The Battle of Verdun was one of the longest and most costly battles of the First World War on the Western Front between Germany and France. It began on February 21, 1916, with an attack by German troops on the stronghold of Verdun and ended on December 19, 1916, without success for the Germans.
After the Battle of Marne and the protracted war of position, the German Supreme Army Command (OHL) had realized that, in view of the looming quantitative superiority of the Entente, the possibility of strategic initiative was gradually slipping away. The idea of an attack at Verdun originally came from Crown Prince Wilhelm, commander in chief of the 5th Army, with Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, chief of staff of the 5th Army, as the de facto leader. The German army command decided to attack what had originally been France”s strongest fortress (partially disarmed since 1915) in order to, in turn, get the war on the Western Front moving again. Around Verdun, moreover, there was an indentation in the front between the frontal arc of St. Mihiel to the east and Varennes to the west, threatening the flanks of the German front there. Contrary to subsequent accounts by the German Army Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, the original intent of the attack was not to “bleed” the French Army without spatial objectives. Falkenhayn, in making this claim in 1920, attempted to retroactively give ostensible meaning to the failed attack and the negative German myth of the “blood mill.”
Among other things, the attack was intended to persuade the British Expeditionary Corps, which was fighting on French soil, to abandon its alliance obligations. The fortress of Verdun was chosen as the target of the offensive. The city had a long history as a bulwark and therefore had great symbolic significance, especially for the French population. Its military strategic value was less significant. In the first period of the war, Verdun was considered a subordinate French fortress.
The OHL planned to attack the frontal arc that ran around the city of Verdun and the belt of forts in front of it. Capture of the city itself was not the primary objective of the operation, but rather the heights of the east bank of the Meuse River in order to put its own artillery in a commanding position, analogous to the siege of Port Arthur, and thus make Verdun untenable. Falkenhayn believed that France could be induced, for reasons of national prestige, to accept unjustifiable losses in defense of Verdun. In order to hold Verdun, if the plan had succeeded, it would have been necessary to recapture the heights then occupied by German artillery, which was considered virtually impossible in light of the experience of the battles in 1915. The action bore the code name Operation Gericht. The High Command of the 5th Army was charged with its execution.
The battle marked a high point in the great material battles of World War I – never before had the industrialization of war been so evident. Here, the French system of noria (also called “paternosters”) ensured a regular exchange of troops according to a rotation principle. This contributed significantly to the defensive success and was a major factor in establishing Verdun as a symbolic place of remembrance for all of France. The German leadership, on the other hand, assumed that the French side was forced to replace troops because of excessive losses. In the German culture of remembrance, Verdun became a term associated with a sense of bitterness and the impression of having been burned.
Although the Battle of the Somme, which began in July 1916, involved significantly higher casualties, the months of fighting before Verdun became a Franco-German symbol of the tragic lack of results in the war of position. Today, Verdun is considered a memorial against acts of war and serves as a common memory and before the world as a sign of Franco-German reconciliation.
The German attack began on February 21, 1916, after the actual attack date of February 12 had been postponed several times because of freezing and wet weather, but this delay in the attack between February 12 and 21, as well as reports of defections, gave French reconnaissance the time and the arguments to convince Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre that a large-scale attack was being prepared. Hastily, on the basis of irrefutable evidence of German concentrations on the front, Joffre drew up fresh troops to support the defending French 2e armée. For their part, on the threatened east bank of the Meuse River, the French concentrated some 200,000 defenders facing a German superiority of some 500,000 troops of the 5th Army.
At first, the attack made visible progress. As early as February 25, German troops succeeded in capturing Fort Douaumont in a hand-to-hand coup. As expected from the German side, the commander-in-chief of the 2e armée Philippe Pétain made every effort to defend Verdun. The village of Douaumont was captured only after a hard fight on March 4. To escape the flanking fire, the attack was now extended to the left bank of the Meuse. The heights “Toter Mann” changed hands several times under heaviest losses. On the right bank, Fort Vaux was long fought over and defended to the last drop of water. On June 7, the fort surrendered.
As a result of the Brussilov offensive launched on the Eastern Front in early June, German troops had to be withdrawn from the combat zone. Nevertheless, another major offensive started on June 22. The Ouvrage de Thiaumont and the village of Fleury could be taken. The Battle of the Somme, launched by the British on July 1, resulted in the withdrawal of more German troops from Verdun as planned. Nevertheless, German troops launched a final major offensive on July 11 that took them to just outside Fort Souville. The attack then collapsed due to the French counterattack. Following this, there were only minor ventures on the part of the Germans, such as the attack by Hessian troops on the Souville Nose on August 1, 1916. After a period of relative calm, Fort Douaumont fell back to France on October 24, and Fort Vaux had to be evacuated on November 2. The French offensive continued until December 20, when it too was called off.
A few months after the outbreak of World War I, the front solidified in western Belgium and northern France in November 1914. Both warring parties built a complex system of trenches that stretched from the North Sea coast to Switzerland. The massive use of machine guns, heavy ordnance, and extensive barbed wire obstacles favored defensive warfare, resulting in the loss-making failure of all offensives without the attackers being able to make any significant terrain gains. In February 1915, the Allies tried for the first time to destroy the enemy positions with gunfire that lasted for hours in order to achieve a breakthrough. However, the German opponents were warned of an imminent attack by the drumfire and made reserves available. In addition, the exploded shells created numerous shell funnels, which hampered the advance of the attacking soldiers. The Allied offensives in Champagne and Artois therefore had to be abandoned due to high losses.
In the winter of 1915, the Supreme Army Command (OHL) under Erich von Falkenhayn began planning an offensive for the coming year. All strategically possible and promising front sections were discussed. The OHL came to the conclusion that Great Britain had to be driven out of the war, since its exposed maritime position and its industrial capability made it the engine of the Entente. Based on these considerations, Italy was discarded as an unimportant target for attack. Likewise Russia: although German and Austro-Hungarian forces had made major territorial gains in the July-September 1915 campaign against Russia, Falkenhayn was convinced that German forces were insufficient for a decisive advance because of the vast size of the Russian Tsarist Empire. Even the capture of St. Petersburg would be only symbolic in nature and would not bring a decision due to a retreat of the Russian army into the area. Ukraine would be a welcome fruit of such a strategy because of its agriculture, but it was likely to be plucked only with the unequivocal consent of Romania, since the latter”s entry into the war alongside the Entente was to be prevented. Other theaters in the Middle East or Greece were designated as irrelevant. This left an attack on the Western Front as the only option. In the meantime, however, the British positions in Flanders had been built up to such an extent that Falkenhayn proposed the French front as the decisive theater of war.
He argued: “France has reached the limit of what is still tolerable in her achievements – by the way, with admirable sacrifice. If it succeeds in making clear to its people that they have nothing more to hope for militarily, then the limit will be crossed, England will have her best sword knocked out of her hand.” Falkenhayn hoped that the collapse of French resistance would be followed by the withdrawal of British forces.
He considered the strongholds of Belfort and Verdun as targets for attack. Due to the strategically rather insignificant location of Belfort near the German-French border and the possible flanking of the fortress of Metz, the Supreme Army Command decided in favor of the fortress of Verdun.
At first glance, Verdun”s strategic position in the frontal belt promised a worthwhile target: after the border battles in September 1914, the German offensive had formed a wedge in the front at Saint-Mihiel, which hung as a constant threat in front of the French defenders. This allowed the German 5th Army under Crown Prince William of Prussia to attack from three sides, while the French High Command (GQG – Grand Quartier Général) was forced to withdraw troops from other important sections of the front and move them to the attacked section via the narrow corridor between Bar-le-Duc and Verdun. On the other hand, a look at the geography gives a completely different picture: the French fortifications had been dug into the slopes, forests and peaks of the Côtes Lorraines. The forts, fortified dugouts, walkways, concrete blockhouses and infantry works were almost impossible obstacles for the attacking soldiers to take; barbed wire, brush, undergrowth and the difference in altitude of up to 100 meters to overcome also hindered the attackers. One had to reckon with great losses.
To counter these conditions, the attack of the German units was to be prepared with a gunfire of previously unknown extent. The strategic plan was given the name “Chi 45” – the name for “court” according to the secret key in force at the time. At Christmas 1915, Kaiser Wilhelm II gave permission for the offensive to be carried out. The actual attack was to be led by the German 5th Army under Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia on the east bank of the Meuse. A large-scale attack on both sides of the river was ruled out by Falkenhayn. This apparently counter-intuitive decision, which failed to take into account the superior position of the Germans on both sides of the river, was sharply criticized by both Crown Prince Wilhelm and Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, Chief of Staff of the 5th Army and the actual decision-maker. Nevertheless, no modifications were made to “Chi 45”.
While the capture of the city by German troops would have had a negative impact on French war morale, Verdun could not have been used as a launching point for a decisive attack on France. The distance to the French capital Paris is 262 kilometers, which would have been almost insurmountable in such a war of position.
In his memoirs on his time in the OHL, published after the war (1920), Falkenhayn claims that as early as 1915 he had spoken of a strategy of attrition, a tactic of “tear out and hold.” The fact that Falkenhayn had not launched a concentrated attack on either bank of the Meuse River, which might have meant the rapid capture of Verdun, is often cited in support of this statement. One interpretation of this decision was that the OHL thereby wanted to avoid direct success, thus concentrating French troops in front of Verdun for defense. In this respect, therefore, Falkenhayn would actually have intended not the capture of Verdun but the involvement of the French army in a protracted battle of attrition that would eventually lead to the complete exhaustion of France in material and personnel. This plan, however, cannot be proved by any records except those written by Falkenhayn himself and much later, and is today regarded skeptically but not as impossible. In fact, Falkenhayn believed in a counterattack on the flank and wanted to hold back appropriate reserves so that he could not provide enough troops for a simultaneous attack on both banks of the Meuse. Falkenhayn by no means wanted to avoid a direct success.
