Battle of Verdun

21st February - 18th December 1916

 

 

The Battle of Verdun was one of the major battles during the First World War on the Western Front. It was fought between the German and French armies, from 21 February to 18 December 1916, on hilly terrain north of the city of Verdun-sur-Meuse in north-eastern France. It ended with a French tactical victory since, by December 1916, they had recaptured most of the lost ground including the centerpiece of Verdun's defensive system: Fort Douaumont.

According to contemporary estimates, Verdun resulted in 714,321 casualties, 377,231 on the French side and 337,000 on the German one, an average of 70,000 casualties for each of the ten months of the battle. It was the longest and one of the most devastating battles in the First World War and the history of warfare. Modern estimates increase the number of casualties to 976,000. In any case most of these casualties had been inflicted upon both sides by artillery rather than by small arms fire.

 Historical background

For centuries, Verdun had played an important role in the defense of its hinterland, due to the city's strategic location on the Meuse River. Attila the Hun, for example, failed to seize the town in the fifth century. When the empire of Charlemagne was divided under the Treaty of Verdun of 843 the town became part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 awarded Verdun to France. Verdun played an important role in the defensive line that was built after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. As a 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 strategically important approach to the French capital city of Paris.

 Verdun sector in 1914

In 1914, following the German invasion of France, the First Battle of the Marne (5–12 September) and the capture of Saint-Mihiel (on 24 September) created a salient around Verdun. Although some forts underwent artillery bombardment by Big Bertha, the fortifications were not threatened with capture.

The heart of the city of Verdun was a citadel built by Vauban in the 17th century. By the end of the 19th century, a large underground complex had also been built which served as quarters for the troops inside the city. About 8 km (5.0 mi) beyond the walls of the city of Verdun was an outer double circular ring of 18 large underground forts (not including 12 smaller forts or redoubts), many of them featuring retractable/rotating artillery turrets equipped with short 75 mm (2.95 in) and short 155 mm (6.1 in) fortress cannons. This ring of 18 large underground forts protecting Verdun had been built at great cost beginning in the 1880s[6] and according to the specifications of the Séré de Rivières system. The Verdun forts were variable in quality and size, and thus provided unequal potential to resist heavy artillery shelling.

The forts situated to the north and east of Verdun (e.g. Fort Douaumont, Fort Vaux, Moulainville) had been thoroughly hardened during the early 1900s with very thick steel-reinforced concrete tops resting on a sand cushion. Those hardened forts had also been equipped with regular 75 mm (2.95 in) field guns installed in reinforced concrete bunkers ("Casemates de Bourges") looking sideways, thus providing flanking fire across the intervals between the forts. However, several large forts built during the 1880s on the same defensive ring, but to the west and south of Verdun (e.g. La Chaume, Regret, Belrupt-en-Verdunois), had never been improved.

Fort Vaux and Fort Douaumont

 

 German strategy

After the German invasion of France had been halted at the First Battle of the Marne, in September 1914, the war of movement gave way to trench warfare with neither side being able to achieve a successful breakthrough.

In April 1915, all attempts to force a breakthrough by the Germans at Ypres, by the British at Neuve Chapelle and by the French at Battle of Champagne and Battle of Artois had failed, resulting only in very heavy casualties.

According to his memoirs written after the war, the German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, believed that although a major breakthrough might no longer be achieved, the French army could still be defeated if it suffered a sufficient number of casualties. He justified his attacks on the French army as being in a position from which it could not retreat, for reasons of both strategy and national pride.

