France and its military have something of poor reputation amongst many. Centuries of rivalry with Britain where it increasingly came off second best, its requirement to be rescued in WW1 and quick capitulation in WW2 coupled with decisions to stay out of recent major wars mean that we all forget that there were many events that saw supreme military actions and acts of bravery far beyond the call of duty. There are no greater reminders of these than The Battle of Verdun in World War One.
The Battle of Verdun is less well known in Britain and some other places than those famous battles primarily involving the English-speaking Allies but it holds a tragic place in French history and rightly so. Additionally, the Battle of The Somme cannot be fully appreciated without understanding the actions at Verdun which preceded it.
Famously, Marshal Petain rallied his beleaguered nation with his slogan “Ils ne passeront pas” which translates as “They Shall Not Pass” and this typifies the sheer bloody-minded determination that the French displayed in this epic bleak and bloody battle.
Verdun was for many years the strongest French point along its defences with Germany and there were several forts safeguarding the town. It did however sit in a French salient, surrounded on three sides by German territory and peculiarly after the war started many of its defences were removed which encouraged the Germans into attacking what had been a secure defensive position since the times of the Romans.
The Battle of Verdun was fought from 21st February until 18th December 1916 and saw 50 divisions (roughly 1.25 million Germans) attack 85 French divisions (approximately 1.14 million French) with the French suffering an estimated 315-542,000 casualties including 156,000 dead whilst Germany saw up to 434,000 casualties with 143,000 dead. Unlike the wide front at The Somme, the French and German front lines at Verdun were no more than 15 miles long. With 32 million shells fired, some estimates state that in many areas of the battlefield 10 artillery shells fell on each square centimetre of soil.
The initial German attack was repeatedly delayed by snow but when it came, it was deadly. The German plan was to capture the Meuse Heights which overlooked Verdun but only with the intention of provoking a French counterattack to push the Germans back and then with their reserves brought forward would they would be an easy target for the concentrated German artillery in the area whilst German troops stayed relatively safe in pre-planned and pre-prepared strong defensive positions. French Military Intelligence had warned that such an attack was coming but they were ignored by the French High Command and the low levels of troops stationed there were taken by surprise by the heavy artillery attack on February 21st 1916 which was simply to soften up French resistance for the infantry attack that was bound to follow just a few hours later.
When the infantry advance came, the Germans overcame stiff but always inadequate French resistance and on February 25th the Germans occupied Fort Douaumont. Marshal Petain rushed French re-enforcements to the area and they were thrown into the battle with orders to repel the Germans at all costs.
Despite huge casualties, the French managed to stem the German advance and when Petain ordered that bloody counter-attacks be made the French forces eventually found themselves under the withering artillery attack that the Germans had long planned but it seemed to have little of the impact which the Germans had hoped for. Nevertheless, for the unfortunate foot soldiers on the receiving end of the barrage it must have seemed like the end of the world.
In his journal a French officer, Lieutenant Henri Desagneaux, wrote: “Numb and dazed, without saying a word and with our hearts pounding, we await the shell that will destroy us… There’s death everywhere. At our feet, the wounded groan in a pool of blood. Two of them, more seriously hit, are breathing their last. One, a machine-gunner, has been blinded, with one eye hanging out of its socket and the other torn out: in addition he has lost a leg. The second has no face, an arm blown off and a horrible wound in the stomach. Moaning and suffering atrociously, one begs me: ‘Lieutenant, don’t let me die.’”
Though the earlier battles in the first two years of war had in some ways been worse for the French Army, Verdun brought about a new level of mechanised sophistication to the war. Put simply, there was almost no end in the way that a French soldier might at any moment be killed. Raking machine gun fire, heavy artillery bombardment and a new modern terror from Germany, the flame thrower. Countless men were simply obliterated by exploding shells or buried alive under mounds of soil thrown up by explosives. Others were hit by shrapnel that cut them to pieces whilst vast numbers were left physically entirely unscathed whilst but covered by the bloody body parts of their friends wondering mutely why they survived at all leaving them to suffer extreme shell-shock and combat fatigue syndrome where if they were lucky they would spend the rest of their likely short lives trapped in their own unique mental hell or at worst be shot at dawn for supposed cowardice.
March saw the Germans widen their scope of attack and they did make inroads into French territory but the French largely kept their positions and discipline thanks to substantial re-enforcements and some well placed use of artillery.
