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World War I: The Battle Of Verdun

Updated on July 28, 2014

Trench Warfare

French troops awaiting orders in a trench just outside of Verdun.
French troops awaiting orders in a trench just outside of Verdun. | Source


As World War I settled down into trench warfare in late 1914, it became more or less impossible to inflict a traditional victory on the enemy. Previously, victory was decided by the defeat of an army in the field or the occupation (or threat of occupation) of key areas such as capital cities. That was simply impossible now. There seemed to be no way to break through the lines and capture strategic objectives, and deep defensive positions made it virtually impossible to drive the enemy from the field. The problem in both cases was the availability of reserves, coupled with the capability to move them to a threatened point faster than a successful attack could be exploited.

Victory in the Great War would therefore be a matter of exhausting the other side, of making the cost of continuing so high that peace became essential, at whatever price. The key here, again, was reserves. So long as the opposition had sufficient manpower available to feed into the combat zone, the war could go on. The German high command therefore came up with a plan to destroy the French reserves by drawing them into a ‘meatgrinder.’ The German plan was to attack something that the French had to defend, and to destroy their army with artillery and infantry attacks. The chosen objective was the fortified city of Verdun.

The Location Of Verdun

Verdun And The Vincinity

A strategic map of the battle of Verdun and the surrounding area.
A strategic map of the battle of Verdun and the surrounding area. | Source


Verdun was an ideal target in many ways. Lying in a loop of the Meuse River, the city had poor communications. Only one road ran in and out of the city. The logistic problems of the attack were eased by the fact that there was a major German rail-head just 12 miles away, allowing quick transportation of ammunition, supplies and reinforcements as the attack developed. Verdun lay in a relatively quiet sector of the front, and many of the heavy guns of its forts had been sent to other sectors where they seemed to be more badly needed. It was garrisoned by three divisions, which represented fairly light defences.

German offensive plans included the assembly of 10 divisions to make the actual attack, supported by experimental ‘infantry batteries’ of 3 inch field guns which were supposed to advance with the infantry to provide direct support but in the event were unable to cross the shell torn wasteland. Another new weapon also made its debut at Verdun, the flamethrower. The attack was supported by large quantities of heavy guns, more than 1400 pieces in total. These included huge 16.5 inch and 12 inch weapons that had previously been used to reduce forts in Belgium. Over 500 minenwerfer were also deployed. These fired a 100Ib explosive shell which could have a deadly effect if it landed in a trench. Countless lighter weapons such as trench mortars were also available.

The offensive was codenamed Operation Gericht (‘Judgement’). Its aim was to force the French into a battle of attrition on unequal terms. If they failed to meet the challenge, Verdun would fall. If they stood and fought, their army would be bled white and they would ultimately be forced to sue for peace. The operation was scheduled to start on the 10th February, but was delayed by bad weather until the 21st. Although the preparations for the operation were spotted, there was no attempt to reinforce Verdun, and the initial artillery onslaught caught the garrison unprepared.

Fort Douaumont

A German aerial photograph showing how Fort Douaumont looked prior to the battle.
A German aerial photograph showing how Fort Douaumont looked prior to the battle. | Source

German Attack

A picture of a German infantry attack, in which both grenades and flamethrowers were used.
A picture of a German infantry attack, in which both grenades and flamethrowers were used.

Opening Barrage

As the 21st February 1916 dawned, the frigid air was shattered by the scream of heavy shells and the ‘whizz-bang’ of anti-personnel weapons. Over two million shells fell on the forward French positions in the next 12 hours, after which the infantry began their attack. For the first two days the German forces made relatively little headway, but on the 24th they broke through the main defensive line, taking 10,000 prisoners and capturing 65 artillery pieces. The infantry were preceded in their attacks by a rolling barrage from the immense number of guns at their disposal, which attacked the defences and drove the survivors under cover.

Between the awesome barrage, the suddenness of the attack and the cold weather, the French were paralysed. Some units broke and fled to the rear, leaving weak areas in the defences through which the German assault troops advanced. The whole Verdun defence was collapsing. Something had to be done, and fast.

Verdun was supposed to be invincible- a French army commission in 1915 had confirmed this, and sacked a general for saying otherwise. Yet on the 25th February Fort Douaumont, a key component of the city’s defences, fell to a German assault. This was a serious blow to French morale, though it could have been avoided had the garrison not been stripped to the bone. The defending infantry had broken under bombardment leaving a platoon of artillerymen as the only defenders. A nine man German patrol found a way into the fort and discovered that it was virtually undefended. They led 300 of their fellows in and captured the keystone of the Verdun defences almost without firing a shot.

Taking Charge

General Philippe Petain earned a hero's reputation at Verdun and later in the war, but came to be considered a traitor for collaborating with the Nazis in World War II.
General Philippe Petain earned a hero's reputation at Verdun and later in the war, but came to be considered a traitor for collaborating with the Nazis in World War II. | Source

Petain Takes Charge

At the same time as Fort Douaumont was being captured by the enemy, General Petain was arriving to take charge of the defences of Verdun. He found a desperate situation, with the only supply route into the city along a single road and a narrow-gauge railway alongside it. This road, dubbed La Voie Sacree, was Verdun’s inadequate lifeline, and Petain’s first task was to improve it. Thousands of men worked to widen the road, allowing a less restricted flow of supplies into the city. By the time they had finished, something like 6000 trucks could use the road every day, and over half a million troops, plus all their supplies, moved into and out of the city along it. Petain decided that units were only to serve a 15 day tour in the trenches to allow them time to rest and recuperate, so La Voie Sacree saw an endless stream of units rotating to and from the front line. Although Petain had improved the desperate logistics situation, things were still bad. The fighting ebbed somewhat at the very end of February, only to be resumed on the 5th March.

