The Battle of Verdun Essay Sample
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The Battle of Verdun Essay Sample
The First World War engaged all of the population. From the very beginning it was clear that it was going to be no short war, but a slaughter such as Europe had never seen before. This study was undertaken to research the battle of Verdun which was the longest field battle in history – it lasted for ten months. As McClure concludes, “to know the story of Verdun is to know the mind of France, and the character of the French. For war is the most searching test of a people, and the battle of Verdun is one of the most terrible ever fought” (460). It’s is central to the study of attrition in the era of total war. The Germans lost 281,000 at Verdun, while 315,000 French were killed (Mosse 68). The framework for the study is grounded in the fact that the aim of German attacks was not to seize Verdun. The only purpose of Germans was to cause attrition to the French.
Throughout 1915, the German armies in the West had been on the defensive from a strategic point of view. Chief of the German General Staff Field Marshal Erich von Falkenhayn realized that that the combined economic and military power of England, France and Russia (Entente) could exhaust Germany during the long-lasting war. Therefore Marshal wanted to seek a separate peace with either Russia or France, and then concentrate military action against the remaining two Entente powers (Malkasian 34). Falkenhayn thought that conscripted Frenchmen didn’t want to die for what he considered (and what German propaganda maintained were) the interests of Great Britain.
Falkenhayn wrote in his famous Christmas Memorandum to the Kaiser:
As I have already insisted, the strain on France has almost reached the breaking point, though it is certainly borne with the most remarkable devotion. If we succeeded in opening the eyes of her people to the fact that in a military sense they have nothing more to hope for, that the breaking-point would be reached and England’s best sword knocked out of her hand. To achieve that object the uncertain method of a mass breakthrough, in any case beyond our means, is unnecessary. We can probably do enough for our purposes with limited resources. 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 be bled to death—as there can be no question of voluntary withdrawal—whether we reach our goal or not. If they do not do so, and we reach our objectives, the moral effect on France will be enormous. (Falkenhayn 217)
Falkenhayn’s memorandum made military history. Horne has written of Marshal’s plans: “Never through the ages had any great commander or strategist proposed to vanquish an enemy through gradually bleeding him to death” (36). Chief of the German General Staff managed to kill so many Frenchmen that they would give up the alliance with Great Britain and sue for a separate peace.
The best location that Marshal could find for his battle of attrition was the fortress of Verdun. It was thus not only more vulnerable than a linear position to being cut off in a pincer movement, it was also potentially within the range of three times as much artillery. Losing Verdun would be an incredible puff to French prestige that’s why the French would fight till the last soldier. By the end of 1916th Falkenhayn hoped to have gained the decisive victory on the Western Front through attrition. Colonel Tappen wrote: “The seizure of Verdun was never represented as the real aim of the offensive, but it was the destruction of the French forces we had to find there. If in the process Verdun fell into our hands, so much the better” (Horne 40).
German troops had a really difficult task, as the French hold favorable topographic positions: “The plateau scarp is of limestone, and quarry openings and caverns played their part in the defensive scheme. But most important of all were the east-facing escarpment, and the endless series of east-west ridges with their intervening parallel ravines, draining toward the Woevre plain on the east or into the Meuse River on the west” (Johnson 44). Unlike the trenches in most French sectors, which, by German standards were rather shallow, the trenches around Verdun were well provided with deep dugouts and concrete machine gun nests. In the woods, where a centuries-old tangle of roots made the digging of trenches difficult, the French lines consisted of concrete blockhouses. The dominant feature of the terrain was the river Meuse, meandering from southeast to northwest. On either side of the river was a belt of gently sloping hills dotted with tiny villages and the dozen or so smaller forts that had been built to keep an enemy from approaching too closely to the citadel — the main fortress that sat astride the Meuse at the intersection of that river and the Paris road. Both the hills and the hollows between them were covered with trees, though in the hollows the trees grew closer together, forming the woods that would see some of the fiercest fighting of the battle.
The artillery park that Falkenhayn concentrated at Verdun, despite the fact that it was less than the artillery staff of the Fifth Army had requested, was unmatched by any in the history of the German Army up to that point. In the horseshoe around Verdun, the Germans packed 1612 artillery pieces. About a third of these were light (7.7cm) field guns and light (10.5cm) field howitzers from artillery regiments 3 of divisions slated for the operation and divisions occupying neighboring sectors (Malkasian 85). The rest were considerably heavier weapons of what in earlier wars would have been called “siege artillery” — heavy guns in calibers up to 23cm and high angle weapons such as the 42cm. heavy mortar. These were the weapons that Falkenhayn expected to do the bulk of the killing at Verdun.
Nine infantry divisions, all belonging to Crown Prince William’s Fifth Army, were detailed for the operation at Verdun. In Falkenhayn’s conception, the role of the infantry regiments of these divisions was to be subsidiary to that of the artillery. Their main job was to present a sufficiently credible threat so that the French would feed as many troops as possible into the killing zone. The attacks conducted by the German infantry at Verdun therefore were attacks with limited objectives, seizures of little pieces of la Belle Patrie that the French would try to recapture regardless of the cost in lives. Most of the units sent to fight at Verdun had been on the western front throughout 1915. It is not surprising, therefore, that units destined to take part in the operation were assembled in the villages and towns behind the lines for a number of weeks before the attack and were given time to train.
