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German artillery obliterated the French Army at the Battle of Verdun

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, World War 1 on Friday, 10 August 2012

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This edited article about World War One originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 761 published on 14th August 1975.

Verdun, picture, image, illustration

The Battle of Verdun by Frank Bellamy

The history of World War I is full of horrifying battles fought out under the most appalling conditions in which the generals on both sides expended their forces with a prodigal disregard for human life. But for sheer horror, no battle surpassed the conflict at Verdun, one of the most ancient historical towns of France, which had fallen once before to the Germans in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. In a war in which heroism was almost commonplace, Verdun represented France’s supreme sacrifice for the war effort.

The reason it came into being is simple enough to explain. Shortly before the Christmas of 1915, the German command became convinced that the Allies would launch a major offensive early in the following year. To undermine the forthcoming offensive and perhaps to bring it to a full halt, General Falkenhayn, the German commander, decided to attack Verdun, which, because of its strategic importance, the French would defend to the last. In a memorandum to the Kaiser, Falkenhayn put the case succinctly:

‘Within our reach behind the French sector of the Western Front 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 . . .’

As Verdun was reputed to be the world’s strongest fortress, Falkenhayn had given himself a task before which most other commanders would have quailed. But Falkenhayn was confident of success, mainly because he was going to put into action a new principle in tactics. The German offensive was to be based on fire power, and for this purpose, over 1,200 pieces of artillery were brought up and placed on an eight mile front before Verdun. This was the largest concentration of artillery ever seen, and it was confidently expected that it would destroy all the French defences before the troops moved in to complete the obliteration of the French army.

Soon after 7 a.m. on February 21st, 1916, a massive storm of steel was launched on the defences of Verdun which completely effaced many of the front line trenches. This lasted until 4 p.m. when the Germans began to concentrate their fire power on a small section east of the river Meuse. Steadily the whole of the area was turned into a chaos of upturned earth and huge craters, so that it looked more like a lunar landscape than a place where farmers had once peacefully sowed and reaped their crops. Shortly afterwards, the German infantry straggled across this devastated landscape, and after a brief but violent struggle, in which one French regiment alone lost 1,800 men out of 2,000, managed to capture Haumont Wood, and what was left of the trenches in that section.

This rapidly deteriorating situation led to Henri Petain being appointed to the command of the defence of Verdun, and one of his first tasks was to bring in a vast gang of Territorials to repair the main road into Verdun which was beginning to break up under the strain of the incessant transport which had been travelling over it weeks before the battle had begun. Unfortunately, before the lorries were once more bringing up ammunition and guns in vast quantities, the Germans had already struck another shattering blow, this time against Fort Douaumont, considered to be the very cornerstone of the whole Verdun defensive system.

The huge mass of Fort Douaumont was, on paper, the strongest fort in the world. Bristling with guns, it contained inside it a subterranean city, connected by a seemingly endless labyrinth of corridors. On one of the walls of the centre corridor, for all to see who passed through it, were painted the words:

RATHER BE BURIED UNDER THE RUINS OF THE FORT THAN SURRENDER

Fine words, which no doubt would have been faithfully obeyed, if there had been a single regiment manning the guns inside the fort. As it was, a party of soldiers from the 24th Brandenburg Regiment broke into it, and finding it defended only by a sergeant and fifty-six elderly Territorial guards, took it without the loss of a single man. The blame for this lay with Joffre, generalissimo of the French armies, who had declassed Verdun as a fortress, in the misguided idea that fortresses were valueless.

Quick to capitalise on this unexpected capture of such a prize, the Germans sent their planes over the French lines, where they scattered leaflets informing them that Douaumont had fallen. This shattering news temporarily played havoc with the morale of the French soldiers, already stunned into a state of near mental collapse by the incessant hammering of the German guns. Hundreds fled down the roads leading to the rear, only to be killed by the German long range guns, while others retired to the cellars of the evacuated houses, where some sought release from the horrors of the situation in drink.

It was at this point, just when the Germans seemed within a stone’s throw of victory, that the situation was almost miraculously altered, thanks mainly to the fact that Petain had now launched a series of counter-attacks on other sectors, and the German losses began to mount. Their advance lost its momentum and then slowly ground to a complete halt. In the lull that followed, Petain poured a vast army into Verdun, and the morale of the French soldiery was quickly restored.

But the nightmare of Verdun had only just begun. A deadly pattern now began to establish itself in which small pockets of men lived and died defending their positions, which were often nothing more than shell holes. Shortly, the whole area had been turned into a huge, open cemetery, in which soldiers fought, ate and slept in the company of corpses.

On the 23rd June, the Germans attacked on a narrow front, using for the first time a deadly new gas called phosgene. Reaching Vaux, the second of the great forts of Verdun, they were held at bay by a mere 600 men under a Major Raynal, who defended it for more than a week before they were forced to surrender through lack of water.

But once more, in their moment of victory, the Germans were to receive another setback, far more serious than anything they had been forced to deal with before. As Vaux was falling, the Russians began an offensive against the Austro-Hungarians, and Falkenhayn was forced to send troops from Verdun to support Germany’s ally, already staggering back before the forty divisions of the Russian general, Brusilov. As if this were not enough, two days later the German troops heard the distant rumble of guns from the direction of the Somme. The Allied summer offensive had begun. From then onwards, no further divisions were sent to Verdun and the attack petered away to nothing. Gradually, over the months to Christmas, the French recaptured all their lost positions. Their losses, for the whole battle from the February to the December, amounted to 348,300 men.

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