It is more likely, and therefore a common reading, that Falkenhayn, as head of the army a rather hesitant strategist, did not pursue this strategy from the beginning, but only declared it to be a means to an end in the course of the battle; this mainly as a justification against the background of the unsuccessful advances and the high own losses. This interpretation is clearly supported by the orders given to the fighting troops, which were designed to gain ground: Falkenhayn ordered an offensive “in the area of the Meuse in the direction of Verdun,” the crown prince declared to “quickly bring down the fortress of Verdun,” and von Knobelsdorf had given the two attacking corps the task of “advancing as far as possible.” The attacking 5th Army put these orders into action without tactically waiting, following the bleeding-out strategy, and without attacking exclusively for high foreign casualties. The primary objective of the attack was to conquer the high ground on the east bank of the Meuse River in order to bring its own artillery into a commanding position there.
The fortress of Verdun
From the French point of view, defending Verdun was a patriotic duty, but one that completely contradicted the modern military view: a strategic retreat to the wooded ridges west of Verdun would have created a much easier defensive position, erased the bulge, and freed up troops. But the French military doctrine of 1910, vehemently advocated by Joffre, was the offensive à outrance (roughly, ”to the extreme”). Defensive tactics or strategy were never seriously considered. When some officers, including General Pétain and Colonel Driant, expressed misgivings about this doctrine, their stance was rejected as defeatist.
Driant, as commander of the important section in Caures Forest and commander of the 56th and 59th Battalions of Chasseurs à pied, had tried several times in vain to persuade the GQG to make significant improvements in the French trench system. On his own, Driant had his fighters fortify their position against the expected attack; nevertheless, Driant fell in the first assault on 22 February. Complementary to a sensible defense, the GQG and Joffre relied on the system of French defense by attack, the backbone of which was the thrust of the poilu, the common soldier whose cran, his courage, would give him the decisive advantage.
After the Franco-Prussian War of 187071 , France proceeded to secure the border with the German Empire by building fortifications (barrière de fer) that were contemporary at the time, despite the conviction that victory could only be achieved by an infantry advance. To this end, several eastern French cities were surrounded with a ring of forts, including Verdun, located on the Meuse River. Verdun was seen primarily as a replacement for the lost Metz, whose old fortifications had been greatly expanded by the Empire. At the beginning of the war, there were over 40 fortifications in and around Verdun, including 20 forts and intermediate works (ouvrages) equipped with machine guns, armored observation and gun turrets, and casemates. Verdun was thus one of the best fortified sites. Another reason for the particularly strong development of the Verdun fortress was the short distance of 250 km to Paris, even for the means of transport of the time, as well as its location on a main road.
Already from September 22 to 25, 1914, there had been fighting in front of Verdun, which had ended the German advance in the Meuse region. Under the impression of the enormous destructive power of the German siege guns before Namur and before Liège, the importance of strong fortifications in an attack with heavy siege guns (for example 30.5-cm siege mortars) was seen differently than before.
Also, the siege of Maubeuge (it began on August 28, 1914 and officially ended on September 8, 1914 with the surrender of Maubeuge) – had shown Germans and French that fortresses were not impregnable but could be ”shot up”.
This, together with the fact that the warring parties concentrated on other sections of the front in the aftermath of the border battles, led to a lesser military importance of Verdun after a reassessment: the GQG under Joffre declared Verdun a quiet section. On August 5, 1915, the fortress of Verdun was even officially downgraded to the center of the Région fortifiée de Verdun – RFV (“Fortified Region of Verdun”). In the months that followed, 43 heavy and 11 light gun batteries were consequently withdrawn from the fortified ring and most of the forts” machine guns were transferred to field units. Only three divisions of the XX Corps were now stationed there:
The 37th Division from Algeria was in reserve.
End of 1915 until February 1916: Preparation of the German offensive
Preparations for the German attack began as early as the end of 1915. In a confined space, 1,220 guns were massed, while 1,300 ammunition trains transported two and a half million artillery shells to the front. Twelve aviation divisions and four combat squadrons of the Supreme Army Command, totaling 168 aircraft, were assigned to the 5th Army. Each corps received an aviation division and an artillery aviation division, and each division received an aviation division. The battle area was completely photographed from the air. On February 6, 1916, the staff of the 12th I.B. was merged with the command of the 6th I.D., already there, at Billy. In order not to draw the attention of the French opponents to the plan, the firing in of the guns had to be done gradually, resulting in a very long preparation time. For nights on end, attack positions were raised on the German side, camouflaged from aerial view. The fighters flew barrage in rolling sorties to prevent enemy air reconnaissance. To combat French infantry, the German Army provided numerous 7.7-cm to 21-cm caliber guns, while long-range guns were to be used against French supply lines. In addition, there were 21-cm mortars, among others, which were particularly powerful. In addition, the detached k.u.k. Artillery units fielded 17 30.5-cm M.11 mortars. The heaviest German guns transported to the attack area were two (other sources speak of three) 38-cm naval guns (“Langer Max”) and 13 mortars with a caliber of 42 cm, also known as “Dicke Bertha”. The 5th Army”s manpower was also vigorously increased by ten additional divisions, including six regulars.
On the east bank of the Meuse River, only six divisions were to carry the initial assault on the first day:
On the left wing on the Woevre plain in the east should be
On the west bank of the Meuse should
Despite repeated warnings from intelligence, the military leadership on the French side did not realize until February 10 that an attack on Verdun was imminent. This was planned for February 12, but due to bad weather the Germans postponed it. Joffre ordered reinforcements to be moved to Verdun; the Verdun garrison began erecting makeshift field fortifications on the orders of the city”s governor, General Herr. Although a simple system of trenches existed in front of the Verdun forts, it was not designed to defend against a large-scale attack. When the weather cleared on February 20, the German general staff set the attack to begin the following morning.
February 21-25, 1916: The First Five Days
On the morning of February 21, 1916, at 8:12 a.m. German time (7:12 a.m. French time), a German 38-cm Langer Max naval gun located in the forest of Warphémont (49° 21′ 31.5″ N, 5° 36′ 17.9″ E49.35876111115.60496666667) fired a shell at Verdun, 27 kilometers away. The shell was intended to destroy a bridge over the Meuse River, but missed its target and exploded either next to the city”s cathedral or near the train station. Thereafter, the 1220 German guns of all calibers opened fire simultaneously on the French positions and on the rear. The severity of the shelling, which was now non-stop for over nine hours and with an intensity not previously thought possible, was unprecedented in military history. The attackers themselves and the men on the other side were both amazed and shocked by the tremendous impact of this bombardment, which seemed to increase its violence even more immeasurably: small and medium caliber field guns fired on the frontmost French lines, the heavy guns targeted the second and third defenses, and the heaviest calibers took aim at the supply lines and the main French fortifications. Supplied with sufficient ammunition by the nearby supply lines of the front line, a projectile rate of about 100,000 impacts per hour was possible on the entire front section. At 1:30 p.m., the gunfire was again intensified by 150 mine launchers, which wreaked the heaviest havoc in the trenches and sappers on the French side. The climax of the shelling was reached at 4:00 p.m.: The German artillery switched to drum fire on the French lines. Now the German gun crews fired using all their physical capabilities and at the power limits of their guns. A shower of bullets fell on the defenders, which the crews in the works acknowledged with horror and incredulous shaking of their heads. On July 1, 1916, the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, the Germans, for their part, had such an experience, in that the hitherto unprecedented level of shellfire was even surpassed. The artillery fire could be heard as far away as Belfort.
Meanwhile, six German infantry divisions stood ready to attack. Initially, small squads were sent forward to check the shattered terrain for the best and most unresistant attack gaps for the attacking special forces. As a special troop unit, these “storm troopers” were trained to run and fire simultaneously, a technique developed by Captain Willy Rohr and his Sturm Battalion in 1915 and ordered by Falkenhayn for general introduction. The storm troopers had bayonets fixed and were equipped with cartridge bandoliers (90 rounds), slung sandbags with stick grenades, and gas masks; some carried flamethrowers and, in some cases, large pioneer shovels to restore captured trenches and positions to their own defense as quickly as possible. In addition, most of them had training on enemy weapons, especially machine guns and hand grenades, so that captured weapons could be used immediately. The tips of the pimple caps had been removed so as not to get caught in the barbed wire; a few soldiers already wore the Stahlhelm (steel helmet) model 1916, the shape of which was to become the symbol of the German infantryman for three decades.
Thus, the first attack wave at 17:00 consisted of reconnaissance troops, assault troops, but also artillery observers and sappers. Behind them advanced the broad mass of the rest of the infantry, who were also equipped with entrenching equipment and working tools to expand the captured positions. The German troops had explicit orders to initially only reconnoiter the area, capture the forward French trenches, and expand them against any counterattacks. The German airmen controlled the airspace, reconnoitered French staging areas, bombed battery positions, airfields, and supply installations.
Disregarding these instructions, the VII Reserve Corps under General Johann von Zwehl advanced to the Bois d”Haumont, which it was able to capture after five hours of fighting. When General Schmidt von Knobelsdorf was informed of the German initial successes, he ordered, “Good, because you take everything today!” (In the sense of: Then conquer the rest of the terrain today as well). It was very difficult for the XVIII. Army Corps, which was to attack the forest of Caures and there encountered the two reserve fighter battalions under Lieutenant Colonel Émile Driant, only a few of whom had survived the barrage in their extended positions, but who nevertheless defended their section to the last (of 600 men target strength, between 110 and 160 were still operational in the evening). The III Army Corps was pinned down in front of the French positions in the Herbebois.
As a result of the first day, it had to be noted that despite the massive artillery fire, the French resistance was much tougher than it was expected on the German side. On the first day of the battle, about 600 German soldiers were killed or wounded. Had Crown Prince William ordered a direct, massive infantry attack early in the morning, historians commonly believe, the devastated French positions would have been taken and the fortress of Verdun would have fallen. As it was, however, the completely pointless battle went on for months.
On February 22, the German army continued its attacks undeterred. The French soldiers defended themselves in scattered pockets of resistance, but could not stop the German advance. Particularly fierce fighting took place in the Caures forest with the still living defenders of the chasseurs à pied (“hunters on foot”) and Hessian troops from infantry regiments 81 (Frankfurt am Main), 87 (Mainz) and 115 (Darmstadt), among others. The infantry regiment 159 from Mülheim an der Ruhr succeeded in capturing the village of Haumont. Further, the Bois de Champneuville and the Bois de Brabant were taken.
