Fields of Verdun
In late 1915 German army Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn was looking up and down the map of the Western front.
It had been more than a year since the stalemate and trench warfare had begun there. The home front was already suffering under the naval blockade, and he feared a war of attrition that the German Empire could only lose. He needed to go on the offensive.
To Falkenhayn, the weakest point of the Western Front was the British sector, and attacking at Artois could, he believed, lead to a decisive breakthrough that would collapse the whole Western Front. But he’d learned the hard way that without eliminating or at least tying down the French beforehand, the defence would be too strong. In order to deliver the blow in the north, he would attack at a place further south that would draw in as many French forces as possible. It must be a place the enemy could not afford to lose, for strategic or propagandistic purposes, and would thus fight until wiped out. Such a place was Verdun.
Symphony of the devil
Verdun was not Falkenhayn’s first choice, since it was a heavily fortified area, but it was also a commanding location. By capturing the heights east of the River Meuse and loading them with artillery, the Germans could constantly threaten the city and the local defences, forcing the French to continuously attack the German defences. The French would be tied down, and if they lost badly, the British would be forced to intervene. In the best case, they would hastily execute an offensive at the Somme, suffer heavy casualties as well, and open themselves up for a decisive German counterattack. Falkenhayn concluded that if Verdun was successful, there would be peace before the summer of 1916.
The key to the attack was heavy artillery. Total destruction, then attack battalions and pioneers storming the hills in a wedge towards the mighty fortress of Douaumont, taking the remnants of the other fortresses that were surely destroyed by the heavy bombardment. Preparations were made over the winter, massing artillery pieces of all calibres and millions of shells. The attack was planned for February once the weather cleared.
On February 21, the bad winter weather finally cleared and German aircraft and observation balloons hit the skies. At 07:12 came the order to attack. The largest concentration of guns in history at this point opened up in a violent concert, described by witnesses as the symphony of the devil. Even in the Vosges near the Swiss border, the thunder of the German guns could be heard.
In an intensity never witnessed before, the barrage destroyed whole forests, blowing trees metres high into the air, and raining stones and earth on the poor souls on the ground. Some soldiers were simply obliterated, torn apart by the force of the guns, others were buried alive deep in their trenches or bunkers. Then the German combat troops emerged from the saps with grenades, wire cutters and flamethrowers. With the advantage of surprise, they stormed the first French lines. Through ice, rain and snow, the soldiers fought, as rifle shots and grenades burst in their midst. Trench after trench, the Germans gained a foothold, despite fierce resistance from well camouflaged machine guns and blockhouses.
Losing Verdun – not an option
For French army Chief of Staff Josef Joffre, Verdun wasn’t really that important, at least militarily.
If the Germans could not be held on the eastern bank of the Meuse, the French would retreat and build new positions on the western bank. This was what Falkenhayn feared. But French President Aristide Briand made it perfectly clear that losing Verdun was unacceptable. Not only would the psychological effect be disastrous for the French public, but it would also undermine the trust in the current government, and if Briand lost his job, so would Joffre, so giving up Verdun was out of the question. This is exactly what Falkenhayn had hoped for.
However, though the Germans advanced the first weeks, it was not nearly as far as Falkenhayn had calculated, and the French had brought in reserves and Philippe Petain to lead the men. The most important heights were still far away and under French control, and taking the fortress of Douaumont was the key towards those heights.
Unlike the big fortresses in Belgium that had quickly fallen to modern heavy artillery, the French had used a stronger special concrete for Douaumont that just would not break, and the fortress soon seemed like an island in an ocean of fire and shrapnel. Small platoons of German soldiers that crept towards the fortress in early March found that it was actually mostly empty, and the strongest fortress of Europe was thus taken by a German officer with a pistol and a lot of valour.
Fort Douaumont is for many the symbol of the Battle of Verdun. The Germans celebrated its fall, but Douaumont was a trap for the men inside. Every direct artillery hit put out the lights, and the men cowered in darkness for days, living in their own waste, sharing their food with rats and lice, while the stench of the dead and the screams of the wounded haunted the long corridors. But this was still better than what the soldiers outside the fortress walls had to endure in the meat-grinder that was Verdun.
