Ancient history

the battle of verdun

Verdun is the prototype of the characteristic attrition combat of the First World War on the Western Front. Aimed at destroying French reserves, the battle also attracted a huge number of German soldiers and ended without a decisive result.

Verdun battle data

  • Who: The French Second Army under the command of General Henri Pétain (1856-1951), later replaced by General Robert Nivelle (1856-1924), faced the German Fifth Army under the command of Crown Prince William (1882-1951), with the General Erich von Falkenhayn (1861-1922) as Chief of the General Staff.
  • How: The city of Verdun was besieged and the attackers advanced while the artillery inflicted tremendous casualties. A counteroffensive finally regained lost ground.
  • Where: The city of Verdun, along the Meuse river (France).
  • When: From February 21 to December 18, 1916.
  • Why: The German high command wanted to lure the French reserves into a "meat grinder" and destroy them, forcing the French to sue for peace.
  • Result: After a ghastly attrition contest, all that was achieved was heavy casualties on both sides.

As World War I turned into trench warfare in late 1914, it became more or less impossible to win a traditional victory over the enemy. Previously, victory was decided by the defeat of an army in the field, or by occupation (or the threat of occupation) of important areas, such as the capitals. That, now, was simply impossible. There seemed to be no way to break through the lines and capture strategic objectives, and the deep defensive positions made it virtually impossible to drive the enemy from the field. The problem in both cases was the availability of reserves, coupled with the ability to move to a threatened point before a successful attack could be exploited.
Victory in the Great War would be a matter of exhausting the opposing side, or making the cost of continuing so high that peace became essential. As long as the opposition had troops available to take them into the combat zone, the war would continue. The German high command therefore proposed a plan to destroy French reserves by luring them into a 'meat grinder'. The German plan was to attack something the French had to defend , and destroy your army with artillery and infantry attacks. The chosen target was the fortified city of Verdun.


Verdun was an ideal target for many reasons. Situated on a bend in the Meuse River, the city had poor communications. There was only one road in and out of the city. The logistical problems of the attack were made easier by the fact that there was a major German railway terminus only 20 km away, which would allow rapid transport of ammunition, provisions and reinforcements as the attack proceeded. Verdun was in a relatively quiet section of the front, and many of its forts' heavy guns had been moved to other sectors, where they seemed to be most needed. It was garrisoned by three divisions, which represented fairly light defences.
German offensive plans included assembling 10 divisions for the actual attack, backed by experimental 'infantry batteries' with 77mm field guns, which were to advance with the infantry to provide direct support, but were actually unable to do so. cross the wasteland shattered by bombing. Another new weapon also debuted at Verdun:the flamethrower. The attack was supported by large numbers of heavy guns, more than 1,400 pieces in all. Among them were huge 420 and 305mm guns, which had previously been used to reduce forts in Belgium. More than 500 mine launchers were also deployed. These fired a 45.3 kg explosive shell, which could have a deadly effect if it fell into a trench. They also had lighter weapons, such as trench mortars.
The offensive was codenamed Operation Gericht (Trial ). His goal was to force the French into a battle of attrition on unequal terms. If they did not accept the challenge, Verdun would fall. If they stood their ground and fought, his army would bleed to death and eventually he would be forced to sue for peace. The operation was scheduled for February 10, but was delayed by bad weather until the 21st. Although preparations for the operation were observed, no attempt was made to reinforce Verdun, and the initial artillery onslaught caught the garnish.

The final download

At dawn on February 21, 1916, the frigid air was shattered by the hum of heavy shells, and by the hiss and blasts of anti-personnel weapons. In the following 12 hours, more than two million shells fell on the French forward positions, after which the infantry began their attack. During the first two days, the German forces made relatively little progress; however, on the 24th they broke through the main defensive line, taking 10,000 prisoners and capturing 65 artillery pieces . The infantry were preceded in their attacks by a staggered barrage of fire from the immense number of cannons at their disposal, shattering defenses and forcing survivors into cover.
Between the overwhelming barrage of artillery, the suddenness of the attack and the cold weather, the French were paralyzed. Some units disbanded and fled to the rear, leaving weak areas in the defenses, through which the German assault troops advanced.
Verdun was supposed to be invincible; a French military commission had confirmed this in 1915 and had fired a general for saying otherwise. However, on February 25, Fort Douaumont, a key component of the city's defenses, fell to the German assault. This was a serious blow to French morale, although it could have been avoided if the garrison had not been completely despoiled. The defending infantry had broken up under the bombardment, leaving a platoon of gunners as the only defenders. A nine-man German patrol found an entrance into the fort and found it to be virtually defenseless. They led 300 of their comrades inside and captured the linchpin of Verdun's defenses almost without firing a single shot.