More On The Battle Of Verdun

The Attack Is Renewed

A new German offensive was thrown in along the west bank of the Meuse, straight into the teeth of a well prepared defence. Petain had deployed his best troops to meet this assault, and they were supported by a powerful concentration of artillery. This assault marked something of a turning point in the defence of Verdun. French gunners were not only inflicting horrific casualties on the attackers, but were conducting effective counter battery fire against their artillery. By the middle of April all the very heavy guns on the German side were out of action and the German artillery had suffered another serious blow when a shell landed among half a million heavy artillery shells stockpiled in Spincourt forest. This caused the largest single explosion of the entire war.

The attacks continued through April and into May, and threatened to indeed ‘bleed the French army to death.’ However, gains were relatively slight and when Petain was relieved by General Robert Nivelle; the French began to recover their offensive spirit.

A New Man At The Helm

General Robert Nivelle, who took over from General Petain in May 1916.
General Robert Nivelle, who took over from General Petain in May 1916. | Source

Fort Vaux

Fort Vaux as it is today.
Fort Vaux as it is today. | Source

Nivelle Takes Over

Where Petain had been the defender of Verdun and had prevented its fall, Nivelle took the offensive. The French slogan for Verdun was ‘Ils ne passeront pas!’ (‘They shall not pass!’), but Nivelle’s aim was more than barring the door, he intended to kick the Germans back out. At first Nivelle could do no more than Petain; German attacks were still making gains and with Fort Douaumont in German hands the crux of the defence was now Fort Vaux. Vaux protected an area of high ground from which German guns would be able to fire directly into the city and, even more importantly, at the bridges over which all supplies into the city were fed. Fort Vaux became the target of German assaults, and on the 7th June it fell to them. Nevertheless, the balance was shifting. Nivelle was an artillery officer, and under his command the French guns became more effective. Even as the Germans advanced towards the surviving forts, Souville and Tavannes, their casualties mounted. Things hung in the balance throughout the end of June, and despite the opening of the Somme offensive on the 1st July, the Germans pushed onwards, creeping ever closer to the city itself. On the 11th July an attack actually reached Fort Souville, but its failure marked the end of German attempts to take Verdun. Thereafter they found themselves on the defensive as French counter attacks began to retake some of the lost ground.

Under Fire

French troops advancing while under heavy artillery fire.
French troops advancing while under heavy artillery fire. | Source

French Counter Attacks

Nivelle’s position was improved by the Somme offensive, which was launched partly to reduce the pressure on Verdun. It did not succeed as an operation in its own right, but was successful in drawing its supplies and reinforcements that could otherwise be set against the defenders of Verdun. As the pressure eased, Nivelle launched counter attacks to drive the Germans out and retake the last forts. The largest of these was on the 24th October, against Fort Douaumont and involved 170,000 infantry, 700 guns and over 150 aircraft. After this the French ground slowly forward, retaking Fort Vaux in early November. In mid-December the German army retreated from Verdun, leaving what was left of it in French hands.

A Brief Video About The Battle

The Meatgrinder

By the end of the Verdun offensive, the Germans had indeed managed to cause vast French casualties- 550,000 of them in fact. However, this was only achieved at a cost of 450,000 casualties of their own. During the summer it was obvious that the cost was going to be very high, but the decision was taken to continue the offensive. One German casualty was the career of General Falkenhayn. On the 29th August he was reassigned to command forces fighting against the Romanian army, which had joined the Allies the day before. This reassignment effectively represented a demotion. Falkenhayn was replaced by Hindenburg with Ludendorff as Quartermaster-General. Blaming Falkenhayn for the situation was perhaps unfair; he had realised as early as March that casualties were going to be high, and pushed for an end to the operation. However, Crown Prince Wilhelm insisted on continuing.

The original German plan was reasonably sound, to attack something the enemy had to defend and drain his resources by artillery bombardment followed by infantry occupation of the devastated territory. However, the German army fell victim to ‘mission creep,’ and at some point the capture of Verdun became the objective of the operation. This was not the plan originally- the idea was to destroy the French army, not to seize a city, and Verdun was certainly not worth the lives of half a million troops.

However, as the battle went on the objective shifted until the German army was being ground down in order to take a city it did not want or need. Winning the battle had become more important than the strategic objectives that inspired it. This led to losses that could not be sustained and were wholly unnecessary.

The Battlefield Today

This is a picture taken in 2005 of the battlefield site at Verdun.
This is a picture taken in 2005 of the battlefield site at Verdun. | Source


Virtually every French division on the Western Front passed through the Verdun 'meatgrinder'. Rather fewer, but still large numbers of German formations were rotated into the offensive. Massive casualties on both sides reduced the fighting power and the morale of both forces, and arguably it was the plight of Verdun that forced the Allies to make their costly Somme offensive, which in turn cost both sides’ vast numbers of lives. In the end, what was a workable plan did not succeed and the end result was inconclusive. The German failure to take Verdun was a boost to morale on the Allied side, and although the Somme offensive failed to achieve anything significant either, the German army did pull back to the Hindenburg Line in 1917.

The vast casualties at Verdun and the Somme were partly to blame for the collapse of French morale in 1917, the increasing cynicism and mistrust of commanders among the British troops, and the decline of the German army, which lost the best of its junior leaders in the bitter fighting of 1916. Verdun was perhaps a situation where failure to win in an operational context paved the way for defeat at the grand strategic level.

© 2013 James Kenny


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