18 décembre 2005

La bataille du Verdun a fini, le 18 décembre 1916

The Battle of Verdun ended 18 December 1916

German dead at Verdun

"Ils ne passeront pas!”
"They shall not pass"
— attributed to French Field Marshall Philippe Pétain

The Battle of Verdun was a major battle of the Western Front in World War I. The battle was fought between the German and French armies between le 21 février and le 19 décembre 1916 around Verdun-sur-Meuse in northeastern France. It resulted in more than a quarter of a million deaths and about half a million wounded. It was the longest battle of World War I, and the second bloodiest after the battle of the Somme, also in 1916.

After the Germans failed to achieve a quick victory in 1914, the war of movement soon bogged down into a stalemate on the Western Front. Trench warfare was developed and neither side could achieve a breakthrough.

In 1915 all attempts to force a breakthrough — by the Germans at Ypres, by the British at Neuve Chapelle and by the French at Champagne — had failed, with terrible casualties the only result.

The German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, believed that although a breakthrough might no longer be possible, nonetheless the French could be defeated if they suffered enough casualties. He therefore planned to attack a position from which the French could not retreat, for both strategic reasons and reasons of national pride, and so impose a ruinous battle of attrition on the French armies. The town of Verdun-sur-Meuse was chosen for this "bleeding white" of the French: the town, surrounded by a ring of forts, was an important stronghold that projected into the German lines and guarded the direct route to Paris. Rather than a traditional military victory, Verdun was planned as a vehicle for destroying the French army.

Falkenhayn wrote to the Kaiser:

"The string in France has reached breaking point. A mass breakthrough — which in any case is beyond our means — is unnecessary. Within our reach there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death."

Falkenhayn’s choice of Verdun as the focus of the German offensive was shrewd. Although relegated by France to the status of a minor fortress during the early stages of the war, France having lost faith in the value of fortress defences, Verdun maintained a great psychological hold in the minds of the French people. On a practical level the woods immediately behind Verdun would have proved far easier to defend than the Verdun forts.

The last fortress town to fall to the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, Verdun’s fortifications had been significantly boosted in the 1880s to withstand further attacks. In addition its status as an important fortress since Roman times guaranteed recognition of the name ‘Verdun’ to most Frenchmen. In short, it was of greater value symbolically than strategically. Falkenhayn counted upon this.

Verdun was poorly defended, but good intelligence, and a delay in the German attack due to bad weather, gave the French time to rush two divisions to the area.

The battle began on le 21 février 1916 with a nine-hour artillery bombardment firing 1,000,000 shells by 1,200 guns on a front of 40 kilometres, followed by an attack by the 3rd, 7th, and 18th German Army Corps. The Germans used flamethrowers for the first time to clear the French trenches. By le 23 février, the Germans had advanced three miles, captured the Bois des Caures, and pushed the French defenders back to Samogneux, Beaumont, and Ornes. Poor communications meant that only now did the French command realize the seriousness of the attack.

German artillery left its calling card at the city of Verdun

On le 24 février 1916 the French defenders fell back again from their second line of defence, but were saved from disaster by the appearance of the 20th Corps under General Balfourier. Intended as relief, the new arrivals were thrown into combat immediately. On le 25 février 1916 the 24th Brandenburg Division captured a centre-piece of France's fortifications — Fort Douaumont — with hardly a shot being fired.

With the Germans now within reach of Verdun, the French teetered on the edge of disaster. The chief of staff of the French army, General de Castelnau, appointed Field Marshal Philippe Pétain commander of the Verdun area and ordered Pétain's French 2nd Corps to Verdun. The German attack was slowed down by tenacious defence of the village of Douaumont by the French 33rd infantry regiment and heavy snowfall. This gave the French time to bring up 90,000 men and 23,000 tonnes of ammunition from the railhead at Bar-le-Duc to Verdun.

French 87th Regiment at Verdun

As in so many other offensives on the Western Front, by advancing, the German troops had lost effective artillery cover. With the battlefield turned into a sea of mud through continual shelling it was very difficult to move artillery guns forward. The advance also brought the German troops into range of French artillery on the west bank of the Meuse. Each new advance thus became costlier than the previous one. When the village of Douaumont was finally captured on le 2 mars 1916 four German regiments had been destroyed.