The German offensive at Verdun began early on the morning of February 21. At 8:12 A.M. Crown Prince William gave the order for the artillery to open fire. With the exception of a few pauses to allow patrols to ascertain the damage, the bombardment lasted all day. The patrols usually reported seeing caved-in trenches, destroyed barbed wire obstacles, and groups of French soldiers running to the rear. The patrols also reported that they had received little or no fire from the enemy positions; the only German casualty of the day was an artillery liaison officer hit by a splinter from a short round. In some cases, the patrols even managed to take prisoners. Pilots of reconnaissance aircraft confirmed the reports of widespread destruction. They described railroad tracks that had been torn up by the shells of the German heavy artillery and reported that fires had broken out in the town of Verdun (Malkasian 101). So far, the plan was working.
On the second day, the mission of the artillery changed from destruction to suppression. Between eight A.M. and midday, each of the nine infantry divisions of the Fifth Army conducted a series of attacks with limited objectives to capture the forwardmost French position in front of its sector. Field artillery and trench mortars, operating under the direct control of division, regimental, and in some cases even battalion commanders, supported these attacks by laying barrages on the French positions. Although the attack order of Crown Prince William only specified the composition of the first wave of the attack, leaving the organization of subsequent waves to subordinate commanders, the second wave of German infantry generally consisted of riflemen deployed in skirmish lines. The primary role of these riflemen was the defense of the trenches that the grenade throwers had captured. The experience of attacks with limited objectives had made German commanders aware that the moment of greatest danger in an attack was the few minutes after the enemy position had been taken. Exhausted and disorganized grenadiers with empty grenade sacks were easy prey for counterattacking enemy reserves. So that the counterattackers would find themselves faced with equally fresh riflemen, the bulk of the infantry attacking at Verdun was assigned to the second wave.
As each day passed, however, this task grew more difficult. The deep penetrations made by some German units early in the offensive soon became a thing of the past as the French put a machine gun in every shellhole and a rifleman behind every tree stump. During the week of February 21-27, the Germans had advanced by leaps and bounds. The high point of that week was February 25, when three companies of the 6th Infantry Division captured the almost undefended Fort Douaumont ten kilometers beyond the line of departure that they had crossed on the twenty-first. After February 27, however, the pace of German progress slowed down markedly. The primary tactical events were still attacks with limited objectives, but the scale was much different. During the first week of the battle, a German attack could push the German lines a kilometer or more forward. During March, April, and May, however, daily progress began to be measured in scores of meters.
The factors that contributed to this slowing down of the battle were many. The first was the increasing strength of the French defenders. In keeping with their general policy, the troops that had been assigned the task of holding Verdun were mostly from territorial units, that is to say, they were older men considered unfit for the exertions of active campaigning. Units consisting of younger men were generally kept in reserve, for offensive work or for counterattack. On the afternoon of February 24, the first regiment of these latter regiments arrived in the village of Douaumont, just northwest of Fort Douaumont. By the time the Germans attempted, on the twenty-sixth, to take that village, an entire French corps had been entrusted with its defense.
The increased numbers of the French dramatically changed the effect that the woods and villages had on the battle. During the first week of fighting, when French forces could not occupy these features in depth, woods and villages had provided cover and concealment for German units pushing deep into the French position. Once the French had the manpower to occupy these features properly, however, the Germans were not only denied passage through them, but found that the more open ground was well covered by Ranking fire from these positions.
Between February 26 and 28, the 5th Infantry Division made three attempts to capture Douaumont Village. With each successive attack, the German artillery bombardment lasted longer and included a larger number of artillery pieces. (The third attack followed a five-hour bombardment that included the fire of 30.5cm and 42cm “super heavy” mortars.) Each time the bombardment was lifted, however, the French riflemen and machine gunners in the woods to the west of the open ground that the German infantry had to cross to get to Douaumont Village were able to stop the attack with enfilading fire.
