The 21st of February, 1916, marks the date in which one of the greatest battles of World War I commenced in the French city of Verdun. This town, of only 22.000 inhabitants, was about to witness first hand the full power and devastation of the war in a battle that ended up being one of the deadliest and longest battles of the war
From bayonet charges to phosgene gas and from artillery barrages to flamethrowers, the Battle of Verdun became a symbol of French resistance against the German war machine and an icon for the unprecedented destruction, implementation of new technologies and battle doctrines and the birth of a new type of warfare.
To understand the sheer amount of death and destruction that devastated Verdun an abridged explanation of the evolution of the war from 1914 to February 1916 is in order.
1914: The Schlieffen Plan and the War of Movement.
After the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was also the presumptive heir of the Imperial crown, by the hand of a Serbian nationalist, Austria Hungary declared war on Serbia. The complex cobweb of political alliances between nations provoked a huge, fast and unprecedented escalation, with two opposed alliances being formed. France, the British Empire, the Russian Empire, Belgium, Montenegro and Serbia on the “Entente”, and the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire on the “Central Powers” (More countries would join either side in later years).
The Germans didn’t waste time and quickly advanced into Luxembourg, Belgium and France in August 1914, putting in motion the Schlieffen Plan that sought for the rapid destruction of British and French forces on the West before turning against the Russian juggernaut to the East. The French, despite their greater numbers, seemed helpless to stop the German onslaught, who had lunged deep into French territory and was now threatening Paris itself.
The French victory during the First Battle of the Marne proved decisive in stopping Germany’s furious advance and in giving the British time to properly prepare their BEF (British Expeditionary Force), since English soldiers fighting in France by 1914 was minimal, less than 100.000 men, in comparison to the 2 M French soldiers and 1.7 M Germans. Naturally, the number of British soldiers stationed in France would rapidly increase.
The French counterattack pushed the Germans back to the River Aisne, and then both armies tried to outflank and encircle each other in what was known as the “Race of the Sea”. With many indecisive battles and great casualties, the German attempt for a breakthrough aimed to take Flanders and the Allied ports of the English Channel, culminated in the First Battle of Ypres, with both sides sustaining heavy losses, that ended in a stalemate.
1915: The offensives in the East.
In 1915, the war entered a new phase: Trench Warfare. Contrary to popular belief, the “War of Movement” that dominated the battlefields of 1914 was even deadlier than the war in the trenches, with 1914 having the obscure honour of owning the highest rate of casualties in the war. 1915 was also the year in which the WWI truly acquired its “world war” status, with the active participation of the Middle East and Africa and with more nations joining the war on both sides.
Most of the German war effort was now based in the Eastern Front against the forces of the Russian Empire. The Schlieffen Plan had failed in the West through key mistakes made by the Germans and the decisive reaction of the French army, that stopped the former in their tracks and managed to push them back from the gates of Paris. With the Allied forces entrenched in Flanders and Northeast France, the Austro-Hungarians and the Germans decided to tackle the Russian threat.
Talking about the military actions in the Eastern Front would deserve an article of its own, so I will not dwell much on it. The German general Erich von Falkenhayn, who would later lead the attack on Verdun, decided to move troops from the Western Front to the East to support a major offensive against the Russians, who had taken some lands from Germany and Austria during their advance in 1914, losing 1.8 M men in the process.
A combined offensive of the Central Powers initially managed to kick the Russians out of the lands they had taken in East Prussia, Bukovina and East Galicia. The Russian army was unable to stop the devastating firepower of the Austro-German forces, that between May and September managed not only to retake the previously lost lands but to push 500 km into the lands of the Russian Empire, effectively meaning that Poland and Lithuania were now under the control of the Central Powers.
By September of 1915, the Russians managed to restructure their lines and halt further advances by the Austro-Germans, which meant that the Eastern Front also stabilized and further pushes by any side would be difficult. Falkenhayn’s hopes for a separate peace treaty with the Russian Empire meant that he would now leave the Russians to their own devices and focus his attention on the Balkans.
