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Battery of French 75s at Verdun
Here we see a battery of French 75mm field guns in operation at Verdun.
How France's Deadly 75mm Cannon Revolutionized Artillery
The versatile and mobile French 75mm cannon was a revolutionary design that saw widespread use during both world wars.
Here's What You Need To Remember: After World War II, the French 75 was quickly retired from most European armies, although some soldiered on in the Third World. Over its long service, the Model 1897 saw action in both of the great conflagrations of the 20th century. At its introduction, the 75 represented a huge leap ahead in artillery technology, heralding in a new era of fast-firing, deadly cannons. By 1945, the weapon had been eclipsed by new designs, but the 75 remains perhaps the quintessential Allied artillery piece of World War I.
A regiment of Bavarian infantry advanced quietly in the dark, rising from its own trenches and moving toward the French lines across the desolate no-man’s-land in between. If the German troops could surprise their enemies and gain a foothold, they could break the wretched stalemate that paralyzed the Western Front during World War I. As they inched ever closer to the French position, many of the German infantrymen felt increasingly anxious, hoping they would not be discovered by the enemy while exposed and vulnerable in the open field.
Such hopes were dashed when roving French searchlights pinpointed the German regiment. Nearby sat the means of their undoing—a battery of four Model 1897 75mm guns positioned a mile away but with a clear line of sight. With a direct view of the battlefield, the French battery could pour fire right into the massed German formation. The battery commander gave the order for each gun to fire 30 rounds, and the crews obeyed as fast as they could service their guns. No-man’s- land became a hell of high explosives and shrapnel, quickly overwhelming the Germans’ ability to continue their attack. A cheer went up from the French lines as the attackers broke and retreated to the comparative safety of their trenches, but the 75s were not yet done. The four guns fired 80 more rounds into the fleeing Germans, completing the rout. The stalemate continued.
Making the Model 1897
The French Model 1897 75mm cannon was a quick-firing, accurate, and dependable artillery piece that became practically the quintessential Allied cannon in World War I. Initially produced under great secrecy, with details of its design jealously guarded by the French government, the soixante-quinze went on to have a long, worldwide history of service that lasted well into World War II. It was versatile enough to gain use as an antitank gun, although the tank did not even exist when the cannon was developed in the 1890s. Decades later, the French 75 was still firing shots in anger, continuing to serve in both artillery and antitank roles.
Development of the Model 1897 began as part of the ongoing artillery arms race in the late 1800s. Improvements in explosives and metallurgy made it possible create more powerful cannons than ever before, but one problem plagued designers—recoil. Field guns that were small and light enough for easy transport would literally fly off their wheels at each shot, requiring the gun to be set back into position and aimed again before the next round was fired. If the gun was heavy enough to soak up the recoil forces, it was no longer transportable by a reasonably sized horse team. Recoil-absorbing systems were created, but none of those in general use did the job well enough to solve the problem, and the cannons still jumped upon firing.
In 1892, General Charles Mathieu, the French artillery director, came into possession of a secret German report concerning a revolutionary new cannon that utilized a new “long-recoil” principle. The weapon had advanced to the trial stage but had failed during testing. Still, Mathieu’s curiosity was piqued. Summoning the director of the government arsenal at Bourges, Mathieu asked if such a design could be made to work. The director returned to his arsenal to discuss the design with other engineers and officers they returned after three days of study, saying the weapon’s design was simply not feasible. Mathieu was disappointed but not yet ready to give up. He contacted the director of another arsenal in Pateaux, just outside Paris, the Chatillon-Commentry Gun Foundry. The director, Colonel Albert Deport, took the German gun’s particulars and studied them for three days. When he returned, he announced to Mathieu that such a gun could indeed be made.
A Secret Gun
Development began under the strictest secrecy. All correspondence was kept confidential, including the weekly reports Deport made to Mathieu. No contracts were signed, nor did Mathieu seek approval from his superiors. “Misdirected” money from a fund normally used to buy property around Paris paid for the program, to the eventual cost of 300 million francs. Deport’s specification called for a weapon of 75mm caliber, but the heart of the new weapon would be the recoil system. Beneath the gun’s barrel lay a cradle that held two hydraulic cylinders. The top cylinder held hydraulic fluid, while the bottom held compressed gas. A port connected the two cylinders and a floating piston kept the gas and liquid apart. When the gun fired, the fluid was forced down through the port into the second cylinder, compressing the gas until the recoil energy was expended, at which point the gas pushed against the floating piston and forced the fluid back into the first cylinder. This “counterrecoil” pushed the gun back into firing position, ready for the next shot. The system worked so smoothly that the gun essentially stayed in place after firing without jumping, eliminating the need to re-aim it before firing again. This increased the rate of fire dramatically.
Although the French were attempting to design a whole new class of cannon, they did not hesitate to adopt features from other guns they thought might work. The cannon’s breech assembly was of the Nordenfeldt type, a rotating block with a notch cut into one side. When rotated, the notch exposed the chamber so a round could be inserted, then the block was rotated back and closed. It was simple and reliable. The features of other guns were adapted as well. A decade earlier, another French officer had designed a 57mm gun with a number of new details. These included a separate sighting device not attached to the gun tube, which enabled the sight be moved independently of the barrel. They also adopted the concept of the collimator, a fixed telescope used for aiming the gun in direct fire. Additionally, gun shields for crew protection and a seat for the gunner were adapted to the new cannon. The seat was only really useful if the gun’s recoil was sufficiently managed by the new recoil system to keep the gun from jumping when fired. Otherwise, the gunner would be thrown off when the gun jumped.
