By late 1914, Verdun-sur-Meuse – a town on the Meuse river in Northeastern France – was surrounded on three sides by the German army. The lines of the Western Front bulged eastward around the town, and only La Route Sacrée, a medium-sized road, resupplied the French at Verdun. The position was ringed by a number of strong forts, namely Vaux, Souville and the massive Douaumont complex. These powerful positions were built in the 1890s in anticipation of war, but by 1915 the French had concluded that no fort was safe against new German Super Krupp 420mm mortars that had shattered the Belgian line of defenses at the outset of WWI. As such, the forts were stripped of over 800 artillery pieces and their crews; only 30 men remained in each building manning the heaviest guns that could not be removed. By February of 1916, only 14 ½ French divisions (roughly 14,000 men) defended Verdun.
ASAP: A German attempt to “bleed the French white” at Verdun with heavy artillery ended in misery for all involved.Read on for details!
Von Falkenhayn’s Plan
In 1916 German command believed that the war was no longer winnable with grand, decisive battles. Their experiences at the Marne and Ypres convinced them that, since both the Allies and the Central Powers were relatively evenly matched, it would be nearly impossible to capture Paris. German Chief of Staff General Erich von Falkenhayn was convinced that a war of attrition (maximum casualties through sustained pressure) was the only option to beat the Allies. He envisioned an attack on Verdun – which he knew to be of symbolic value to the French for its location and history as the last line of defence against Attila the Hun – where his forces would attack, drawing in masses of French reinforcements, and “bleed them white“. He didn’t necessarily want to advance far past the Meuse; he just wanted to draw the Allies into a trap that would significantly reduce their manpower reserves. To do this, von Falkenhayn decided to avoid a mass attack on Verdun, instead holding back reserves for when the French were weakened. In order to bleed the French white, he would use artillery and gas.
Dutch intelligence assets caught wind of von Falkenhayn’s plan and passed the word to the British. In response, French Chief of Staff Marshal Joseph Joffre ordered the defenses strengthened and placed General Philippe Pétain – future leader of France’s Vichy government – in charge of the 2nd Army at the RFV, or Région Fortifiée de Verdun. While defensive preparations were made, however, Joffre was convinced Verdun would only face a diversionary attack because of the limited German forces they faced.
Concurrently, the German 5th Army began moving in division after division to the outskirts of Verdun. Von Falkenhayn ordered his railroad network expanded and was soon running millions of artillery shells into German positions. Massive underground bunkers – designed to shelter 1,200 infantryman from French counter-battery artillery fire – were constructed, and thousands of kilometres of communications wires were laid. By February, the 5th Army had 1,201 artillery guns aimed at Verdun from three different directions. These would be the centrepiece of the battle.
The Battle Begins
On February 21st, Unternehmen Gericht (Operation Judgment) began in earnest. Over 800 German guns fired 1 million shells at Verdun in a 10-hour opening barrage. At noon the barrage paused, and French survivors of the history’s largest artillery fire plan to date emerged from their holes in the ground. 5th Army troops including Sturm-Bataillon Nr. 5 (Rohr) stormtroops surged forward and cleared out the shellshocked French with flamethrowers and grenades. By February 23rd, the Germans had captured Beaumont commune and moved over 5 km (3 miles) forward. At 3:00 PM on that day, a rag-tag force of 100 Germans found themselves near Fort Douaumont; expecting massive resistance, they snuck inside and found only 25 surprised French defenders, who surrendered. (A subsequent German claim that Douaumont was captured by only 1 soldier has been debunked as propaganda). The new defenders of the fort dug in and resupplied their position; on the 27th, they pressed forward again but became stuck in the mud after a surprise thaw. In the downtime, 90,000 French troops – including elite Zouaves from North Africa – reinforced positions West of the Meuse, and with new supplies of ammunition, began hammering the exhausted German 5th Army.
The Verdun offensive ground on. By April, German field commanders were determined to continue “bleeding” the French but were aware that their men were losing energy fast. Having pushed into the the bulge in the line previously occupied by the French, the 5th Army was now harassed by French artillery from the sides and rear. Gas attacks, too, made life miserable for everyone – whenever the winds changed direction, French troops were just as vulnerable to the deadly clouds of poison. In May, Pétain was replaced by General Robert Nivelle in command of the French 2nd Army. Nivelle, an ambitious officer, ordered an offensive plan developed in order the retake Fort Douaumont (which he rightly perceived to be of symbolic significance). After a heavy mortar barrage that damaged the fort, the 129th Infantry Regiment recaptured Douaumont on May 22nd; but after 36 hours, they were kicked out again.
On ne passe pas!
In June, the “Nivelle Offensive” had drained French manpower and resulted in significant mutinies in the French army across the Western Front. French Poilus (soldiers) did not so much want to quit the fight; they just didn’t want their lives thrown away in seemingly meaningless engagements. Von Falkenhayn seized on this opportunity and on June 22nd the 5th Army fired 116,000 gas shells at French positions. As the massive German attack began, many villages were quickly overrun. Nivelle issued the following statement as the enemy advanced towards Fort Souville on June 23rd:
“Vous ne les laisserez pas passer, mes camarades. You will not let them pass, my comrades.”General Robert Nivelle
The simple phrase – since reinterpreted as On ne passe pas or “one does not pass” – inspired fanatical resistance from the French defenders. Fort Souville held its ground and Fleury – site of the worst fighting – was eventually recaptured after changing hands 16 times. The 5th Army had run out of poison gas, and their water supply had been cut off; eventually, they were forced to withdraw.