By this time, Bulgaria had joined the war on the side of the Central Powers, which gave the Germans the perfect window of opportunity to end the Serbian threat once and for all. With a staggering superiority in both men and firepower, the Bulgarians, Germans and Austro-Hungarians descended on Serbia like a wrecking ball. The Italians also joined the war on the side of the Entente, launching an offensive to try and divert attention from Serbia. With a weakened Russia and a late intervention in the Balkans by Franco-British forces, the Entente couldn’t help but watch as the Serbs were soon forced to evacuate their army and authorities.
All in all, 1915 was a year of success for the Central Powers. The Allied efforts in the Western Front had been successfully contained in the most part and the Russians had been defeated, and the Serbs obliterated. The French command appointed Joseph Joffre, already a general, commander in chief of all French forces in view of a combined Entente effort of launching a series of offensives in 1916 aimed to weaken Germany.
The Battle of Verdun
However, the initiative in 1916 would go again to the Germans. Before the French could launch any of their planned offensives, Falkenhayn anticipated them with strikes of his own, none other than an attack on the emblematic city of Verdun.
Falkenhayn shared the views of the French and British authorities that the war was slowly turning against the Central Powers. The vast manpower pool and greater industrial production held by the Entente would surely win the war in the long run, making Falkenhayn realise that a victory in the Western front was the only thing that could prevent a future German defeat.
Falkenhayn was also aware that the Franco-British forces were better prepared, equipped and entrenched than the Russian divisions, which ruled out the possibility of having a successful invasion that mirrored the campaigns in the East during 1915.
He decided that the best way forward was to start a battle of attrition that aimed to cause as many French casualties as possible, hoping that would make the French government sue for peace. He decided for Verdun as his battlefield, trying to draw in as many French troops as possible, since they would logically rush in to defend their city, without knowing that Falkenhayn had no intention of conquering the town.
Verdun was located on the frontier with German-occupied France, and it was a city of great symbolism for the French people. It also had adequate terrain for a strike, since it was surrounded by wooded hills on both sides of the Meuse, a River that flows through the city. If the Germans managed to control these hills, they could easily bomb Verdun and its defenders with their artillery. However, the French were fully aware of the strategic importance of these hills and built 19 forts, many of which were built on the right bank of the Meuse, the most likely to receive an attack for its proximity to the German front.
These forts were heavily armoured and armed, with 155 mm and 75 mm cannons, machine guns and a huge line of trenches. Nevertheless, the German invasion of Belgium and Northeast France made the French military strip the forts of Verdun of most of their artillery and manpower to reinforce their divisions on the field, leaving the forts in a vulnerable state.
Prelude: Unternehmen Gericht
The French garrison posted in Verdun could only support a single line of trenches that covered the North and East sides of the main forts. Since they weren’t enough to make a second and third line of trenches or to watch the dense forests that laid ahead, Falkenhayn could easily set “Unternehmen Gericht” or “Operation Justice” in motion.
Making use of the particularly efficient German railway network, Falkenhayn started to mass his forces in the forests located in the outskirts of Verdun. Over a thousand artillery pieces were brought to the front, supplied with close to 5 M. shells.
Huge underground refuges were built, called “Stollen” by the Germans, used to either house the soldiers or as sheds for their ammunition. Using the cover of night, 72.000 German soldiers managed to sneak into the forests and conceal themselves inside their “Stollen”.
Obviously, such a massive effort was bound to be discovered by the French. Inexplicably though, Joffre dismissed all the warnings and signs of a German attack on Verdun, regarding them as just a defensive project more than an offensive one, and leaving the French garrison in the dark.
The onslaught was delayed three times due to bad weather, but on February 21 the skies cleared and Unternehmen Gericht commenced.
The cannon orchestra
Sir Winston Churchill defined Verdun as “The anvil upon which the population of France will be crushed to the death”, and Falkenhayn certainly tried to make this remark a reality.