The French had just one supply road out of range of the German artillery. Only trucks for military purposes were allowed to use that road, and soon, over 3,000 trucks a day were bringing men, ammunition and supplies up the road. If one broke down, it was simply pushed off the road which became known as the Voie Sacrée – the holy road.
The German offensive began to drastically lose momentum. The whole area of Verdun had become a maze of trenches and shell holes, where death was always near. This was an area of only 30km2, and the death toll grew to the hundreds of thousands. The name ‘Verdun’ became synonymous with the mechanised death of the Great War, but it really bound the French together. Petain had ordered a new rotation system where no soldier was supposed to stay longer than 10 days in the frontlines before being rotated out. This meant most soldiers in the French army had gone through Verdun.
Lack of progress
By April, the lack of progress was turning the whole idea of Verdun into a farce. The more reserves Falkenhayn committed to the operation, the fewer they had ready for the “real” attack against the British. Falkenhayn had to choose: stop the offensive and defend the gains that were made or keep up the offensive but with all available forces. Half-measures were now unacceptable. He would keep up the offensive.
June arrived and Falkenhayn officially declared “bleeding dry” as the main aim of the offensive.
But bad news also arrived. Russian General Alexei Brusilov launched his offensive on the Eastern Front. It was a spectacular success and Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungary, might be knocked out of the war. German reinforcements bound for Verdun would instead head east immediately.
And more bad news – the French now had air superiority in the west, thanks to the new Nieuport 11 planes and air to air Lancier rockets. Time was running out for a German victory at Verdun. Falkenhayn launches what he hoped was the final attack, towards Fort Vaux and the heights around the village of Fleury. On June 7, Fort Vaux falls. A victory for the Germans for sure, but was this the turning point at Verdun?
Not quite. For Fort Souville still stood in the way of victory. June marked the limit of their advance at Verdun. On June 23, French General Robert Nivelle gave his famous order: “Vous ne les laisserez pas passer, mes camarades,” which was later shortened to: “Ils ne passeront pas.” They will not pass. And indeed, they did not.
The French held out in June, and on July 1, the British began their relief attack at the Somme. The pressure there forced German reserves away from Verdun to the north. With the Russians still advancing in the east, there were no options for Falkenhayn available – he had to dig in at Verdun as the three largest battles in history at this point all raged simultaneously.
But by August, Petain had a 7:1 advantage in artillery, and the German positions were pounded day and night.
And as if things weren’t bad enough, Romania joined the Allies – a new front and hundreds of thousands of new enemies emerge overnight. Falkenhayn lost the confidence of his Kaiser and then lost his job. Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Lundendorff were to take over running the German army.
That of course did not mean that the battle was simply over, but it was France’s turn to attack. Petain brought in two 40cm caliber railway guns to fire 900kg shells on Fort Douaumont, which finally cracked. Eight months after its fall, the French retook the Fort in early November, and their counterattack was relentless. What the Germans captured over months of fighting, the French reclaimed in mere hours. By the end of 1916 the frontlines were nearly back where they were in February. For a few kilometres of land, hundreds of thousands of men lost their lives.
Brutal, mechanised modern war
The Battle of Verdun lasted 303 days and nights. Estimates of the total casualties run as high as one million men, though it was likely closer to 700,000. It was the longest battle of the First World War, and for many of the war’s soldiers, it was the epitome of brutal, mechanised modern war.
Many veterans would later remember Verdun by its smell, the mixture of gas, bodies that lay for months unburied and the mass graves that were churned up by artillery fire. Corpses that lay for months in the dead zones of no-man’s land were mummified, the faces frozen in their final expression before death. The soldiers advancing into the forward trenches often had to stomp over the corpses and body parts of their dead comrades. Only the flies and rats thrived at Verdun in 1916.
It has been accepted history for a century that Falkenhayn’s intention was to bleed France dry at Verdun, but this may not be the case. Falkenhayn claimed that this was his plan from the get-go, and he wrote about it in his 1915 Christmas memorandum to the Kaiser. However, the Kaiser never mentions such a memorandum and there is no actual evidence that it ever really existed. Falkenhayn may well have made all of this up as an excuse after the fact to explain his failure.