The living and the dead in the trenches at Verdun

Unable to make any further progress against Verdun frontally, the Germans turned to the flanks, attacking the hill of Le Mort Homme, appropriately enough, "dead man's hill," on le 6 mars and Fort Vaux onle 8 mars. In three months of savage fighting the Germans captured the villages of Cumières and Chattancourt to the west of Verdun, and Fort Vaux to the east surrendered on le 7 juin. The losses were terrible on both sides. Pétain attempted to spare his troops by remaining on the defensive, but he was relieved on le 1 mai and replaced with the more attack-minded General Robert Nivelle.

The Germans' next objective was Fort Souville. On le 22 juin 1916 they shelled the French defences with the poison gas diphosgene, and attacked the next day with 60,000 men, taking the battery of Thiaumont and the village of Fleury. But they were unable to capture Souville, though the fighting around it continued until le 6 septembre.

To take pressure off of Verdun, the French persuaded the British to begin the planned offensive on the Somme early. The opening of the Battle of the Somme on le 1 juillet 1916 forced the Germans to withdraw some of their artillery from Verdun to counter the combined Anglo-French offensive to the north.

By the autumn, the German soldiers were exhausted and Falkenhayn had been replaced as chief of staff by Paul von Hindenburg and as commander at Verdun by General Erich Ludendorff.

The French launched a counter-offensive on le 21 octobre 1916, using the technique of the creeping barrage for the first time. Fort Douaumont was bombarded with new 400 mm guns (brought up on rails and directed by spotter planes), and captured on le 24 octobre. On le 2 novembre the Germans abandoned Fort Vaux and retreated. A final French offensive beginning on le 11 décembre drove the Germans back to their starting positions.

German plane shot down at Verdun.
Note the mangled body of the pilot.

In the horrible mathematics of the war, it was crucial that the smaller and more slowly increasing populations of Germany and the Central Powers inflict many more casualties on their adversaries than they themselves suffered. At Verdun, Germany did inflict more casualties on the French than they incurred - but not in the 2:1 ratio that they had hoped for. Verdun brought the French to the brink of collapse, but it did not push their forces over the edge.

Nonetheless, France's losses were appalling. It was the perceived humanity of Field Marshal Philippe Pétain who insisted that troops be regularly rotated in the face of such horror that helped seal his reputation. The rotation of forces meant that 70% of France's army went through "the wringer of Verdun", as opposed to the 25% of the German forces who saw action there. The loss of life and effect on morale stretched the French army to the very edge of mutiny, but mutiny was avoided by promises by the French army leadership that they would no longer engage in costly offensives.

France's army was subsequently plagued not with desertions, but rather with a general refusal to march face-first into the teeth of German defensive positions. France's troops remained in their trenches, willing to fight only in a defensive capacity.

This reluctance of French troops to fight offensively was the seed, a seed fertilized by the French collapse before the German blitzkreig in World War II, from which has grown the belief that the French would rather surrender than fight. This is epitomized by U.S. political writer Jonah Goldberg's "Simpsons"-based sneer that the French are "Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys."

Of the many tragedies borne of World War I, the senseless loss of an entire generation of European and British men in the trenches is the greatest. Much of this slaughter was due to the lingering class-consciousness on both sides from previous generations. The officers came from the upper classes, the men in the trenches came from the laboring class. Officers and men did not mix or mingle. The officers sitting in their requistioned châteaux, "calling the shots," and rarely, if ever, visiting the front lines to see first hand what their orders had wrought. The reluctance of French troops in World War I to go on the offensive was engendered by their experience in the cold, muddy, rat and disease infested trenches from which they fought, where the gain of a only a few yards of earth was bought at the price of hundreds of dead and wounded. The officers on either side, by not visiting the fronts, not seeing first hand the results of their orders, could smugly watch each side, in the words of the German Chief of Staff von Falkenhayn, try to bleed the other white.