On February 23, fierce fighting ensued around the villages of Brabant and Wavrille and the Herbebois. In particular, a tragic event occurred during the battle for Samogneux: German troops had taken Samogneux, but had been repulsed shortly afterwards by a French counterattack. The French artillerymen from Fort de Vacherauville took the village under fire, assuming that it was still in German hands. In the process, they inflicted heavy casualties on their comrades (“friendly fire”) and paved the way for the Germans to launch another attack that finally gave them control of Samogneux. No major successes were reported.
On February 25, the Hessians reached the village of Louvemont and were stopped by several MG nests. After a hard two-hour fight it was taken, there was not enough strength for further advance. The heavy losses were not only due to direct machine gun fire, but also to the French guns which were now in their rear on the other side of the Meuse. Now it became apparent for the first time in all clarity that the Crown Prince had been right in his demand to attack on both sides of the river. Further, the German attacks were directed against the village of Bezonvaux, which was defended by the French 44e régiment d”infanterie. The French put up fierce resistance, but the Germans were able to bring the village under control by nightfall. Only ruins of Bezonvaux existed at this point. On the same day, German soldiers managed to capture Fort Douaumont in a coup d”état.
February 25, 1916: capture of Fort Douaumont
Fort Douaumont had been built in 1885 as the most modern French fortification in the Verdun defense belt. However, with the advent and use of new types of hollow shells that could penetrate without further problems the stone and brick fortifications that had been common until then, a renewal of the installation had to be initiated as early as 1888. The ceiling of the central barracks was reinforced during the year with a concrete layer 2.50 m thick, while the eastern casemates received a layer 1.50 m thick. It was hoped that these reconstruction measures would neutralize the destructive force of even the largest German projectiles of 38 and 42 cm caliber, which was largely successful. Now, however, there was a change of ownership and it was not until late summer that the French succeeded in scoring a direct hit with a new 400-mm mortar into the German military hospital housed there. Nevertheless, the fort was for a long time the safest place in the battle area. Furthermore, in the course of Verdun”s downgrading to the Zone Fortifiée de Verdun, most of the guns housed at Douaumont were relocated, so that during the decisive German attack only the gun turret Tourelle Galopin de 155 mm R modèle 1907 was available. This was manned by a few Landwehr artillerymen who maintained fire on predetermined planned squares.
The Brandenburg Infantry Regiment 24 from Neuruppin received orders on February 25 to entrench itself about a kilometer from Fort Douaumont in order to support the action of the Grenadier Regiment 12 against the village of Douaumont. However, the regiment”s soldiers worked their way up to the fort on their own authority and threw back the French 37th Division defending on the outside. The fort”s garrison, with the exception of the gunners of the gunnery, had retreated to the lowest casemates, so the Germans were not noticed. A sergeant (later vice sergeant) named Kunze discovered a shaft leading directly into the fort, which he was able to enter with the help of a human pyramid formed by his squad. When the gunners spotted him, they immediately fled to the lower casemates to warn their comrades. While Kunze explored the top floor of the fort, Lieutenant Radtke, Captain Hans-Joachim Haupt and some of their soldiers also gained access. First Lieutenant Cordt von Brandis joined them much later. The French garrison, consisting of 67 soldiers, was taken by surprise by about 20 German invaders – without firing a single shot – and forced to surrender. The strongest fort in the defensive ring was in German hands, 32 attackers had fallen, 63 had been wounded.
The news of the conquest of Douaumont was celebrated as a great victory in the German Empire. Numerous extra papers appeared, while church bells were rung in many places.
First Lieutenant von Brandis and Captain Haupt received the Order Pour-le-Mérite, Lieutenant Radtke initially received nothing and had to make do with a signed photograph of the Crown Prince after the war. Shortly thereafter he was promoted to Captain of the Reserve. In France there was horror after the capture of Fort Douaumont by the Germans, since the fall of Verdun seemed imminent. The fact that the fort had fallen into German hands without any significant resistance was seen as a particular disgrace. Although Fort Douaumont had lost much of its importance before the start of the German offensive and had even been earmarked for demolition at times, it was decided on the French side that it had to be recaptured at any cost.
On February 26, the capture of some infantry works of the intermediate Ouvrage de Hardaumont was still reported, after which the attack had come to a halt. OHL sources indicate that this day was the first on which no more movement in the front could be reported.
Consolidation of the French front by General Pétain
At 0:00 a.m. on February 26, General Philippe Pétain, the commander-in-chief of the 2nd Army, who as général de brigade had already faced retirement at the outbreak of war, was appointed the new commander of the front sector around Verdun. Having faced the Germans as a front-line commander in trench warfare, Pétain realized that the Germans would never succeed in taking the enemy”s “positions one by one in one attempt.” Accordingly, he recommended in a memorandum to his high command that very limited offensives be carried out, going only as far as his own artillery could protect. Similar to Falkenhayn, he argued for a war of attrition, in which victory would be achieved after the enemy had been exhausted.
With these considerations in mind, and with the clear conviction that limiting the German attack to the right bank of the Meuse had been a serious tactical error, Pétain ordered Verdun”s inner defensive ring to be developed into a barrage position designated by him, whose guns were to bring the German attacks to a halt at any time. He had ten batteries of 155-mm guns massed on the left bank, from where they inflicted heavy losses on the VII Reserve Corps by firing on the flank. The French artillerymen were given a free hand to operate according to their own needs and objectives, and also had a completely unobstructed view of the German positions, so that their gunfire was extremely accurate.
General Pétain”s other measures included changes in French tactics to strengthen the artillery and more effective organization of supplies. To supply Verdun, he had only the road to Bar-le-Duc at his disposal, which was the only supply line beyond the range of most German guns. It is unclear why a direct massive bombardment of this supply route by the German long-range guns was not ordered: The tremendous concentration of vehicles and troops on this single road would have ensured panic and direct disruption of supplies; only a few individual German guns shelled the road at irregular intervals, but this did not greatly impede the flow of French supplies. This road would become known in France as La Voie Sacrée (named by Maurice Barrès after the Via Sacra).
An endless stream of transport vehicles, which had been requisitioned throughout France, entered the city via the Voie Sacrée. If a car with technical defects stopped, it was simply pushed aside to prevent a traffic jam. A separate reserve division had the task of maintaining the road. Troops had to march alongside the road in the fields so as not to interrupt the flow of transport vehicles. In the initial phase of the battle, 1200 tons of material and rations had to be transported to the front every day on 3000 vehicles, but due to requisitions throughout France, the vehicle fleet grew to over 12,000 vehicles during the battle. The secure supply via the “Voie Sacrée” ensured that the French army gradually became equal to the German attackers in terms of war equipment, troop strength and especially heavy guns.
Crucial to holding the French front was still the Noria reserve system introduced by Pétain, in which fighting divisions were moved to reserve positions and other sections of the front after a short frontal engagement: The short periods of fighting before Verdun noticeably reduced the exhaustion and thus the dropout rates of the troops and thus strengthened morale and the spirit of resistance. In all, 259 of the 330 infantry divisions fought for more or less time before Verdun at some point by the end of the war.
Pétain was also ultimately responsible for the new tactics of the airborne forces, which were deployed in squadrons against the German reconnaissance forces and thus gained superiority. On March 6, Pétain addressed his soldiers and urged them to hold out relentlessly against the Germans.
The commanding officer of the French 33e régiment d”infanterie had noted by hand under this order that he could add only one addition, namely that the 33e régiment would prove worthy of its former commander, that it would die if necessary, but never yield.
The fighting until the beginning of March 1916
A few days after the capture of Fort Douaumont, German troops launched attacks on the village of Douaumont to the west. Supported by machine gunners entrenched in the fort”s turrets, Brandenburg Infantry Regiment 24 attacked the French positions in the village and was repulsed with heavy losses. A Saxon regiment, Infantry Regiment 105, which also carried out an assault on Douaumont, came under its own gunfire and had to withdraw after suffering heavy losses. An advance by I Grenadier Regiment 12 under Captain Walter Bloem was equally unsuccessful. Particularly heavy fighting raged between February 27 and March 2. On February 27, the badly wounded French Captain Charles de Gaulle fell into German captivity. French resistance was to be broken by moving German artillery ever closer to the front. By March 2, the Germans, with Infantry Regiment 52 from Cottbus, were able to completely occupy what was left of the village of Douaumont. The capture of the village had proved extremely costly for the German troops.
Already on February 27, the Silesian V. Reserve Corps had received the order to capture Fort Vaux, which was smaller and weaker than Fort Douaumont. To meet the expected attack, however, it had been given a strong, defensible garrison by Pétain. The attack against Fort Vaux turned into a bloody slaughter, as the German troops came under fire from the higher Fort Vaux, from the village of Vaux, from the Caillette Forest, but also from the other side of the Maas. The attack was brought to a halt by French counterattacks. By March 8, the Germans had taken part of the village of Vaux and had moved to within 250 yards of the fort. The French, however, held their position inside the fort, and their artillery henceforth occupied the high ground to the side of the attacking Germans with constant fire. On March 9, a false report was spread that German troops had invaded and that the fort had fallen. When the German General Staff realized that the capture of Fort de Vaux had not occurred, it ordered the actual capture of Fort Vaux. On March 10, German troops made several assault attacks, which failed with heavy losses of their own.
March 1916: German offensive against heights Toter Mann and heights 304
With the excellent tactical position of the French guns on the west bank of the Meuse, especially in the area of the village of Marre, and with the resulting possibility of hitting the German attackers in the east in the flank and, since February 25, even in the rear in the area of Champneuville, the OHL decided to extend the attacks on both sides of the river. The terrain on the west side of the Meuse possessed a completely different geography than on the east bank: no woods, no ravines, but open hill terrain. Falkenhayn, Crown Prince Wilhelm and General Schmidt von Knobelsdorf thus gave in to the insistence of General von Zwehl, whose troops had been under constant fire from the left bank. In order to take account of the confused fighting and to gain tactical advantages, the formations were combined into new attack formations: on the east side of the Meuse on March 19 into Attack Group Mudra under General von Mudra, which comprised all corps in this combat area (renamed Attack Group East on April 19).