If you prefer a visual representation of the above story, watch our Sabaton History episode, Fields of Verdun – The Battle of Verdun:
Changing strategies following Verdun
One of the reasons why the French military was beaten in World War II was the Battle of Verdun, fought over two decades earlier. It was because of the experiences of the Battle of Verdun that the French military had fundamentally changed its strategies.
That battle burned itself deep into the cultural memory of France, and of the Great War as a whole. Just the name “Verdun” invokes reverence among the French – not of a glorious victory or a noble defeat, but of a terrible slaughter in which the French soldiers had prevailed by grim determination. For 10 months, beginning in the early morning hours of February 21, 1916, when over 1,200 German heavy guns opened up in unison to engulf the whole area in fire and smoke, the bombardments would not stop. For 302 days, German and French soldiers found themselves trapped in a vicious battle for the possession of the hills and fortresses of Verdun.
It would become the “meat grinder”, the triumph of machine over man. And it was the place where “elan” went to die. “Elan” is a philosophical concept that there is a vital force deep within every man that pushes him onward with purpose and conviction. It was also the belief that soldiers, unshaken in their desire for victory, ready to face pain or even death without hesitation, could ultimately overcome anything the enemy could throw at them. It was a concept that was linked to the past, retroactively attributed to the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. Putting their trust in France’s greatest commander, long lines of foot soldiers marched fearlessly into the musket fire of their adversaries, unfazed by the cannon balls tearing into their ranks. As long as they kept their faith, they would be victorious over the tools of the enemy. That was indeed a widespread belief in the French officer corps as the Great War began.
That fixation on the old glorious Napoleonic era was not just embodied by the brightly coloured, armoured and plumed cuirassiers that rode out to battle in August 1914. Most of the French battlefield doctrines revolved around the rapid deployment of the French 75, an excellent, rapid-firing light artillery piece, that was expected to dominate the battlefield. Its batteries would be close to the front, supporting the rapid advance of the French infantry, and together they would achieve a quick decisive victory. The idea of sitting back and shooting at the enemy from afar was never really accepted, as everything was centred on an offensive push. Heavy artillery was considered useful in siege warfare against fortresses. French pre-war high command, however, judged fortresses to be a thing of the past, and obsolete in the face of modern high explosives shells.
The reality of Great War trench warfare proved them all dramatically wrong. As the German heavy guns were obliterating the French field positions with unparalleled force in the early stages of Verdun, the French were still trying to catch up with production. It was the durability of the fortresses, and the unrelenting defensive fire of the field guns and the infantry that stemmed the tide against the German attackers. Despite the German heavy artillery dominating the area through its sheer firepower, the French kept the enemy from breaking through.
Consequently, Verdun proved not to be the war-deciding battle the Germans had hoped for. It would be a battle of attrition instead. Both the German and the French commanders soon spoke about how they would bleed the enemy dry, or how one side would eventually out-kill the other. It would be only a matter of time.
Fighting systematically and methodically
A hundred years earlier, Napoleon would have had to stand on a nearby hill to overlook the battlefield in person, as well-timed orders decided over victory or defeat. Now, there was enough time for Generals far away to lean over their large maps with markers in hand and plan for weeks ahead. The war of attrition was fought systematically and methodically, as mathematicians calculated the most effective killing zones of the heavy guns. Verdun made it clear that the war was fought not only by its soldiers, but by its scientists and factories as well. The side that gave their guns a slightly better range, made their explosives more devastating, or supplied the larger calibres quicker than the other, controlled the flow of battle. In 1914, they had expected that the whole French arsenal needed 13,600 shells a day to keep the 75s operational. By 1916, the number had risen to 77,000, and by then, they were also building and supplying heavy guns and howitzers. In the 10 months of the Battle of Verdun, over sixty million shells would rain down over the battlefields – approximately six tons for every metre of the front.