1.600 German cannons bombed the French trenches, the forts and Verdun itself mercilessly for 9 agonising hours, raining destruction on the enemy trenches and setting the forests that surrounded the right bank of the river Meuse ablaze. The French artillery was nearly wiped out, leaving their infantry to face the German assault without support. Making use of their greater numbers, overwhelming artillery support and the new flamethrowers, the Germans cut through the French defence like a hot knife through butter, killing thousands of French soldiers and wiping out entire infantry battalions.
The French didn’t give up in the slightest. In fact, the Germans only managed to successfully occupy one of the targets they had aimed for. Pockets of French resistance were formed all over the front, decimated by the attack,and fighting with such heroism that the Germans were stopped for two days thanks to their valour and sacrifice (like Lieutenant Colonel Driant, one of the greatest war heroes of France during WWI).
Joffre tried to quickly repair his massive misjudgement by appointing Philippe Pétain as commander of the French troops in Verdun with the order to resist at all costs, but the morale of his men was about to receive a hard blow.
Fort Douaumont was one of the outer forts that guarded the right bank of the Meuse, the area where the Germans focused their attack. It was revered as the best fort in Verdun and as the pride of France.
Judged as unconquerable, the Germans had no idea that the fort had lost most of its men and artillery pieces, repositioned in other parts of the front. This is why the fact that the fort was captured by just 10 Germans came as a big surprise for the French, and as an even greater shock for Falkenhayn.
The fall of Fort Douaumont had great repercussions in France, Germany and even Britain. Viewed by the French as a national disaster, it urged them to reinforce and defend Verdun at any cost, knowing that further disasters would take its toll on the morale of the country. The Germans viewed it as a clear sign that the French fighting spirit was wavering.
Falkenhayn’s plan was working perfectly: The French sent more men to reinforce the city, which wasn’t his real target. His aim of slaughtering the most amount of enemy soldiers as possible was being handed to him on a silver platter.
Nonetheless, he made the critical mistake of not taking the chance of securing both cliffs of the Meuse when the battle started and the French were at a huge disadvantage, which would have granted him control of the two hills from which he wanted to bomb Verdun with relative safety.
Pétain used this mistake to his advantage. As soon as the first reinforcements arrived in late February, he placed most of his artillery on the left bank of the Meuse, untouched by the Germans and exposing their flank. Falkenhayn tried to take the left bank in March, but by then, Verdun was reinforced with 190.000 French troops, which greatly hindered any attempt of a German advance.
Despite their success in crossing the river Meuse, every German attack was received with a French counterattack. Pétain started to turn Falkenhayn’s attrition strategy against him, with both sides having almost equal losses.
Joseph Joffre, despite Pétain’s success, decided to replace him due to his “excessive precaution”, appointing Robert Nivelle as commander of the French forces at Verdun. Of a more offensive mind, Nivelle immediately tried to take the initiative, but his ill-prepared efforts were easily crushed by the Germans, with thousands of French lives lost.
The French resistance
In June of 1916, Falkenhayn, after defeating the French offensives to recapture the right bank of the Meuse, decided to retake the initiative of the battle.
After killing 10.000 French soldiers in an attack to retake Fort Douaumont, Falkenhayn responded by attacking Fort Vaux, another of the outer forts that shielded Verdun. He successfully managed to take the fort on June 7, allowing him to conquer another two forts that same month, securing the German position on the right bank.
Although the loss of their forts was a huge hit to French morale, their resistance remained unaltered. The French rotated their divisions, usually after two weeks of fighting, ensuring that their morale and fighting strength didn’t suffer as much as the Germans did, who didn’t rotate their men with the same efficiency. This meant that almost every division in the French army fought in Verdun, having at any given time fresh troops to face the Germans.
Falkenhayn was desperate. He had severely undervalued the French resistance, failed to take both banks of the Meuse and turned Verdun into a battle of attrition that was as equally deadly for both French and Germans. His colleagues, Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg had already stated that Unternehmen Gericht was a mistake, thinking that Germany should draw its full attention in finishing with the Eastern Front after the successful campaign of 1915.