The French Offensives
As the Battle of the Somme began in early June, many German guns and men were pulled away from Verdun to defend against the new British offensive. Von Falkenhayn was replaced by the cautious General Paul von Hindenburg and German offensive operations began to lose momentum. In a series of engagements over the summer, the French 2nd Army reclaimed Fleury and began moving back towards Douaumont. By November, the massive fort was in reach and two French Saint-Chamond guns – 400mm cannons mounted on train tracks – were shelling the German defenders. Shells from the guns penetrated to the lowest levels of the fort; one started a fire that blew up a supply dump of 7,000 hand grenades. By November 5th, the Germans had quietly evacuated and the French finally reclaimed Fort Douaumont without firing a shot.
The 2nd Offensive Battle of Verdun began on December 15th amidst freshly-fallen snow and bone-chilling cold. Behind creeping barrages (artillery fire that advanced just in front of charging infantry) the French pushed the exhausted Germans past Verdun. By December 18th, it was finally over. Masses of 5th Army men, exhausted and cold, were rounded up and held in makeshift camps. One German officer complained about the crude nature of the camps, and French General Charles Mangin sarcastically responded with “We do regret it, gentlemen but then we did not expect so many of you!”
After 303 days of fighting – to that point, the longest battle in human history – the horrendous meatgrinder of the Battle of Verdun was over. 143,000 killed French men died, alongside 163,000 of their German counterparts. At the end, the two enemies held much the same positions as they had in February of 1916. For the Germans, Verdun was a wake-up call: they had lost more men than the French had for almost no gain, and the Allies were far from broken. In France, Verdun came to be seen as both a symbol of French resolve – and a frustrating reminder of the futility of WWI. Nivelle’s paraphrased On ne passe pas! became a rallying cry for poilus and factory workers alike, but the subsequent mutinies and industrial strikes showed the French government that patience was wearing thin. After Verdun, no one would tolerate battles of attrition, and new tactics were required.
In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.
- Who? 50 divisions (around 50,000 men) of the French 2nd Army under General Philippe Pétain, and later General Robert Nivelle. They faced off against over 75 divisions (over 80,000 men) from the German 5th Army. German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn planned the attack and micromanaged his field commanders during the engagement.
- Where? Verdun-sur-Meuse, a strategic town on the Meuse River in Northeastern France. In 1916, it was a French position surrounded on three sides by Germans.
- When? From February 21st to December 18th, 1916 (303 days).
- What? Verdun was a series of battles between the French and Germans over Verdun and its surrounding forts. German stormtroops swiftly overran French positions after a 10 hour artillery barrage of 1 million shells; they took Fort Douaumont but their advance stalled shortly after. Later offensives inspired fierce French resistance; new General Nivelle inspired his men to defend Fort Souville with a command that “You will not let them pass, my comrades.” The Somme Offensive began in June, and from then on the French pushed the under-equipped Germans back to their starting positions and retook Fort Douaumont.
- Why? Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn envisioned the Battle of Verdun as a means to draw in French reserves and “bleeding them white” with artillery. It’s possible that he intended to capture Verdun and advance towards Paris, but changed his intent when that failed. The French perceived a symbolic importance to the defence of Verdun and surprised the Germans with their tenacity in the face of crushing artillery and gas attacks.
- Result: French “victory”. 143,000 French dead and 163,000 German. Verdun and surrounding towns reduced to a mushy pulp by gunfire. The line of battle remained mostly unchanged from February of 1916. The battle inspired mutinies and strikes in France, but also a spirit of national resolve. Nivelle’s On ne passe pas (paraphrased) became a part of the mythology of France and inspired troops in subsequent battles and wars. In Germany, Verdun was seen as a costly failure and weakened their ability to withstand the Somme offensive.
Food for Thought
Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.
- What were some of the groundbreaking technologies employed by both sides during the Battle of Verdun?
- Assess the impact of the battle on the French populace. What were some French reactions to Verdun?
- What was life like for the man on the ground in Verdun? How did anyone survive in the trenches?
- Assess the impact of Verdun on popular French culture.
- Was Erich von Falkenhayn’s plan feasible? Did any misconceptions or misinformation come into play?
Further Reading & Citations
Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!
- Carlin, Dan. Hardcore History: Blueprint for Armageddon. Podcast, 2013-.
- Barcellini, Serge. “MÉMOIRE ET MÉMOIRES DE VERDUN 1916-1996.” Guerres Mondiales Et Conflits Contemporains, no. 182 (1996): 77-98.
- Afflerbach, Holger. “Planning Total War? Falkenhayn and the Battle of Verdun, 1916.” Chapter. In Great War, Total War: Combat and Mobilization on the Western Front, 1914–1918, edited by Roger Chickering and Stig Förster, 113–32. Publications of the German Historical Institute. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
- Canini, Gérard. 1988. Combattre à Verdun: vie et souffrance quotidiennes du soldat, 1916-1917. Nancy: Presses universitaires de Nancy.
- Harvey, William C., and William C. Harvey. 2009. Letters from Verdun: frontline experiences of an American volunteer in World War I France. Harvetown, Pa: Casemate.