Verdun was an ancient city. Its foundations had been built by the Romans; more importantly, it achieved European prominence in 843 AD, when the grandsons of Charlemagne made a treaty there. This treaty laid the basis for France, Germany, and for a middle zone that belonged to neither. In this respect, it was a suitable place for a major battle between France and Germany in World War I; their quarrel was, essentially, a continuation of that dispute. Beyond this, Verdun enjoyed high prestige in France. In hard military terms, however, Verdun had no importance. This fact did nothing to prevent a battle that would consume almost all of 1916.
Before the Franco-Prussian War, France had relied on a series of fortresses in Lorraine, especially Metz, to defend its eastern frontiers. In 1871, Germany took these fortresses as part of the terms for peace, and France needed to build new forts. Verdun was the counterpoint to the German fortifications at Metz, and the French built a cluster of modern forts around it. Already, they had decided that no invader should ever be able to break through to Verdun.
In 1915, it had seemed as if the Germans had no real intention of trying. This sector of the front was largely quiet, and the French decided that most of the artillery there could better be used elsewhere. It was a pragmatic decision based on the scarcity of resources, but in one important respect it was misguided: this area of the front line had developed into a salient, which meant that the Germans could attack it from three sides if they ever wished to do so.
The French assumed that the Germans would not do so, and with some reason. After the failure to capture Paris in 1914, and the subsequent hardening of the front lines into fixed trenches, the Germans refrained from initiating major offensives. They were unnecessary; the Germans were not interested in seizing another stretch of French territory. If they were unable to knock France out of the war by capturing their capital, then the next best thing was to hold the Western Allies at bay while the Germans systematically defeated the Russians. Throughout 1915, the Germans concentrated on mastering the construction and use of their trenches. They permitted the Allies to initiate the deadly offensives, having realized that the attackers always suffered heavier casualties in this war.
The Chief of the German General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, decided to make an exception to this rule. His first major challenge was the original problem of World War One, namely, that Germany faced a two-front war. Events had turned the Schlieffen Plan upside down: instead of knocking France out of the war quickly, so that Germany could concentrate on Russia, the Germans found the Western Front intractable, while the Eastern Front offered good opportunities for a gradual victory. In the immediate term, the Germans could afford to sit and wait in the west, but this could not go on indefinitely. Germany faced two major enemies in the West, and the disparity in men and supplies only grew with time, not least because of the naval blockade.
His second major problem is that battlefield mobility had become a distant memory on the Western Front. Generals dreamed of mastering the formula to create breakthroughs, but so far none had been found. Falkenhayn saw clearly that, instead, this war hinged on gradual attrition, and in the long run, this could not favor Germany. In time, the combined forces of France and England would beat Germany in a war of attrition.
Falkenhayn’s solution was to try to accelerate attrition in the time and place of his own choosing. It was the combination of England and France that threatened Germany; Falkenhayn meant to separate England and France, both strategically and tactically, and to use attrition as the means to accomplish it. Essentially, he saw France as the weaker partner, and so if he could do enough damage to the French war effort, he could pull the Allies from each other. Tactically, he wanted to engage France in a sector where the English could not realistically offer any aid, so that all casualties would be French. For this to work, the target had to be important enough that the French would be willing to make the gravest of sacrifices to maintain it.
To Falkenhayn, the obvious target was Verdun. While it had no real military value, French pride would not permit it to be captured. The French were willing to fight to the last to keep this city. Tactically, Verdun offered a few other advantages. As Falkenhayn knew, the salient offered the Germans the opportunity to amass an enormous collection of artillery, and to bombard with converging fire. What he did not know was that the French defenders had been reduced to one line of trenches. Indeed, Falkenhayn might well have accomplished precisely the sort of breakthrough that British and French generals had sought for over a year, if only he had planned for one.
German preparations were executed with characteristic efficiency. The weather turned inclement, however, and the Germans were compelled to postpone the attack repeatedly; on February 21, nine days late, the attack began.
The artillery barrage began with deadly ferocity, and on the first day, the French defenders were duly surprised. Their confusion was amplified by their effective isolation from higher leadership and active intelligence efforts, and yet, the Germans made few gains. Much of this can be laid at Falkenhayn’s own feet. He conveyed little of his intentions (which is the essence of the problem here) but it seems that he had no expectation of capturing Verdun, at least in the early phases of the battle. When the French took the bait, Falkenhayn already saw his objectives met. For this reason, his orders provided for only limited efforts to exploit opportunities created by the artillery. Significantly, the German effort was focused solely on the right bank of the Meuse, and within a few days, the French were able to build up artillery of their own on the left bank.
February 25 saw the capture of Fort Douaumont by the Germans, and the further galvanization of French resistance. General Henri Petain was placed in charge of the defense, and this was fortuitous for two reasons. The first is that he inspired belief and elan in the men under his command, and the French needed both. The second is that he was keenly aware of his army’s material needs, and he had the organizational skills to meet them. Artillery fire had spoiled any hope of rail supply, but Petain seized upon the potential of a single road by which men and supplies might be cycled into and out of Verdun. Dubbed the “Sacred Way,” this road ensured that Verdun could hold out until the attack was finally abandoned by the Germans.
Even so, the defense remained a close affair; by June, it still seemed possible that the Germans could win. Verdun was too far from English forces for any direct assistance, and perhaps such assistance would have been rebuffed for reasons of national pride anyway. Petain was able to secure a different kind of assistance: a second front.
The Allies had already been planning for a joint operation along the river Somme when the Battle of Verdun began. The Somme Offensive was shelved when France’s attention was fixed upon Verdun, but now Petain appealed to his superiors for a return to those plans with all possible haste. The Battle of the Somme diverted men and resources from the German effort at Verdun. By the end of August, the cumulative weight of several failures led to the end of Falkenhayn’s tenure as Chief of the General Staff.
He was replaced by the highly successful team of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. They affirmed Germany’s defensive posture, and Ludendorff instituted a variety of tactical improvements that helped the Germans to hold on for more than three months. The last major action of Verdun was carried out on December 15.
Falkenhayn had accomplished his goal, but in the end, Germany did not profit by it. Losses were high on both sides. France suffered some 377,000 casualties, of which more than 160,000 were killed; Germany sustained somewhere around 340,000 casualties, of which more than 140,000 were killed. The most that one could say about these figures is to observe that in every other offensive of the war, the attacker sustained higher casualties than the defender. Both sides were exhausted, and neither obtained any advantage by way of recompense.
Horne, Alistair. The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916. Penguin, 1994
Livesey, Anthony. Great Battles of World War I. Smithmark Publishers, Inc. 1997
Ousby, Ian. The Road to Verdun: World War I’s Most Momentous Battle and the Folly of Nationalism. Knopf Doubleday, 2009
Simkins, Peter. The First World War (2): The Western Front 1914-1916. Osprey, 2002
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