Verdun: “They Shall not Pass!” (The bloody Summer of 1916- Pt 2)

(For the background to this post, see Pt 1, FOUND HERE)

The supreme German military commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, had chosen to attack Verdun for a number of reasons. Secondarily, the city and its surrounding fortifications, once in German hands, would be an easily defensible position. Primarily, however, he wanted to lure the French into launching desperate attacks to recapture a region, and there were few cities or areas which the French placed more value upon than Verdun.

A historic depiction of Verdun, the jewel of Northeastern France, c. 17th century.

Its position dominated a bend in the Meuse river, thus ensuring its importance as early as the 5th century, when the city had successfully resisted an attempt at capture by Attila the Hun. When the Peace of Westphalia divided up the old Holy Roman Empire in 1648, Verdun became a part of France, and the French quickly transformed the city into the heart of their Eastern defenses. A citadel in the center of the city was erected in the 17th century, with a double ring of forts surrounding the city as well. Several modernization programs kept the defenses up to date, spurred on by French defeat by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. By 1914, Verdun had become a symbol of French resistance: It’s concrete reinforced forts and other defenses were linked by telephone and underground narrow-gauge railways.

An example of what some of the defenses of Verdun’s forts looked like.

While we in modernity can point to Falkenhayn’s folly in attacking such a seriously fortified area, we would also do well to remember what was at stake: if Falkenhayn succeeded in taking Verdun, it would essentially end the war. Defensive tactics were far more successful than offensive tactics in the First World War, and Falkenhayn could have simply spent resources on increasing defenses in the area, confident in the knowledge that the French would repeatedly launch desperate attempts to recapture the city which symbolized their resistance to invading forces.

Attacks began in February, 1916, with a 12-hour long German artillery barrage. Over 100,000 shells fell on French defenses every hour. Over the course of the first month, the Germans managed to push forward only two miles. Even so, the threat to Verdun was very real.

Map of the Verdun battle-region. Notice the ebb and flow of the front lines over the course of 1916, with the Germans first advancing, then eventually falling back.

Mistakes by the French allowed Fort Douaumont to fall to the Germans. Supreme French commander Joseph Joffre quickly dismissed those who suggested a retreat from the area, even though they pointed out, correctly, that holding the rest of the region with that fort in German hands would cost them dearly. Indeed, the Germans soon realized that the French only had three very small supply lines into the region (A railroad, a narrow-gauge railway, and a macam road), and soon began lobbing artillery shells on them, taking a terrible toll both on supplies and reinforcements, as well as those attempting to retreat and recover. To this day, that road is called “The Sacred Way,” and is marked not by mileposts, but by the helmets of French soldiers.

A mile marker on “The Sacred Way”

By the end of March, the offensive had resulted in over 80,000 German casualties, and Falkenhayn was forced to admit that he had failed to seize the strategically important bulk of the Verdun region. The element of surprise was wholly gone now, as the French had heavily reinforced the area, realizing that their best chance to beat the German deathtrap was to prevent it from fully forming, defending Verdun at all costs, their troops shouting all the time: “Ils ne passeront pas!” (“They shall not pass!”). Falkenhayn  now had to make another difficult decision: to abandon the offensive as a failure, and risk the French counter-attacks, or to believe in those few commanders who urged that the attack on Fort Vaux be redoubled. They suggested that the Western edge of the battlefield, in front of the captured Fort Douaumont, had been strengthened, to the weakening of the area of Fort Vaux. If Fort Vaux could be captured, they reasoned, they might yet use these forts to wedge their way through the defenses.

What both sides failed to realize is that the majority of their casualties came not because of attacks, defenses, or the coordination thereof, but rather because of artillery. The longer their forces were concentrated in the area of Verdun, the greater the toll would be, and neither offensive nor defensive actions were likely to produce  strategically important results while the big guns continued their punishing work.

A French 370mm mortar.

The Germans indeed succeeded in capturing Fort Vaux, but only after fighting tooth and nail to remove every Frenchman from the underground tunnels, exacting a heavy toll on both sides. By July, the cost of the battle had risen to c. 185,000 French casualties, while the Germans had lost c. 200,000 troops. Two facts make these numbers even more horrific:

1) Though the German offensives would not continue as they had during the first half of the year, the Battle of Verdun would continue all the way through December 1916.

2) An entirely different battle would be launched in July in order to leech German reinforcements away from Verdun, and this new battle would become a bloodbath in its own rite: The British were attacking along the Somme river.

(I hope to finish the series about the summer of 1916 in two more posts)




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