Pétain takes command

At the same time that the enemy captured Fort Douaumont, General Pétain arrived to take charge of the defenses of Verdun. He found himself in a dire situation, with a single supply route from the city along a highway and a narrow-gauge railway next to it. This road, called La Voie Sacrée , was the umbilical cord of Verdun, and Pétain's first task was to improve it. Thousands of men worked to widen the road. When they were finished, some 6,000 trucks could use the road each day, and more than half a million soldiers, with all their supplies, went in and out of the city on it. Pétain decided that the units would only serve 15-day shifts in the trenches to give them time to rest and recover, so La Voie Sacrée he watched an endless stream of units taking turns coming and going from the front line. Although Pétain had improved the logistical situation, things were still bad. The fighting subsided at the end of February, to be resumed on March 5.

The attack is renewed

The new German offensive was launched along the western bank of the Meuse, directly into a well-prepared defence. Pétain had fielded his best soldiers to meet this assault, and they were backed by a powerful artillery concentration. This assault meant a kind of turning point in the defense of Verdun. The French gunners not only inflicted horrendous casualties on the attackers, but also delivered effective counter-battery fire to the enemy artillery. By mid-April all the heavy guns on the German side were out of action, and the German artillery suffered another heavy blow when a shell fell among almost half a million heavy artillery shells stored in the Spincourt forest.
The attacks continued through April and into May, and indeed threatened to 'bleed the French army to death'. However, the gains were relatively slim, and when Pétain was relieved by General Robert Nivelle, the French began to regain their offensive spirit.

Nivelle assumes command

Pétain had been the defender of Verdun and had prevented its fall. Then Nivelle went on the offensive. The French motto for Verdun was Ils ne passeront pas! (They will not pass!), though Nivelle's aim was more than just to bar the gate:he intended to drive the Germans back. At first Nivelle could do no more than Pétain; German attacks were still gaining advantage, and with Fort Douaumont in German hands the heart of the defense was now Fort Vaux. This protected an area of ​​high ground, from which German guns could fire directly into the city and, more importantly, the bridges over which all supplies entered the city. Fort Vaux became the target of German assaults and, on June 7, fell to them. However, the balance of forces was changing. Nivelle was an artillery officer, and under his command the French guns became more effective. Even as the Germans advanced on the surviving forts, Souville and Tavannes, their casualties mounted. Things hung in the balance until the end of June, and despite the start of the Somme offensive on 1 July, the Germans continued to advance, creeping ever closer to the city. On June 11 an attack reached Fort Souville itself, but its failure signaled the end of German attempts to take Verdun.
From then on they found themselves on the defensive, as French counterattacks began to recover some of the lost ground.

french counterattacks

Nivelle's position was improved by the Somme offensive, which was launched to reduce the pressure on Verdun. It was unsuccessful as an operation on its own, although it did manage to attract supplies and reinforcements that might otherwise be turned against the defenders of Verdun. As the pressure eased, Nivelle launched counter-attacks to drive the Germans out and retake the lost forts. The largest of these took place on October 24, against Fort Douaumont, and involved 170,000 infantrymen, 700 guns and more than 150 aircraft. After this the French advanced slowly, retaking Fort Vaux in early November. In mid-December, the German army withdrew from Verdun, leaving what was left of it in French hands.

The meat mincer

By the end of the Verdun offensive, the Germans had managed to inflict huge casualties on the French, in fact 550,000. However, this was only achieved at the cost of 450,000 of their own casualties. One German casualty was the career of General Falkenhayn. On August 29 he was reassigned to command forces fighting the Romanian Army, which had joined the Allies the day before. This reassignment represented, in reality, a demotion. Falkenhayn was replaced by Hindenburg, with Ludendorff as quartermaster general. Blaming Falkenhayn for the situation was perhaps unfair; on date -
as early as March, he had realized that casualties were going to be too high and pushed for the operation to end. However, Crown Prince William insisted on continuing.
The initial German plan was sound:attack something the enemy had to defend and deplete their resources by artillery bombardment, followed by occupation of the devastated territory. However, the German army fell victim to 'mission slippage', and at some point the capture of Verdun became the objective of the operation. This was not the original plan and Verdun was not worth half a million soldiers.
However, as the battle unfolded, the goal shifted until the German army wore itself down to take a city it neither wanted nor needed. This caused losses that could not be sustained and were completely unnecessary.


Almost every French division on the Western Front went through the Verdun meat grinder. A somewhat smaller number of German formations alternated in the offensive. The heavy casualties on both sides reduced the fighting strength and morale of both forces, and the dire situation at Verdun could be seen as what forced the Allies to carry out their costly Somme offensive, which, in turn, it cost both sides vast numbers of casualties. The failure of the Germans to take Verdun was a morale boost on the Allied side, and although the Somme Offensive also achieved nothing significant, the German army withdrew to the Hindenburg Line in 1917.
The huge casualties at Verdun and on the Somme were partly to blame for the collapse of French morale in 1917, for the growing cynicism and mistrust of commanders among the English troops, and for the decline of the German army, which lost its best young leaders in the fierce fighting of 1916.

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