On March 6, the planned major offensive of Attack Group West by the VI Reserve Corps had already begun. The 12th and 22nd Reserve Divisions, after heavy preparatory artillery fire, moved in two peaks to attack the French positions on the left bank of the Meuse. After fierce fighting, they succeeded on March 7 in capturing the villages of Regnéville and Forges and the strategically important high positions of Côte de l”Oie (Goose Ridge) and Côte de Poivre (Pepper Ridge). The French 67th Infantry Division collapsed under the attack, with over 3300 uninjured prisoners taken.
On the same day, the Germans advanced to the Bois des Corbeaux (Raven Forest) and the Bois de Cumières, which had in its northwestern foothills a strategically important hill called Le Mort Homme (“Height Dead Man”). This hill with two crests (called by some authors Height 265 and Height 295) had got its name because of an unknown corpse found there in the 16th century. To the west of Höhe Toter Mann is Côte 304 (“Height 304”), named after its height above sea level, which also became the target of German attacks. Behind these two hills were the large gun batteries stationed by Pétain, which inflicted heavy losses on the German positions on the right bank of the Meuse. By the evening of March 7, German troops had occupied part of Hill 304, but a determined French counterattack under Lieutenant Macker pushed them back as early as March 8.
During another attack by the French on March 10, they suffered heavy losses, including the death of Lieutenant Macker from artillery fire. Deprived of their integration and leadership figure, his soldiers were in shock and retreated. The Germans were now able to finally take the Bois des Corbeaux and turn their attention to the “Dead Man”.
Finally, on March 14, the Silesians succeeded in capturing the summit of Mort Homme. Small gains in terrain were presented by the propaganda of both sides as major milestones, such as the capture of the French positions northeast of Avocourt by Bavarian regiments and Württemberg Landwehr battalions on March 21, the storming of the ridge southwest of Haucourt two days later, or the capture of the village of Malancourt by Silesians on March 30. Throughout March, the grueling and extremely brutal fighting dragged on without a clear outcome.
General der Artillerie Max von Gallwitz became commander of Attack Group West on 29 March and prepared another attack there. As reinforcements, the XXII Reserve Corps under General Eugen von Falkenhayn had arrived at the 5th Army and also received the 22nd Reserve Division, which remained in front of Cumieres, under its command on the west bank of the Meuse.
March 1916: French defense on the east side of the Meuse River
On the right bank of the Meuse, the French could not be driven out of their positions west of the village of Douaumont. Likewise, they still held their strong positions on the Thiaumont ridge with the Ouvrage de Thiaumont, the adjoining chain of infantry works and ammunition galleries, the gallery position Les Quatre Cheminées as well as the “Ouvrage D” further back, in the direction of Verdun, which was called Ouvrage de Morpion (morpion = French for “felt louse”) for its shape. The French also succeeded in continuing to hold Fort de Souville and the heights of Froideterre with the Ouvrage de Froideterre, from which they were able to severely disrupt the greatly increased German supply traffic to Fort de Douaumont.
Fort de Douaumont, meanwhile, had become a German depot for ammunition, medicine, and rations since its capture, and served as a shelter and resting place for the approaching troops before the storm; its combat value was rather low, as the existing Tourelle Galopin de 155 mm R modèle 1907 was defective; thus, it was further used only as a light signal station. In the meantime, the long and costly but ultimately successful advance of Brandenburg and Hessian regiments against the Caillette Forest could no longer be protected and stabilized by the usual trench systems. Due to the strong counterfire, the attacking German troops had to take up positions in shell funnels. Above all, the machine-gun positions on the opposite side of the heights of Froideterre and Fort Souville dominated the terrain by day, so that expansion, resupply of fresh units, and evacuation could pass only by night. A similar picture presented itself in front of Fort Vaux. The Germans” reserves for maintaining the stalled attack were led by an approach route over the dam of the Vaux pond, which the French artillerymen knew very well, could see and fire at from the Souville Nose (Nez de Souville). The daily fire claimed thousands of casualties until December 1916, the path to the front got the name Death Path.
April 1916: Nothing new in the West
Overall, the front line remained stuck along the western bank of the Meuse River, and the battle developed more and more into a pure artillery duel over the course of the next 30 days. The capture of the summit of the “Dead Man” by the Germans was answered by the French not only militarily but also propagandistically: they declared the second, more southerly summit, which they still held, to be the main summit, thus robbing the Germans of a symbolic triumph. On April 6, the OHL was able to report the capture of the village of Haucourt at the foot of Hill 304, taking some 540 prisoners.
On April 9, the decision was made to begin another offensive with a massive assault along the entire length of the front, which now totaled 30 kilometers. On the first day, the German assault troops thought they had taken the summit of Hill 304 after all, but the captured ridge turned out to be just another fore-crest. Both the Toter Mann and 304 heights were now subjected to virtually continuous fire from the guns of both sides in order to bring the attacks of the simultaneously advancing French and German infantry to a standstill with maximum losses and to eliminate the enemy gun positions. This objective was almost always achieved.
Once positions were taken, they had to be expanded and protected against the inevitable counterattack. It was extremely difficult for the infantrymen to dig a trench because, in addition to the constant shelling, numerous enemy snipers were active during the day, while the earth froze at night in the cold April of 1916. The battle for the heights of Toter Mann and heights 304 had become the sign of a completely dehumanized war: soldiers fell victim to the impacting shells without even having seen an enemy. The French Captain Augustin Cochin of the 146th Infantry Regiment, who was in position at the “Dead Man” from April 9 to 14, did not see a single attacking German soldier in the whole time in the first lines. He described this hell like this:
After only four days, the latest German attack also stalled, this time also due to the pouring rain that continued almost continuously until the end of the month, forcing both sides to curtail their offensive efforts. This meant, under the conditions of the Battle of Verdun, that while attack was still met with counterattack, it also still meant continuous hand grenade fighting, hand-to-hand combat with spade and bayonet, position building, but it also meant, above all, artillery bombardment, continuously, day and night. The large-scale offensives to take the high ground were halted; the fight west of the Meuse had already become a “bleeding out” of both sides after 30 days. The successful counterattack against German attempts to seize Heights 304 and Toter Mann prompted General Pétain to issue a memo to the soldiers of the 2nd Army on April 10 urging them to even greater efforts. The confidence and unwavering steadfastness with which Pétain announced victory to his soldiers added much to his aura as the savior of France in the postwar period and made him a national hero. Throughout the month of April, Pétain ordered the fierce defense against the German attempts at Fort Vaux and at the 304 and “Dead Man” elevations and the simultaneous, relentless push toward his now central objective of retaking Fort Douaumont, this to open a new flank against the Germans. Throughout the month of April, French troops on the eastern bank of the Meuse charged in vain against the German positions in front of Fort Douaumont, suffering horrendous losses.
Pétain, the most popular general among his soldiers, who had largely avoided loss-making and hopeless assaults and had always stood against the French military doctrine of Offensive à outrance, was relieved of his post and promoted to commander of the French Groupe d”Armées du Centre for the successful defensive campaign. Officially, this achievement was also cited as the reason for his promotion after only two months in post before Verdun. Unofficially, one can discern other motivations for Pétain”s removal: Joffre wanted to strengthen other sections of the front and launch a joint attack on the Somme in accordance with agreements with the British. If he did not want to jeopardize this great offensive, Joffre had to change the Noria system of constant and rapid exchange of divisions in front of Verdun, introduced by Pétain, because it tied up more and more troops on the Verdun front. Contrary to the actual concept (attack of 39 divisions over a width of 40 km), the French planned for the attack on the Somme with only 30 divisions over a length of 25 km already on 26 April for this reason. By the time the Battle of the Somme came, the GQG was able to deploy only 12 divisions on 15 km latitude. A change in the system, however, entailed a transfer of the system”s founder.
April to May 1916: Pétain”s transfer – start of the French offensives
On April 28, General Pétain was appointed leader of the Groupe d”Armées du Centre, giving him supreme command of the French 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th Armies in addition to supreme command of Verdun”s defenses. The new commander of the French 2nd Army, which was in the Verdun area, became General Robert Nivelle, who sought a transition to more aggressive tactics and deployed his divisions much longer on their front. Much to Joffre”s liking, he was a clear advocate of the prewar system of offensive à l”outrance and made direct use of his command authority. Again and again over the next few months he let his soldiers charge hopelessly and brutally against the German positions, without thereby bringing any major movement into the line. The French commanders obeyed the GQG”s orders and had their troops run against the German positions and defend their own trenches to the death, also to prevent the application of the pronounced instruction that any soldier, whether rifleman or general, would be demoted and court-martialed if he retreated.
Meanwhile, displeasure was making itself felt at the command level of the German 5th Army. Since the death toll had reached enormous proportions by May, Crown Prince Wilhelm asked the OHL to call off the offensive. Falkenhayn reluctantly but strictly refused, still assuming higher casualties on the French side and thus considering the offensive a success. It is doubtful, however, that he had even considered an alternative strategy, since abandoning the battle would have been tantamount to admitting defeat. By the end of May, more than 170,000 soldiers on both sides had either fallen or been wounded at Verdun, but as had been the case during the first two months of the battle, the minor successes of both sides, even by pre-Dverdun standards, were built up into major victories. On May 8, for example, the 56th Infantry Division”s capture of a northern slope of Hill 304 was trumpeted as a major, strategic victory in which “in unwounded prisoners only 40 officers, 1280 men fell into our hands.”
On May 13, 1916, the VI Reserve Corps was released by the XXIV Reserve Corps General Command under General Friedrich von Gerok with the 38th and 54th Infantry Divisions. South of Bethincourt, the 4th Division remained in its old positions. On the right, the 2nd Landwehr Division supported by its attack in the Malancourt Forest, on the left of Gerok”s Corps the XXII Reserve Corps with the 43rd and 44th Reserve Divisions held the western slope of the “Toter Mann” heights, the 22nd Reserve Division remained on the front in the Cumières – and Raben Forest up to the Meuse River.
The final capture of the “Toter Mann” and “Höhe 304” heights was achieved by units of the German 4th and 56th Infantry Divisions in early and mid-May, respectively. Now, however, their supply and reinforcement routes were in the midst of enemy fire, which would prompt the Germans to build three access tunnels later in the battle. The French stepped up their attacks against the German high positions, and hand-to-hand combat in heavy artillery fire continued.
