Verdun – hell on Earth

For most of 1916, the French and Germans were locked in a gruelling, 10-month trial of strength that nearly bled both armies to death. David Reynolds tells the story of Verdun, a battle that has assumed almost sacred status in France

French troops under shellfire during the battle of Verdun. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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The Great War centenaries roll on, rather like a creeping barrage. In Britain in 2015 the main target was Gallipoli; in 2016 it will be the Somme. The opening day of that battle, 1 July 1916, was the worst disaster in the history of the British Army. Nearly 20,000 men were killed.

But in 2016 the French will commemorate a different battle, hardly known in Britain. Verdun was a 10-month slugging match lasting from February to December 1916.

It became the battle of the war for France: fought on home soil for a city fabled in French history. Serving there at one time or another were 75 per cent of the French army on the western front in 1916. “J’ai fait Verdun” (I did Verdun), poilus (the slang name for French infantrymen) would say laconically. Nothing had to be added.

For the French, La Grande Guerre had a simple moral clarity. The German army invaded France in August 1914. Although Paris was saved, 10 départements in north-east France remained under German occupation – their people and resources ruthlessly exploited by les Boches. For most French people, 1914–18 remains essentially a war that was about national liberation.

After the western front congealed into trenches at the end of 1914, both sides looked for ways to resume open warfare – the kind of fighting for which generals of that era had been trained. In 1915 the French mounted major offensives in Artois and Champagne, supported by the British at Loos in Belgium. Their losses were huge and the territorial gains negligible.

In 1916, conscious that America might soon be drawn into the war in support of the British and French, it was the Germans who tried to loosen the logjam in the west, and one German in particular: General Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of the General Staff. His stereotypically ruthless ‘Prussian’ image – close-cropped, hard-eyed – masked a fatally indecisive character. Verdun started as Falkenhayn’s brainchild, but it developed a satanic life of its own.

Falkenhayn’s intentions remain opaque. After the war he claimed that he wrote a memo for the kaiser at Christmas 1915 setting out a deliberate plan to bleed to death (verbluten) the French army by targeting Verdun – a fortress city on the river Meuse in a quiet part of the western front south-east of the Somme. Here the French line formed a salient, hernia-like in shape, which stuck out into German-controlled territory. Along the wooded heights to the north on both banks of the river the French had built a web of forts and defences to protect the city itself, but these had been stripped of men and supplies by the French supreme commander, General Josef Joffre, to reinforce active parts of the front.

So the vulnerability of Verdun, and its proximity to German railheads, made the city a plausible military target.

On paper the plan looks clear and simple. But many historians, unable to find any trace of the so-called Christmas memorandum, have concluded that it was a retrospective concoction by Falkenhayn to pretend, once the battle got bogged down, that his intention had always been to fight a grim war of attrition (Ermattungskrieg).

In fact, Falkenhayn never seems to have expected to take Verdun itself, whatever his troops were told for morale reasons. Nor did he provide the resources necessary for a decisive breakthrough, attacking initially only the forts on the right (east) bank. Arguably he intended Verdun as a large but controlled offensive to drain the enemy at relatively small cost to his own forces, with the twin aims of forcing the French to transfer troops to Verdun and the British to mount a diversionary attack further north. This might loosen up the main part of the front, allowing the Germans to take the offensive with devastating effect.

‘Bite-and-hold’ offensive

Ironically, one part of Falkenhayn’s scenario did come true: the British-French offensive on the Somme, brought forward in its start-date, was intended to ease the pressure on France at Verdun. Although Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the supreme British commander, toyed with hopes of a breakout, his subordinate General Sir Henry Rawlinson envisaged the Somme as a ‘bite and hold’ offensive, rather like Falkenhayn’s initial conception at Verdun.

The German plan, codenamed Gericht (judgment), was executed in less than two months. Falkenhayn allocated to the initial assault only nine infantry divisions of the German 5th Army commanded by Crown Prince Wilhelm, the kaiser’s son, whose playboy lifestyle and gangling appearance earned him the British nickname ‘the Clown Prince’. By contrast Falkenhayn did not stint on artillery, which he seems to have expected to do most of the work. Some 1,200 pieces were assembled to saturate a front of little more than eight miles. This was pounded by everything from huge 420mm mortars (called ‘Big Berthas’ by the British), to blast the French forts, to the dreaded Minenwerfer, weapons that tossed canisters of mines in a slow tumbling motion through the air to clear out barbed wire, bunkers and bodies.

Delayed by snowstorms, the onslaught began at 0712 hours on 21 February 1916 around the Bois des Caures. To German astonishment, the initial nine-hour bombardment did not eliminate all resistance but after three days of hard fighting in bitter cold they had penetrated the strong French front line and were up against weaker defences and second-rate troops.

The day of 25 February was one of disaster for France. Key to the network of forts guarding Verdun was Douaumont – a polygon of stone and reinforced concrete, sunk into the ground and surrounded by a deep ditch, which crowned the highest point of the right bank’s defences. Looking up at its long, angular shape, German soldiers nicknamed Douaumont ‘the coffin lid’ (der Sargdeckel); the French public assumed the fort was impregnable. But in fact Joffre’s asset-stripping in 1915 had reduced it to little more than a barracks, with a handful of men under an elderly warrant officer. When soldiers from the 24th Brandenburg Infantry Regiment neared Fort Douaumont around 1500 hours on the 25th, French resistance melted away and the Germans were soon inside, rounding up its shell-shocked garrison in a couple of hours.

“Douaumont ist gefallen!” trumpeted the headlines next day in the Reich. Schools closed and church bells rang out in jubilation. Shocked by the news, French soldiers began to desert and civilians were ordered to evacuate Verdun, fleeing in a chaotic flood of cars, carts and prams that foreshadowed the hell of 1940.