Verdun, surrounded by a ring of forts, was a stronghold and a salient that projected into the German lines and blocked an important railway line leading to Paris. However, by early 1916, its much-vaunted impregnability had been seriously weakened. General Joffre had concluded, from the easy fall of the Belgian fortresses at Liège and at Namur that this type of defensive system was obsolete and could no longer withstand shelling by German heavy siege guns. Consequently, pursuant to a Directive of the General Staff enacted on 5 August 1915, the Verdun sector was to be stripped of over 50 complete batteries and 128,000 rounds of artillery ammunition: a process that was still in progress at the end of January 1916. Moreover, the forts at Douaumont and Vaux had been designated for destruction, and demolition charges had already been placed when the German assault began on 24 February. Finally, the 18 large forts and other batteries surrounding Verdun were left with fewer than 300 guns and limited ammunition while their garrisons had been reduced to small maintenance crews.

In choosing Verdun, Falkenhayn had opted for a location where material circumstances favored a successful German offensive: Verdun was isolated on three sides and railway communications to the French rear were restricted. Conversely, a German controlled major rail head lay only 20 km (12 mi) to the north of their positions. In a war where materiel trumped élan, Falkenhayn expected a favorable loss exchange ratio, as he believed that the French would cling fanatically to what would become a death trap.

Falkenhayn claimed in his memoirs that, rather than a traditional military victory, Verdun was planned as a vehicle for destroying the French Army. Falkenhyan stated in his book that a memo he sent to the Kaiser stated:

"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 German scholarship by Holger Afflerbach and others has questioned the authenticity of this so-called "Christmas memorandum". 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 believes that it was likely that Falkenhayn did not specifically design the battle to bleed the French Army dry, but instead invented afterwards the motive for the Verdun offensive in order to justify its failure.


The offensive was probably planned to overwhelm Verdun's weakened defenses, thus striking a potentially fatal blow at the French Army. Verdun's peacetime rail communications had been cut off in 1915 and thus the city and its ring of forts were depending on a single narrow road (the future
"Voie sacrée") and a local narrow-gauge railway (the "Chemin de fer Meusien") to be re-supplied. This logistical bottleneck had raised German hopes that the French could not sustain an effective defence of the Verdun sector beyond a few weeks.

National Ossuary at Douaumont

 

 Prelude

The Verdun sector was poorly defended in 1916 because half the artillery in the forts had been taken away during 1915, leaving only the heavy guns in the retractable gun turrets. The fort's garrisons had also been reduced to small maintenance crews and some of the forts were readied for partial destruction with explosive charges. Furthermore, the small maintenance garrisons in the Verdun forts had to report to the central military bureaucracy in Paris. When the general in command of the Verdun sector showed up to inspect Fort Douaumont in January 1916, he was refused entry because he did not carry the necessary authorizations emanating from Paris. In February 1916, French intelligence on German preparations and a delay in the attack due to bad weather gave the French High Command time to rush two divisions from the 30th Corps—the 72nd and 51st—to the area's defence. The French strength at Verdun was now 34 battalions against 72 German battalions: about half that of the assailant. French artillery was even more at a disadvantage: about 300 guns, mostly 75 mm (2.95 in) field guns, versus 1,400 guns on the German side, most of them heavy and super heavy, including 14 in (360 mm) and 16 in (410 mm) mortars.

February–April 1916

The German High Command aimed to launch the offensive (codename Gericht, "Judgment") on the 12th of February; however, fog, heavy rain and high winds delayed the offensive for a week. Because of this delay, the battle began at 07:15 on 21 February 1916 with a 10-hour artillery bombardment by 808 guns. They eventually fired close to 1,000,000 shells along a front about 30 km (19 mi) long by 5 km (3.1 mi) wide. The highest concentration of that fire was aimed at the French positions situated on the right (east) bank of the Meuse river. More than half of the German artillery firing on 21 February was heavy, the most numerous guns (470 guns) being 210 mm (8.3 in) and 150 mm (5.91 in) howitzers. Twenty-six super-heavy, long-range guns—up to 420 mm (16.5 in) in caliber—were also aimed at some of the forts and the city of Verdun itself. This incessant pounding or "Trommelfeuer" ("drum fire"—a barrage fired not as salvos but rather by each gun in random succession) was the heaviest and longest artillery preparation ever inflicted since the beginning of the First World War. The ground carried the noise it produced as a rumble that was heard 160 km (99 mi) 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 followed closely with rifles slung and used mostly hand grenades to clear the remaining defenders. Combined artillery and infantry shock tactics on that scale were new to the French defenders and caused them to lose much ground at the beginning. The bombardment completely pulverized the French trenches, phone lines and machine gun positions. As French infantry took massive losses during this bombardment, German shock troops then moved forward. Although the few French survivors resisted from all sides, by the end of the first day the German assault troops had only suffered about 600 casualties.

