The Battle of Verdun was one of the most critical battles in World War I on the Western Front, fought between the German and French armies from 21 February to 18 December 1916 around the city of Verdun-sur-Meuse in northeast France.
The Battle of Verdun resulted in more than a quarter of a million deaths and at least a million wounded. Verdun was the longest battle and one of the bloodiest in World War I and more generally in human history. In both France and Germany it has come to represent the horrors of war, similar to the significance of the Battle of the Somme to the United Kingdom, the Battle of Gallipoli to Australia and New Zealand, or the Battle of Gettysburg to the United States.
The Battle of Verdun popularised the phrase "Ils ne passeront pas" ("They shall not pass") in France, uttered by Robert Nivelle, but often incorrectly attributed to Philippe Pétain. As a matter of record, during the early part of the Battle of Verdun on 16 April 1916, General Petain issued an order of the day which ended with the phrase : "Courage ! On les aura " (" Courage ! We shall get them " ).
For centuries Verdun had played an important role in the defence of its hinterland, due to the city's strategic location on the Meuse River. Attila the Hun, for example, failed in his fifth-century attempt to seize the town. In the division of the empire of Charlemagne, the Treaty of Verdun of 843 made the town part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Peace of Munster in 1648 awarded Verdun to France. Verdun played a very important role in the defensive line that was built after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. As protection against German threats along the eastern border, a strong line of fortifications was constructed between Verdun and Toul and between Épinal and Belfort. Verdun guarded the northern entrance to the plains of Champagne and thus the approach to the French capital city of Paris.
In the summer of 1914, during the German invasion of France and the First Battle of the Marne , Verdun held fast as a salient although some forts withstood Big Bertha's artillery bombardment. The French garrison within the city of Verdun itself was housed in the citadel built by Vauban in the 17th century. By the end of the 19th century, an underground complex had been built which served as a workshop,ammunitions storage, hospital, and quarters for the French troops. Above all else the city of Verdun was at the hub of a 360 degrees outer ring of 18 large defensive forts (not including many smaller redoubts ) many of them featuring retractable artillery turrets equipped with 75mm and 155mm cannons. The overall system had been designed by general Sere de Rivieres and built at great cost during the 1880's (Le Halle,1998). In effect, it made Verdun a self-contained fortified region extending about 5 miles beyond the city walls. Those outer Verdun forts were of variable quality and size and thus provided unequal potential to resist large calibre artillery shelling. The forts situated to the north and east of Verdun(e.g. Douaumont, Vaux, Moulainville ) had been hardened during the early 1900's with very thick steel reinforced concrete tops resting on a sand cushion. Those hardened forts had also been equipped with additional 75mm field guns installed in reinforced concrete "Casemates de Bourges" looking sideways, thus providing flanking fire across the intervals between the forts. However,some masonry forts built during the 1880's on the same defensive ring, but to the west and south of Verdun (e.g. Landrecourt, Marre, Haudainville ), had been left virtually unimproved. The reason for this decision was that a possible German assault was most likely to come from the north and east, a speculation that later proved to be essentially correct.
According to his post war memoirs, the German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, believed that although a breakthrough might no longer be possible, the French could still be defeated if they suffered a sufficient amount of casualties. He explained that his motivation for the battle was to attack a position from which the French could not retreat, both for strategic reasons and for reasons of national pride, so imposing a ruinous battle of attrition on the French armies. Falkenhayn stated that the town of Verdun-sur-Meuse was chosen to "bleed white" the French: the town, surrounded by a ring of forts, was an important stronghold that projected into the German lines and guarded the direct route to Paris. By early 1916, Verdun's much-vaunted impregnability had been seriously weakened. It had been "declassed" as a fortress the previous summer and all but a few of its guns and garrison had been removed. This was primarily the work of General Joseph Joffre, C-in-C of the French Army, who, with others, had presumed from the relatively easy fall in 1914 of the Belgian fortresses at Liege and Namur that this form of defence was redundant so far as modern warfare was concerned. Between August and October 1915, Verdun was denuded of over 50 complete batteries of guns and 128,000 rounds of ammunition. These were parcelled out to other Allied sectors where artillery was short. The stripping process was still going on at the end of January 1916, by which time the 60-odd Verdun forts possessed fewer than 300 guns with insufficient ammunition.
