Battle of Verdun
"What a bloodbath, what horrid images, what a slaughter! Hell cannot be this dreadful.” For men like Albert Joubaire, the Battle of Verdun was a relentless nightmare of carnage and destruction. For ten months, the will of German and French soldiers was tested during the longest battle of the First World War. The Germans had planned their attack to “bleed France white,” but the French relentlessly fought to defend the historic city of Verdun, eventually halting the German advance and recovering their lost territory. By the end of the long struggle, the two sides had suffered some 750,000 casualties. Between 40 and 60 million artillery shells were fired during the battle, leaving Verdun in shambles, permanently transforming the pastoral landscapes surrounding the city, and leaving nine nearby French villages in total ruin.
German General Erich von Falkenhayn regarded the British as the most formidable of the Allied Powers in the Great War. Out of reach across the Channel, this great foe could not be assaulted directly. The British sector of the Western Front also did not lend itself to offensive operations. In a letter to Kaiser Wilhelm II in late 1915, Falkenhayn argued that the war would only be won by bleeding France to death and draining its will to fight. In his estimation, this would then force the British to sue for peace. Falkenhayn targeted Verdun because of its position on the Allied line and its sentimental value to the French people. He planned to lure the French army into a battle of attrition, expecting that his opponent “would be compelled to throw in every man they have.” Falkenhayn anticipated a kill-ratio of five French for every two Germans. His scheme to inflict a relentless slaughter on the enemy and win the war was called Operation Gericht-a term loosely translating as “judgment” or “place of execution.”
General Erich von Falkenhayn. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Verdun had played an important part in French history over the years. Following France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the city’s countryside along the border with Germany was built into one of the most heavily fortified strongholds in the world. Dozens of forts and concrete casements for artillery fanned out in a semi-circle six miles deep and with a perimeter of 30 miles. The fortress of Verdun with its surrounding fortifications along the Meuse River experienced little action during the early stages of World War One, but that dramatically changed when the Germans launched Operation Gericht.
On February 21, 1916, more than 1,220 German guns around an eight-mile perimeter fired two million shells at the French in the opening eight-hour bombardment of the battle. The German artillery crews were instructed that “no enemy line is to remain un-bombarded,” and that “nowhere should the enemy feel safe.” The French were overwhelmed by the relentless onslaught. An officer recorded, “We are surrounded by wounded and dying men whom we are totally unable to help.” Once the barrage ceased, German assault troops rose from their trenches and pushed forward. Some Germans were armed with a new weapon, the flamethrower. As this tool of destruction made its battlefield debut, French trenches were burned, with men roasting inside them. The might of the German attack pushed the French line back a mile and over the next three days, horrifying losses were sustained as they were forced to retreat further. In one 15,000-strong French division, 9,000 men were dead, wounded, or simply missing. The intense shelling had left the roads back to the hospitals impassable for field ambulances, leaving badly injured French soldiers laying everywhere.
German troops operating a flamethrower during the First World War. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
At the end of the first week, the Germans had advanced six miles and managed to take possession of Fort Douaumont, one of the key French strongholds. With Douaumont in German hands, morale plummeted. Fearing that Verdun was about to fall, civilians began to evacuate the city.
A German aerial photograph of Fort Douaumont before the battle. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
If Verdun fell, it would only be a matter of days before the Germans were in a position to strike Paris. Orders were sent from the French capital that Verdun must be held at all costs. A new commander, General Philippe Petain was sent to the front and French reinforcements were poured into the fight.
As Falkenhayn had hoped, France refused to concede Verdun and French forces were being rushed to the battle. In fact, three fourths of the French Western Front divisions would eventually serve at Verdun. While the German advance had been rapid, the fierce fighting had also taken its toll on them. From the start, Falkenhayn did not achieve the five-to-two kill ratio that he had predicted. The Germans had also suffered severe casualties and the struggles only increased as the battle settled into vicious trench warfare.
French soldiers entrenched at Côte 304 (Hill 304), northwest of Verdun, 1916. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
In the words of a French soldier, “You eat beside the dead, you drink beside the dead, you relieve yourself beside the dead and you sleep beside the dead.” This was the horrifying reality for the men huddled in their trenches, constantly being exposed to shellfire. As both sides traded overwhelming firepower, the landscape surrounding Verdun was reduced to a barren wasteland. The conditions of the struggle shattered the minds of men. A French sergeant recalled how during a bombardment “the earth around us quaked and we were lifted and tossed about. The air was unbreathable. Our blinded and wounded soldiers kept falling on top of us and died while splashing us with their blood. It was a living hell. We were deafened, dizzy and sick at heart.” It is estimated that 70 percent of the casualties at Verdun were caused by artillery.