Fear of a French rout

Joffre’s deputy, General Édouard de Castelnau, raced to Verdun to see the situation for himself. Although there might be a military case for conceding the right bank, even Verdun itself, and falling back to stronger positions further south, Castelnau knew that retreat could easily turn into rout. So he stiffened the defenders and moved the French 2nd Army – already out of the line to prepare for the Somme – into the sector under its commander General Philippe Pétain. Although in direct command for only 10 weeks, Pétain played a decisive role in the battle, earning the title Saviour of Verdun. (His image, of course, would change dramatically after 1940 when he led the notorious Vichy regime.)

Pétain, though no military genius, proved the man for that moment. In contrast with the attacking philosophy of most generals of the time, he was defensive-minded: his maxim, in the era of industrialised warfare, was ‘firepower kills’ (le feu tue). Pétain consolidated the French artillery, previously in small groups, into a unified system under his overall direction to sweep the whole battlefield. To improve morale, he instituted a pattern of rapid troop rotation – ideally only eight days in the front line – which is why so many French soldiers served at Verdun. And he made a point of standing outside his command post at the town hall in Souilly, to be seen by his men as they marched up to Verdun or straggled back.

Logistics were crucial. Pétain’s staff turned a country road from Bar-le-Duc, the nearest railhead, into a ruthlessly managed supply artery, with an up and a down-lane from which any broken-down truck was pushed off into the ditch. By night, said one observer, the convoys of vehicles looked like “the folds of some gigantic and luminous serpent”. The road became sanctified in French myth and memory as the Voie Sacrée – the sacred way to the Calvary of Verdun.

By March, Falkenhayn had been obliged to extend his assault to the left (west) bank of the Meuse, with the sinisterly named ridge Le Mort-Homme a prime German target. This fell at the end of May but savage fighting on the right bank still ebbed to and fro.

Falkenhayn made his last big push on 23 June, down the ridge south-west from Douaumont and against the final defences before Verdun, using phosgene gas for the first time. A colour guard and band were ready to head a ceremonial entry into the city, and the kaiser waited in the wings. But, despite the total destruction of the village of Fleury, that onslaught failed. Thereafter Falkenhayn pulled back onto the defensive, increasingly obliged to divert men and supplies to the Somme, where the British-French offensive began on 1 July.

Once they were no longer attacking, it would have been rational for the Germans to withdraw from the glutinous, shell-pocked wasteland around Douaumont to stronger defensive positions. But ceding ground that had been gained at such appalling cost would have had, to quote the crown prince, “an immeasurably disastrous effect” on morale. So, like the French in February, the Germans decided that they could not be seen to fall back. Verdun, one might say, was the Stalingrad of the First World War.

During the autumn the French, at great cost, worked their way back towards Douaumont and on 24 October 1916 the fort was recaptured after a brilliantly calibrated creeping barrage. For France, that day of victory – their most spectacular since the Marne in 1914, and precise revenge for 25 February – symbolised the end of the battle of Verdun. But fighting on the right bank continued until nearly Christmas, while Mort-Homme and other left-bank strongholds were not recovered until August 1917. The Germans weren’t evicted from their original gains in the Bois des Caures until 8 November 1918 – ironically, not by French infantrymen but by American ‘doughboys’.

Total losses are hard to enumerate precisely but credible estimates suggest around 375,000 killed, wounded and missing on each side. So, whatever Falkenhayn intended, Verdun bled the Germans as much the French. Putting Verdun together with the equally inconclusive battle of the Somme, Britain and France, on one side, and Germany, on the other, each lost around 1 million men, including their most experienced junior officers and NCOs. Although it is reasonable to say that these losses drained Germany more than the Entente, the German army fought on for another two years and fell apart only after going for broke in the spring offensives of 1918.

In November 1918 France came out on the winning side in a war of alliances. Verdun was both the longest battle of 1914–18 and also the only one that the French fought entirely alone. So Verdun came to encapsulate France’s war, or the war the French chose to remember.

David Reynolds is professor of international history at the University of Cambridge and has presented several BBC TV and radio programmes.

Verdun today

How to learn more about the titanic Franco-German clash 100 years on…

What not to miss on a visit to Verdun 

The prime stop of a visit must be Douaumont where the National Cemetery and the Ossuary – a bizarre combination of art deco and pseudo Romanesque, built to house the hundreds of thousands of bones that littered the battlefield – vividly convey the sacred place of Verdun in French memory in the 1920s and 1930s. The best‑preserved forts are Douaumont and Fort Vaux – both offer good vantage points to grasp the contours of this now wooded battlefield.

Nine villages détruits were never rebuilt. Cleared of the rubble, with the 1914 street plans neatly marked out, they serve as mute but eloquent reminders of the carnage and chaos. Like the soldiers in the cemeteries, each village is deemed to have ‘died for France’ (mort pour la France) – a designation that has no parallel in the lexicon of British remembrance. Douaumont (where Charles de Gaulle was taken prisoner) and Fleury are the most evocative.

Close to the latter is the Memorial de Verdun, built in the 1960s to house veterans’ memorabilia and celebrate a passing generation of heroes, but remodelled for 2016 as a research centre, an interactive museum and a place of Franco-German reconciliation.

The best books about the battle

Invaluable aids when visiting are the books by battlefield historian Christina Holstein, especially Walking Verdun (Pen & Sword, 2009) and Fort Douaumont (revised, Pen & Sword, 2014), whose walks and maps have descriptions of key moments.

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Among many accounts of the battle, The Price of Glory by Alistair Horne, first published in 1962, is a classic (Penguin, 1993). Another perceptive study is The Road to Verdun by Ian Ousby (Anchor, 2003). Recent works for the centenary include Verdun by Paul Jankowski (OUP, 2014).