World War II U.S. Army General George Patton had fought in the trenches of France in World War I, narrowly escaping death several times. Patton's experience in the trenches of World War I shaped his style in the second war. He was fierce on the attack, but managed to develop methods that spared his men. His style is exemplified in his famous quote:

"No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country."

At Whitehall in London, on the island in the center of the street between the Admiralty building and the old War Department building, there is a statue of British General Haig, one of the most class-conscious of World War I British Generals. Irish actor Liam Neeson commented that the war was "...such a carnage and waste: a million and a half young men died, and they have statues in Whitehall to the fuckwits who engineered it. Haig and all those old bastards up on their horses." Ernest Hemingway wrote that the war was "The most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery that has ever taken place on earth."

Statue of British General Haig in Whitehall, the War Department building is the white building in the background. Of Haig, Liam Neeson commented: "...such a carnage and waste: a million and a half young men died, and they have statues in Whitehall to the fuckwits who engineered it. Haig and all those old bastards up on their horses."

Winston Churchill was among those appalled at the butchery in the trenches of France. He had urged several methods by which the deadly stalemate could be broken. Churchill was the "father" of the tank, but was frustrated that it was not used as effectively as he had envisioned. Two young officers who saw the same potential for the tank as Churchill were the French Charles de Gaulle and the American George Patton. Another method Churchill saw to break the stalemate on the western front was to make a thrust up what he called the "soft underbelly of Europe" by entering through the Dardenelles where Turkey sits astraddle Europe and Asia. As discussed in the post (linked above) about Churchill on his birthday, the Dardenelles campaign was lost by the officers on the ground not taking advantage of their initial successes and by political infighting in the British War Department. Churchill became the scapegoat and lost his position as First Lord of the Admiralty. He then became a Major in the British Army and went to the trenches in France. He turned down several opportunities to work behind the lines, but refused, believing the officers should be up at the front with the men. Seeing first hand what the behind the lines officers were doing to their armies deeply disturbed Churchill.

Louis la Vache has not visited Verdun, but has driven through the French countryside in Champagne, around Coulommiers (where the German advance was stopped by U.S. troops arriving in Parisian taxis), seeing the graveyards of those slaughtered in "The Great War," as it is sometimes called. In the town squares all across France are monuments listing those who died in those four terrible years. It strikes many as odd that rather than fiercely fighting to drive the Germans from their homeland, the French troops succumbed to a depressing, melancholic willingness only to fight defensively rather than offensively. Louis finds himself wondering how he would have felt had he been in those ghastly trenches with those dispirited men. His World War I experiences taught Patton that morale is higher with troops on the attack than with troops on the defensive, that it is always better to attack (even when theoretically outnumbered) because the attack keeps the enemy from reorganizing, and that attacks cannot be static but must be dynamic - always move forward. Applying these lessons in World War II, Patton's Third Army captured more German-held territory faster and with fewer casualties to his own side than any army in history. Had Patton's advice been followed by Montgomery and Bradley at the Falaise Gap during the Normandie breakout in août 1944, the 240,000 German troops who escaped would not have come back to attack Allied positions through the Ardennes in what became the Battle of the Bulge.

French casualties during the battle were estimated at 550,000 with German losses set at 434,000, half of the total being fatalities. Verdun ended in a stalemate. No tactical or strategic advantage had been gained by either side.

The Germans did not succeed in destroying the French Army at Verdun, but they did succeed in destroying the spirit of the French Army there.

Cimetière à Verdun

Color photos of World War I

More Reading:

The Road to Verdun: World War I's Most Momentous Battle and the Folly of Nationalism
The Road to Verdun: World War I's Most Momentous Battle and the Folly of Nationalism

The First World War
The First World War

The following two books do not apply to the ground war, but they give excellent background on the events leading up to World War I and how dangerous Queen Victoria's grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II was. Also, these books give a splendid overview of Churchill's role in the war - and they are excellent "reads." They should be read together, starting with "Dreadnought." Louis la Vache highly recommends them.

Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War
Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War

Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea
Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea

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