A French artillery position overrun by German forces during the Battle of Verdun. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
At the beginning of June, the Germans took another French stronghold, Fort Vaux. The fortification was defended by 600 French soldiers who “lived in filth amid the smell of blood as 8,000 shells fell on the fort every day,” as described by one of its defenders. For an entire week, men fought with machine-guns and flamethrowers in the fort’s pitch-black corridors and underground tunnels. The French garrison finally capitulated after they ran out of water and had resorted to drinking their own urine.
The exhausted French defenders of Fort Vaux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The Germans held the initiative and when Falkenhayn needed to press home his advantage, events nearly 1,000 miles away required immediate attention. On June 4, Russian General Aleksey Brusilov launched an offensive in Volhynia (now in Ukraine) that led to the capture of 200,000 Austro-Hungarian troops in only three days. Just when victory at Verdun appeared to be in sight, the Germans were forced to divert troops to fight the advancing Russians on the Eastern Front. This situation frustrated German efforts at Verdun, but attacks against the French continued.
Back in May, French General Robert Nivelle succeeded Philippe Petain as commander of the Second Army at Verdun. On June 23, Nivelle exhorted his men to stand firm: “vous ne les laisserrez pas passer” (you shall not let them pass). The situation was dire, but the French continued to hold on. The dynamic of the battle quickly changed when a Franco-British offensive targeting the Somme sector of the Western Front was launched on July 1. The Germans were forced to move more troops to deal with the attack on the Somme and following a final failed assault on Verdun that July, the offensive that had come so close to breaking the French was called off. Shortly after, Falkenhayn was dismissed as Chief of the General Staff in favor of Field-Marshal Paul Von Hindenburg, who declared, “Verdun has exhausted our forces like an open wound. The enterprise has become hopeless.”
The German storm of destruction at Verdun had passed. Now the French moved to win back the territory that they had lost. On October 24, Fort Douaumont was retaken and ten days later, Fort Vaux was also recaptured. By mid-December, the French had advanced close to the line where the battle had started ten months earlier. Strong counterattacks had earned back nearly all the territory that had previously fallen to the Germans. On December 18, 1916, the battle was finally declared over.
A work of art by Henri Georges Jacques Chartier, depicting French soldiers recapturing Fort Douaumont. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
In addition to the tremendous resilience of French soldiers, France’s victory at the Battle of Verdun would not have been possible without a special road that was later renamed “La Voie Sacrée” (the Sacred Way). Due to the lack of secure railways and constant German bombardments, the French relied on a lone, 20-foot-wide road as their lifeline during the battle. It ensured the flow of supplies and men to support Verdun’s defense. During just one week of operations, more than 190,000 French troops and 25,000 tons of munitions, food, and supplies were brought to the front using the road.
German General Erich Ludendorff stated, “Verdun was hell, a nightmare. Our losses were too heavy for us.” The brutal fighting cost the Germans some 350,000 casualties. They had pushed their opponents to the brink of defeat, but the French persevered and held their sacred ground.
The French suffered around 400,000 casualties at the Battle of Verdun. They had endured torment on an unimaginable scale, but in the end, they overcame the nightmare and defeated the enemy. The German attack was intended to knock France out of the war, but that did not happen. The French had survived and they would fight again.
Part of the battlefield photographed in 2005. To this day, the landscape around Verdun still bears the scars from the longest battle of the First World War. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
bbc.co.uk: What caused Verdun to be the Longest Battle of WW1?
dailymail.co.uk: Battle so bloody men called it the MEAT-GRINDER: The Battle of Verdun.
Encyclopædia Britannica: Battle of Verdun.
Encyclopædia Britannica: Erich Von Falkenhayn.
Encyclopædia Britannica: Robert Nivelle.
History.com: 10 Things You May Not Know About the Battle of Verdun.
History.com: Battle of Verdun.
The National WWI Museum and Memorial: They Shall Not Pass.
Time.com: A Century After Its End, See 10 Photos From the Longest Battle of World War I.