Those attacking Germans who were shielded from this machine gun fire by bends in the woods suffered just as badly from the effects of French artillery shells exploding among the treetops and the French machine gunners and riflemen in the village itself. Above the regimental level, however, the attacks against Douaumont Village were conducted very much like the attack that the 5th Infantry Division had carried out against the Vregny Plateau a little more than a year before. The artillery preparation had been substantial, but not closely coordinated. There was thus a space of some minutes between the time that the German artillery stopped firing on the forward French positions and the time when the German infantry were scheduled to be upon those positions. As a result, the French riflemen and machine gunners, sheltered by their concrete blockhouses or the masonry basements and rubble of the village, were able to bear the bombardment with few losses. French soldier said:
We fought the battle of Verdun because we could not do otherwise. We could not get out. There were detachments of police right in the midst of the battle, in the communication trenches, under the tunnel of Tavannes, everywhere. . . . If we wanted to get out, we had to have a ticket of leave…. Pretty soon it became necessary for every soldier to be accompanied by a policeman. Police were executing those who had moved from their places, executing them without trial or inquiry. When you cannot leave a battlefield, you hide in it, don’t you? You dig a hole, you bury yourself in it, and you stay there. It was not really a shelter but a hole about two yards square, with a sheet of corrugated iron pulled over the top and an opening in front to look at the horror. For five days not one of us dared to move outside. We did what we had to do in our haversacks and then threw them outside…. That’s the way we were holding the line. (Paassen 77)
Because of German bombardment provision of French troops was completely broken: “We tried to swallow small pellets of clay to calm our hunger and also because at last, on the thirty-seventh day, it rained, and we had tried to lick up the drops of water that dripped from the sheet of corrugated iron….For on the fortieth day we began to drink our own urine. . . . That was the admirable and glorious battle of Verdun. . . .” (Paasen 81) So “the battle of Verdun was won not so much by the orders of Marshal Pétain as by the courage of platoon leaders, company and battery commanders, who resisted valiantly and under the most devastating attacks preferred to die on the spot with their men rather than yield the few feet of ground that had been entrusted to them” (Cot 196).
In terms of attrition, Falkenhayn had achieved his immediate strategic objective of bleeding the French. 400,000 Frenchmen who were in the ranks of the French Army at the beginning of the battle were either dead, wounded to the point where further military service was impossible, or prisoners of war. It had not been the German artillery alone that achieved this, however, but the German infantry. And to achieve such gains, they had to expose themselves to the fire of the French artillery, which was just beginning to supplement its field guns with howitzers. As a result, for every three Frenchmen rendered hors de combat, the Germans had lost two of their own soldiers.
The reason was not any failure of German tactics, which had made a great deal of progress since the early months of the war, but rather of Falkenhayn’s inability to execute his strategy of attrition. Beginning with Crown Prince William and his chief of staff, the leaders of the Fifth Army never fully understood Falkenhayn’s concept for the battle. The operations order drafted by Schmidt von Knobelsdorf and signed by William converted the operation into a series of attacks with limited objectives, the ultimate goal of which was the elimination of the French salient. 47 While these leaders of the Fifth Army realized that artillery was to do most of the work and that they should economize their infantry, 48 they failed to grasp that the ultimate objective was killing Frenchmen rather than seizing terrain. Thus, on the second day of the battle, Schmidt von Knobelsdorf enthusiastically gave permission for some units to push beyond the first day’s objective, even though that advance did nothing to further Falkenhayn’s strategy.
In the larger scheme of things, then, Verdun must be counted as a German defeat. Although France might take two generations to recover culturally from the losses suffered at Verdun, it’s military recovery was almost immediate. The French and British Empires provided more than enough replacements for those lost at Verdun whereas the German soldiers that fell at Verdun could only be replaced by the marginally fit, the very young, and slackers combed from previously exempted occupations. Insofar as the technique of taking an enemy trench was concerned, little new had been learned at Verdun.
The attacks with limited objectives of 1915, being interspersed with periods of rest and retraining, had provided a far better laboratory for new tactics than the continuous fighting at Verdun. At the squad and company level, Verdun simply confirmed what “state of the art” German officers already knew, that the key to success in attacking a trench was close coordination of heavy weapons at the lowest possible level and excellence in close combat on the part of squads capable of moving and fighting as independent units. The training period that preceded each infantry unit’s introduction to combat at Verdun, however, exposed a large number of German infantrymen to the techniques of the Assault Detachment “Rohr.” Those that survived the fighting at Verdun provided their units with an organic cadre of officers, NCOs, and men proficient in Rohr’s method.
After Verdun, the German Army in the West returned to the defensive posture of 1915. Once again offensive actions were restricted to small scale attacks “with limited objectives” and trench raids. But these actions did little to effect the eventual outcome of the war. Verdun remains the only great battle in military history which was won without maneuvering. That’s why “He was at Verdun” became the ultimate badge of courage for following generations of Frenchmen. Marshal Pétain had said in a famous “order of the day”: “They shall not pass.” The battle was of decisive significance for the WWI. During WWII Stalingrad was called “red Verdun”. Mao Tse-Tung concluded: “As the Germans made ferocious assaults in vain, the entire German-Austrian Turkish-Bulgarian camp found itself in a fix; faced with increasing difficulties and deserted by its followers from that time onward, the camp disintegrated, crumbled and finally collapsed” (98).
Cot, Pierre. Triumph of Treason. Chicago; New York: Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, 1944.
Johnson, Douglas. Topography and Strategy in the War. New York: Henry Holt, 1917.
Horne, Alistair. The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916. London: Penguin Books, 1993.
Falkenhayn, Erich. General Headquarters 1914-1916 and Its Critical Decisions. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1919.
Malkasian, Carter. A History of Modern Wars of Attrition. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.
Mao, Tse-Tung. Selected Works, Volume Four: 1941-1945. New York: International Publishers, 1956.
McClure, Samuel. Obstacles to Peace. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1917.
Mosse, George. Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Paassen, Pierre. That Day Alone. New York: The Dial press, 1941.