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The Battle of Verdun–fought from February 21-December 18 1916 in the Western Front of France–was horrifying and hellish even by the standards of World War One. Over a 299-day-period, there were 1 million total casualties. The French were bled white, but so were the Germans.

Of these, 300,000 were killed, which is about 1 death for every minute of the battle. The French most likely lost slightly more than the Germans. About 10% of all French war dead were from Verdun. Half of Frenchmen between 20 and 30 years old were killed. Although more men died at the Somme, the proportion of casualties suffered to the number of men who fought was much higher at Verdun than at any other battle in World War I.  Also the number killed per square mile was the greatest at Verdun. To this day, the battlefield is still cratered and pockmarks.  Many unexploded shells (maybe 12 million) still remain.  Trenches can still be seen. Alistair Horne said, “Verdun was the First World War in microcosm; an intensification of all its horrors and glories, courage and futility.”

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1916 is often called “The Year of Battles,” because in that year, the three greatest battles in world history to that time occurred. They occurred largely simultaneously. The first of the three to begin was Verdun.

  1. The Rationale Behind the Attack

    1. Russia was increasing its munitions supply, and Britain’s army was increasing in size (1 million men and increasing as of January 1916). In addition, Britain was importing an increasing number of supplies from the U. S.

    2. Falkenhayn saw that time was on the Allies’ side. He felt that Britain was the main enemy on the western front, but to get to Britain, he felt that the Britain’s “best sword,” France, must be attacked. This would “knock the sword out of Britain’s hand.”

    3. Germany had the advantage in munitions production. German artillery in particular was better than that of France or Britain. Plus, artillery caused 75% of casualties. So Falkenhayn decided to make use of his artillery.

    4. As his primary target, Falkenhayn chose the legendary French fortress of Verdun. He felt the French would have no choice but to defend Verdun.

    5. Verdun jutted out in a salient and could be attacked from three sides. But the town was surrounded by 19 major forts (dominated by Fort Douaumont) and many more minor ones. They were organized into an outer ring and an inner one.

    6. Falkenhayn wanted to pound Verdun with artillery and “bleed the French Army white.” He called the operation “Gericht” (Judgment)

  1. Preparations

    1. The German attacking force would be the Fifth Army, commanded by Crown Prince William. He would have 9 divisions. The army’s artillery would be sent on 1300 trains.

    2. The German Army built 10 new railway lines and over 20 railway stations, in addition to regular roads. They evacuated several towns on the German side of Verdun to make room for the army.

    3. The German Air Force would launch 168 planes to conduct an aerial barrage to keep the French Air Force from spying on German positions.

    4. Falkenhayn ordered preparations for offensives to be made at other parts of the Western Front so that the Allies would not know exactly where the attack would occur.

    5. The attack was planned for February 12, but the weather caused them to have to delay the attack. This gave the French more time to strengthen their defenses at Verdun.

  1. The Battle: Opening Stage

    1. The attack began on February 21, when the Germans launched an artillery barrage. The barrage used over 1200 guns, stretched over 12 miles, and lasted nine hours. 1,000,000 total shells were used (20 tons of shells per acre). 40 shells fell per minute.

    2. Falkenhayn said “No line is to remain unbombarded, no possibilities of supply unmolested, nowhere should the enemy feel himself safe.”

    3. French communications were cut off, and reinforcements could not be brought in. The command structure was disrupted.

    4. After the barrage ended, one French soldier wrote that of every five men, “two have been buried alive under shelter, two are wounded to some extent or another, and the fifth is waiting.”

    5. On the second day, the Germans unleashed a flamethrower attack, and on day three, they had advanced two miles and had taken 3000 prisoners.

    6. On the 24th (Day 4), the Germans broke through at Beaumont and Samogneaux (north of Verdun, and on the left side of the battle line). The French fell back, losing 10,000 more prisoners. The war became a war of motion again.

    7. On the 25th, the French fort of Douaumont fell. The German advance then stopped, only 4 miles from Verdun.

    8. That night, General Joffre gave the command of Verdun to Henri Philippe Petain. Petain was told that Verdun must be held. Petain opened a supply line to Verdun. It became known as the “Sacred Road.” Eventually, 190,000 men and 23,000 tons of ammunition came to Verdun.

    9. He also set up a rotation system. Soldiers would be moved in and out of Verdun, generally serving about 2 weeks before being relieved. About 75% of the entire French army spent at least some time in Verdun.

    10. Petain also ordered an artillery barrage of the German lines.

    11. By the end of February, German and French casualties were roughly equal. On French casualty was a young lieutenant named Charles DeGaulle.

  1. Spring Fighting

    1. On March 6, the Germans launched another barrage and an infantry attack. The Germans established themselves behind the initial French front line. More French soldiers surrendered.

    2. The French counterattacked on the 8th and made gains. The Germans were unable to advance further for now.

    3. On the 15th, five successive attacks on Fort Vaux failed, although the village of Vaux changed hands 13 times.

    4. In the first five weeks of Verdun, a German soldier was killed on average every 45 seconds. For the French, it was worse.