By 22 February, German shock troops had advanced 5 km (3.1 mi) capturing the Bois des Caures, at the edge of the village of Flabas, 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 22 February, Colonel Driant was killed, rifle in hand, fighting alongside the 56th and 59th Bataillon de chasseurs à pied. Only 118 Chasseurs managed to escape. Poor communications meant that only then did the French High Command realise the seriousness of the attack. The Germans managed to take the village of Haumont, but French forces repulsed a German attack on the village of Bois de l'Herbebois.

On 23 February, a French counterattack at Bois des Caures was repulsed. Fierce fighting at Bois de l'Herbebois continued, but the Germans managed to outflank the French defenders from Bois de Wavrille and capture the position. The Germans also suffered heavy casualties during their attack on Bois de Fosses. French forces managed to retain control of the village of Samogneux, despite heavy fighting. However, German shock troops continued to drive French infantrymen from their first line of defense.

On 24 February, the French defenders of XXX Corps fell back again from their second line of defense, 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, General Joffre, that the French Second Army, under General Philippe Pétain, ought to be urgently brought up to reinforce the Verdun sector. In the meantime, the Germans were now in possession of Beaumont, the Bois des Fosses, the Bois des Caurières and were moving up the Hassoule ravine which led directly to Fort Douaumont.

At 16:30 on 24 February, infantrymen from three companies of the German 24th (Brandenburg) regiment entered the centrepiece of the French fortification system: Fort Douaumont. The first German raiding party to enter the fort was led by Leutnant Eugen Radtke, Hauptmann Hans Joachim Haupt and Oberleutnant Cordt von Brandis (after the war, a certain Feldwebel Kunze claimed to have been first to enter Fort Douaumont but this was never confirmed officially). The whole German raiding party, made up of only 19 officers and 79 soldiers, promptly overwhelmed the small French maintenance garrison (68 men) and forced its surrender. There was, actually, no exchange of gunfire from both sides. Being the highest-ranking officers in the raiding party, both von Brandis and Haupt won the highest German military decoration, Pour le Mérite, for their success in this extraordinary action.

Douaumont was the largest fort of Verdun's defensive system. It had been built before the war to hold a garrison of 477 men and seven commissioned officers. It also featured two retractable/rotating artillery turrets as well as four 75 mm (2.95 in) field guns firing from side bunkers ("Casemates de Bourges") and two retractable twin Hotchkiss machine gun turrets. The deep moat around the fort could be swept by intensive gunfire from five wall casemates ("coffres") each holding an anti-personnel revolving 37mm Hotchkiss gun . However, the reality of Douaumont's situation in February 1916 was altogether different. Firstly, a non-commissioned officer named Chenot was the highest ranking French personnel inside Fort Douaumont and the de facto commander of the fort's technical maintenance garrison (68 men). Ordnance wise, only one rotating gun turret (the 155 mm (6.1 in) turret), out of the two rotating artillery turrets on the fort, was partially manned. The regular Hotchkiss machine gun allocation was still boxed in at the fort's lowest levels. The fort's four 75 mm (2.95 in) guns in the side bunkers ("Casemates de Bourges") had all been removed in 1915. The drawbridge, which had been immobilized in the down position by a German shell, had never been repaired. The "coffres" ("wall bunkers") protecting the fort's moats with Hotchkiss revolving cannons had been left unmanned and thus the moats were wide open to enemy entry. Over 900 kg of explosive charges had already been emplaced inside the fort in order to eventually disable it. The penalty of these acts of negligence which can be attributed to the fateful decision, in July 1915, to disarm the Verdun forts was estimated at a later date to have cost the French Army at least 100,000 casualties.