May 8, 1916: Fort Douaumont disaster
Also on May 8, an explosion disaster occurred at the fiercely contested Fort Douaumont, nicknamed the “coffin lid” by the Germans, and resulted in the loss of about 800 soldiers. Parts of the incident are still unexplained and will remain unexplained because all possible perpetrators died in the explosion.
In addition, three not necessarily contradictory versions, which describe the disaster from different points of view and at the same time reveal the extent of the ambiguity:
The Germans began to collect the bodies in shell funnels outside the fort. However, as the number of dead increased and the danger from the encroaching French artillery increased, it was decided to place the dead in the front ramparts casemates I and II and then to wall them up. Where today the large wooden cross stands at Fort Douaumont, only an exit to the former courtyard is walled up – Casemates I and II, recognized as official German war graves, lie 20 meters behind it.
May 1916: Battle for Fort Douaumont
The French had always considered the fall of Fort Douaumont a major defeat and wanted to recapture the strongest and strategically most important fortress in the defensive ring. After the catastrophe they had witnessed, Nivelle decided to expand even more the attack on Douaumont launched by Pétain. Together with the commander of the 5th Infantry Division, General Charles Mangin, who also led the attack, he planned a major assault, thus taking advantage of the fort”s weakened condition. Beginning on May 17, French artillery began an introductory artillery barrage, firing gas and conventional shells at the German positions around the fort and the fort itself.
When the attack began on May 22, the Douaumont commander was unable to respond effectively because communications between the first lines and the fort had been severed, the defenders had suffered heavy casualties, and the fort had been partially destroyed and only makeshift repairs had been made by German sappers. Of course, the Germans were expecting the French assault troops, but their appearance immediately behind the last curtain of shells was surprising. The French had jumped the first trenches without any significant resistance and were occupying the southwestern part of the fort. General Mangin informed Nivelle that same day that Douaumont was completely under French control, although the Germans, after initial panic, were now putting up determined resistance. French and German barrage against the enemy”s supply routes had largely sealed off the fort. After fierce hand-to-hand combat in the corridors of Douaumont, which was unsuccessful for both sides, the Germans and French mounted machine guns on different roof sections and fired at anything that moved. After two days of bloody fighting, during which both sides had received reinforcements, the German commander of the fort decided to use heavy mine launchers. These were used against the “Panzerturm Ost” held by the French, among others. The Germans then attacked the French, who were in shock, with hand grenades. Meanwhile, another unit had bypassed the French corridors and appeared in their rear. More than 500 Frenchmen were taken prisoner.
Encouraged by this success, the Germans brought in further reinforcements, through the I Bavarian Army Corps under General of Infantry Oskar Ritter von Xylander, to occupy the French trenches west of Fort Douaumont. Fresh soldiers arrived in the battle area after a long march from rear zones and immediately had to experience the horror of the front. They had to fight against the positions on the Thiaumont ridge, which they finally reached with great losses. More and more there were now bloody losses on both sides due to worn out artillery tubes, which shot their shells also into their own ranks by too great a dispersion.
June 1916: Battle for Fort Vaux
After the region around Fort Vaux had been besieged by the Germans for three months, the 7th Reserve Division from Saxony and Berlin succeeded in finally capturing the Caillete Forest on June 1. Further, the 1st Infantry Division was able to advance against positions in the Bois de Fumin and at Vauxgrund. With the flanking of the main attack on Fort Vaux now eliminated, the opportunity was taken to launch a new general attack on the fortress. This was to begin as early as June 2.
Fort Vaux is located on the Vauxberg between Forts Douaumont and Tavannes and was built between 1881 and 1884 in the stone construction common at the time. As with Fort Douaumont, the vault of the barracks was reinforced in 1888 by a 2.50 meter thick layer of concrete, insulated by a one meter thick layer of sand. These reinforcements were intended to contain the terrible effect of the hollow bullets. The fort of a Tourelle de 75 mm R modèle 1905 flanked by two steel observation domes (Observatoire cuirassé). It was surrounded by a trench secured by three trench sweeps; two single from north to south and from west to east, and a double in the northwest corner of the trench. These positions were accessible through access tunnels and were armed with machine guns. In addition to the upper gun, two other 75-millimeter guns were available in the casemates de Bourges, allowing shelling of the entire terrain: from the Douaumont, the ravins de la Fausse Côte, the Caillette and Bazil ravines in the northwest to the village and battery of Damloup in the southeast. Between 1910 and 1912, communication tunnels were dug that connected the various defensive positions of the fort.
After the outbreak of war, the fort was reinforced with six more 75-millimeter guns and four rapid-fire guns (canons revolver), but in August 1915, as part of the downgrading of the Verdun defense zone, the cannibalization began: except for the gun turret, which would have been too complex to upgrade, all the guns were gradually removed. This was the condition of the fort at the beginning of the German offensive before Verdun, during which it had been hit several times by German shells. On February 24, it received a direct hit from a 42-centimeter shell, which destroyed the shell storage area. On February 27, another 42-centimeter shell shattered the gun turret. The casemates de Bourges could no longer be equipped with guns because of the constant shelling and because of the destruction, so several machine guns were added for defense. The most serious damage was provisionally repaired by sappers on the orders of the fort commander, Major Sylvain Eugène Raynal, (96e régiment d”infanterie).
Raynal did not become commander of Fort Vaux until late May; he was a professional soldier and had been wounded several times in the war. His last wound was so severe that he could only walk with the aid of a cane. He stubbornly insisted on continued use in front-line duty, which was eventually granted: It was thought that appointment to command a fort would be easy even for a severely disabled officer. The fort had a peacetime garrison of about 250 men, but by early June 1916 over 300 soldiers were crammed together, as many refugees, messengers, and wounded had flocked to the fort”s supposed protection after German successes on its flanks. They consisted of 240 men, the 2nd Battalion, the 3rd (machine gun) and the 6th Companies of the “142e régiment d”infanterie”, which together were supposed to defend the fort. In addition, there were about 30 sappers, about 30 colonial soldiers who carried out the repair work, and a handful of artillerymen, medics, stretcher-bearers and telephone operators.
Artillery preparation began on the evening of June 1; Raynal later estimated that some 1,500 to 2,000 shells per hour were raining down on his fort. After the setbacks on the opposite slopes and the heavy shower of shells, only a few defenders of the 2nd Battalion of the “142e régiment d”infanterie” lay in the forefront of the fort, which had become a maze of trenches, barbed wire, obstacles, and machine-gun emplacements. Only the Abri de combat R.1 and R.2 under Capitaine Delvert still covered the flanks of the fort. At about 4:00 a.m., the assault troops of Infantry Regiments 39, 53, and 158 from Cologne and Paderborn began their attack. At dawn, Delvert could see the assaulting troops. “Like ants when you step into an anthill,” they poured out of their trenches. Delvert could not interfere with this attack because his machine guns did not reach the German lines. Within a few hours, they had made great gains in terrain and were emerging in trenches adjacent to Position R.1. Delvert immediately ordered heavy counterfire, which initially stopped the German assault troops. By 2:30 p.m., however, position R.2 had been taken, and position R.1 had taken a direct hit. Delvert was caught in the crossfire and commanded only 70 soldiers. The advance defenses of Fort Vaux were now mostly eliminated, and the assault troops had gained about 1000 meters of terrain on June 2 and were able to reach the fort”s blind spot in the afternoon. They had simply bypassed the still defending Capitaine Delvert.
After a pause for rallying, the stormtroopers finally jumped into the fort”s completely destroyed trench embrasures, from which the machine guns were still firing. Casualties were high, but some soldiers crawled up to the French positions and threw hand grenade bundles into the embrasures; at another position, they tried to knock out the machine gun with flamethrowers. In the meantime, artillery fire from both sides had resumed, drowning out the noise of the close combat in the trenches. At about 4:00 p.m., the machine guns were successfully eliminated, and the assault troops were able to take up positions on the roof of the fortress. Inside, Major Raynal pulled together his squad, which had grown to over 600 soldiers, for defense and ordered the immediate lining of the main passages with sandbags, which were loaded with machine guns. At the same time, some soldiers were to attack the Germans lying on the roof, but they threw hand grenades into the exit shafts until this attack had to be broken off. The Germans discovered an entrance to the interior of the fort in the destroyed roof, lowered themselves on ropes and advanced to a steel door behind which they could hear the major”s orders. In the attempt to blow this door with a hand grenade, some Germans were killed and others were injured because they could not find shelter in the corridors from the spreading blast wave.
By the morning of June 3, the Germans had taken two main corridors. The hand-to-hand fighting inside the fort was conducted with extreme brutality, using spades, bayonets, and hand grenades. The power supply and thus the light had failed, but the fighting continued with unabated ferocity and in complete darkness, lit only now and then by burning oil and the use of the German flamethrowers. In the corridors, 1.70 meters high and about 1.20 meters wide, were piled the mangled corpses, covered with chlorinated lime intended for latrine disinfection. The floor was slippery with the blood of the wounded.
As soon as a defensive position was taken by the Germans, the French rallied shortly behind it and launched a counterattack with all available weapons. In the meantime, the summer heat was getting to both sides, and the French could no longer count on water supplies, since the cistern had been destroyed by shell hits. An attempt was made to collect the water that ran out. In their sick quarters, a 10-square-meter bunker room, the ever-increasing number of wounded could no longer be treated because there was neither water nor light. Normally, this camp was intended for six beds; on the evening of June 2, more than 30 soldiers with the most severe wounds were already lying in the ward, waiting for the outcome of the fighting.
Position R.1 in the forefront was still holding out against the German attacks, but could not intervene in the fighting inside the fort. At 22:00 Capitain Delvert, who had not slept for 72 hours, was informed of the arrival of a relief company, but instead of the announced 170 men, only 18 soldiers had escaped the German fire, all the rest having fallen. Another company with 25 survivors reached position R.1 at 23:00.
