The Battle of Verdun is rightly considered one of the more horrendous and lengthiest battles in history. Lasting almost 10 months between February and December 1916, the Battle of Verdun cost an estimated 700,000-800,000 casualties (dead, wounded, and missing) in an area no larger than 10 square kilometres. The German assault which commenced on February 21, 1916, fired over 2 million shells towards French defensive lines in the opening hours of battle alone. The battle would popularize the French phrase “Ils ne passeront pas” (“They shall not pass”) as the German and French army fought to decide the fate of the western front and the war itself. The Battle of Verdun would be a decisive confrontation of World War I, resulting in a victory that largely saved France. Verdun also came to symbolize French resistance and served as an important lesson when the Maginot Line was constructed to stop German aggression once again during World War II.
It is important to note that the French were not prepared for a German attack at Verdun. The Germans had chosen Verdun as the sight of their attack due the city’s strategic and national importance to the French. German Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, famously noted he wasn’t looking for a quick victory but to “bleed the French white”. A stroke of bad luck for the Germans meant bad weather delayed their initial plan of attack, allowing French troops sufficient time to be rushed to Verdun for its defence. On the morning of February 21, the German bombardment began in what would be an 8-9 hour ordeal with 100,000 ordinances landing on French lines every hour.
“…The French trenches are completely pulverised, phone lines and artillery destroyed entirely. Men are ripped to pieces, are buried underneath the earth or disappear into thin air when hit. Ancient trees are completely uprooted; human remains are hanging in the branches. It seems like the world is coming to an end. This horrible bombardment lasts more than 9 long hours.”
Roughly 80,000 German soldiers were mobilised for the offensive in February. The sheer mass of soldiers in such a small area has not been seen on the battlefield since. The Germans also began to utilize a new weapon: the flame thrower which inflicted horrendous injuries and death. For days, the German assault would continue unabated. It is difficult to adequately describe the level of death and destruction that occurred at Verdun. Of a company of 2,000 French soldiers at the front-lines for example, only 50 remained alive. 20,000 men were killed over the space of just a few days alone. Verdun was justifiably a killing field.
In the days and months after the initial attack both the French and German army were suffering a casualty rate in excess of 60 percent. Quick German advances could not be held as the battlefield had become a muddy mush in which moving heavy artillery and reinforcements was impossible. It wasn’t long before the battle descended into absolute stalemate. Changes to the command structure on both sides finally broke the deadlock near to the end of the year. French forces began retaking ground previously lost – kilometre by kilometre. The Germans made a gallant last ditch attempt to launch a final offensive in July towards the Souville sector where Germans had made the greatest advancement. In the end however, the Germans could never progress closer than 5 kilometres within Verdun – tantalizingly close to victory. By July 12, 1916, the Germans were instructed to assume a defensive position in a decision that would forever alter Germany’s momentum. Similarly, the Battle of the Somme (which was launched to relieve French positions at Verdun also in July) effectively relocated German units, thereby taking pressure off the French enough for the upper hand to be regained.
For the French, the capture of Fort Vaux between November 3 and December 21 very much signalled the final nail in Germany’s coffin. Almost 300 days and nights transpired and the victory, while symbolic, felt more like a loss for both sides. In August 1916, Erich von Falkenhayn submitted his resignation to German Emperor Wilhelm II. Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff would take over from Falkenhayn but no change in the German positions around Verdun were ordered. By December, France had won back nearly all the territory it had lost in February. On December 18, 1916, the Germans finally called off the attacks.
What remains most tragic is that the Battle of Verdun offered little tactical gain for either the Germans or the French. A French victory offered little respite from the horrific and unfathomable loss of life that occurred at Verdun and elsewhere. The Battle of Verdun came to be known as the ‘mincing machine’ for so many brave soldiers who seemingly died in vein. World War I may have revealed mankind at its worse, but not sufficiently so to avoid World War II with proceeded it by only twenty-one years. Verdun changed the course of the Great War. For that, it must be remembered as a battle equally decisive as it was destructive.
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