Renmore History Society

Like us on Facebook



Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required

Hint: click on any of the page graphics for a larger version


The Battle of Verdun remains one of the most unique battles in military history. At ten months it is one of the longest battles ever fought, and while in crude statistical terms other battles have produced greater casualties, the geographical concentration of this battle (it was fought over a front eight km across at its widest point), meant that mile for mile, it produced more death and destruction than almost any other engagement in history.


But it is neither the duration nor statistical record which makes Verdun unique. What makes it unique is the reasoning which lay behind it. This was a battle fought not to conquer territory or seize a strategic objective. In fact, it was fought with the deliberate intention of not taking its purported objective. The battle of Verdun was fought with one intention; to kill as many men as humanly possible. It had as its aim not territory, ground or tactical advantage. It had as its aim the maximisation of death.


It is a battle that was to have an influence which went beyond the immediate conflict to leave its mark on the whole of world war one, and beyond.



Before one can understand the phenomenon of Verdun one must first understand the thinking that made it possible, and to do this one has to go back to a previous war, the Franco-Prussian war of 1871. The rapidity and comprehensiveness of the French defeat at the hands of the Prussians sent shockwaves through the French military establishment. Here was one of the premier military powers of the world soundly thrashed in a matter of weeks by an upstart nation barely emerged onto the European stage.


In the soul searching and agonising which followed one voice emerged above the rest, and articulated what was to become the defining dogma of the French military for the next 30 years. The voice was that of the chief of operations of the French General Staff, (the GQG) Col. De Grandmaison.

In what was to become known as the Grandmaison doctrine he argued that France had been defeated because it had fought a defensive war, which he contrasted with the energy and vigour of the Prussians.


French Infantry at the start of WW1Prussian Infantry of the Franco-Prussian War.He argued forcefully that what won wars was aggression, élan and above all a total commitment to attack, regardless of circumstances. His philosophy was summed up in the observation; l’audace, tojours l’audace; ‘audacity, always audacity’.


This philosophy assumed the status of revealed dogma and had an enormous influence on French military thinking. All hints of defensive tactics were shunned, and senior officers known to favour such an approach increasingly found themselves marginalized and excluded.


The dogma had practical effects as well. The French army adopted new uniforms; royal blue tunics with red pantaloons, the better to demonstrate their vigour and audacity. Soldiers were taught to advance slowly towards the enemy, walking upright to unnerve him with their boldness; unmanly acts such as crouching or running were strictly prohibited.


The French response to any future German attack was to be an immediate invasion of Germany. France entered World War One with thousands of maps of Germany, but none of France. They were equipped with a surfeit of 75mm artillery pieces, light and easily moved, but a dearth of heavier artillery, since these smacked of a defensive outlook. Similarly the army frowned on the new machine gun, preferring the bayonet and rifle.


When the war began the French infantry, resplendent in their brightly coloured uniforms, advanced at a walking pace towards German machine gun positions and artillery batteries. Cuirassiers, with burnished silver breastplates, charged German lines, sometimes from as far as half a mile away. Officers often led assaults armed only with a cane.


The result was mass slaughter. France lost more men in the opening months of the war than Britain lost in the first two years. After four weeks 10% of the entire French officer corps was dead.


The shock of the opening months of the war failed to shake the High Command’s faith in the Grandmaison doctrine. More sensible uniforms were adopted and other minor changes introduced, but those in authority remained wedded to the notion of repeated and immediate attack as the answer to any tactical situation.

The planning for Verdun.

French Curassiers, Belgium, Aug 1914.By December of 1914 the western front was locked in stalemate, with three armies facing each other across hundreds of miles of trenches that stretched from the English Channel to the Swiss border. German forces now numbered about 2 million, the French and British forces slightly more.


Germany lacked the manpower for a decisive breakthrough in the west. Instead their strategy was to hold their positions on the western front and concentrate their efforts on defeating the Russians in the east. Once this was achieved they would transfer their forces west and launch a renewed offensive in France.


The Western Front in 1915This left the German forces on the western front with no prospect of major offensive action for at least a year, a thought which displeased the German Chief of Staff, General Von Falkenhayn. He searched for a way to deliver a decisive blow to the allies in the west, using the forces available to him.