By June 4, the Germans had captured another 25 meters of the main tunnel; however, Raynal was able to repel any further attacks by the flamethrowers with machine gun fire. The French had lost their observation posts and could only fall back on a small slit of vision that allowed them to see into the apron. They saw the desperate attempts of their comrades to break out of the fort, but all six of the day”s attempts were repulsed by the Germans. One French company was completely lost in these battles: 22 men were captured, 150 fell, and none returned. At noon on June 4, Raynal sent his last carrier pigeon behind his own lines with a last desperate message.
On Monday, June 5, the Germans blew another hole in the walls of the main corridor and attacked the French with flamethrowers, but the draft from the bunker to the outside caused the flames to recoil and burn many of the German attackers. Major Raynal still held his position, there were now over 90 seriously wounded in the infirmary. He gave orders to distribute the last of the water among the wounded. On the evening of June 5, Captain Delvert returned to Verdun from his R.1 position, still commanding 37 men, all but five wounded. On June 6, the French launched a final attempt at reinforcements, which, like all the others before, was repulsed by the Germans.
Major Raynal”s soldiers were completely exhausted, some licking the slimy condensation off walls or drinking their own urine. Soon after, they were writhing in stomach cramps, one desperate young lieutenant lost his mind and threatened to blow up a grenade dump. He had to be tied up. On the morning of June 7, Major Raynal finally saw the desired visual signal from Fort Souville: “… ne quittez pas …” but a few hours later at 7:30 a.m. German time he gave up the fight and went into captivity with 250 men, all others dead or wounded. The Germans had lost about 2,700 soldiers in the attack.
After the capture of Fort Vaux, the French launched direct counterattacks and a futile attempt to retake the fort on June 8 and 9. The Germans expanded their position at Fort Vaux and continued to charge against the French positions in front of Verdun over the next three weeks.
Brussilov offensive: weakening of German troops before Verdun
Although the capture of Fort Vaux had knocked away another pillar of the eastern fortifications in front of Verdun and was considered a major strategic success, by early June the pressure on the German army had increased tremendously. On May 15, Austro-Hungarian Chief of General Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf had ordered a major attack on the Italian positions north of Lake Garda that had not been coordinated with the OHL, a “punitive” action into the flank of Cadorna”s incessant attacks on the Isonzo. The fact that by 1916 Italy had increased its combat-ready divisions from 36 to 65 and that 35 of the 65 Austrian divisions were tied up on the Italian front was the basis for von Hötzendorf”s decision to regard Italy as currently the most important enemy in the war. He intended to defeat Italy quickly so that he could then throw all freed resources against Russia. Although he had clearly expressed his long-term goals regarding Italy on several occasions and had also tried to persuade Falkenhayn to take joint action in the Alps, the order to attack came as a surprise and forced Germany to take an unwanted stabilization measure in the east.
This had become necessary because the Russian high command seized the opportunity presented by the withdrawal of several imperial and royal divisions to fulfill its treaty obligations to the alliance, which had been established at Chantilly, with a large-scale offensive. This offensive, called the Brussilov Offensive after the commanding general, began on June 4. The attacking Russian units made a number of breakthroughs in Galicia and the front of the Austro-Hungarian 4th Army completely collapsed over a width of 75 kilometers. The Russian troops advanced 20 kilometers deep into enemy territory and took more than 200,000 prisoners, mainly among the Austro-Hungarian troops. On June 15, Conrad von Hötzendorf declared the Russian attack the worst crisis of the war. And although Falkenhayn pressed von Hötzendorf to counter the Russians by moving troops out of Italy and awaited troop transfers from Hindenburg”s northeastern front, he was forced to withdraw four divisions from Verdun to stop further Russian action and, more to the point, to prevent the collapse of the ally.
June to October 1916: German offensive against Fleury, Thiaumont and Côte Froide Terre
Despite the smaller number of operational soldiers, Falkenhayn decided to continue the German offensive before Verdun, especially under the impression of the fall of Fort Vaux. General Schmidt von Knobelsdorf and his staff worked out the immediate continuation of the attack in the Fort Vaux area, which was to be directed against Fort de Souville, the Ouvrage de Thiaumont, and the village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont.
The German army was able to muster 30,000 men for the attack, including soldiers from the Alpine Corps, which had arrived on the Western Front shortly before and was considered an elite unit. Knobelsdorf hoped for a quick breakthrough through the first use of grenades containing diphosgene as a pulmonary agent, also known as Grünkreuz due to the color and shape of their markings on the projectile and cartridge.
On a frontal width of three kilometers, the major German attack was to begin on June 23, which in turn had been prepared by heavy artillery support to the French positions at Fort Souville beginning on June 21. A total of 100,000 shells were fired. Last, German troops fired thousands of Green Cross shells at the French gun batteries to deprive the French infantry of its main support. The shells that hit did not explode directly and were initially mistaken by some Frenchmen for duds. Within a short time, however, the diphosgene wreaked havoc among French troops: the French gas masks of 1916 provided only limited protection for their wearers against this new warfare agent. Numerous French fled in panic, while others held their ground in agony. The gas attack was followed by another fierce bombardment that lasted until the early hours of June 23. When gunfire ceased at 7 a.m., the German infantrymen left their trenches and went on the assault. The soldiers of the Bavarian regiments reached the village of Fleury very quickly, for many French trenches were no longer manned and could offer little resistance. Fleury was almost completely taken, except for a part around the former railroad station, but the German assault troops suffered heavy losses due to artillery fire from both sides. On the right slope, the regiments charged against the Côte de Froide Terre ridge, where the fortified installations of the Ouvrage de Thiaumont, a large number of batteries, and smaller bunkers were defended by units of the French “121e régiment d”infanterie.”
After a fierce battle, which only 60 defenders survived, Thiaumont was taken. From there, four severely weakened Bavarian companies advanced to the Côte de Froide Terre proper. Here, for the first time, the Germans were on the side of the Côtes Lorraines sloping toward Verdun, but they never got to see the town. Parts of the Bavarian infantry Leibregiment took the ammunition rooms (poudrière) below Fleury and sent a small detachment of three men as far as the Filzlausstellung (Ouvrage de Morpion), returning with about 20 prisoners. However, after a bloody skirmish with the “114e régiment d”infanterie”, they had to abandon the ammunition rooms and retreat to Fleury. The attack against Fort Souville, however, stalled.
In these unfavorable positions, the German soldiers had to endure the thirst of the summer heat while countless dead decayed beside and below them and wounded cried out for help. The very long approach road to the Thiaumont intermediate works was littered with fallen soldiers, who sometimes served as signposts. Each groundbreaking for the expansion of the position in the moonscape revealed human parts. The stench over the battlefield was almost unbearable even for soldiers used to death and suffering. There are reports that even rations and water brought in at great cost tasted of decay. The troops had to march at night, always in fear of being spotted by a French flare and shot by French machine-gunners. During the day, the positions were exposed to low-flying attacks by the French air forces, now operating in absolute air superiority, who also directed the fire of their artillery very precisely on the respective target. It often happened that soldiers lost their bearings and wandered around the area for hours, and they were lucky if they were captured by the French.
On June 24, British and French troops initiated the Battle of the Somme with a tremendous gunfire. To counter this great danger to the German front, the OHL therefore had to withdraw more units from the Meuse area. In particular, heavy and heaviest guns had to be brought back to the railroad through the impassable funnel field. In addition, ammunition supplies were diverted to the Somme, so that further offensives in the Verdun area had to be halted. From June 25 to 30, French counterattacks resulted in the loss of forward positions. Then, on July 3, a final attack was authorized on July 11, but on the pretext of sparing ammunition reserves as much as possible, even if it meant that men would have to fall.
The aim of this last major action was the capture of Forts Souville, St. Michel and Belleville and represented a last attempt to overturn the battle once again. Artillery preparation with gas shells did not have the desired effect of high casualties, as French troops were by now wearing improved gas masks. The approach of the German assault troops was detected at dawn by French reconnaissance, which then directed artillery fire accurately into the middle of the troops. Furthermore, westerly winds blew the fired gas into the German positions, which also resulted in casualties. In the village area of Fleury, hand-to-hand combat and flamethrowers were used to fight mercilessly and extremely brutally until the Bavarian troops managed to capture Fleury completely. Soldiers of Infantry Regiment 140 finally made it to the glacis of Fort Souville, but were immediately repulsed by elements of two French companies that happened to be in the fort. The Germans had reached their furthest point toward Verdun. On the same day, July 11, 1916, Falkenhayn ordered the cessation of all offensive efforts at Verdun because the German army needed to concentrate on the Battle of the Somme. He hoped the French would follow suit with the Germans and downgrade Verdun to a quiet front. This hope was not realized, as the French seized the initiative in the late summer months of 1916 and advanced against the German positions at Thiaumont and around Fleury. The GQG had quickly become aware of the danger posed to Verdun”s defenses by the capture of the Côte Froide Terre. To achieve the still valid ultimate objective of retaking Fort Vaux and Fort Douaumont, it was imperative to regain the flanking positions at Ouvrage Thiaumont. Nivelle thus ordered the relentless counterattack, which dragged on through the hot summer of that year and into October, but provided no clear outcome and constantly surged back and forth.
Falkenhayn”s recall and the beginning of the German defense
After this last major attack, Falkenhayn ordered the German offensive before Verdun to be broken off, since the military commitment – countering the attacks on the Somme, fighting the Russians and repelling the Brussilov offensive, and the absolutely necessary support of the Austrian partner – far exceeded the German forces. Against this background, he considered it essential to act only defensively and to defend the positions held. The German troops thus fortified their positions as best they could and resisted the increasingly strong French attacks in July and August. On August 15, Falkenhayn, in a letter to Crown Prince Wilhelm, even considered for the first time a complete abandonment of the battle, since economy in the expenditure of men and ammunition was called for. While the chief of staff of the 5th Army, Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, insisted on the efficiency of his troops and on a steadfast continuation of the attack, the crown prince realized that this was no longer possible without further ado.
Without being able to communicate with his chief of staff, he therefore asked the emperor to recall Knobelsdorf. On August 23, Wilhelm II complied with this request. On August 28, Romania entered the war on the side of the Entente, as a result of which one day later Falkenhayn, who had not been able to bring this further opponent on the side of the Central Powers, resigned as Chief of Staff. Elegantly, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the 9th Army in Romania. Together with August von Mackensen, he achieved an almost complete victory over Romania by Christmas 1916. In Falkenhayn”s place, the Kaiser appointed the commander-in-chief of Ober Ost, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, and his chief of staff, General Erich Ludendorff. After a visit by Ludendorff to the Western Front, Hindenburg ordered the cessation of all offensive actions and the development of the terrain gained into a firm system of positions. The abandonment of the hard-to-defend positions in front of Verdun was not considered at first.
