The Battle of Verdun was the longest and most costly battle of the First World War. It would dominate much of the fighting of 1916, forcing France’s allies to fight battles that might otherwise not have been fought, or to alter the timing of their offensives to provide indirect aid to the French. By the end of the battle the French and Germans between them had lost close to one million men.
At the end of 1915 Verdun was in a quiet section of the western front. During the fighting in 1914 it had formed the pivot of the French line as it had bent back under the German onslaught. When the front line stabilised, Verdun found itself at the south eastern corner of the great German salient that bulged out toward Paris, while to the south east the Germans held the St. Mihiel salient. The only lines of communication into Verdun from the rest of France ran south west of the city.
The German war plan of 1914 had been designed to reduce the dangers of a two front war. At the outbreak of war, German armies had swept through Belgium and into north east France, with the aim of surrounding the French armies on the Franco-German border, thus forcing France out of the war. Only then would German armies head east to deal with the Russian steamroller. The events of 1914 had negated this plan. The German sweep through France had been stopped at the First Battle of the Marne, while the Russians had mobilised quicker than expected and threatened an invasion of East Prussia. The defeat of this invasion at the battles of Tannenburg and the Masurian Lakes had raised the profile of Field Marshal Hindenburg, the commander in East Prussia. When the German high command gathered to decide what to do in 1915, the easterners won the debate. The German armies in the west would stand on the defensive while the armies in the east would attempt to knock Russia out of the war.
This left the initiative on the Western Front with the French, still very much the senior partner on land in the alliance with Britain. The French priority for 1915 was to expel the Germans from those parts of north western France that they had conquered in 1914. Verdun was too far east to play a part in the offensives of 1915. The only role Verdun was able to play in the offensives of 1915 was as a source of artillery guns.
This was very different from the role Verdun might have been expected to play before the war. It was one of the most important fortress cities on the Franco-German border, guarding the Meuse River at the northern end of the shared border. It was surrounded by nineteen forts, of which fourteen were protected by reinforced concrete. Seven of the nineteen forts were relatively recent, having been built between 1885 and 1891. At the start of the war the forts of Verdun contained six 155mm turret mounted guns and enough other guns to equip fifty artillery batteries. In the summer of 1915 the majority of the guns of Verdun were removed to take part in the Second Battle of Champagne.
In February 1915 the garrison of Verdun contained three divisions from XXX Corps, two of which were reserve divisions (72nd and 51st), with one regular division (14th). The 37th (Algerian) Division provided the only reserve. XXX Corps had only taken over the Verdun sector in January 1916. The commander of XXX Corps, General Chrétien, had been appalled by the poor state of the defensive lines around Verdun, but arrived too late to significantly improve them.
The German plan for 1915 had been a success. In the west repeated French and British attacks on the German lines had failed. In the east a Austro-German army had broken through the Russian lines at Gorlice-Tarnow in May-June and the Russians had been forced to evacuate Poland, pulling back hundreds of miles and eliminating any immediate threat to East Prussia. In October a combined German, Austrian and Bulgarian invasion had knocked Serbia out of the war. At the start of 1916 the Gallipoli campaign ended when the final British and Empire troops were withdrawn from the peninsula. The Germans needed a new strategy for 1916.
Once again the debate would be between the westerners and the easterners. The Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, was a westerner, convinced that further effort in Russia would at best be wasted and at worst ran the risk of dragging German armies ever further eastwards into the depths of Russia. He believed that the best strategy for 1916 would be an attack on the French, aimed at knocking them out of the war. With their main ally gone, the British would be forced to withdraw from the continent. Falkenhayn emerged victorious from the debate with easterners such as Hindenburg.
Falkenhayn saw Verdun as the ideal target for his great offensive. The fortress city was of great symbolic value to the French. It had been French since 1552. Prussian armies had occupied it in 1792 and in 1870 (but only after a long siege). Falkenhayn believed that the French would throw every soldier they could find into the defence of Verdun rather than let it fall into German hands. Surrounded by German artillery on three sides, the French defenders of Verdun would be walking into a deadly trap. Verdun was to be a genuine battle of attrition.
Falkenhayn gathered a force of one million men supported by 543 heavy guns (as well as the normal divisional artillery). The attack would be carried out by the Fifth Army, under the command of Crown Prince Wilhelm, the heir to the German throne, and his chief of staff, General Konstantine Schmidt. Amongst the German guns were thirteen massive 420mm guns and seventeen 305mm guns. The German artillery had 2.5 million shells at the start of the offensive, the French defenders of Verdun only 6,400 75mm shells.
One difficulty that faced Falkenhayn was finding the right level of threat to pose to Verdun. Too much effort and the town might fall too quickly, robbing him of his battle of attrition. Not enough effort and either the French would not need to rush reinforces to Verdun in the required numbers or the German soldiers might realise that they were being used as bait. His solution to this problem appears to have been to limit the forces used in the initial assault. On 21 February only nine of the available divisions were used. Falkenhayn kept command of the reserves, possibly to prevent their being used to win too quick a victory. There was a real chance of just such a victory. The massive German build up of troops around Verdun had been achieved without alerting the French. On 21 February nine German divisions would attack three French divisions.
It had been intended to begin the battle on 12 February, but heavy snow delayed the attack until 21 February. It began with a massive artillery bombardment. Along an eight mile front north of Verdun and east of the Meuse the Germans massed 1,200 guns and eight divisions. The bombardment lasted until 4 pm on 21 February. It was followed up by a limited German infantry assault, which gained some ground, but not as much as a full blooded assault might have managed.
