The Battle of Verdun was the longest battle of World War I and the world history. It was fought from February 21 to December 18, 1916, between the French and German armies around the town of Verdun, France. The battle involved more than two and a half million men and it developed in a space less that 8 sq miles and consisted of a ring of underground fortifications which the German attempted to take.
The origen of the Battle of Verdun is in a letter sent by the German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn to the Kaiser Wilhelm II in December 1915. In the letter Falkenhayn recommended that Germany should fully attack on the Western Front not on the Eastern; Russia had internal problems and could withdraw from the war at any moment. He argued that if France could be defeated in a major battle, Britain would then seek terms with Germany or else be defeated in turn. Acting on Falkenhayn’s recommendation, the Kaiser ordered the implementation of a set-piece siege against Verdun, which was Falkenhayn’s choice of target.
SourceBATTLE OF VERDUN IN BRIEF
Interesting Facts – Longest battle of WWI. One of the most devastating battles in human history. First recorded use of the flamethrower as a weapon (by German forces).
With the advent of trench warfare, achieving a clear cut victory on the battlefield became nearly impossible. In the past, two opposing armies had merely faced off against one another, and the victor was apparent when the opposing force either retreated or was overcome. In trench warfare, however, trenches and other fortifications slowed attackers significantly, which allowed defensive reinforcements time to arrive and strengthen the position, which very seldom allowed for attackers to make significant gains by capturing significant strategic positions. In early 1916, the German High Command sought to take advantage of the constant French reserve forces pouring into German offensives by attacking a point that the French forces would sacrifice every last man to protect. By attacking such a point, Germany created an opportunity to inflict massive casualties on French forces by forcing the French into a battle of attrition. The point of attack chosen by German High Command was Verdun, a city built within a loop of the Meuse River.
After a slow start, the German force broke through the main French defensive line, capturing over 10,000 prisoners. The initial onslaught of German artillery and manpower overwhelmed the French, and in several places the defensive lines collapsed as units broke rank and fled to the rear. Increasing the French woes was the fact that there was only one supply route in and out of the city, and it was utterly inadequate. French General Philippe Pétain immediately ordered the expansion of this route, drastically improving French supply lines. As the Germans continued their offensive, the tide began to turn in favor of the French, now well supplied thanks to their new supply line. When French General Robert Nivelle took command of French forces, the French took the offensive against the Germans for the first time. Although the Germans gained ground again at several points, they lost their overall momentum and were eventually driven out of the city. In the aftermath, casualties amounted to over 550,000 on the French side and 450,000 for Germany.
In early 1916, Verdun was poorly defended, despite its ring of forts. Half of the artillery in the forts had been removed from its turrets, including all 75mm guns. In February 1916, the French military strength was 34 battalions against 72 German. At first, the German High Command intended to launch the offensive on the February 12, but bad weather and strong high winds delayed the attack for a week. Finally, the Battle of Verdun started at 07:15 hours on the morning of February 21, 1916, with an artillery bombarment that lasted 10 hours, firing around one million shells by 1,400 cannons packed along the eight-mile front.
Under the command of Crown Prince Wilhelm, the German heavy guns quickly reduced the French trench system into isolated pieces, which forced French soldiers to fight in small groups with no tactical links. The attack drew French troops from other places on the Western Front to the defence of Verdun. Falkenhayn had stated that he wanted to bleed France white in the defence of the old fortress. The massive bombardment was followed by an attack by three army corps, the 3rd, 7th, and 18th. The Germans used flamethrowers for the first time in the war.
French attackers struggling with the barnbed wire
On February 22, German storm troops had advanced three miles, capturing the French front line trenches, pushing the French defenders back to Samogneux, Beaumont, and Ornes. The 56th and 59th Hunters battalions led by Colonel Emile Driant, who was killed in action, put up strong heroic resistance. By February 25, the Germans took Fort Douaumont. Under the command of Philippe Petain, French reinforcements arrived and managed to to slow the German advance with a series of counter-attacks.
During March and April there were ferocious fighting and fierce close quarters combats with bayonets, knives, and lineman shovels in the hills and ridges north of Verdun as heavy bombardment tore up the martial terrain, turning it into a surreal twilight zone from hell. Meanwhile, Petain organized repeated counter-attacks to slow the German advance, ensuring that the Bar-le-Duc road into Verdun remained open. This road became known as ‘the Sacred Way’ because it carried vital supplies and reinforcements into the Verdun front despite constant artillery attack.
German gains continued but slowly. By mid June they had assaulted and taken Fort Vaux, which was located on the east bank of the Meuse River. Encouraged by the success in capturing Fort Vaux, German troops almost succeeded in breaking through the French line, getting close to Belleville Heights, which was the last stronghold before the town of Verdun. At this stage Philippe Petain was preparing to evacuate the east bank of the Meuse River when the Allies’ offensive on the Somme River began on July 1, to the relief of the French as the Germans could no longer afford to commit more troops to Verdun. German units were shifted to the trenches of the Somme.
From early October to December 1916, the French regained the forts and territory they had lost earlier through a series of counter-attacks. Falkenhayn was replaced by Paul von Hindenburg as Chief of Staff as Philippe Petain became a hero, eventually replacing General Nivelle as French commander-in-chief. In the Battle of Verdun that lasted almost a year, 300,000 men were killed and almost 400,000 were wounded.
|French troops detraining on their way to the Verdun front|
Battle of Verdun: summary
Belligerents. France against Germany
Location. Verdun, France
Date. February 21 to December 18, 1916
Result. Stalemate with France retaining Verdun
Commanders. French: Philippe Petain/Robert Nivelle
German: Erich von Falkenhayn/Crown Prince Wilhelm