He knew that a conventional offensive was not possible, but reasoned that if he could find a target that was so important to the French that they would sacrifice everything to defend it, he might achieve his aim.


He believed that if he could locate such a target he could launch an attack on it, threaten it, but crucially not take it. Then all he had to do was sit back as the French poured in division after division to defend it. German forces would destroy them one after another as they dashed themselves to pieces in attack after attack on the German lines. He would in effect open a gaping wound through which the French army would slowly bleed itself to death. He would bleed France white.


The complex of forts around Verdun.The target he chose was Verdun.Verdun occupied an important tactical position. It consisted of a series of massive concrete forts arranged along a horse-shoe shaped set of hills in front of the small town of Verdun.


The centrepiece was Fort Douamount, widely held to be the most powerful fort in Europe, and believed to be virtually impregnable.But it was not its tactical position alone that appealed to Falkenhayn. Verdun also had enormous emotional significance for the French.


It had been a fort complex since the 16th century, and had been the saviour of France many times in the past. It had saved the revolution in 1797, it was the last defensive position to fall in 1871 and had held back the entire German left flank in the opening months of the present war.


Verdun was one objective that the French could never allow to fall, no matter what the price. In December 1915 Falkenhayn began preparations to attack it.



German 370mm Railway Gun.Position of Verdun on the Western Front.The German build up for the attack on Verdun remains one of the most comprehensive ever. They laid in hundreds of miles of new railways and roads, built twelve new railway stations and moved hundreds of thousands of troops into enormous depots built to house them. They amassed one of the largest concentrations of artillery ever, ranging from 210mm field guns, to enormous 370mm rail guns to the largest of the lot, the monstrous 420mm ‘big berthas’, which fired shells over two tons in weight. In all the Germans concentrated 1,400 artillery pieces along a front barely five miles wide.










French Officers pose beside 420mm shellGerman 240mm Field Howitzer.Falkenhayn appointed Crown Prince Wilhelm to command the attacking forces. The Crown Prince was not much of a soldier, and commanded an army simply because, as Crown Prince, he was expected to. It appears almost certain today that Falkenhayn did not inform the Prince of his real thinking, but gave him to understand that it was his intention to take Verdun. He made two key decisions however, that would prevent the Prince from actually succeeding.







Relief sketch of the Verdun Area. The heavy black line marks the approximate position of the German front line in Feb. 1916.


First, he ordered the attack to proceed along the right bank of the Meuse alone, ignoring advice that in order to succeed both banks would have to be attacked simultaneously. Secondly he retained personal command of the German reserves, and kept them so far back that it would be difficult to deploy them quickly to exploit any success. He had ordered the Prince to take Verdun, while deliberately ensuring that he could not succeed, for if Verdun were taken the bait to lure the French army in was gone.


Facing the seventy two German battalions were thirty four French battalions in poorly built defensive positions. To counter the 1,400 German guns the French had barely 240 pieces of their own, mostly consisting of the light 75mm field gun. The French trench system was inadequate and badly maintained, and crucially almost totally lacked communications trenches; those running perpendicular to the front line and linking the trench system together.


French 75 - mainstay of the French batteries.This meant that in order to move from one trench line to the next troops had to crawl out into the open and expose themselves to enemy fire. It was not uncommon for units to have lost half their strength just getting into the forward trenches.


French commanders on the ground were aware of the German build up and throughout December 1915 and January 1916 sent increasingly desperate messages to the GQG warning them of an impending attack.


The French Chief of Staff, General ‘Papa’ Joffre, ignored repeated warnings, and only towards the end of January did the GQG finally accept that something important was happening.


While the French desperately tried to improve defences and move more troops in the Germans prepared for the offensive. Had the attack gone ahead as planned it would almost certainly have found the French completely unprepared, but for the first of two occasions fate intervened and rescued the French from disaster.


Phase one – The Offensive Opens.

The Germans awoke on the morning of the 13th of February, the day of the attack, to be met with a massive snowstorm which lasted a week. The attack was postponed and the French were given a vital breathing space which the put to good use to hurriedly improve their situation.