Castelnau appointed General Philippe Pétain commander of the Verdun area and ordered the French Second Army to the battle sector. Pétain took over on 25 February and appointed colonel Maurice de Barescut, a longtime associate and proven executive, as the permanent Chief of Staff in charge of the Verdun sector. Another long term associate of general Petain, colonel Bernard Serrigny, was made responsible for operational execution. Pétain decided that the Verdun forts should be strongly re-garrisoned to form the principal bulwarks of a new defence. He mapped out new lines of resistance on both banks of the Meuse and gave orders for a barrage position to be established through Avocourt, Fort de Marre, Verdun's north-east 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 a tenacious defence by 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 President of France, was a company commander in this regiment and was wounded and taken prisoner near Douaumont during the battle. This slowdown gave the French time to bring up 90,000 men and 23,000 short tons (21,000 t) 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 interrupted since 1915.

As in so many previous offensives on the Western Front, the German assailants had lost effective artillery cover by advancing too fast in the early stages of the attack. With the battlefield turned into a sea of mud through continual shelling, it was more and more difficult for German artillery to follow forward in this very hilly terrain. German infantry's southward advance also brought it into range of French field artillery on the opposite side of the Meuse river. Each new advance to the south, towards the city of Verdun, became more and more costly than the previous ones as the attacking German Fifth Army units were cut down by Pétain's artillery massed on the opposite, or the west bank of the Meuse river. When the village of Douaumont was finally captured by German infantry on 2 March 1916, the Germans had suffered 2,000 casualties. Four German infantry regiments had been decimated.

Patriotic Postcard

Le Mort Homme and Hill 287, May 1916

Unable to make any further progress against Verdun frontally, the Germans turned to the flanks, attacking on the west bank, or left bank, of the Meuse river at the hills of Le Mort Homme on 6 March and Côte (Hill) 304 on 20 March. The German artillery preparation and its follow up involved some 800 heavy guns which fired nearly 4 million shells and transformed the two hills into volcanoes of mud and rocks. The top of Côte 304 had gone down about 12 feet from 304 meters to 300 meters, as surveyed after the war. Mort Homme Hill sheltered active batteries of French field guns which had long hindered German progress towards Verdun on the right bank. They also provided commanding views of all the left bank battlefield.

After storming the Bois des Corbeaux, and then losing it to a determined French counter-attack, the Germans launched another assault on Le Mort Homme on 9 March and this time from the direction of Béthincourt to the north-west. They also seized the Bois des Corbeaux a second time, but at a crippling cost before they could finally occupy the crests of Le Mort Homme and Côte 304. During this successful advance, they had also captured the destroyed villages of Cumières and Chattancourt.

 May–June 1916

In May 1916, the main event was the French failed attempt to reoccupy Fort Douaumont. The assault had been planned by recently promoted General Robert Nivelle and executed on a very narrow front under the direction of General Charles Mangin. It involved three infantry divisions supported by 300 guns ranging from the 75 mm field gun to heavy 6 in (150 mm) and 12 in (300 mm) howitzers. The assault began on the 22 May after a massive artillery preparation. Three days later, the French attempt had failed, although French infantry had occupied the superstructure of Fort Douaumont for over 12 hours. Mangin was blamed for that failure and refused to carry out another attempt. Higher up, Pétain also refused to support a renewed attempt to recapture Douaumont, invoking insufficient heavy artillery availability at the time.

