Articles/History/World War I/Battle of Verdun

The Battle of Verdun was one of the longest and bloodiest battles in human history, taking place during World War I. The battle was between German and French forces and took place from February 21, 1916 to December 18, 1916. The location was around the city of Verdun-sur-Meuse in the northeastern part of France. By the end of the battle, more than 250,000 people died and more than a million people were wounded.

The German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, decided to attack the city of Verdun-sur-Meuse in order to force the French into a battle of attrition and wear down their army. Prior to the battle, the Germans had failed to make significant breakthroughs in the war, with trench warfare allowing little progress. At the time, the city was surrounded by a number of forts and stood as an important stronghold for the French. For the Germans, it was also an obstacle in the path to Paris. Falkenhayn also realized that the Germans would have a slight advantage in terms of logistics, since the German railway was only twelve miles from the city. In a memo to the Kaiser, he said "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."

Although Verdun was surrounded by about sixty French forts, they were under-supplied since French General Joseph Joffre believed their utility in modern warfare was limited at best. In the early years of World War I, the forts had been stripped of about fifty artillery batteries and 128,000 rounds of ammunition, which were sent out as reinforcements along the French line. At the start of the battle, the forts only had a total of three hundred guns and little ammunition.

The German Army intended to attack on February 12, 1916, but bad weather forced it to be delayed until the 21st of February. In the meantime, the French were able to reinforce their positions, ending up with 34 French battalions facing 72 German battalions. The Germans began the battle with a bombardment by 1200 guns on the French positions, firing over a million shells. The heavy bombardment was one of the largest in World War I and history and the sound could reportedly be heard over one hundred miles away.

After the barrage, the Germans sent their 3rd, 7th, and 18th Corps in to attack, equipping some soldiers with flamethrowers to clear trenches. The force of the German offensive caught the French by surprise, causing them to lose some ground. Within the first 24 hours, the Germans advanced three miles and pushed the French to Samogneux, Beaumont, Ornes. A French leader, Colonel Emile Driant, was also killed during the offensive.

On February 24th, the Germans captured Beaumont and were making good progress. On the 25th, a 10-strong German patrol from the 24th Infantry Regiment managed to capture Fort Douaumont while the 56-strong French garrison was asleep. The German progress led the French to reinforce the area with the French Second Army and place General Philippe Petain in command of forces in the Verdun area. Petain reorganized the French lines by adding troops to the forts and establishing artillery positions in the rear.

On February 29th, the German advance was slowed at Douaumont due to heavy snowfall and the French 33rd Infantry Regiment. Captain Charles de Gaulle, future French President, was a company leader in the regiment and was taken prisoner during the fighting near Douaumont. While the Germans struggled to move forward, the French were reinforced with 90,000 men and 23,000 tons of ammunition.


Typical terrain in the area after artillery bombardment

By this time, the Germans were finding it much harder to advance since they were no longer under the cover of their artillery. The battlefield was very rough and muddy from the continuous shelling and this made it difficult for the troops to move ahead, let alone artillery batteries. The Germans were also moving into the range of French artillery, which made each advance in the open quite dangerous. By the time the Germans captured Douaumont on March 2, 1916, they had lost four of their regiments to French fire.

The Germans found it impossible to push directly for Verdun from this point, therefore they began attacking the French flank near Le Mort Homme on March 6th and Hill 304 on March 20th. The Germany artillery bombarded the area with 800 guns and four million shells, reducing the height of Hill 304 by several meters in the process. The Germans seized Bois des Corbeaux briefly before losing it to a French counter-attack. On March 9th, they tried again and were able to seize Hill 304, Chattancourt, and Le Mort Homme.

On May 1st, Petain was promoted and replaced with General Robert Nivelle. The Germans next focused their attack on Fort Vaux (northeast of Verdun), which was subjected to heavy shelling from the German artillery. The Germans took over the surface portion of the fort, then worked on clearing out the underground corridors. On June 7, 1916, the French forces surrendered Fort Vaux after running out of water.


Fort Vaux after the battle

The Germans continued moving forward, heading southeast towards Verdun. Their next obstacle was Fort Souville, which the Germans reduced to rubble with artillery bombardment, but the French held the underground tunnels. On June 22nd, the Germans hit the area with diphosgene gas shells, then attacked with 30,000 men. After taking Fleury, they advanced on Souville, but only about a hundred German soldiers managed to make it to the fort due to the heavy French defense. The Germans were then forced to retreat from the fort when the French opened up fire with 75mm artillery.

Fort Souville became the high mark of the German offensive against Verdun on June 22, 1916. The Germans were forced to divert some of their artillery to the north, where the Battle of the Somme was raging. The Germans made no real progress over the next several months and forces on both sides were fatigued by fall. Falkenhayn was also replaced by Paul von Hindenburg as German Chief of the General Staff.

On October 24, 1916, French General Nivelle launched a counter-offensive on the German lines. The French artillery bombarded Fort Douaumont using new 400 mm railway guns that fired 2000 lb shells. The Germans pulled back from the fort, allowing the French to recapture it on October 24th. On November 2nd, the French recaptured Fort Vaux. On December 11th, the French started a new offensive, pushing the Germans back even further to Louvremont and Bezonvaux.


Fort Douaumont After The Battle (Aerial View)

On December 18, 1916 the Battle of Verdun was considered over and it was clear that the Germans would not reach Verdun. The Germans managed to inflict more casualties on the French, but failed to meet the 2:1 casualty ratio that they had hoped for. Over the battle, 70% of France's Army was rotated through the area, whereas only 25% of the German Army saw fighting at Verdun. French losses were estimated at 161,000 dead, 101,000 missing, and 216,000 wounded. German losses were estimated at 142,000 killed and 187,000 wounded. About 75% of the casualties were believed to be from artillery fire. During the first 5 months of the battle, the French used 15 million artillery rounds and the Germans fired an estimated 21 million artillery rounds over the length of the battle. The landscape in the area was forever altered from the heavy artillery bombardment and an estimated 100,000 corpses were lost in the battlefield.

One of the reasons that the French were successful in defending the area was that they improved their logistics. They were able to use constant trucking to bring in troops and ammunition as well as construct a railway line to the area during the summer of 1916. The Germans did not anticipate this, and it was the most likely cause of the failure of their offensive. The French also realized the importance of their fortifications in winning the battle, leading them to create the fortified Maginot Line to defend their border with Germany after World War I.