The Battle of Verdun in 1916 was the longest single battle of World War One. The casualties from Verdun and the impact the battle had on the French Army was a primary reason for the British starting the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 in an effort to take German pressure off of the French at Verdun. The Battle of Verdun started on February 21st 1916 and ended on December 16th in 1916. It was to make General Philippe Pétain a hero in France.
The attack on Verdun (the Germans code-named it ‘Judgment’) came about because of a plan by the German Chief of General Staff, von Falkenhayn. He wanted to “bleed France white” by launching a massive German attack on a narrow stretch of land that had historic sentiment for the French – Verdun. The area around Verdun contained twenty major forts and forty smaller ones that had historically protected the eastern border of France and had been modernised in the early years of the Twentieth Century.
Falkenhayn believed that the French simply could not allow these forts to fall as the national humiliation would have been too much. By fighting to the last man, Falkenhayn believed that the French would lose so many men that the battle would change the course of the war.
|“The string in France has reached breaking point. A mass break-through – which in any case is beyond our means – is unnecessary. Within our reach there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death.”Falkenhayn to Kaiser William II|
Falkenhayn’s plan had credibility. The forts were very much part of the French psyche and they would fight ferociously to keep the Germans out of the area. However, Falkenhayn’s plan also had one major weakness – it assumed that the French would be an easy opponent and that it would be the French who would take massive casualties – and not the Germans. In fact, all the forts around the area had been weakened as the French High Command had moved ammunition out of the forts to other areas on the Western Front. Also the trenches dug for defence had not been completed. Senior officers at the fort complex around Verdun complained to Joffre about the state of the defences in the area. He rejected their complaints.
140,000 German troops started the attack. They were supported by 1,200 artillery guns that targeted 2,500,000 shells at the Verdun region. 1,300 ammunition trains were needed to supply these guns. The Germans also had complete air supremacy with 168 planes located in the area – the largest concentration of planes in history up to that point. To start with, the French only had 30,000 troops to oppose the Germans. On the day the battle started, February 21st, 1000 German artillery guns fired on a six mile line along the French front. One French soldier wrote about the artillery bombardment:
|“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.”|
The German attack and the subsequent battle was to last over 300 days. Flame throwers were used in large numbers for the first time to help the Germans advance the eight miles they needed to if they were to capture Verdun. By February 25th, the Germans had captured 10,000 French prisoners. To the German’s astonishment, the huge fort at Douaumont, considered to be the most powerful fort in the world, was manned by just 56 elderly part-time gunners who gave the German attackers no resistance. The French public was not immediately told about Douaumont falling – in fact, some Parisian newspapers did not even carry any story about its loss claiming that the battle around Verdun was going well for the French. The fort at Douaumont was only five miles from Verdun itself.
The French put General Philippe Pétain in charge of the defence of Verdun. He was faced with an extremely difficult situation. There was only one road into Verdun from the outside. In fact, it was barely a road by definition. It was only twenty feet wide and vehicles could barely pass one another. Yet along this road, 25,000 tons of supplies were moved into Verdun and 90,000 soldiers. 6,000 vehicles were used in this task and it is said that 66% of the French army was to pass up this road at some time during the battle to save Verdun. The road was given the nickname “Sacred Way” by the French. But despite the new military input, the French suffered badly. Two French soldiers wrote:
|“You eat beside the dead; you drink beside 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.”|
The Germans also suffered huge losses. By the end of April, the Germans had lost 120,000 men and the French 133,000 men. Even Pétain was moved to say about French soldiers fighting in the battle:
|“When they came out of the battle, what a pitiful sight they were. Their expressions seemed frozen by a wisdom of terror; they sagged beneath the weight of horrifying memories.”|
As the battle moved through the Spring of 1916, Pétain asked Joffre for more and more men but Joffre refused. He wanted the men for the planned attack on the Somme. Pétain was replaced by General Nivelle – a soldier who believed that the most successful strategy was to be on the offensive at all times. By the summer, France had achieved some form of air supremacy over the Germans but this counted for nothing as the battle on the ground was one of simple attrition as the casualties mounted on both sides.
|“Hell cannot be so terrible as this. Humanity is mad; it must be mad to do what it is doing.” “An artery of French blood was spilt on February 21st and it flows incessantly in large spurts.”|
“I saw a man drinking avidly from a green scum-covered marsh, where lay, his black face downward in the water, a dead man lying on his stomach and swollen as if he had not stopped filling himself with water for days.”
“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.”
Anonymous French soldiers
Just 150 miles away, life in the French capital went on as ‘normal’. Here, those French soldiers lucky enough to get leave from Verdun found an alien world. Food was plentiful and the one day in the week that was meant to be meat-free was not kept by the majority. Theatres were open and few – due to a government clampdown on the truth – talked knowingly about what was really going on just 150 miles away. French soldiers found their pay did not go far in Paris. A French factory worker earned sixty times the pay of a French soldier over the course of a week. The rumblings of discontent in the French army could be heard in the summer of 1916 – in 1917 it was to mutiny.
On June 1st, Germany launched a massive attack at Verdun. By June 23rd, they got within 2.5 miles from Verdun itself – but this attack faltered as the German army itself had given all that it had and it could give no more. On June 24th, the bombardment on the Somme could be heard at Verdun and with days, the battle at the Somme was to dominate military planners on the Western Front. By the end of October 1916, the French had re-captured the two forts at Vaux and Douaumont but the surrounding land where the battle had been fought since February was a wasteland. The battle at Verdun continued to December – ironically after the Somme conflict was considered to have ended.
The loss of life and those wounded was huge at Verdun. Reference books frequently give differing figures such was the magnitude of loss. It is probable that an accurate figure will never be known. It is said that the French lost over 360,000 and the Germans nearly 340,000. To relieve the pressure being felt by the French, the British launched the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. It was hoped that a swift British victory here would force the Germans to remove troops from the Verdun area. However, like the French, the British got involved in a battle that was to last months rather than days.