In choosing the battlefield, Falkenhayn looked for a location where the material circumstances favoured the Germans: Verdun was isolated on three sides and communications to the French rear were poor. Finally, a German railhead lay only twelve miles away, while French troops could only resupply from the standard gauge rail head at Bar-le-Duc by a single road, the Voie Sacrée and, to a lesser degree, through a local pre-war narrow gauge railway (the "Chemin de Fer Meusien" ). In a war where materiel trumped élan, Falkenhayn expected a favourable loss exchange ratio as the French would cling fanatically to a death trap.
Falkenhayn stated in his memoirs that rather than a traditional military victory, Verdun was planned as a vehicle for destroying the French Army. He quotes from a memo he says he wrote to the Kaiser:
"The string in France has reached breaking point. A mass breakthrough—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."
However, recent scholarship by Holger Afflerbach and others has questioned the veracity of this so-called "Christmas memo". No copy has ever surfaced and the only account of it appeared in Falkenhayn's post-war memoir. His army commanders at Verdun, including the German Crown Prince, denied any knowledge of a plan based on attrition. Afflerbach argues that it seems likely that Falkenhayn did not specifically design the battle to bleed the French Army, but justified ex-post-facto the motive of the Verdun offensive, despite its failure.
Current analyses follow the same trend and exclude the traditional explanation. The offensive was probably planned to overwhelm Verdun's weakened defences thus striking a potentially fatal blow onto the French Army . Verdun's rail communications had been cut off in 1915 and the city was depending on a single narrow road to be re-supplied. This logistical bottleneck had raised German hopes that an effective French defence could not be sustained beyond a few weeks.
In spite of its ring of forts, Verdun was poorly defended in early 1916 because half of the artillery in the forts had been taken away leaving only the heaviest guns that were too difficult to remove from the fort's retractable gun turrets. For instance, all the 75mm guns in the "Casemates de Bourges" had been removed. This decision had been implemented in reaction to the devastation brought by the German super heavy guns (Big Bertha ) to Belgian fortifications in 1914. In February 1916, good intelligence on German preparations and a delay in the attack due to bad weather gave the French High Command time to rush two divisions of 30th Corps—the 72nd and 51st—to the area's defence. The French strength was now 34 battalions against 72 German.
The German High Command aimed to launch the offensive on the 12 February; however, fog, heavy rain and high winds delayed the offensive for a week. The battle began on 21 February 1916 at 7.15 AM with a ten-hour artillery bombardment firing over 1,000,000 shells (including poison gas) by 1,200 guns, most of them heavies, on a front of 40 kilometres (25 m). This incessant pounding or " Trommelfeuer" was the heaviest and longest artillery preparation ever inflicted since the beginning of WW-1. The noise it produced was carried through the ground as a deep rumble that was still heard one hundred miles away. This massive preparation was followed by an attack by three army corps (the 3rd, 7th, and 18th). The Germans used flamethrowers for the first time to clear the French trenches. Newly introduced Storm Troops led the attack with rifles slung, the first time in the war, and went into battle with grenades in hand. Combined artillery and infantry shock tactics on that scale were new to the French defenders and caused them to lose much ground to the Germans at the beginning. By 22 February German shock troops had advanced three miles (5 km) capturing the Bois des Caures after two French battalions led by Colonel Émile Driant had held them up for two days, and pushed the French defenders back to Samogneux, Beaumont, and Ornes. Later that day, on the 22nd February, Colonel Émile Driant was killed, rifle in hand, fighting alongside the 56th and 59th Battalion de Chasseurs a pied. Only 118 Chasseurs managed to escape. Poor communications meant that only then did the French high command realize the seriousness of the attack.