But on the morning of the 21st of February the attack began. A bombardment the likes of which the world had not yet seen was unleashed on the poorly prepared French positions. For ten hours thousands of tons of high explosives rained down on them, inflicting terrible slaughter. Entire units were obliterated, whole trench systems disappeared.


The German infantry followed, not in massed ranks but in small groups of stormtroopers, filtering through the shattered French positions and deploying a terrible new weapon, the flamethrower. They fell on the battered French defences but were met with a resistance which bordered on the miraculous. Despite their terrible pounding and inadequate preparation the French resisted viciously. The Germans were made to pay a terrible price as French units hung on against all the odds.


French trenches being bombarded.German Stormtroopers with flamethrowers. Units resisted almost to the last man and the last bullet. One French battalion was reduced to sixteen men and when they ran out of ammunition fought on with rocks and rifle-butts. The resistance of the French units fighting in the Bois de Corbes gave Verdun its first hero, as Col Emile Driant mounted a brilliant and dogged defence against massive odds, despite having an estimated 10,000 tons of shells fall on his positions. He was killed as he withdrew with the remnants of his unit under cover of darkness.


The impossible courage of the French front line was matched by indescribable confusion and near panic in the rear. Units were ordered to attack against overwhelmingly superior forces, others waited in the open for orders which never came. In the confusion the French artillery fired on the village of Bapaume, believing it to have fallen to the Germans, and broke what was left of the French defence there. In the marshalling areas the nerve of those troops not yet committed began to crack as dazed survivors brought back tales of terror from the front. The French commander, Gen Herr, was close to breakdown.


By the 24th the Germans had broken through the French first line, but were held at a hastily-constructed second line which, because the German gunners had been unaware of it, had been left virtually intact. Yet again the French put up a heroic and dogged defence, but could not resist the weight of German numbers. By the end of the day the line was broken and the Germans were advancing on the French third line; the last prepared defensive line before Verdun.


The Fall of Fort Douaumont.

The Germans prepared to renew their offensive on the morning of the 25th, a central part of which would be a probing assault towards Fort Douaumont, the most powerful of the Verdun forts. As mentioned above, Douaumont was widely considered to be one the most impregnable forts in the world, but by 1916 it had become a victim of the GQG’s anti-defensive dogma.The infantry unit that would normally be part of the garrison had been withdrawn, as had all the fort’s moveable artillery pieces and machine guns. All that was left were the large fixed guns and their artillery crews, about 70 troops in all. Two brigades were supposed to be stationed in front of the fort to protect it, but because of a mix up each was stationed well off to each side.


Sgt. KunzePlan of Fort Douaumont. On the morning of the 25th a Sgt. Kunze of the Pioneers led his ten man section forward towards the fort. His orders were simply to probe the forward positions and report back. But he got closer and closer without being fired on and so, exercising the initiative expected of a good NCO, led his men down into the embrasure of the fort.


By now most of his men were too terrified to proceed. Undeterred, he discovered an open metal hatch and climbed in.Armed only with a pistol he wandered around the inside of the fort, taking small groups of surprised French soldiers prisoner as he came across them.


Meanwhile another small unit, led by a young Lieutenant named Radtke, had found its way into the fort. Eventually Kunze and Radtke met up and realised to their shock that they had captured the fort. The most powerful fort in Europe had fallen without a shot being fired.


Lt. RadtkeThe Germans were overjoyed. Leaflets were dropped on Paris announfing the fort's capture. A national holiday was proclaimed in Germany and, in a wonderful example of how armies work, (every army, there’s no exceptions), the two most senior officers on the scene, a major and a colonel, were decorated personally by the Kaiser. Radtke and Kunze, the men who actually captured the fort, received no acknowledgment or recognition.


The fall of the fort caused a national scandal in France, and brought the government close to collapse. Finally realising the gravity of the situation Joffre sent his ADC, Gen. De Castlenau, to assess the situation. He took the first sensible decision the GQG could be credited with when he appointed General Henri Philippe Petain to command the Verdun defences.


De Castlenau decided the Germans must be held at all cost, and hastily scribbled an order on a scrap of paper that was to become one of the most famous in military history. The order was popularised as ‘ils ne passeront pas’; they shall not pass.


Whether or not Gen De Castlenau actually used this phrase is lost in history, but it rapidly became a national rallying cry, appearing in newspaper headlines and posters across France. Once again Verdun would become the saviour of France and the symbol of her resistance.


