Summary. The Battle of Verdun was a World War I gory armed encounter between the French Army, under Henry Philippe Petain, and the German forces, commanded by Erich von Falkenhayn. It took place from February 21 to December 18, 1916, at Verdun, Meuse Department, Lorraine, northeastern France. Deployed in a ring of fortifications, the French defending army consisted of 75 divisions that totaled 1,150,000 soldiers, while the German attacking troops amounted to 1,300,000 men, organized in 40 army divisions. Preceded by creeping artillery barrage and spearheaded by storm troops, the German Army made significant advance during the first months of the battle, capturing several fortifications. However, the French managed to stop the German offensive on Verdun and to reconquer some of the lost ground through a series of counter-offensives, but at a very high cost. By December 18, the battle had ended in a stalemate, with more than 900,000 casualties on both sides.
The origin of the Battle of Verdun can be traced back to 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.
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.
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.
Weapons used by the contending forces
French Artillery: canon de 75 M1897 (75mm field gun), canon de 105 M1913 (105mm FG), Canon de 155 C M1915 (155mm field howitzer), Mortier de 280 M1914 Schneider (280mm siege howitzer).
German Artillery: 7.7 cm FK 16 (77mm field gun), 7.7 cm FK 96, Krupp 13.5 cm FK 1909 (135mm field gun), 21 cm Mörser 10 (21mm heavy howitzer.
French machine guns: Hotchkiss M1914, Hotchkiss M1909, St Etienne M1907, and Chauchat 8mm-caliber machine guns.
German machine guns: Machinengewehr 08 (7.92mm) and Bergmann MG 15 (8mm).
French rifles: Lebel M1886 and Berthier 8mm bolt-action.
German rifles: Gewehr 98 and Gewehr 88, both bolt-action and 7.92mm caliber.
French: Philippe Petain/Robert Nivelle
German: Erich von Falkenhayn/Crown Prince Wilhelm
Map of Verdun