    5. Joffre issued an order to the defenders: “You will be those of whom it is said…they barred the way to Verdun.”

    6. March 20: The westernmost German corps attacked at Avocourt and took many prisoners. Their attack was stopped by French machine guns.

    7. April 9: Germany attacked across the entire front. They made some gains, but rain forced them to stop for the rest of the month.

    8. May 3: Germany opened up a major bombardment with 500 guns, which led to a German attack on Cote 304 that succeeded. The smell of dead bodies was so bad that the German conquerors demanded an extra ration to cover the smell. The capture of Cote 304 was the first break in the French line.

    9. May 22: France launched the greatest barrage yet in the war. Then French infantry tried to take Fort Douaumont. They reached the fort but were repulsed. French morale reached a new low.

  1. Summer Fighting

    1. On June 7, the French surrendered Fort Vaux to the Germans.

    2. By June 12, the Germans were closing in on Verdun. But then at the request of Conrad von Hotzendorf, Falkenhayn sent three divisions to the East to assist Austria against Russia. The Germans halted their attack.

    3. June 22: The Germans launched a barrage with phosgene (“Green Cross”) gas and then attacked. They took Fort Thiaumont, but failed to take Fort Souville, the second-to-last fort before Verdun.

    4. By mid-July, the Germans nearly took Fort Souville, but they were repulsed by the French.

    5. August 18: the French took Fluery, lifting French morale and causing German morale to sink.

    6. August 29: The German government fired Erich von Falkenhayn and replaced him with Hindenburg. Ludendorff became quartermaster general of the German Army. Ludendorff ordered the formation of stormtrooper units.

  1. Fall Fighting

    1. By the fall, total German casualties were about 280,000 men, while French losses totaled 315,000.

    2. Hindenburg and Ludendorff visited the Verdun battlefield in early September and were appalled by what they saw. Hindenburg said “Battles there exhausted our forces like an open wound…the battlefield was a regular hell and regarded as such by the troops.”

    3. Ludendorff added “Verdun was hell. Verdun was a nightmare for both the staffs and the troops who took part. Our losses were too heavy for us.” Hindenburg ordered the cessation of all German efforts there.

    4. Meanwhile, French commander Petain began preparing for a major French offensive. An uneasy calm prevailed over Verdun.

    5. The September 16, Hindenburg game orders for a semi-permanent defensive line to be built behind the German front lines. It became known as the “Hindenburg Line” to the British, although the Germans called it the “Siegfried Position.”

    6. On October 19. The French army began a major bombardment of Fort Douaumont. This eroded the layer of dirt that covered the fort.

    7. The Germans evacuated the fort, but another German unit occupied the fort and tried to defend it. The French, meanwhile, occupied the first line of German trenches and took many prisoners.

    8. Nov. 1: the Germans evacuated Fort Vaux. The French occupied it a few days later.

    9. On December 6, British Prime Minister Asquith resigned and was replaced by David Lloyd George. Lloyd George criticized General Haig, writing “Haig does not care how many men he loses. He just squanders the lives of these boys. I mean to save some of them in the future.”

    10. On December 13, Joffre was removed as French Commander in Chief and was replaced with Robert Nivelle. Nivelle had been an artillery colonel at the beginning of the war but had risen rapidly through the ranks.

    11. Nivelle immediately launched another attack on the German lines north of Verdun. It began with an artillery barrage of 1 million shells. These shattered the German defenses. Despite terrible weather, the French captured two towns that had been lost in February, including Douaumont.

    12. After this the battle ended. The battle had lasted 299 days.

  1. Results

    1. The Germans ended up more than 4 miles from Verdun. Overall, the battle was a failure for the Germans. The French were bled white, but so were the Germans.

    2. Total casualties were at least 700,000, and some casualty estimates are as high as 1,000,000 total. Of these, 300,000 were killed, which is about 1 death for every minute of the battle. The French most likely lost slightly more than the Germans. About 10% of all French war dead were from Verdun. ½ of Frenchmen between 20 and 30 years old were killed.

    3. The French Army’s offensive capacities were shattered.

    4. General Petain’s reputation soared. He came to be identified with a more caring and human approach to French soldiers. He was promoted to Marshall.

    5. Although there would be no major offensives, the two sides continued to bombard and harass each other.

    6. Alistair Horne: “Verdun was the First World War in microcosm; an intensification of all its horrors and glories, courage and futility.”

    7. Although more men died at the Somme, the proportion of casualties suffered to the number of men who fought was much higher at Verdun than at any other battle in World War I. Also the number killed per square mile was the greatest at Verdun.

    8. To this day, the battlefield is still cratered and pockmarks. Many unexploded shells (maybe 12 million) still remain. Trenches can still be seen.

Cite This Article
"Battle of Verdun" History on the Net
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October 27, 2020 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/battle-of-verdun>
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