This directive explicitly did not include limited actions to improve the front, such as those by the 14th Infantry Regiment from Bavaria in Chapitre Forest, but this, as so often, without significant success. In general, the heavy rain in September 1916 was an important limiting element in the planning of further action: due to the persistent rains, the funnel positions of both wartime opponents had quickly become full of water and heavily marshy. To the non-stop deadly fire of machine guns and artillery was now added the danger of slipping into one of the water-filled funnels and drowning.
September 4, 1916: Explosion accident in the Tavannes tunnel
On September 4, barely four months after the serious accident at Fort de Douaumont, a similar incident occurred on the French side in the Tavannes Tunnel immediately below Fort Tavannes. The French Army had been using the former railroad tunnel to house soldiers and as an ammunition dump since the beginning of the battle until a series of serious explosions occurred due to careless handling of gun shells. The Germans could see clouds of smoke rising from the tunnel and subsequently took the area under fire with their guns. French soldiers who managed to escape from the tunnel were thus caught between impacting shells. It took three days to bring the fire in the Tavannes tunnel under control. Official sources spoke of 500 casualties – how many really died can no longer be determined.
October 1916: Start of the French offensive
The German problems of fighting on several fronts had not gone unnoticed by the French, nor had the attitude of the German soldiers toward a more defensive fight and the expansion of their own positions. As a result, and staying true to French offensive strategy, the GQG, Nivelle, and Mangin planned a major attack in the area of the “red zone,” the central battlefield on the right bank of the Meuse River between Forts Douaumont and Vaux, with the goal of recapturing these two central forts. The former artillery general Nivelle once again opposed Pétain”s system, which had envisaged an almost complete destruction of the enemy”s fortifications before the infantry stormed them. Instead, Nivelle wanted to exploit the momentum of movement and surprise and throw the infantry into the fray very quickly. He ordered a concerted action by artillery and infantry: 150 meters in front of the advancing infantry should be the fire of the heavy guns, 70 meters in front of the main battle line that of the lighter field guns. In this way, Nivelle wanted to eliminate the enemy positions and have them occupied by infantry immediately afterwards. In the attack area recreated at Bar-le-Duc, the French soldiers had to familiarize themselves with the geography and at the same time practice advancing behind the “fire roll” named by Nivelle.
In preparation for the major attack, Nivelle had some 600 guns fired at the attack area for five days, including numerous particularly large calibers, such as two 400-mm mortars. On October 24, eight French divisions went on the attack over a width of seven kilometers. The entire attack area had become a single muddy field due to the rainfall of the previous days. The preparatory artillery fire had wounded or killed most of the defenders, so that the first trenches could be taken without difficulty: The fire roll worked very accurately, for behind the impacts the Germans could not see the attackers, and when the shell wall was advanced, the French were already in the trenches. The few operational and manned machine guns inflicted heavy losses among the French, but were gradually taken without German reserves.
October 24, 1916: recapture of Fort Douaumont
The section of the German VII Reserve Corps (Louvemont Group), the XII. Army Corps (Hardaumont Group) and the XVIII Reserve Corps (Vaux Group) came under massive French attack on October 24. The front of the 25th Reserve Division, 34th Infantry Division, and 54th Infantry Division completely collapsed in the Fleury-Thiaumont frontal area. In Chapitre Forest and on the Vaux-Tavannes road, the defenses of the 9th and 33rd Reserve Divisions were also overcome after a short delay. The French attack came to a halt only in the remains of the village of Douaumont due to flank fire from the fort and fierce resistance from troops in the Mint Gorge. French troops had advanced to Fort Douaumont and occupied some ramparts. However, they had to abandon these advanced positions in the oncoming German artillery barrage.
At Fort Douaumont, the Germans had set up, among other things, a central assembly area, which had become increasingly busy during the French attacks. Protected by the thick concrete ceiling, they thought they were in relative safety from French projectiles. On October 24, a direct hit by a new French 400-mm mortar into the German hospital resulted in the immediate death of all present. This gun fired one shot every ten minutes with the highest precision. The shots were all aimed at Fort Douaumont, all reaching their targets and causing the greatest destruction. Finally, the sixth shot hit a pioneer depot, burying 50 soldiers. A large fire broke out, threatening to spread to the stored infantry and artillery ammunition (including some 7000 hand grenades). The German defenders of the fort now tried to contain the fire with mineral water and urine barrels from the latrines, but this did not succeed. Finally, the commander ordered a retreat from the fort for the safety of his crews. The gas curtain around the fort, fired by the French, favored the withdrawal of the German troops, including the wounded, who departed with gas masks on.
Only 100 men remained as the remaining crew, who had the task of defending as best they could and extinguishing the fire. However, the gas fire and smoke had become so intense that both became impossible. The remaining crew was also forced to leave the fort. A little later, however, some officers and soldiers returned to the fort at their own request and without orders, realizing that the fire was no longer life-threatening. Immediately, the commanding officer, Captain Prollius, sent a dispatcher back to call for reinforcements.
Some wounded and scattered reported infernal conditions at the front of Fort Douaumont, where only wounded and dead lay in the mud. After a failed breakout attempt by the small force led by the still-living commander, the French finally reached Douaumont and took 28 surviving Germans prisoner. A planned counterattack by the Germans was scrapped because of the increasingly strong engagement on the Somme.
November 1916: recapture of Fort Vaux
After another French advance, the German garrison of Fort Vaux was forced to retreat on November 2. German sappers blew up parts of the fort. These territorial gains contributed to the appointment of Robert Nivelle as the designated commander-in-chief of French forces in December, succeeding General Joffre. On December 16, a final major French attack was made on the right bank of the Meuse River, pushing back German formations at Douaumont by more than three kilometers by December 18. On December 20, the French offensive was halted.
In 1917, the warring parties concentrated on other sections of the front, but there were still several battles in front of Verdun, even if they did not take on the same proportions as in the previous year. In particular, Hill 304 and the “Dead Man” were again fiercely fought over from June 1917 onwards. By June 29, German units succeeded in completely occupying Hill 304. In August, French attacks led to the final evacuation of Hill 304 and the “Dead Man” by the Germans. Further action followed on the right bank of the Meuse in the area of the village of Ornes and Height 344, but the Meuse area was not to become the scene of major attacks again until the end of the war. An advance by American troops under General Pershing pushed in the German front southeast of Verdun by several kilometers on August 30, 1918. This was followed on September 26 by the Franco-American Meuse-Argonne offensive, which started from Verdun and drove the Germans back from the Argonne by early November. On November 11, the armistice came into effect.
Due to the massive use of guns (explosion craters) in a confined space, the battlefield at Verdun had been transformed within a few weeks into a cratered landscape (see zone rouge), in which often only tree stumps remained of the forests. At times, more than 4,000 guns were used in the comparatively small combat area. An average of 10,000 shells and mines fell every hour in front of Verdun, creating a deafening background noise. When they exploded, they hurled up large quantities of earth, burying numerous soldiers alive. Not all of them could be freed from the earth in time.
Due to the omnipresent fire from guns and machine guns, many dead and wounded had to be left in no man”s land between the fronts, which is why a heavy stench of corpses hung over the battlefield, especially in the summer months. Moreover, in the permanent hail of bullets, it was often impossible to supply the front-line soldiers with sufficient supplies or to relieve them. Already on the way to the front line, numerous units lost far more than half of their men. Hardly a soldier who was deployed before Verdun survived the battle without being at least slightly wounded.
The soldiers often had to wear their gas masks for hours and go without food for several days. Thirst drove many of them to drink contaminated rainwater from shell funnels or their urine. Both French and German soldiers dreaded front-line action at Verdun. They referred to the battlefield as the “blood pump,” the “bone mill,” or simply “hell.” When it rained, the battlefield resembled a muddy field, making any troop movement very difficult. Every path was dug in, the whole area was a single funnel field. Increasingly strong horse teams had to be used to move a single gun. These teams suffered particularly heavy losses under fire: up to 7000 military horses are said to have perished in a single day. Of particular importance were the forts in front of Verdun, which offered protection to the troops and were used for the first aid of the wounded, but the hygienic conditions there were catastrophic. The military leaders on both sides were well aware of what the soldiers had to endure in battle, but they did not draw any conclusions from this.
Number of dead
Between 1914 and 1918, a total of 105 German and 88 French divisions were deployed before Verdun. With an average division strength of 12,000 to 15,000 men, this amounted to about 2.5 million soldiers. On the German side alone, nearly 1,200,000 men were sent through the “Hell of Verdun”; the French had a similar situation, but there the troops were rotated more quickly. Under this system, each division was deployed at Verdun for only three weeks at a time (one week first line – one week second line – one week at rest).
The exact number of those killed at Verdun has not been definitively determined. The loss figures in official documents, which are usually quite up-to-date, offer only a rough orientation. There, the number of dead is usually included within a total loss figure (in addition to the wounded, provisionally missing, captured) without concretization. In addition, there are inaccuracies due to the closeness of time, possibly also embellishments. On all sides, casualty figures were primarily used by the leadership to find out the total number of “losses” as quickly as possible for further planning. The number of casualties was a secondary matter and of little interest. The official figures are contradicted by the various estimates of some historians.
Thus, German sources give the number of casualties between the beginning of the offensive and June 1916 as just over 41,000. Compared with the first day of the Battle of the Somme, when 20,000 soldiers fell and 40,000 were wounded on the British side alone, this figure seems grossly understated by World War I standards. This is because it compares with the number of over 240,000 wounded during the same period. Normally, the ratio of deaths to wounds is assumed to be 1:3; here it is about 1:6. If one calculates this numerical ratio up to the end of the battle in December 1916, one can assume that about 100,000 men fell on each side.
However, these figures represent direct fatal casualties, i.e. without taking into account soldiers who succumbed to their wounds later in the war and not at the front at Verdun. According to calculations by historian Niall Ferguson, the number of dead during the war amounted to about 6,000 per day and the total number of people killed to about 350,000.
If the wounded are added at the “normal” ratio of 1:3 (i.e., 300,000 wounded per side), the total casualties of both sides would have to be put at about 800,000 soldiers. An indication of this are the official figures of the French Service Historique des Armées for the period 21 February to 12 December:
Contrary to Falkenhayn”s expectations, the losses on the French side were only slightly higher than on the German side. The French army was severely weakened by the Battle of Verdun, but the situation on the German side was similar.
Both the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Verdun revealed the way many military commanders treated the lives of their soldiers: The focus was not on minimizing their own casualties, but on consuming enemy resources. On the German side alone, 1,350,000 tons of shells were fired during the thirty main weeks of fighting. About 50 tons of steel fragments still lie on every hectare of the battlefield today, equivalent to 5 kg per square meter.
According to the “Sanitätsbericht über das Deutsche Heer im Weltkriege 19141918” (Medical Report on the German Army in the World War 19141918), the losses of the 5th Army included the period from February 21 to September 9, 1916. The data are based on the troop sick reports (ten-day reports) of the individual units and are considered reliable.The 5th Army recorded an average strength of 572,855 men during the period under consideration. It had 48 divisions during this period.
In addition, some of the sick died and some soldiers had fatal accidents. However, these numbers have not been handed down. Assuming that most of the missing had fallen, it can be assumed that about 80,000 had died in the period from February 21 to September 9, 1916.
The fighting around Verdun slackened considerably from September 1916. For the months of September to November 1916, only the numbers of wounded for the 5th Army are available in the “Sanitätsbericht”:
Legends and myths
Especially the merciless struggle for Fleury and Thiaumont was often transfigured and distorted. The change of possession of these places was often taken as an occasion to illustrate the senselessness of the war. Sometimes exaggerated numbers are mentioned here; there are reports of 13, 23 or even 42 exchanges between Germans and French. Officially, the village of Fleury and the intermediate works of Thiaumont changed hands four times each between June and October. The following attacks and counterattacks are attested:
Fleury was partially captured on June 23, it was completely in German hands on July 11, and on August 2, French troops were pinned down in Fleury for a day, after which the Germans held it until August 18. From that day on, the positions were located at the notorious Fleury railroad embankment. On October 23, the Germans had to completely clear the area.
Similarly for Thiaumont: capture by the Germans on June 23, loss on July 5, recapture on July 8, and final loss on October 23 as a result of the major French offensive.
After the war, east of a small ravine at Thiaumont called Ravin de la Dame, “Bois Hassoule” (Hassoule Ravine) or also “Ravin de la Mort” (Dead Man”s Ravine), a trench was discovered from which the tips of the soldiers” mounted bayonets protruded. Investigations revealed that the soldiers were indeed still in contact with their rifles. In the 1930s, the legend arose that these soldiers of the French 137th Infantry Regiment had been buried alive and standing by a shell during attack preparations on the Thiaumont intermediate works.
The testimony of a lieutenant of the 3rd Company, to which the soldiers belonged, presented a completely different picture: “The soldiers had fallen during a German advance on the morning of June 13, 1916, and were left in their trench. The Germans buried them (they filled in the trench) and their (upright) rifles served as markers for the grave site.” An exhumation in 1920 confirmed his explanation: none of the seven bodies stood upright, and four could not be identified. Today the site can be seen in the monument La Tranchée des Baïonnettes, built by an American industrialist.
“Ils ne passeront pas!” (“They will not pass!”), also “On ne passe pas!”, was the central propaganda slogan of the Verdun myth. It was coined by the French generals Nivelle and Pétain. It was later used in many propaganda posters as well as a slogan for the Maginot Line. The slogan was also used frequently later. One of the most significant examples was shortly after the start of the Spanish Civil War when Republican Dolores Ibárruri used the Spanish version of the slogan, “¡No pasarán!” in a speech. Today, the Spanish version of the slogan is a symbol of the political left.
Among others, in the book “Verdun – Das große Gericht” by P. C. Ettighoffer it is mentioned that the Germans, after their major attack of June 23, 1916, during which also the ammunition rooms near Fleury (Poudriere de Fleury) were taken by the Bavarian Infantry Leibregiment, could have seen Verdun from the so-called. “Filzlausstellung” (Ouvrage de Morpion) he could see the city of Verdun. Ettighoffer further writes that soldiers of the Leibregiment brought machine guns into position and shelled Verdun from the “Filzlaus”. This is impossible, because in the case of the “Filzlausstellung” the view is blocked by the Belleville ridge, which can be seen by a simple look at a map. Further, this shelling of the town is not mentioned in any other source. Not even the regimental history of the Infantry Leibregiment mentions such a bombardment, although this would be more than worth mentioning. There it is only stated that a small assault party of the 11th Company probed as far as the “felt exhibition” and immediately afterwards returned to the ammunition rooms with some French prisoners. To this day it is unclear how Ettighoffer arrived at this assertion, since Verdun is not visible from any point on the battlefield that German soldiers had ever reached.
Verdun from the French point of view
Verdun had a unifying function for the French people, which became a national symbol against the background of the struggle defined as a defense. The First World War ultimately became a just war against the aggressor only through the resistance before Verdun, which was celebrated as a victory, even if France”s war strategy before the start of the war in 1914 was anything but passive.
In the post-war years, the defense of Verdun was increasingly glorified as a heroic deed. The fortress of Verdun was seen as an insurmountable bulwark that had guaranteed the survival of the French nation. For the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the body of a Frenchman who had fallen before Verdun was exhumed. General Pétain was declared a national hero by the French and was appointed Marshal of France in 1918. In his honor, a statue was erected on the battlefield in front of Verdun after the war, on whose pedestal a modification of the central phrase of the French Verdun myth can be read: “Ils ne sont pas passés” (“They didn”t get through”).
The glorification of the Battle of Verdun as a successful assertion of an impregnable fortress was to have disastrous consequences for France in 1940, as it was no match for modern warfare with rapid advances by armored units – as practiced by the Wehrmacht in the Western campaign (May 10-June 25, 1940). Pétain was sentenced to death for his cooperation with the Third Reich in August 1945; probably because of his merits in the Battle of Verdun, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
On the battlefields even today this more or less national significance of the battle is omnipresent. At Fort Douaumont, the tricolor, the German flag and the European flag have been flying for many years. At many other sites of the battle, which have been incorporated into the collective memory, the tricolor flies to emphasize the national significance. The same interpretation applies to the various monuments around Verdun (Monument of the Armed Forces, Lion of Souville (it represents a dying Bavarian lion and marks the furthest advance of the German troops), Maginot Monument, …), which all celebrate the national idea and supposed victory, but very rarely commemorate the death of the soldiers.
It was not until the joint confession by François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl on September 22, 1984 that this strongly national symbolism was broken in order to commemorate a common past together with Germany.
Verdun from the German point of view
Since the offensive on the Meuse had led neither to the capture of Verdun nor to the complete attrition of the French army, essential offensive objectives had not been achieved. Like most other battles, the fight before Verdun was not seen as a real defeat of the German army after the lost world war. This was mainly supported by the stab-in-the-back legend spread by national forces in Germany. Verdun was seen as a beacon for an entire generation – similar to the sacrifice of school leavers and students in 1914 in the First Battle of Flanders. Until the takeover of power in 1933, however, Verdun was seen from a much less heroic perspective, since the senselessness of the ten-month battle could hardly be interpreted otherwise.
Most of the German war novels published during the Weimar Republic were about the Battle of Verdun. “Verdun” became the symbol of modern, fully industrialized war. It was no longer a question of victory or defeat, but of the experience of the material battle. Even the question of the meaning of the bloody positional battles was considered secondary in view of the enormous destructive power of modern war equipment. The German Verdun myth centered not on critical hindsight, but on the experience of the battle. A central role was played by the Verdun fighter, who was seen as a new type of soldier. This was described as characterless, cold and hard and displaced earlier, romantically transfigured ideal images, as they prevailed especially in the bourgeois milieu. In the Third Reich, this myth was further expanded. The fact that many officers of World War II had served before Verdun led to its instrumentalization for propaganda purposes.
After 1945 and under the impression of the Second World War, which was even more devastating for Germany, the Battle of Verdun was rarely addressed in the Federal Republic and then generally interpreted in a sober manner.
Result of the battle – a German success?
Depending on one”s perspective, the outcome of the fighting before Verdun is interpreted differently, as a French success, a draw, or a German success.
A simple and easily ascertainable yardstick is the position of the front line on February 24, 1916. Weighing the advance and the terrain gained by the Germans can lead to the interpretation that even after the battle ended in December 1916, the German army held more terrain gained than it had lost through the French counterattack beginning in July 1916, and to that extent it could be seen as the winner of the actual Battle of Verdun. This front was largely held until the arrival of the Americans and the loss of the St. Mihiel Arc. However, since this increase in held terrain had no significant strategic impact on the course of the war, this choice of scale is questionable as a resilient criterion.
Another possibility is to compare the outcome of the battle with the original objectives: According to this assessment, the Battle of Verdun was a major failure for the German side, as its objectives were missed and instead German offensive power was decisively weakened.
On the disputed territory exploded about 50 million artillery shells and throwing mines. The landscape was plowed through several times, from which it has not fully recovered to this day. There are still numerous unexploded ordnance, rifles, helmets, pieces of equipment and human bones in the soil of the battlefield. The formerly embattled forts and intermediate works, such as Douaumont and Vaux, were badly damaged but can be visited. There are numerous cemeteries and ossuaries around Verdun. The Douaumont Ossuary contains the bones of some 130,000 unidentified German and French soldiers. Near Fleury is the Mémorial de Verdun, a museum displaying war equipment used at the time, weapons, uniforms, ground finds, photographs, etc. It is also possible to attend a film screening.
Monuments and tours
as well as several dozen other bunkers, intermediate works, batteries, memorials, monuments, and individual graves scattered throughout the battlefield.
The publications of the Reichsarchiv describe the battle in great detail, but are one-sided due to the temporal context and the history of the Reichsarchiv. A verification of the information there is no longer possible without further ado due to the destruction of the Potsdam Army Archives.