in an attack on the fort Souville, which marked the end of Germany's try to take Verdun. From that moment the Germans were on the defensive mode and the French with counterattacks returned its territory.

Memorial cemetery at Douaumont
Memorial cemetery at Douaumont

The beginning of the end of the Battle of Verdun

In July 1916 Somme offensive began, among other reasons, due to the reduction of pressure on Verdun and dragging war supplies and reinforcements that could be used against Verdun defenders. This has helped Verdun as well as the entry of Romania into the war, an affiliated member of the Entente in August.

The same month, von Falkenhayn was degraded to fight against the Romanian army and was replaced by Paul von Hindenburg. Falkenhayn estimated in March that the losses will be big and wanted to stop the process, but Duke Wilhelm insisted on its continuation.

Verdun is designed as a limited operation whose aim was to exhaust the enemy’s resources, but the German army changed the plan. Now they wanted to conquer the city. Turning away from the original plan and reducing the importance of the strategic objectives, and giving priority to winning the battle, the Germans are inflicted by irreparable and unnecessary losses.

General Nivelle took advantage of all these favorable circumstances and ordered counterattacks. The largest one took place on October 24 at Fort Douaumont. Just for the attack, the French took the 170,000 pedestrians, 700 cannons, and over 150 planes. By restoring Douaumont French army progressed calmly and safely to the fort Vaux which they returned in mid-November. The German army withdrew in mid-December and gave up from Verdun.

What was seemingly a simple plan of exhausting the opponents, it turned into horrible bloodshed and huge losses on both sides. This battle has surpassed all earlier terms of quantity and duration of killing and destruction. Although battles of the Somma and Ypres will soon outreach those limits, suffering in the battle of Verdun was more highlighted because after 10 months nothing changed. Verdun remained French, and besides their armies, heavy losses had German units too.

Trench of the Bayonets
Trench of the Bayonets

Battle of Verdun aftermath

The number of injured, dead and missing will be never known. There are figures that different sources point out as relatively correct:

550,000 French and 450,000 German wounded, dead or missing soldiers

377,000 French losses, of which 160,000 dead and 337,000 German losses, of which 71,504 dead/missing

162,000 of dead Frenchmen and Germans 143,000

Even if one man was killed, the horrors of war cannot be reduced. The soldiers were blown up and torn apart because of the force of weapons, many of them became deaf by the unbearable noise, and a huge stink was there throughout the whole territory. On less than 30 square kilometers were fired 10 million bullets of a total weight of 1.35 million tons, as calculated military experts. In the narrowest space happened extreme violence never is seen before.

So, it is not surprising that the losses reduce morale and the ability of both forces. In the long run, the German failure in the conquest of Verdun motivated the Allied side to continue the war. Somme offensive, launched to reduce the pressure on Verdun, could suppress the Germans to Hindenburg Line (well-fortified positions between the northern coast of France and Verdun to the border between France and Belgium, also called the Siegfried line).

Battle of the Somme and Verdun were partly responsible for the growing cynicism and distrust of British soldiers to their commanders, and the gradual decline of the German army which had lost its best junior officers in the fighting in 1916.

Verdun is an example of the battle in which defeat in a single operation is the path to defeat at the macro strategic level.

Douaumont Ossuary
Douaumont Ossuary

Verdun today

Hundred and one years after this historical event, France feels its effects. After the First World War in the range around Verdun, which is spread over 1200 square kilometers of forest, was declared a “Red Zone”, in a secluded uninhabited section filled with various explosives and human remains that even today can be found. Seven villages have been destroyed while the French government opted for a cheaper solution because of the weak economy back then: evict the residents, close the space and let the Department of Mine Clearance do its job. It is projected to be unoccupied for the next 300 to 700 years necessary for the space to be completely cleaned.

An even bigger problem is the contamination of the soil and water. Explosives are made from hazardous chemicals that caused deterioration of soil and disappearance of plant and animal species. Until 2004, foresters and hunters with special permits could be there. But then scientists discovered that the value of arsenic in the soil is 17%, which is several thousand times more than the amount from the previous decades. The situation is getting worse as time passes by. Even the prohibition of drinking water is in force since 2012 in the space much wider than the Red Zone due to large amounts of perchlorate.

But, cleaning the most disadvantaged areas is relatively impossible, in the words of Henry Belot, responsible for the demining of the field many years ago. The entire forest has to be destroyed with digging up at least one meter of the land to get to unpolluted soil.

In a safe area around the river, Meuse tourism based on the colorful history of Verdun grows. You can tour the fort Douaumont and Vaux; see the exhibits in the museum Verdun Memorial. A monument Trench of Bayonets, a symbol of Verdun battlefield, was created on a legend which says the French soldiers were buried alive in their trench during the artillery firing. Apart from the fort, Douaumont ossuary can be seen where the bodies of 130,000 German and French soldiers were laid. On memorial cemetery in front of it, 16 000 French defenders are buried.

Historical events like this one can only serve to us if our awareness expands. Being conscious about killed people in horrible wars and nonsense battles makes us more prepared to demand peace when it is necessary and be more grateful for the life we live today.

For a brighter future we can do at least that one simple thing: to live in peace with yourself.

Douaumont Ossuary overflowing with sun
Douaumont Ossuary overflowing with sun

References and resources:

1. Jorgensen, Christer. Great Battles. (2014). Znanje.

2. Stevenson, David. 1914. – 1918.: The History of the First World War. (2014). Fraktura.

3. Trueman, C. N. The Battle of Verdun, according to The history learning site

© 2019 Marja Radic


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