22 February started with another artillery bombardment. This time it was followed by a more determined infantry assault, but progress was still slow. At the end of the second day of fighting the Germans had only advanced 2,000 metres along most of the line. However, French resistance north of Verdun was in danger of collapsing. Many units lost half of their men in the first three days of the battle. Worse was to come. On 25 February Fort Douaumont, one of the more modern of Verdun’s defending forts, was captured by a single German sergeant who had found his way into the almost deserted fort through one of the embrasures.
This was as close as the first wave of attackers would get to Verdun. On 26 February the Germans paused to recover from the effort involved in five days of continuous conflict in the broken country north of Verdun. On the same day General Pétain arrived to take command at Verdun.
Pétain found a mixed situation. The Germans were only four miles from the city. One of the most modern of Verdun’s forts had fallen. The French were still badly outnumbered. On the other hand the Germans had advanced beyond the range of much of their artillery, which would take some time to catch up. The French still held the west bank of the Meuse, from where their artillery was beginning to threaten the German advance. Pétain can take much of the credit for that. One of his first actions was to take direct command of the artillery. He also realised the importance of protecting the narrow supply line into Verdun.
The most important feature of this supply line was the single road that led south west from Verdun to Bar-le-Duc. This road would soon become known as the Voie sacrée (sacred way). Pétain limited the road to lorry traffic only, and kept an entire division busy keeping the road intact.
Falkenhayn now faced a new problem. As French resistance east of the Meuse stiffened, German casualties began to rise. From 27 February the advance stalled. Accordingly, the Germans decided to launch a new attack west of the river. After a heavy bombardment on the night of 5-6 March, the new attack began. Once again the Germans met with initial success, reaching the base of the hill of Mort-Homme, but French counterattacks prevented them from taking the crucial high ground overlooking Verdun. The most successful attack came on 20 March, when the front of the French 29th Division collapsed, but even then the Germans were unable to take advantage.
In April the Germans decided to abandon the policy of narrow attacks in favour of launching an attack along the entire Verdun front. The first wide attack lasted from 9-12 April, and achieved very little, before heavy rain forced a halt to the fighting.
By the time the fighting began again in May, Pétain had been promoted away from Verdun. He was replaced by General Robert Nivelle, who would later rise to command all the French armies. He inherited a much stronger position that Pétain had found in February. Eight French corps, containing over 500,000 men, faced eight German corps. The French had developed a process of revolving divisions into the line at Verdun for short periods of time, meaning that many of their men were fresh. In contrast very few German divisions were withdrawn from the battle, so by May many were made up of a mix of battle scarred veterans and new recruits.
Nivelle began at Verdun with a counterattack aimed at regaining Fort Douaumont. A French bombardment began on 17 May, nine days after an explosion had killed nearly 700 German soldiers in the fort. Under the command of General Mangin, the counterattack was initially successful. On 22 May the French recaptured the fort, but the next day the troops in the fort were forced to surrender.
A major new German assault began on 1 June. This time the German aim was prepare for an attack on Verdun itself. The original idea of a battle of attrition had clearly been abandoned in favour of a serious attack on the city. Progress was slow but steady. Fort Vaux, on the east bank, came under determined assault, finally surrendering on 6 June after running out of water. This success was followed by an attack on the last ridge line between the Germans on the east bank and Verdun itself.
This began on 22 June, with a bombardment of poison gas. On the same day the Germans captured the village of Fleury. On 23 June a small number of German troops reached the ridgeline on the Souville heights, with at least one German soldier claiming to have glimpsed the rooftops of Verdun. However, greatest German advances had been won on a narrow front, exposing the most advanced German troops to flank attacks. The French line above Verdun held.
23 June was the nearest the Germans would come to a breakthrough at Verdun. The Battle of the Somme was about to begin, while on the eastern front the Russians had shown an unexpected resilience. A new German attack was planned for 11 July. On the same day Falkenhayn issued an order that ended major offensive action at Verdun, while allowing for an active defence. The attack of 11 July still went ahead, but it was the last German attack of the battle.
The failure of the German offensive at Verdun ended Falkenhayn’s time as Chief of the General Staff. On 29 August he resigned, to be replaced by Field Marshal von Hindenburg.
After a relatively quiet summer at Verdun, the French launched a counterattack. A prolonged artillery bombardment began on 3 October. On 22 October the French paused their bombardment. Thinking the French attack was imminent, hidden German artillery batteries opened fire on no mans land, hoping to smash the French assault, but the assault was not coming. Instead, the French renewed their artillery bombardment, hitting the hidden German batteries. Half of them were destroyed over the next two days.
The French counterattack finally came on 24 October. Six French divisions attacked seven German divisions. The Germans had suffered from nearly three weeks of intense bombardment, and their resistance was at best varied. Fort Douaumont was recaptured on the first day of the counterattack. A final French counterattack, launched on 15 December, pushed the Germans back another two miles. By the end of the battle all of Verdun’s forts were back in French hands.
Both sides suffered very heavy casualties during the ten months of the Battle of Verdun. Sources do not agree on the number of casualties suffered during the battle. In some, French losses were 61,000 dead, 101,000 missing and 216,000 wounded, a total of 378,000 while German losses were 142,000 killed or missing and 187,000 wounded, for a total of 329,000. Other sources give higher figures – French losses of 543,000 and German losses of 434,000. In either case the majority of French losses came during the first defensive period of the battle – hardly surprising as that phase lasted for five months. In neither case were the French casualties high enough to justify Falkenhayn’s initial plan.
Despite the counterattacks around Verdun, in November 1916 Joffre was replaced by General Nivelle as French Commander-in-Chief. Nivelle had made his name in the fighting around Verdun, while the failures of 1915 and the huge losses suffered at Verdun and on the Somme had seen Joffre lose much of the popularity he had gained in 1914. It would be Nivelle who would bring the French armies to the brink of collapse after the failure of his spring offensive of 1917.