Posters, newspaper headlines, political cartoons and postcards quickly appeared, all echoing the rallying cry; ‘ils ne passerront pas’. Verdun had held back France’s enemies many times in the past, and once again the foe would be stopped at her sacred hills and forts.


Of course, this was exactly what Falkenhayn had hoped for. The French had signalled their intent to defend Verdun, no matter what the cost. The most dangerous thing possible had happened, Verdun had become a symbol.


Petain takes command.

General Henri Philippe Petain was, at the age of 60, a veteran commander and one of France’s most revered and respected soldiers. He was everything the typical French officer was not. French officers of the time were renowned for their aloofness and disdain for the common soldier. They saw the technical work of soldiering as beneath them, and by 1916 were thoroughly infused with the Grandmaison doctrine.


In contrast Petain sought to understand the details of every aspect of his subordinate’s job. He would spend nights in the trenches with his men, take lessons in gun-laying from corporals and accompany lieutenant’s on patrol. He believed that every commander, from the lowest corporal to the highest general, should understand the work of those below him, and be able to do the job of the next in line above them.


He rejected the prevailing Grandmaison dogma, (only his great reputation had saved him from being squeezed out as a result), and instead studied the lessons of the Boer War and the Sino-Japanese war. From these he concluded that reckless infantry attacks were suicidally stupid. Concentrated firepower was what counted. An assault should only be mounted when preparations were complete and when artillery had reduced the target to the point where the assault had a high chance of success. ‘Cannon conquers; infantry holds’, as he put it himself.


He had no time for glorious gestures or heroic defeats. If a battle was lost it was lost. Unlike many he adhered to one of the most widely ignored military principles; never reinforce defeat. His men knew that if he ordered an attack there was a good reason for it, it had been properly planned and prepared, and he would never throw their lives away in a useless gesture.


The mere announcement that Petain had assumed command caused a stiffening of French resolve, and the German army journal records the day after he took over, the 26th February, as the first day that they failed to advance.

Petain immediately set about restoring the situation. Using his intimate knowledge of artillery he reconstituted the French batteries so they operated in a coordinated manner. He toured the lines, bringing much needed order.


La Vie Sacre- Verdun's LifelineGen. Henri Philippe PetainHe reinforced the right bank, and reorganised defences on the left. He cancelled De Castlenau’s orders to re-take Fort Douaumont and instead concentrated on preparing the French defences.


His main problem was the supply route in, which consisted of a single narrow road. Petain had teams of engineers stationed all along the route to keep traffic moving, and battalions of men to rapidly repair any damage to the road, or physically heave broken down trucks into the ditch. This single narrow road , christened 'La Vie Sacre', the Sacred Route, became Verdun’s lifeline, and at its height was handling 12,000 trucks, and average of one every 14 seconds.


Petain’s reorganisation immediately showed results. The Germans now came under much more coordinated artillery fire, and found it much tougher to make progress. They were made to pay a very heavy price for the capture of the village of Douaumont, (during which a young French captain named Charles de Gaulle was wounded), but they finally captured it on the 29th, marking the end of the first phase of the battle.


Phase 2 – The Assault on Both Banks.

Germans manhandle a 240mm howtizer.Despite their initial success the German situation was far from ideal. The reorganised French defences, and in particular their artillery, were making the going much tougher. The Germans were also finding it very difficult to move artillery forward across the devastated ground, and keep it supplied with ammunition, leaving it out of action for longer and longer periods.


A high level conference was held at which the Chief of Staff, General Von Falkenhayn, insisted in pressing on with the assault, but acceded to the Crown Prince’s demands that the assault now made on both banks, and agreeing with him that the offensive would be cancelled if the German losses began to exceed those of the French.


On the 05th March the German assault resumed, with the attack on the right bank of the Meuse focused on the capture of Fort Vaux, and that on the left concentrated on the hill known as the Morte Homme. But Petain had prepared well for both attacks, and the Germans were made to pay a heavy price....


Phase 2 of the Offensive. The Germans attack along both banks of the Meuse. The Left flank concentrated on La Morte Homme, the right on Fort Vaux.


The assault began to degenerate into a see-saw daily routine; the Germans would capture a wood or hill, at great cost. The French would recapture the objective, at equally high cost, then the whole cycle would repeat itself. The village of Vaux changed hands 14 times, as casualty numbers mounted inexorably. By the end of March the Germans had suffered 81,000 casualties, the French 89,000.


Exhaustion was beginning to tell on the German side. It was German policy to keep units in the line and replace losses with fresh troops. In contrast Petain introduced the ‘Noria’ system. Units would be kept in the front line for a week, then redeployed to another sector, regardless of losses. The Germans replaced men, the French replaced units.


This had a number of effects. It meant the Germans were always facing troops that were fresher than they were, and caused them to overestimate French casualties, since they assumed that the French were withdrawing units once they had become depleted. Secondly, the German policy of keeping units at the front and replacing losses with raw recruits, led to a gradual thinning out of veterans, and a steady reduction in the fighting ability of front-line units.


Germans advance past French dead. But it also meant that a very high proportion of the French army was rotated through Verdun; an estimated 75% of French soldiers served there at some point. This meant that whatever effects Verdun was going to have, they would be felt throughout the entire army.


The bloody and inconclusive fighting continued unabated. Assault and counter-assault became a daily routine, and at enormous cost the German line gradually inched forward. The French were making the Germans pay a bloody price for their advances, but the amount of ground they could afford to lose, and still have a chance of holding Verdun, was rapidly dwindling. By the end of April both sides had been in almost continuous daily battles. French casualties now stood at 185,000, the Germans only slightly less.


By May the Crown Prince was convinced that victory was only possible at a disproportionate cost. He sent his Chief of Staff, Gen. Von Knobelsdorff, to try to persuade Von Falkenhayn to cancel the offensive. But instead Knobelsdorff persuaded the CIC to give the offensive one more try, and he agreed to release fresh divisions to try a renewed assault.


This was a clear challenge to his authority from a subordinate officer, but the Crown Prince lacked the force of character or military experience to face down his Chief of Staff. The situation now was that the nominal commander of the mission, the Crown Prince, had lost all faith in the offensive, and real power now devolved to Von Knobelsdorff, who believed in the ‘bleeding white’ experiment even more than Von Falkenhayn.


The Prussian army had been aware of the problem of noble amatuers wanting to play soldier, and had introduced a system to keep them out of trouble. This involved the noble being given nominal command of the unit, so he could dress up in an impressive uniform and inspect parades, but real power was vested in his Chief of Staff, always an experienced professional soldier. When Knobelsdorff ignored the Prince and went his own way, he was using a traditional system for the purpose for which it was intended.


Gen. Neville, Commander of III CorpsIneffectual amateur. The Crown Prince (left).Petain had saved Verdun, but now came under increasing pressure from Joffre and the High Command to switch to the offensive. This he strenuously resisted, as he was barely able defend the ground he held, much less mount an offensive. But Joffre, relying on completely unrealistic casualty estimates, continued to insist.


He appointed an arch-Grandmaisonite to command III corps; Gen. Neville, who believed fervently in the ‘always attack’ doctrine. One of his divisional commanders was the notorious Gen. Mangin, known as ‘the butcher’, not because of his attacks on the enemy, but because of his complete and total disregard for the lives of his men. In April Neville’s III Corps were given command of the Douaumont sector of Verdun, which quickly became characterised by wasteful, ill-prepared and reckless counter-attacks.


Joffre now had his man in place. He promoted Petain out of the way, giving him command of the overall sector in which Verdun lay, but gave day to day operational command of the battle to Neville. Within days Neville had scrapped the Noria relief system and Mangin was planning a major assault to re-take Fort Douaumont....


Gen. Mangin, CO of Neville's 5th Division. At the end of May Mangin was ready. He bombarded the fort with 320mm guns, which were barely able to scrape the top of the carapace, then launched a frontal assault on an entirely intact defence. The result was mass slaughter as he kept throwing wave after wave of infantry into the line. After two days Mangin’s division was no more.


By now Verdun had become a charnel house, and effective control had passed from the nominal commander on each side; Petain and the Crown Prince, to their subordinates; Neville and Knobelsdorff, both of whom were bent on victory whatever the cost.


The Last throw of the Dice.

German troops go over the top. The Douaumont disaster had severely weakened French morale, and had revived Falkenhayn’s interest in the bleeding white experiment. He allowed himself to be persuaded by Knobelsdorff to make one last effort to reach Verdun. It would be the German’s last throw of the dice.


For the attack the Germans assigned three corps attacking along a front that was five miles wide; an average of one man for every yard of front. The assault was intended to seize the defensive positions overlooking Verdun, where they could then dig in and wait for the wave after wave of infantry that the French would doubtlessly send in to try to save the town. The centrepiece of assault would be the capture of Fort Vaux, the anchor of the French line.


The Fort was garrisoned by about 300 troops commanded by Major Reynal. Despite Petain’s orders no communications trenches had been built to connect the fort with the French trench lines, so it would not be possible to get reinforcements, food or water in, or get wounded out.


The German assault began on the 01st June, and they quickly captured the upper levels of the fort, but Reynal’s men continued to resist in the lower levels. The fighting soon descended into nightmarish hand to hand combat, as the two sides fought savagely with each other in the tunnels, in conditions of near total darkness and suffocating heat.The French held out until the 07th June, but with ammunition gone, no food or water, and no hope of relief, Reynal surrendered.


Some of the exhausted garrison. Major Reynal following his surrender. He had lost 20 men killed and 80 wounded, but his men had inflicted 2,600 casualties on the Germans. The Crown Prince was so impressed with Reynal’s heroic defence that he personally presented the captured Major with his sword.


The fighting continued unabated, now concentrated on a fortified position on high ground known as the Ouvrage de Thiaumont. For the next two months a bloody and savage battle raged around the position, which changed hands 15 times. With the French backs against the wall and the Germans scenting final victory the fighting became increasingly frenzied.


Neville’s cancellation of the Noria system and his policy of reckless counter attacks was having a serious effect on the French. By the 12th June the situation was grave. The French troops were utterly exhausted and demoralised.


Units were refusing to enter the trenches or refusing to attack. Neville had only one fresh brigade in reserve, and the German offensive showed no signs of halting. One more push and the French defences would collapse.


But for the second time in the campaign fate intervened to save the French. The exhausted French troops woke on the morning of the 13th to meet the expected German assault, only to be greeted with total silence. Salvation for the French came from a very unlikely source; Field Marshal Conrad Von Hotzendorf, the Commander in Chief of the Austrian army.


Relations between Germany and Austria had never been great. Austria resented their treatment as a junior partner, while the Germans regarded their ally as more of a hindrance than a help. Hotzendorf had not been informed of the Verdun offensive before it began and so, like a spoiled child with a ball, decided to launch his own offensive against the Italians without informing the Germans.


Exhausted and demoralised French troops.It was a disaster, and on the 12th June the front collapsed, forcing the Germans to halt all operations on the western front so they could rush troops to stabilise the Italian situation. It was not until the 23rd that Falkenhayn was ready to order a resumption of the Verdun offensive. The French had been thrown an unexpected lifeline, and had used the break to repair defences and move fresh units in.


On the 23rd the attack resumed, with the Germans using a new poison gas; phosgene, against which the French gas masks were only partially effective. The German assault fell on demoralised and exhausted defenders. Coupled with the effects of the gas the defenders broke and the Germans finally captured the Thiaumont.


But the Germans had used up their last reserves of manpower to make the breakthrough. They simply had nothing left to follow up. They too were now totally exhausted, and the capture of the Thiaumont had expended the last of their resources, human and material.


The Germans dug in as a reinvigorated French force bombarded their positions relentlessly. Meanwhile, after repeated pleas from Joffre, the Commander of British forces Field Marshal Haig, finally agreed to begin his long-awaited offensive on the Somme. The assault began on the 24th June, leading the Germans to cancel offensive operations elsewhere on the front.


Verdun town burns after German shelling. German reserves were rushed to the Somme secrtor to meet the new offensive, no troops could be spared for operations elsewhere. Knobelsdorff knew he could not now get reinforcements, but unwilling to abandon his cherished experiment he decided on one final effort with the forces he had available to him.


On the 10th of July, more in desperation than expectation, the Germans launched one final assault to try to break through to Verdun town. Using the phosgene gas again they met with some initial success, advance units got to within 2 1/5 miles of the town, and could see the church spires from their positions. It was the closest any German troops would get.


The French defenders let the exhausted Germans stretch themselves, then on the 24th July launched a series of coordinated counter attacks that quickly pushed the Germans back to their 10th July starting positions. With both sides near complete exhaustion they dug in. On the 15th July the German High Command officially called off the Verdun offensive.


Since February the French had suffered 275,000 casualties, with 70,000 killed. The Germans had suffered some 250,000 casualties; killed, wounded and missing. Vicious battles continued throughout August, as the French were aware that Verdun was still very vulnerable, and the Germans clung desperately to their positions, unwilling to give up ground they had suffered so terribly to capture.


The French Counter-offensive.

Failure at Verdun was the last nail in Falkenhayn’s coffin, and on the 27th August the Kaiser accepted his resignation. He was replaced by Field Marshal Von Hindenburg, who was appalled at the Verdun situation. With German casualties now at 285,000 he ordered an immediate halt to all offensive operations.


Meanwhile Petain finally lost patience with Neville and intervened over his head, ordering the French forces to also halt all operations, while he prepared for the counter-offensive. For the first time since February the Verdun sector was silent.


German commanders knew that in most cases their troops were holding positions unsuited for defence. The logical thing to do would be to withdraw to more suitable positions to the rear, but commanders also knew that to give up ground they had paid such a terrible price to capture would have a disastrous effect on morale. So troops were ordered to make the best preparations they could where they were....


French troops head for Verdun.French artillery Train en route to Verdun.Petain was determined to restrain Neville and Mangin and to prepare the counter-offensive properly. No assault would be launched until he was happy that the time was right. Obstinately ignoring persistent demands from on high for an immediate attack Petain oversaw a build up of forces almost as extensive as those undertaken by the Germans for the initial assault in February. Meanwhile he kept up a persistent bombardment of the German lines, putting further strain on exhausted troops, (some of whom had been at Verdun without a break since February), and hindering their attempts to prepare defences.....


On the 19th Oct he was ready and opened with a sustained bombardment of the German lines that lasted for five days. On the 24th a coordinated infantry assault on a four mile front fell on the German line, which all but disintegrated. So rapidly were the Germans retreating that some French troops threw off their packs in an effort to keep up.


French over-run German trenches. The French tide swept up to Fort Douaumont which was recaptured after a half-hearted resistance by the garrison. The most powerful fort in the world had been captured, and then recaptured, with hardly a shot being fired.


Exhausted and demoralised, trying to defend unsuitable and half-prepared positons and facing a well coordinated and thorough assault the German front quickly collapsed. The French were capturing in days ground that it had taken the Germans months of bitter fighting to seize.


Petains doctrine, his insistence on a comprehensive build up of forces, his determination not to begin the infantry assault until the artillery had made success as certain as it could be, was being thoroughly vindicated.


French officers counts the dead.By the 15th Dec the Germans had been pushed back to their start positions in February, and with almost all the ground they had taken now back in French hands Petain ordered a halt.


The battle of Verdun was over. It had cost nearly a half a million lives on both sides. The Germans had suffered 430,000 casualties, of whom 190,000 were dead. French losses were 550,000, of whom 220,000 were dead. Outside of sieges, it is to this day the longest continuous battle in history, and after ten months of continuous and bloody fighting, both sides ended up exactly where they had started.





One of the 190,000 German deadIn the wake of Verdun Neville was quick to claim the credit, claiming that it was his commitment to repeated assaults that had won the day, ignoring the clear lessons that it was Petain’s philosophy that had been vindicated. Neville’s argument chimed with the High Command however, and it was he who was to reap the rewards of the victory at Verdun. Petain was promoted out to pasture, and Neville replaced the aging Joffre as French CIC.


Convinced that his policy had been confirmed by Verdun he immediately began planning for a major offensive on the western front, to be launched in the spring of 1917. The planning had all the hallmarks of Neville, it was hasty, badly organised and the security surrounding it leaked like a sieve.