Later in May 1916, the German attacks shifted from the left bank (Mort-Homme and Côte 304) and returned to the right bank, south of Fort Douaumont. They found a focus on Fort Vaux which was shelled continuously by the heaviest German siege guns. After a final assault initiated on 1 June by nearly 10,000 German shock troops, they occupied the top of the fort on 2 June. However, the underground casemates of Fort Vaux still remained under French control. Then close fighting proceeded underground for five 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 had attempted to spare his troops by remaining on the defensive, but he had been relieved on 1 May from his Verdun command and promoted to lead the overall Centre Army Group which still included the Verdun sector. General Pétain had been replaced with the more attack-minded General Robert Nivelle, an artillery man by training and by previous command experiences.

 June–July 1916

The Germans' next tactical move, on the right bank of the Meuse river, was to continue to press southward towards the city of Verdun. As a preliminary, on 21 June, German assault troops (60,000 men) took the redoubt of Thiaumont and the ruined village of Fleury. On 22 June, German assault troops dispensed over 116,000 shells of diphosgene gas into the entrenched French artillery positions, where Marcel Dupont was located. Due to the gas' toxicity, the attack claimed over 1,600 men.[12] Before the final assault on Verdun, the Germans had to overtake Fort Souville. It was a second line of fortification whose upper levels had already been reduced to rubble by German heavy shells, sparing only the fort's deepest underground corridors. To prepare for the assault on Souville, the Germans, beginning on 10 July, attempted to incapacitate French artillery with over 60,000 diphosgene gas shells (the so-called "Green Cross Gas"). This was mostly ineffective since French troops had been equipped in early 1916 with an improved type of gas mask (the M2).

In the meantime, German heavy guns hammered Fort Souville and its approaches with more than 300,000 shells including some five hundred 14 in (360 mm) shells aimed at the fort itself. However, when the time for the assault came, the path leading to Fort Souville became too tightly packed with German infantry which came under heavy fire from French artillery. What was left of the German assault troops (Bavarians and Alpen Korps) was further thinned out by less than sixty French machine gunners, led by a lieutenant Kleber Dupuy, who had emerged from the fort's ruins and taken positions on its superstructure. Fewer 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 hand grenades and by a 75 mm artillery barrage, they had to retreat to their starting lines or chose to surrender. Thus, Fort Souville, on the morning of 12 July 1916, became the high mark of the unsuccessful German offensive against Verdun. Today, the deeply scarred superstructure of Fort Souville is only partially visible because of large water-filled shell craters and very dense vegetation. It is one of the most horrifying and most hazardous sites of the old Verdun battlefield.

In the meantime, while Souville was under assault, the opening of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July, 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 in part by the allies to try to take some of the pressure off the French at Verdun.

By late 1916, 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 outskirts of Fort Vaux (Left) and German Prisoners of War at Verdun (right)

 

 French counter-offensives in late 1916 and August 1917

The French launched a major counter-offensive to recapture Douaumont in October 1916 (the First Offensive Battle of Verdun (French: 1ère Bataille Offensive de Verdun)). Its architect was General Nivelle, an experienced commander in the use of artillery. The preparation, which lasted six days, consumed 530,000 75 mm artillery shells plus 100,000 155 mm shells, not counting the heavier calibers. The final assault on Fort Douaumont combined an infantry attack following behind a "creeping" forward artillery barrage timed to keep the enemy machine gunners down.

To soften up Douaumont before this assault, two French Saint-Chamond railway guns located 13 km (8.1 mi) to the southwest at Baleycourt had inflicted crushing blows onto the fort with 400 mm (16 in) shells, each weighing 1 short ton (0.91 t). At least 20 of those shells hit the fort, six of them penetrating down to the lowest levels before exploding. The Germans partly evacuated Douaumont which was then recaptured on 24 October by French marines and colonial infantry. On 2 November, the Germans evacuated Fort Vaux which had also come under fire from the 400 mm railway guns.