Even if Napoleon could have looked over Verdun, what was there for him to see? Crater after crater in a barren wasteland, hidden by smoke and gas so thick that it sometimes blotted out the sun itself. If he were lucky, he would have seen men, but not those armies of old, marching in rows in their bright red and blue uniforms, but small groups of nervous men covered in dirt and mud, who pressed themselves to the ground. It didn’t matter what Napoleon would have said to them, he could not have made himself heard anyway. The constant noise of detonating explosives, of rumbling mortars, grinding gears, barking machine-guns and whistling mines drowned out every spoken word. It was an inhuman concert of guns that played songs of destruction. The Germans called it “Trommelfeuer”, because it sounded like smashing the hide of drums for hours and hours on end without stopping. In “quiet” moments, the veterans were able to distinguish the size of the incoming shells by the sound they made in the air. A small one sounded different from a large calibre shell, and they soon knew when and where they had to make the split-second decision to dive for cover.
The fumes and odours of spent gunpowder, of chemicals like ammonium and chlorine, of charred wood and decaying corpses, soon made their way into the tunnels and dugouts, where the soldiers spent their days. Here, they huddled together, fearing asphyxiation or entombment, as incoming projectiles trembled the earth above them. Whole villages had simply disappeared, blasted off the earth, and woods were reduced to skeletal remains. The same fate awaited the men unlucky enough to be caught out in the open.
An inhumane, nightmarish hell
It was this inhumanity, this nightmarish hell, that gave Verdun such a lasting effect on the cultural history of the Great War. It was the intensity of the conflict, the force of mechanical warfare pitted against fragile humanity. For decades, the veterans of Verdun declared that millions must have died here, that nothing could compare to the destruction they endured. It was the capital of death, the slaughterhouse, the bone mill. In reality, in the 10 months of battle, the French army suffered approximately 375,000 casualties. In contrast, from just August to November 1914, the war of manoeuvre had cost the French 850,000 casualties. In a weird paradox, the war of the machines had actually saved lives.
No more “Elan”
More and more men were pulled from the infantry and instead assigned to the artillery regiments or the aviation corps. In June 1916, the French reduced their infantry battalions from four to three companies, effectively reducing their size from 1,000 to 750 men each. “More Firepower” was emphasised, not numbers, and the now smaller infantry detachments were simply upgraded with the blessings of the machine god. More mortars, more grenade launchers, more machine guns and automatic rifles. No one mentioned “elan” anymore. Even the smallest infantry attacks were not to be undertaken without adequate artillery support.
Verdun was really the moment when the French military reversed their thinking. Speed was now of secondary importance, as men could not outrun the thunder of guns. Instead, the soldiers were suddenly encouraged to take their time, to remain in smaller, but cohesive groups, and only to move under the cover of heavy artillery. Napoleon’s offensives were now finally a thing of the past. Of course, this change took time to became overall dogma, and the disaster of the French Nivelle Offensive a year later showed that lives were still easily spent on the battlefield. But the overall idea, that machines and artillery were to ultimately prevent casualties while inflicting more on the enemy, began to manifest itself.
The shadow of the Great War was long and the lessons of Verdun had changed French military thinking from the ground up. Waterloo had once lasted 10 hours, Verdun 10 months. Like Verdun, the next war was expected to be a long one as well, ending by a victory through attrition. Defences were therefore built. The Maginot Line was actually an entire defence system running from the channel to the Mediterranean and beyond. Named after André Maginot, who had been severely wounded in the war of movement in November 1914 near Verdun, it was to protect France from such a fate once more. On the more open ground of the littoral and northern France, it had fewer constructions, because fighting a war of motion on that ground would be suicidal for the attackers. Further east along the borders with Germany and Italy, it featured a mutually supporting line of forts, casemates and bunkers designed with Verdun in mind – with static mechanical war in mind.
But it gave them a false sense of security, for the Germans embraced the ideas of speed and quick battlefields manoeuvres once again. No one could have foreseen the future, of course, but the Verdun mindset on which many of the French decisions of WWII were based, would have severe consequences.
As history fanatics, the gripping story of The Battle of Verdun truly impacted us as a band and heavily inspired our song ‘Fields of Verdun‘ which is featured on our album, The Great War. Take a look at the lyrics we wrote here.
Our Sabaton History episode, Fields of Verdun II – The Guns of Verdun, takes you on a visual journey of France’s changing military strategies following The Battle of Verdun. Watch it now: