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- The historical context before the Battle of Verdun
- The key events that occurred during the Battle of Verdun
- The aftermath of the Battle of Verdun
Key Facts And Information
Let’s know more about the Battle of Verdun!
- The Battle of Verdun began on the 21st February 1916 and ended on the 16th December 1916. Considered as the longest single battle of World War One, it took place in Verdun, a small city in northeast France, on the banks of the Meuse River.
- The Battle of the Somme in July 1916 was started by the British because of the casualties that had been experienced in the Battle of Verdun. They were trying to ease the pressure the Germans were exerting on the French. Moreover, France’s General Philippe Pétain wanted to gain hero status back in France.
- German Chief of General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, ordered the attack on Verdun. In his words, he wanted to “bleed France white” through a massive German attack on a narrow stretch of land that had a historic sentiment for the French.
- Verdun had 20 major forts and 40 smaller ones that had been used previously to protect France’s eastern border and had been modernised in the early years of the 20th century.
- France’s pride lay in those forts and it would be a national humiliation if they fell. It was a shrewd plan by Falkenhayn because he knew that the French would fight to the last man to defend their pride and in so doing they would lose so many soldiers that it would change the course of the war.
- Erich von Falkenhayn's letter to the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, on Christmas Day year 1915: “The string in France has reached a breaking point. A mass break-through – 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.”
- Falkenhayn’s plan had one major weakness, however. Germany viewed France as an easy opponent and that they were the ones who would suffer the most in terms of the number of casualties.
- The positives of this plan outweighed the negatives. For instance, all the forts that Germany targeted for ammunition had been moved to the Western Front by the French High Command. Trenches that the French had dug to defend themselves had not yet been completed. Senior officers at the fort complex around Verdun complained about these problems but the French army rejected their complaints.
- The attack was started by 140,000 German troops. In the Verdun region, they had 1,200 artillery guns that were equipped with 2.5 million shells and had 1,300 ammunition trains to supply these guns. The German air force also provided some more firepower as they had 168 planes located in the area. These numbers were the largest in history up to that point. On the other side, the French only had 30,000 troops to fight off the Germans.
- On the 21st of February, when the battle started, 1,000 German artillery guns fired on a six-mile line along the French front. The impact of these artillery guns was retold by one French soldier who managed to survive. He said: “Men were squashed, cut in two or divided from top to bottom, blown into showers, bellies turned inside out, skulls forced into the chest as if by a blow from a club.”
- The attacks continued and the subsequent battle lasted for more than 300 days. Germany advanced the eight miles needed to capture Verdun thanks to a large number of flamethrowers. 10,000 French soldiers were captured by the 25th of February. German soldiers were surprised at the little resistance they got from the huge fort of Douaumont, which was considered to be the most powerful fort in the world. Only 56 elderly part-time gunners were manning it.
- In an attempt to hide their losses, the French public was not immediately told about the fall of Douaumont by the government. As a matter of fact, some Parisian newspapers did not even carry any stories about its loss, claiming that the battle around Verdun was going well for the French. The fort at Douaumont was only five miles from Verdun.
- General Philippe Pétain, in charge of defending Verdun, was in an extremely difficult predicament. There was barely a road leading to Verdun as it was just a narrow path not designed for vehicles and military tanks, so calling for reinforcements would be hard. 6,000 vehicles were supposed to help defend Verdun by ferrying 25,000 tons of ammunition and 90,000 soldiers into Verdun. This was approximately 66% of the French army and all these vehicles were supposed to pass up this road at some point to save Verdun. The road was nicknamed “Sacred Way” by the French.
- Despite all the reinforcements, the French suffered badly and this was summed up by two French soldiers present at the battle who described their ordeal. They said, “You eat beside the dead; you drink beside the dead, you relieve yourself beside the dead and you sleep beside the dead. People will read that the front line was Hell. How can people begin to know what that one word – Hell – means?”
- In all wars, both sides suffer and so the Germans also suffered huge losses. By the end of April, the Germans had lost 120,000 men compared to the French who had lost 133,000 men. General Pétain said, “When they came out of the battle, what a pitiful sight they were. Their expressions seemed frozen by the wisdom of terror; they sagged beneath the weight of horrifying memories.”
- In the spring of 1916, Pétain asked the government for more and more men until it got to a point where they said ‘no’. He asked for men because he had planned an attack on the Somme. General Pétain was eventually replaced by General Robert Nivelle, a person who believed that you always had to be on the offensive in order to win a war. Soon, summer descended upon the soldiers and by then France had gained an edge over their enemies in terms of air supremacy.
- In Paris, 150 miles away, life went on as ‘normal’. Some soldiers were fortunate enough to survive Verdun but they returned to an alien world. Food was plentiful, unlike what they had been used to in the war. Theatres were also open and people entertained themselves.
- A few brave souls talked about the situation just 150 miles away. French soldiers found their pay did not go far in Paris. Mutiny started to occur in the fields as French factory workers were earning about 60 times the pay of French soldiers over the course of a week. This disparity became profound in the summer of 1916.
- When it was time for the last push to conquer Verdun, German troops were stretched to their limit as they had given their all and could give no more. They were now only 2.5 miles away from Verdun. On the 24th June, the explosions in the Somme could be heard at Verdun and things shifted within days. The Battle of the Somme was to change things on the Western Front.
- In October 1916, two forts at Vaux and Douaumont had been recaptured by the French but the surrounding land where the initial stages of the battle had taken place since February, was a wasteland. The battle at Verdun, however, continued until December.
- The number of casualties that were experienced in this battle was astronomical. Reference books that recorded this battle offer different statistics on how many people died.
- No accurate figure was researched. It is approximated that the French lost over 360,000 and the Germans nearly 340,000 men.
- The Battle of the Somme was started to help the French, and the British hoped that a swift victory here would force the Germans to remove troops from the Verdun area. They did not know what they were getting into as this battle lasted for months.