A broader offensive, planned by General Nivelle and executed by General Mangin, began on 15 December and drove the Germans back close to their initial February starting lines. Within 36 hours the French had taken 11,387 prisoners, including 284 officers, and captured 115 artillery pieces. To some German senior officers who complained to Mangin about their lack of comfort in captivity he replied (translated from the French): "We do regret it, gentlemen, but then we did not expect so many of you". Unquestionably, German morale at Verdun had begun to deteriorate after the failure to seize Fort Souville and then later after the loss of Fort Douaumont.

On 20 August 1917, a geographically limited French offensive (the Second Offensive Battle of Verdun (French: 2ème Bataille Offensive de Verdun)), was carried out on the left bank following an overwhelming heavy artillery preparation ( nearly 2000 guns firing at a 4 km long by 0.5 km wide target area). In only four days French assault troops had completely recaptured both "Mort-Homme Hill" and the "Côte 304". They also occupied deep and long underground tunnels ( the Bismarck, the Kronprinz and the Gallwitz tunnels ) that connected the German front lines to their rear underneath the "Mort-Homme" and "Cote 304" hills. Otherwise and later on, during 1918 and until the Armistice, the Verdun Sector remained an active battle zone where the two adversaries never ceased to confront each other in life-wasting local actions.

A certain discontent had begun to spread among the French combatants on the Verdun battlefield during the summer of 1916. The departure of General Pétain from his Verdun command on 1 June, 1916 and his replacement by General Nivelle had a negative impact on the soldiers' morale to a point that five infantry regiments were affected by short-lived episodes of collective indiscipline. Furthermore, only ten days after Nivelle had replaced Pétain, two French lieutenants, Henri Herduin and Pierre Millant, were summarily executed by firing squad, on the 11th of June 1916, at Fleury-devant-Douaumont. The executions were illegal since they were carried out without a court martial or any other form of judgement.

Ten years later, in 1926, after an inquiry that became a "cause célèbre", the late Lieutenant Herduin and Lieutenant Millant were exonerated, and their official military records expunged. More generally, the horror of Verdun never left the battlefield until the Armistice of 11 November 1918 finally put an end to it. The last major combat in the Verdun sector took place during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, successfully carried out by the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) from 12 September to the Armistice.

 Outcome

The Battle of Verdun ended as a French tactical victory, but it came at a high cost for both sides. The German High Command had failed to achieve its two objectives, which were to capture the city of Verdun and to inflict a much higher casualty count on its French adversary; in fact, the Germans suffered nearly as many deaths as the French. By the end of the battle, in December 1916, the French Second Army had rolled back the German forces around Verdun, but not quite to their initial positions of February 1916.

 French and German casualties

The Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) were waging war on two fronts in 1916, in Russia and on the Western Front. Their strategy was to inflict more casualties on their adversaries than they themselves suffered. The German Army had achieved this goal in Russia in 1914–1915. Beyond this result, it also had to inflict casualties on the French Army that would weaken it to the point of collapse. In order to reach this objective, the French Army had to be drawn into a situation from which it could not escape for strategic and national pride reasons. The German Army also counted on their larger numbers of heavy and super heavy guns to deliver higher casualty counts than French artillery which relied mostly upon the 75 mm field gun.

In reality, the German goal of inflicting disproportionate casualties on the French Army at Verdun was never achieved. The French Army's losses at Verdun were high, but only slightly higher than the German losses. General (later Marshal) Philippe Pétain was sparing of his troops and rotated them out after only two to three weeks in the front lines. Nevertheless, he managed to keep at least eleven French divisions (over 100,000 men) fully deployed on the Verdun battlefield at any given time. Owing to Pétain's rotation system, 70% of the French Army went through "the wringer of Verdun", as opposed to only 25% of the German forces. General Pétain had always been a strong supporter of artillery firepower. His pre-war dictum: "le feu tue" or "firepower kills" was also the heart of his strategy at Verdun. By June 1916, French artillery at Verdun had grown to 2,708 guns, including 1,138 75 mm field guns.

