So, why Verdun? I consider that the defence of Verdun between February and July 1916 by the French army was one of the crucial battles of World War 1. Its importance completely eclipses other battles of 1916 and without it, there would probably have been no hundred days to final victory in 1918, the glorious series of victories that were the zenith of British arms.
The German plan was to bypass the border defences that had been established after the defeat of France by Prussia in 1870. It planned to hit France with a right hook passing through Belgium, swinging west of Paris and wrapping the French Army up by enveloping them from behind. The plan was brilliant, but made insufficient allowance for the distance that would have to be marched opposed, nor the logistic difficulty of supplying the huge number of troops and horses with food, ammunition and fodder. By September 1914 the German army had pulled the hook, swung to the east of Paris and been held by the French, with little help from Sir John French’s BEF, on the Marne. Realising that the much vaunted 1906 ‘Schlieffen Plan’, subsequently modified by more a timorous General Staff, had failed and having beaten the Russians soundly at Tannenburg in East Prussia, von Falkenhayn, the War Minister and Chief of Staff, sought a new plan for the west.
The Germans had a low opinion of French military capabilities, having humiliated them in 1870. The French revered Verdun as it had made a heroic stand against the Germans and was the lynchpin of their frontier defence. Falkenhayn considered that the French would throw everything at the defence of Verdun and this would allow him ‘to bleed them white’. This was perhaps the Germany’s first articulation of the understanding that the nature of war had changed and that it would now be won by ‘attrition’; the terrifying logic of killing and maiming so many of the enemy that they could not continue fighting.
France has remarkable powers of recovery. Out of the humiliation of 1870, the nation of Napoleon had rebuilt the army, introduced conscription for three years to ensure sufficient trained population to match more populous Germany, and recreated a spirit of elan. A major programme of fortification had built, and then improved, strong defensive forts along the new frontier with Germany. Their strategic thinking was not passive, not hiding behind their fortresses; the offensive spirit was dominant. In the decade before 1914, France had developed a plan to attack into Alsace at the first sign of war. They were not going to allow the German army to march into France again and would mount huge pre-emptive attacks into their flanks as they assembled. However, over a similar period, the German General Staff, realising that the route west into France was now substantially blocked, decided to outflank it to the north, through neutral Belgium.
In the autumn of 1914 the German army retreated from the Marne where it had been held both by inspired French manoeuvre and by coming to the end of their logistic leash. They withdrew to a line of defensive positions on high ground where they could remain and establish strongholds. For the next three and a half years, they fought a defensive, positional war. If they were to be defeated, the Allies would have to dislodge them. In many senses, the Germans had the initiative. They were on French soil, they could not be outflanked and the longer they remained in position, the stronger they would make their line. All that remained was for the French and British to continue attacking and incurring such heavy losses that soon they would run out of men, lose heart and sue for peace.
The single major exception to this philosophy was Verdun, which became the longest battle of the war. The attack was scheduled to start on 12th February but fog, sleet and snow prevented the artillery observers from seeing their targets. For nine long, cold days the troops prepared for the attack and then had to stand down. German preparation had been excellent. Their pioneers had built underground concrete shelters about 300m behind their front line, called Stollen, that could hold about a company. These kept them out of sight and out of danger from French artillery, had there been any. However, they could not sleep in them nor was there any drainage. The result was that they filled with icy cold water and much of the day was spent standing in it, bailing them out. Worse, their billets were up to 7km behind the line and morning and evening they had to march back to them (Horne, 1993).
The French front-line was held by a combination of regulars and reservists. The German build-up had not been detected and the General Staff had no plan to reinforce Verdun. Worse, during 1915 as the nature of the conflict had become clearer, forts were thought to have lost their utility. As a result, most of the artillery pieces that had given the forts ‘teeth’ had been withdrawn and issued to the field army. Of the 66,000 that were supposed to garrison Verdun, only a few thousand remained. Fort Duaumont, when captured on day 5, was garrisoned by an elderly Sergeant-Major and 56 Territorial gunners, the original garrison having been destroyed in the fighting in the Bois des Caures on the first two days of the assault (ibid).
Finally, on 21st February, the weather cleared and, for the French soldiers shivering in their trenches, Armageddon began.
Holstein, C. Walking Verdun, 2009, Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley.
Horne, A., The Price of Glory, Verdun 1916, 1993,Penguin Books, London