On 24 February the French defenders of XXX Corps fell back again from their second line of defence, but were saved from disaster by the appearance of the XX Corps under General Balfourier. Intended as relief, the new arrivals were thrown into combat immediately. That evening French Army chief of staff, General de Castelnau, advised his commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre, that the French Second Army, under General Philippe Petain, ought to be sent to man the Verdun sector. The Germans were now in possession of Beaumont, the Bois des Fosses, the Bois des Caurieres and part of the way along La Vauche ravine which led to Douaumont. On 25 February a 10-man patrol of the German 24th (Brandenburg) Infantry Regiment of 3 Corps captured a centrepiece of the French fortifications, Fort Douaumont and took possession of its three guns while the French garrison of 56 artillerymen slept. Oberleutnant von Brandis CO of 8th Kompanie won the Pour le Mérite for this action.
Castelnau appointed General Philippe Pétain commander of the Verdun area and ordered the French Second Army to the battle sector. Petain took over on the 25th and decided that the Verdun forts should be strongly re-garrisoned to form the principal bulwarks of a new defense. He mapped out new lines of resistance on both banks of the Meuse and gave orders for a barrage position to be established through Avoncourt, Fort de Marre, Verdun's NE outskirts and Fort du Rozellier. The line Bras-Douaumont was divided into four sectors, each sector was entrusted to fresh French troops of the 20th "Iron" Corps. Their main job was to delay the German advance with counter-attacks. On 29 February, the German attack was slowed down at the village of Douaumont by heavy snowfall and by the tenacious defense of the French 33rd Infantry Regiment, which had been commanded by Pétain himself in the years prior to the war. Captain Charles de Gaulle, the future Free French leader and French President, was a company commander in this regiment, and was taken prisoner near Douaumont during the battle. The slow down gave the French time to bring up 90,000 men and 23,000 tons of ammunition from the railhead at Bar-le-Duc to Verdun. This was largely accomplished by uninterrupted, night-and-day trucking along a narrow departmental road: the so-called "Voie Sacrée". The standard gauge railway line going through Verdun in peacetime had been cut off since 1915.
As in so many other offensives on the Western Front, by advancing, the German troops had lost effective artillery cover. With the battlefield turned into a sea of mud through continual shelling it was very hard to move guns forward. The advance also brought the Germans into range of French artillery on the west bank of the Meuse. Each new advance thus became more costly than the previous one as the attacking German Fifth Army units, often attacking in massed crowds southward down the east bank, were cut down ruthlessly from their flank by Pétain's guns on the opposite, or west, side of the Meuse valley. When the village of Douaumont was finally captured on 2 March 1916, four German regiments had been virtually destroyed.
Unable to make any further progress against Verdun frontally, the Germans turned to the flanks, attacking on the left bank of the Meuse river the hills of Le Mort Homme on 6 March and Cote 304 on 20 March. The German artillery preparation and its follow up involved 800 guns, most of them heavies which fired nearly 4 million shells and transformed the two hills into volcanoes of mud and rocks. The top of Cote 304 had gone down from 304 metres to 300 metres, as measured after the war. Mort Homme Hill sheltered active batteries of French field guns, while also providing commanding views of all the left bank battlefield. After storming the Bois des Corbeaux and losing it to a determined French counter-attack, the Germans prepared another attempt on Mort Homme on 9 March and this time from the direction of Béthincourt in the NW. They seized the Bois des Corbeaux a second time, but at a crippling cost before they could finally occupy the crests of Mort Homme and Cote 304. They had also captured the destroyed villages of Cumieres and Chattancourt . Then their attacks shifted to the right bank of the Meuse and became focused on Fort Vaux which was shelled continuously by the heaviest German siege guns. After a final infantry assault the Germans occupied the top of the fort, however the underground corridors of Fort Vaux still remained under French control . Then close fighting proceeded underground for days , barricade by barricade, in the narrow corridors of the fort. The French garrison of Fort Vaux, led by a Major Raynal, finally surrendered on 7 June when the defenders had run out of water . Up to this point, losses had been appalling on both sides. General Pétain attempted to spare his troops by remaining on the defensive, but was relieved on May 1st from his Verdun command and promoted instead to lead the overall Centre Army Group which still included the Verdun sector. Petain had been replaced with the more attack-minded General Robert Nivelle an artillery man by training and by previous command experiences.