French military casualties at Verdun, in 1916, were officially recorded as 377,231, with 162,308 KIA or missing. Total German casualties at Verdun, between February and December 1916, were recorded as 337,000, with around 100,000 KIA or missing. Modern estimations increase the casualties to 542,000 men on the French side and 434,000 on the German one. The statistics also confirm that at least 70% of the Verdun casualties on both sides were the result of artillery fire. The shell consumption by French artillery at Verdun, between 21 February and 30 September at Verdun, totalled 23.5 million rounds. Most of them (16 million shells) were fired by the French 75 batteries which lined up about 1,000 guns (250 batteries) on the battlefield. German sources document that their own artillery, mostly heavy and super heavy, fired off over 21 million shells from February to September 1916 only.

Period photographs and current visitors to the Verdun battlefield testify to the huge numbers of shell craters that overlap each other endlessly over about 100 km2. Forests planted in the 1930s 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 Verdun battlefield itself is actually a vast graveyard since the mortal remains of over 100,000 missing combatants are still dispersed underground wherever they fell. To this day they are still being discovered by the French Forestry Service which turns them over to the Douaumont ossuary where they find a final resting place.

 

 Life in the battle

The battle of Verdun was marked by much horror. The concentration of so much fighting in such a small area devastated the land, resulting in miserable conditions for troops on both sides. Rain combined with the constant tearing up of the ground turned the clay of the area to a wasteland of mud clogged with corpses and body parts. In some areas, the ground was composed more of human flesh and bone than of earth or vegetation. Shell craters became filled with a liquid ooze, becoming so slippery that troops who fell into them or took cover in them could drown. Forests were reduced to tangled piles of wood by constant artillery shelling, and eventually they were completely obliterated.

The effect on soldiers in the battle was devastating. Many troops at the battle never actually saw the enemy, experiencing nothing but artillery shells. Many troops on both sides compared the experience to being condemned to Hell. The impact was worse on French troops. Under Petain's command, soldiers were frequently rotated out of Verdun; this humane approach ensured that soldiers did not spend prolonged periods of time at the battle, but it also ensured that most of the French army spent at least some amount of time at Verdun.

One French lieutenant at Verdun who was later killed by an artillery shell wrote in his diary on 23 May 1916:

"Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!"

 Notable deaths

Émile Driant (French career officer, writer and politician)

Kiffin Rockwell (American pilot in the Lafayette Escadrille, Verdun (Bar-le-Duc), 1916).

Franz Marc (German Painter)

Left picture the Verdun Medal and on the right the Medal issued to the French Foreign Medal with wound star

 

Significance

The Battle of Verdun—also known as the "Mincing Machine of Verdun" or Meuse Mill—became a symbol of French determination to hold the ground and then roll back the enemy at any human cost. However, it is quite clear that the French High Command had been caught unprepared by the assault in February 1916. As time passed, Verdun became a battle of attrition in which artillery played the dominant role, leaving craters that are still partially visible today. The intensive use of trucking to maintain the supply of troops and materiel to the front lines was a significant factor that helped level the odds between the two armies. Furthermore, during the summer of 1916, a standard gauge railway bypass (the Sommeilles-Nettancourt to Dugny line) was completed and took over from the traffic on the "Voie Sacrée" and from the narrow gauge "Chemin de fer meusien". The German military planners had neither anticipated the intense trucking on the Voie sacrée nor the later opening of the Sommeilles-Nettancourt to Dugny standard gauge railway line.

The German General Staff had chosen Verdun as a strategic target, instead of Belfort, because the peacetime standard gauge railway lines going through Verdun had long been interrupted. One line coming from the south into Verdun had been severed when the Germans occupied Saint-Mihiel in 1914, while the other, leading westward out of Verdun towards Paris, was under direct German observation and artillery fire at Aubreville. Thus, at the outset, the German planners saw Verdun for what it was: a salient cut off on three sides, a cul-de-sac without standard gauge railway communications and thus an ideal opportunity for springing a trap to strike a fatal blow against the French Army. What they did not anticipate was that once the initial surprise had worn out, French logistics would improve with time and rob them of their initial advantage. It has often been remarked that Verdun was in large part a logistic victory of French trucks over German railways.