Konprinz (Crown Prince) Wilhelm, commander in chief of the German V Army, that was placed in Verdun, was also opposed to Falkenhayn’s strategy, thinking that it would be more beneficial to just take the city instead of turning it into a meat grinder.
Falkenhayn decided then to use every weapon at his disposal, including the newly implemented phosgene gas, to conquer Fort Souville, but after three costly attacks, the fort stood victorious much to the desperation of Falkenhayn. Unternehmen Gericht was failing, and the events that were about to happen in July and August of 1916 would solidify that.
The Entente’s response
In December 1915, Joffre had set up a meeting in Chantilly with the representatives of the Allied powers. They planned for combined offensives for the upcoming campaign of 1916, but crucially, they also agreed that if the Central Powers were to start an attack on either front, the Allies had to respond with initiatives of their own, so to avoid another debacle like the Austro-German campaign in Russia that same year.
For this reason, the Allies decided to initiate a series of offensives against the Central Powers once the Battle of Verdun started. Since the Austrians were also busy with an offensive against the Italians in the Alps and the Trentino region, pulling men and resources from their Eastern Front, the Russians initiated an attack of their own, whilst the rest of the Allies planned other operations.
From June to August of 1916, the Russians initiated the “Brusilov Offensive”, the Franco-British forces launched an attack on the Somme and the Italians did the same at the Isonzo. The Romanians joined the war on the Allied side on August 17, threatening the Austrian border of Transylvania, which was practically unguarded.
Despite losing millions of men in their attacks, the Allies realized that this was the way forward. The 1916 offensives managed to successfully withdraw many German divisions from Verdun, gain a new ally in Romania, and showcase the increasing dependency of Austria-Hungary on the German Empire since the Italian and Russian operations shattered the Austrian army, who lost around 2M men.
The end of the carnage
The failure of Falkenhayn in Verdun saw him dismissed and sent to the Eastern front when the Chantilly offensives began. Joffre’s plan of initiating a series of attacks on different parts of the front to divert attention from Verdun proved wise since the Germans had to withdraw many divisions from the city to patch the new holes in the front.
Hindenburg was put in charge of the operations in Verdun, with orders from Kaiser Wilhelm II to terminate that front at once. Undermanned and evenly matched in artillery pieces, the Germans couldn’t stop the French retaliation in autumn of 1916, losing most of the ground they had conquered on the right bank of the Meuse, including Fort Douaumont, reclaimed by the French colonial troops the 24th of October.
In December of 1916, the French had pushed the Germans back to the original frontier of the front and finally put an end to the carnage.
The Battle of Verdun was witnessed many technological and tactical innovations, with the Germans making use of phosgene gas and flamethrowers, whilst also performing modern and effective infiltration tactics. The French Army responded with great bravery and heroism, commanded by an instrumental Philippe Pétain, without whom the battle could have ended differently.
Another two excruciating years were required to bring World War I to an end. The Battle of Verdun held the record of being the longest battle in WWI and one of the deadliest with 377.000 French soldiers and 337.000 Germans casualties (Not exactly the 5:2 ratio that Falkenhayn had hoped), although there is much debate around the precise number of fatalities (I included the numbers suggested by professor William Philpott).
It is a common consensus that the Battle of Verdun had great significance in the outcome of the war, especially when it is included with the Allied offensives of 1916. The loss of men and equipment hindered the German war effort, who couldn’t replace them with the same ease as the Allies did.
To this day, the earth surrounding Verdun still bears the scars of the great battle. The land where Fort Douaumont once stood proudly is now the home 130.000 unidentified French and German soldiers, casualties of the brutality and the unprecedented destruction of WWI. Humanity wouldn’t learn from this deadly experience, and only 21 years later, World War II began, with Philippe Pétain, once a beloved hero of France, now playing the role of hated villain.
- Stevenson, David (2004) 1914-1918: The History of the First World War, Penguin Press.
- History Channel (2009) Las grandes batallas de la Historia, Penguin Random House, Madrid.
- Churchill, Winston (1938) The World Crisis, Simon & Schuster.
- World War I in Photos