The Battle of Verdun is one of the costliest battles in history. It exemplified the policy of a ‘war of attrition’ pursued by both sides, which led to an enormous loss of life. The battle lasted from February 21st 1916 to December 16th in 1916. This was the longest single battle of World War One. The casualties from Verdun and the impact the battle had on the French Army was a primary reason for the British starting the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 in an effort to take German pressure off of the French at Verdun.
The attack on Verdun came about due to the plan of the German Chief of General Staff, von Falkenhayn. He wanted to ‘bleed France white’ by launching a massive German attack on the narrow stretch of land surrounding Verdun that had historical sentiment for the French. This area around Verdun contained twenty major forts and forty smaller ones that had protected the eastern border of France in the past and had been modernised in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Falkenhayn believed that the French simply could not allow these forts to fall as the national humiliation would have been too much. By fighting to the last man, Falkenhayn believed that the French would lose so many men that the battle would change the course of the war.
The attack started on February 21st. To begin there were 140,000 German troops, supported by 1,200 artillery guns that targeted 2,500,000 shells at the Verdun region. 1,300 ammunition trains were needed to supply these guns. The Germans also had complete air superiority in the region with 168 planes located in the area. This was the largest concentration of planes in history up to that point. The French only had 30,000 troops to oppose the Germans. On the first day of the battle 1000 German artillery guns fired on a six-mile line along the French front.
“Men were squashed. Cut in two or divided from top to bottom. Blown into showers; bellies turned inside out; skulls forced into the chest as if by a blow from a club.”
The German attack and the subsequent battle was to last over 300 days. Flame throwers were used in large numbers for the first time to help the Germans advance the eight miles they needed to if they were to capture Verdun. By February 25th the German forces had captured 10,000 French prisoners. To the German’s astonishment, the huge fort at Douaumont, considered to be the most powerful fort in the world, was manned by just 56 elderly part-time gunners who gave the German attackers no resistance. The French public was not immediately told about Douaumont falling – in fact, some Parisian newspapers did not even carry any story about its loss claiming that the battle around Verdun was going well for the French. The fort at Douaumont was only five miles from Verdun itself.
Fighting degenerated into isolated struggles for shellholes. By the summer France had achieved some form of air supremacy over the Germans but this counted for little as the battle on the ground was one of simple attrition as the casualties mounted on both sides.
“You eat beside the dead; you drink beside the dead, you relieve yourself beside the dead and you sleep beside the dead.”“People will read that the front line was Hell. How can people begin to know what that one word – Hell – means.”
On June 1st, Germany launched a massive attack at Verdun. By June 23rd, they got within 2.5 miles from Verdun itself, but this attack faltered as the German army had given all that it had and it could give no more. On June 24th, the bombardment on the Somme could be heard at Verdun and with days, the battle at the Somme was to dominate military planners on the Western Front. By the end of October 1916, the French had re-captured the two forts at Vaux and Douaumont.By the time their advance ground to a halt in mid December, they were close to the line where the battle had started ten months earlier but the surrounding land where the battle had been fought since February was now a wasteland.
“When they came out of the battle, what a pitiful sight they were. Their expressions seemed frozen by a wisdom of terror; they sagged beneath the weight of horrifying memories.”
The loss of life and those wounded was huge at Verdun. Casualties for both sides perhaps totaled up to 700,000 and were roughly equal. Reference books frequently give differing figures such was the magnitude of loss. It is probable that an accurate figure will never be known. Even today the skeletons of Verdun still surface, to be added to the towering bone piles in the basement of the Douaumont ossuary.