Trench of Bayonets

Among many revered memorials on the battlefield is the "Bayonet Trench", which marks the location where some dozen bayonets lined up in a row were discovered projecting out of the ground after the war; below each rifle was the body of a French soldier. It has been assumed that these belonged to a group of soldiers who had rested their rifles against the parapet of the trench they were occupying when they were killed during a bombardment, and the men were buried where they lay in the trench and the rifles left untouched. However, this is probably not historically accurate: experts agree that the bayonets were probably affixed to the rifles after the attack, and installed by survivors to memorialize the spot

Trench of Bayonets

 Memory

The Battle of Verdun popularized General Robert Nivelle's: "They shall not pass", a simplification of the actual French text: "Vous ne les laisserez pas passer, mes camarades" ("you shall not let them pass, my comrades"), on record in Nivelle's Order of the day of 23 June 1916.[15] About two months earlier, in April 1916, General Philippe Pétain had also issued a stirring Order of the day, but it was optimistic: "Courage! On les aura" ("Courage! We shall get them"). Conversely, Nivelle's admonition betrayed his concern for the mounting morale problems on the Verdun battlefield. The French military archives document that Nivelle's promotion to lead the Second Army at Verdun, in June 1916, had been followed by manifestations of indiscipline in five of his front line regiments.[16][17] This unprecedented disquiet would eventually reappear, but in greatly amplified and widespread form, with the French army mutinies that followed the unsuccessful Nivelle offensive of April 1917.

Marshal Pétain praised what he saw as the success of the fixed fortification system at Verdun in his war memoir: "La Bataille de Verdun" published in 1929. One year later, in 1930, this acclaim led France to adopt the Maginot Line (Ligne Maginot) as the basic inter-war defensive system along its border with Germany. In reality, during the Battle of Verdun, French conventional field artillery deployed in the open outnumbered turreted guns in the Verdun forts by a factor of at least two hundred to one. It was massed French field artillery (over 2,000 guns after May 1916 ) which inflicted about 70% of the German casualties at Verdun. Infantry small arms and grenades, plus a handful of functional turreted guns in the forts account for the rest. Some twenty years later, the Maginot line displayed the same conceptual flaw as the Verdun forts: effective underground artillery turrets, yes, but too few in numbers in relation to the enormous tonnage of concrete and steel needed to support their existence. Verdun remained a symbol of French determination for many years. At the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1953–54, General Christian de Castries remarked that the situation was "somewhat like Verdun.". This was not a valid analogy, since French forces besieged at Dien Bien Phu had to be entirely resupplied by air on an exposed landing strip that was within range of Viet Minh artillery fire. In stark contrast, the French forces at Verdun were resupplied by roads and railways that were completely beyond the reach of German long range artillery.

From 1918 to 1939 the French expressed two quite different memories of the battle. One was patriotic and nationalistic, and was embodied in the many stone memorials built on the battlefield. The other was the memory of the veterans themselves, recalling not national glory but the death, suffering and sacrifice of comrades. Pétain himself embodied both memories. His disgrace after 1944 meant that the memory had to change. In the 1960s and 1970s. Verdun became a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation through remembrance of common suffering, while in the 1980s and 1990s Verdun took on a new identity as the capital of peace. As a result organizations were formed and old museums were dedicated to the ideals of peace and human rights.

On 22 September 1984, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (whose father had fought near Verdun in World War One) and French President François Mitterrand (who had been taken prisoner nearby in World War Two) stood at the Douaumont cemetery, holding hands for several minutes in the driving rain as a gesture of Franco-German reconciliation. Conversely, in November 1998, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder made the decision not to attend a joint French and German memorial service with French president Jacques Chirac.

 

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