Lasting from February 21st 1916 to December 18th 1916, the Battle of Verdun was the longest land battle of the First World War. The Battle commenced with a German offensive against the historically significant fortress town of Verdun. In a battle intended to be attritional both sides suffered huge losses. By the end of the battle the French had suffered 400,000 casualties and the Germans 350,000 of which 300,000 were dead.
Why did the Germans attack at Verdun in February 1916?
As the winter of 1915/16 drew in it had become clear that the war on the Western Front was very different to ones encountered before. Trench warfare had begun. Both sides had become entrenched and huge numbers of men had been engaged and lost in battles in Flanders and Northern France. The German assessment of the situation was that Britain posed the real threat. They also knew that it was impossible to assault the British Isles and that the sectors occupied by British troops, on the Somme and around Ypres, were not suited to an assault. General Falkenhayn believed that the best way of beating the British was to defeat her allies.
The Eastern Front, in his estimation, was virtually won. Russia were likely to concede defeat and deprive the Western Allies of any benefit they gained from the Central Powers being engaged on several fronts. He also believed that the Italian front posed little trouble for the Central Powers. This made attacking the French of strategic importance. Hurt them and the alliance may crumble. Do that and Britain has no way of fighting a European war.
Verdun was selected as the site of the German assault. There were several reasons for this. Verdun was a fortified town in a salient. This made it a threat to German supplies should they advance any further. To make real progress in that sector, Verdun had to be overcome. It was close enough to Paris to make the French defend it in huge numbers. This was of real significance. Falkenhayn wanted to drain French resources and inflict as much damage on them as possible. He was attempting to break their spirit as much as their army. Verdun itself was of historical significance, losing the town would be very damaging psychologically.
With those objectives of harming the French as much as possible in mind, Verdun was selected. Falkenhayn said the site of battle would be selected based on:
The string in France has reached breaking point. A mass break-through – 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.
How did the Germans go about making the French ‘throw in every man they have’?
Falkenhayn decided upon a huge assault on Verdun. The town had 20 forts and 40 smaller defences. It was a relatively narrow front. He amassed a huge German force. 140,000 infantry were readied for the initial attack. 2.5 million shells were available for the artillery and gun trains to fire at the French positions. 168 aircraft were moved into positions close to the intended target. Supply routes for munitions, reinforcements and other supplies were all carefully planned. A 6 mile wide assault was to be launched, preceded by an artillery barrage from 1000 guns.
The launch of the Verdun Offensive
The bombardment and assault at Verdun caught the French by surprise. The sector had just 30,000 men defending it. The largest fort in the circle around Verdun, a feared structure at Douaumont, was manned by just 56 elderly men. It was captured without putting up any resistance. Within days the Germans were advancing and taking many prisoners: one third of the French line was captured in the first 5 days.
Petain and the defence of Verdun
Falkenhayn was right to think that the French would refuse to let Verdun fall without a huge fight. The French high command appointed General Petain to command the defence of the fortress town. Despite having incredibly poor communications with the front and poor routes for troops to get to and from Verdun, he managed to halt the German advance, hold the line and eventually repel the Germans. However, it took 300 days of fighting and 400,000 casualties to achieve this. Troops and resources were rushed to Verdun. The forts were manned, new lines defended.
Bleeding France White
The German strategy was to maximise the damage caused to France. To do this Falkenhayn launched flanking offensives. This placed incredible pressure on one side, then the other, of the French line. Concentrated firepower, domination of the air and the use of flamethrowers and other new weapons led to huge loss of life and many casualties for the French: also huge casualties for the Germans. The French were determined not to lose Verdun and so they poured more and more men into the defence of the town and surrounding forts. The cost in both human and resource terms was enormous.
The German offensives lasted until 6th September. By this time they themselves were suffering. The response of the western allies had been to launch the Somme offensive in similarly large numbers. With German troops being required to fend off the British led attacks there, they struggled to maintain the attrition in and around Verdun. In October 1916 the French were in a position to launch a counter offensive at Verdun. General Nivelle used new tactics for advancing, had new artillery and light machine guns that mobile units could move around the battlefield.
However, many of the forts around Verdun had been captured by the Germans. These remained highly effective and unlike the situation where the French had limited numbers in key locations in February, the Germans had large numbers of battle hardened troops defending these forts. Though the French were able to retake each of the forts at Verdun this last phase of the battle lasted until December 18th and came at even further loss of life to the French.
Battle of Verdun, the greatest battle ever. Detailed look at the different phases of the battle.
Imperial War Museum. Narrative and sources.