The offensive began along the Chemin de Dames on the 16th April 1917. The Germans had plenty of forewarning, and the preliminary barrage fell on completely empty trenches. Wave after wave of infantry then advanced into perfectly intact defences, facing an enemy that was ready and waiting.The result was mass slaughter.


By the start of the second day the French had sustained 120,000 casualties; Neville had planned for about 10,000. Neville insisted in pouring more troops in to try to rescue the situation, and suddenly the French army just seemed to snap.


Most of the men would have experienced Verdun at some point, and facing the awful prospect of a rerun of that lunacy they simply refused to participate.All along the front the army mutinied.


French advance on the Chemin de Dames Some units said they would defend but would not attack, others refused to take any orders at all, a few even ‘fired’ their officers, elected their own leaders and threatened to march on Paris. About 20,000 men openly deserted.


The British and the French engaged in a rapid and frenzied cover up. Amazingly it succeeded, and the news was kept from the Germans.


Not until well after the war did they learn of the open goal that had sat across from them on the Chemin de Dames.


With Neville unable to contain the situation the politicians turned to the only man who could; Petain. Neville was fired and Petain brought in to restore order.


He executed the ringleaders, but resisted calls for more draconian measures. Instead he toured the front listening to the complaints of ordinary soldiers, and rectifying them wherever he could.


Eventually he managed to restore discipline, but the French army was finished as an offensive force. From now on the main burden of fighting the war would fall to the British, and to the newly arriving Americans.



French firing squad execute a deserterBut Verdun was to have effects far beyond the Great War. In many ways it was to effect the French national psyche for at least a generation to come. Perhaps the best way to understand these effects is to look at some of the people who fought there.

Andre Maginot in Sgt. Major's Uniform.


One such person was Andre Maginot, who had served as a Sgt. at Verdun and had been wounded in the leg. His experiences left him convinced about the importance of fixed defences. After the war he entered politics, and eventually became Minster of Defence.


In this position he pushed for a strategic shift in the organisation and thinking of the French army, away from mobile warfare and towards a reliance on fixed defences. The result of his efforts was the creation of the Maginot Line, a vast network of defences that lined the Franco-German border, and in which the French were to place all their trust for the defence of their nation.


This was to lead to a complete shift in French military thinking, from the Grandmaison doctrine, which saw audacious attack as the solution to every problem, to an almost completer neglect of offensive warfare and a heavy reliance on fixed, immovable defences. This narrow thinking was a major factor in the rapid French defeat in 1940.


Section of the Maginot Line.Another soldier who had served at Verdun drew the completely opposite conclusion. Erich Von Manstein had been a young German captain at the time, but he came away appalled at the wastefulness and senselessness of mass infantry assaults and fixed defences.


He believed that the solution lay in developing a totally new type of warfare, one which emphasised speed and mobility, and which sought to break through enemy lines and attack targets in the rear, not try to push the lines back with mass infantry assaults. So Von Manstein spent the interwar years developing tactics built around new technology such as the tank, the aircraft and radio communications. The result was the blitzkrieg, which swept the Germans to victory after victory at the start of World war Two.


Petain greeted by Adolf Hitler. Henri Philippe Petain had twice saved the French nation; at Verdun and again at the Chemin de Dames. He finished the war as one of France’s most celebrated national heroes, but Verdun left its mark on him too. He was determined that never again would he preside over such slaughter. He had overseen the loss of an entire generation of French youth, he would not do so again.


Thus when France fell to the Germans in 1940 he resisted calls to continue fighting. The war was lost, there was no point in more senseless deaths trying to rescue a hopeless situation. The thing to do now was try to make the best accommodation one could with the new reality.


So when Petain was offered the Presidency of the puppet government established by the Nazis at Vichy he accepted. As one historian commented, his problem was that he loved the French more than he loved France. At the end of the war Petain, national hero and twice saviour of France, was tried and convicted of treason and sentenced to death.


He was stripped of all rank and honours, and only saved from the firing squad by the intervention of another Verdun veteran; Charles de Gaulle, now president of France.His sentence was commuted to life in prison, where he died in 1951. He is buried in a cemetery near the prison. His dying wish, that he buried at the battlefield of Verdun, was refused. Some believe that the ghosts of Verdun will never truly be laid to rest until his wish is granted.



{jcomments on}