The Germans' next objective continued to be on the right bank of the Meuse river, beyond Fort Vaux and very close to the city of Verdun. It was Fort Souville, a second line fortification whose upper levels had already been reduced to rubble by artillery, sparing only the fort's deepest underground corridors. On 22 June 1916 German artillery showered the French defences on and around Souville with diphosgene gas shells (known to the Germans as "Green Cross Gas" because of the shell's distinctive markings). Then they attacked the next day with 30,000 men, first taking the redoubt of Thiaumont and the destroyed village of Fleury. When they finally reached Fort Souville , what was left of the German assault troops was further thinned out by French machine gunners who had emerged from the fort's ruins and taken positions on its superstructure. Less than a hundred German infantrymen managed somehow to escape their fire and made it to the top of the fort on 12 July. From that position they could actually see the roofs of the city of Verdun and the spire of its cathedral. But being decimated by a 75mm artillery barrage they had to retreat to their starting lines or chose to surrender. Thus Fort Souville, on 22 June 1916, became the historic high mark of the unsuccessful German offensive against Verdun.
In the meantime, while Souville was under assault, the opening of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, had forced the Germans to withdraw some of their artillery from Verdun to counter the combined Anglo-French offensive to the north. The battle of the Somme was launched by the allies to try to take some of the pressure off of the French at Verdun.
By the autumn, the German troops were exhausted and Falkenhayn had been replaced as Chief of the General Staff by Paul von Hindenburg. Hindenburg's deputy, Chief Quartermaster-General Erich Ludendorff, soon acquired almost dictatorial power in Germany.
The French launched a counter-offensive on 24 October 1916. Its architect was General Nivelle. It combined heavy bombardment with swift infantry assaults. French heavy artillery inflicted crushing blows on Fort Douaumont with high penetration 2000lbs shells fired from two new Saint-Chamond 400 mm (16 inch ) railway guns (brought up on a newly built standard gauge rail spur and directed by spotter planes). At least 20 of those 16 inch shells hit the fort, 6 of them penetrating down to the lowest levels. The Germans partly evacuated the fort which was re-captured on 24 October. On 2 November the Germans lost Fort Vaux and retreated. A final French offensive beginning on 11 December drove the Germans back almost to their starting positions.
A further local French offensive , well supported by massive heavy artillery deployment, took place at Verdun in August 1917, recapturing the Mort-Homme and Hill 304 ridges on the left bank of the Meuse river.
France's losses were high, nonetheless. It was the perceived humanity of General (later Marshal) Philippe Pétain who insisted that troops be regularly rotated that helped seal his reputation. The rotation of forces meant that 70% of France's Army went through "the wringer of Verdun", as opposed to the 25% of the German forces who saw action there.
At any one time, there were 24 French divisions fighting at Verdun. French losses are estimated at 161,000 dead, 101,000 missing and 216,000 men wounded. German losses are estimated 142,000 killed and 187,000 wounded. The statistics on record bear out that at least 75% of the casualties on both sides were the result of artillery fire. The consumption of artillery shells by the French during the first 5 months of the battle is documented to have exceed 15 million rounds. Most of them from field artillery, particularly from the French 75 batteries which at any given time lined up over 1000 guns on the edge of the battlefield. German sources document that their own artillery, mostly heavy, fired off close to 21 million shells from February to September 1916. Period photographs and current visitors to the Verdun battlefield testify to the huge numbers of shell craters that overlap each other endlessly over several hundred square miles. Forests planted in the 1930's have grown up and thus hide most of the hideous fields of the "Zone Rouge" (the "Red Zone" ) where so many men lost their lives or limbs. The battlefield is, actually, a vast graveyard since the mortal remains of over 100.000 missing combatants are still dispersed underground wherever they fell. They are still being discovered, to this day, by the French Forestry Service which turns them over to the Douaumont ossuary where they find a final resting place.