Again Germany was forced to change its tactics and for several months expended their efforts in capturing a number of French forts and attempting to capture others. For the French, much was made of their success against the odds of keeping open the only remaining road into Verdun. La Voie Sacree or the Sacred Road was the only way of bringing supplies and re-enforcements to Verdun and should it have fallen during constant German pressure, the whole situation would have become entirely untenable leading to a German victory at Verdun and opening up the whole of France to invasion.
April saw the French positions under constant waves of infantry attack though Petain was not scared to launch his own vicious counter-attacks when he was able to. German successes were becoming less significant and at a cost of ever greater casualties. In June the Germans took the heights overlooking both sides of the river and this led to an unprecedented phase of fighting as they focused on Fort Vaux.
The fort had been modernised relatively recently with reinforced concrete and its defence was led by Major Sylvain-Eugene Raynal. He led a legendary defence that continued long after the outer levels had been battered and blown away by German 16 inch howitzers. Totally besieged and having had the fort defences broken, the brave defenders created barricades in the tunnels and corridors within and under the fort. The fight continued despite poisoned drinking water and the remaining French only surrendered when their ammunition, medical supplies and food had run out.
The actions at Fort Vaux were a macrocosm of the French actions across the whole of the Verdun theatre of operations and the valour of Major Raynal was recognised by his opponents when he was awarded an officers sword by a Crown Prince of the German Royal Family.
The fierce fighting at Verdun continued with each side gaining temporary advantage, for example the town of Fleury changed hands 16 times between mid June and mid August. June 23rd saw the Germans reach the limit of their advances at Verdun and with only Fort Souville remaining in French hands even Petain was making plans for evacuations when on 1st July Verdun was saved and the course of the war on the Western Front changed forever. The British launched the Battle of the Somme and from then on Germany was forced to focus its energies there.
However the Battle of Verdun continued through the tail end of the summer and new counter-attack strategies allowed the French to slowly regain their lost ground and re-capture their forts including Fort Vaux.
From the start of the battle the German military opinion was that France was at breaking point and that one huge and overwhelming battle would see it reach breaking point. Germany strategic planners wanted to emulate their successful policy they had fought against Russia in the previous year and inflict tremendous casualties on France so that they could as Falkenhayn put “France will bleed to death”. They hoped to make the French army to collapse and if necessary force Britain into an ill-thought out and rash counter-offensive which would easily be defeated and in the process ending the Entente Cordiale between the two allies.
Whilst the French leadership had long been pressuring for a major British attack to take the pressure off the French at Verdun, Britain prevaricated until its forces were more ready (though still earlier than would have occurred without the French pressure) and this both encouraged Germany and lowered the French morale. When in fact hostilities started in the Somme, Germany at first saw it as the last throw of the dice of the Allies and particularly of Britain who was seen as the primary Allied power.
Germany also underestimated the determination of the French who were unwilling to give up having lost so many men in the battle. It was later claimed by a German Chief of The General Staff, Eric Von Falkenhayn, that his intention wasn’t an overwhelming victory but instead to bleed the French Army dry. No official papers have ever been found that substantiate this claim but in many ways bleeding the French Army is sadly what happened. Verdun is the longest battle in human history and despite the huge casualties, at its ending the front lines of France and Germany were only a few hundred yards away from where they had started.
Like the other tragic battles of WW1, Verdun is being commemorated in a series of events today and over the coming months. If these solemn occasions seem somewhat removed from the horrors of war then perhaps it is worth taking a moment to read a short account written by a German soldier, Ernst Toller. He had been digging a trench when his pickaxe became entangled in a bundle of slime. On the end were human entrails — all that was left of a dead man buried there by a previous bombardment.
‘Until then, I had seen the dead without really seeing them, like figures in a waxworks. But now the words closed upon my brain like a vice. A dead man. They choked my throat and chilled my heart.
‘All these corpses had been men who breathed as I breathed, had had a father, a mother, a woman whom they loved, a piece of land which was theirs, faces which expressed joy and suffering, which had known the light of day and the colour of the sky.
‘It was a moment of realisation. After that, I could never pass a dead man without stopping to gaze on his face, stripped by death of that earthly patina which masks the living soul.
‘And I would ask, who were you? Where was your home? Who is mourning for you?’
The terrible events at Verdun will lead us this summer to remember possibly the most remembered and also the worst day in military history, the opening of The Battle of The Somme.
If you’d like to read more about WW1 and other often forgotten but important subjects that occurred 100 years ago then check out my concise history book Lest We Forget published by Endeavour Press of London and available in Kindle and Paperback formats.