Secrecy about the new 75 was maintained even after the cannon entered service with the French Army. The floating piston was of particular interest to those wanting to copy the gun’s design because of the way it was sealed to prevent the fluid and gas from mixing. This was such an important detail that French artillery officers were forbidden to have any knowledge of it—in fact, they were not allowed to see the piston itself when it was disassembled from the gun. Various regulations were put into place to assure the secrecy of the 75’s internal mechanism. Only certain maintenance functions could be performed at the battery level, and even these had to be carried out with an officer present. French technical journals obligingly refrained from writing about the new recoil system as well.
Fantastic Forays of Fire
In the end, all the efforts paid off. The Model 1897 set a whole new standard of artillery performance. In the hands of a highly trained gun crew, rates of fire as high as 30 rounds per minute were possible. This required great practice and precision in the reloading process, as the gun would scarcely have finished its recoil motion at a rate of one round per two seconds. Even so, a well-drilled Model 1897 crew could accomplish 10 to 20 rounds per minute without much trouble. The recoil system was so effective, it was said, that one could set a glass of water on the carriage’s wheel and it would not spill during firing. The gun itself, including its carriage, weighed just over 2,650 pounds. The tube was eight feet, three inches long, which equated to 33 calibers (the length of the tube divided by the diameter). Range of fire was up to four miles.
The firing capability proved both useful and deadly on the Western Front during World War I, where the Allies’ enemies had to fight their way through thick, hellish barrages of 75mm fire. At the war’s beginning in 1914, some 4,000 75mm cannons were in the French inventory thousands more would be produced during the conflict.
A Reputation in War
As the war progressed, the Germans came to have a healthy respect for the 75. Even civilians gave testament to its power. After seeing a battery of 75s in action near Milhausen, France, one French citizen recalled observing a German artillery battery set up on high ground near a cemetery, posting their horses and limbers on some low ground nearby. As the man watched, a French battery of four 75s opened fire on the Germans and “demolished the material and killed almost all the cannoneers, directed its fire on the limbers posted in the bottom land and killed a great number of horses.”
Victor of Verdun
Serrigny pounded on the door until a tall, powerfully built balding man with a large blonde moustache appeared. Behind him, a woman discreetly covered herself with a blanket. Serrigny apologized profusely to Pétain for intruding on his leave, then presented orders from General Joseph Joffre, commander in chief of the French army, directing Pétain to report to supreme headquarters at 8 that morning. Pétain knew that a German offensive had begun at Verdun a few days earlier, and he took the summons to mean that things were going badly and that he would soon enter the battle. Unflappable as always, Pétain thanked Serrigny for his efforts, then instructed his flustered aide to obtain a room and get some rest, as they would leave in a few hours. Pétain then returned to his lover and enjoyed the remainder of what he later fondly recalled as a “memorable evening.”
General Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of the German General Staff, knew the value of Verdun to France in terms of its defensive works, as well as its image as an impregnable fortress. Where better, then, to draw the French army into a battle of attrition? Falkenhayn dubbed his plan Operation Gericht (“Place of Judgment”) and intended it to be the decisive battle that would destroy France and lead to ultimate German victory.
That battle began on Feb. 21, 1916, when more than 3,500 German guns, the largest concentration of artillery yet seen in war, opened fire on the thinly held French lines in the Verdun salient. After a 36-hour deluge of steel and poison gas, the German Fifth Army, commanded by the Kaiser’s eldest son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, surged to the attack. General Frédéric Herr, commanding general of the RFV, knew his command was hopelessly overmatched and ordered a tactical withdrawal to concentrate his troops along the high ground east of the Meuse. Joffre was not pleased when he learned of the move and ordered Herr to hold his ground and make no further withdrawals. Joffre told him help was on the way and then ordered Pétain’s Second Army into the battle.
Henri-Philippe Benoni Omer Pétain was born in 1856. He decided on a military career at age 14 after witnessing the destruction of his nation by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War. In 1877 Pétain graduated from the prestigious French military academy at St. Cyr, and for the next 37 years he served with elite Chasseur Alpin (mountain infantry) regiments and taught at the French army’s infantry school, as well as the École Militaire (War College) in Paris.
In the late 19th century, the French army had become enamored with the cult of the offensive and its doctrine that élan and the bayonet would carry the day. Scoffing at such notions, Pétain insisted that firepower, generated by closely coordinated infantry and artillery, was the key to modern warfare. Pétain’s unfashionable theories and bluntness resulted in his being denied general officer rank, so in 1914 he was a lieutenant colonel, just one year short of mandatory retirement. Then came the Great War, and Pétain went from heretic to prophet. His long-advocated doctrine of firepower proved correct on the battlefield, and he made a dizzying ascent from brigade commander to commanding general of the French Second Army in less than six months. In the bloody battles of 1914–15 he achieved numerous victories, notably at the Marne and Champagne, and became known as one of the French army’s best generals.
Pétain had chosen the town of Souilly, about 9 miles south of Verdun, as the headquarters of the Second Army. On February 25 he traveled there by car through a foul winter storm. Joffre’s deputy, General Nöel de Castelnau, greeted Pétain. Though de Castelnau had reconnoitered the battlefield, he could provide Pétain with only sketchy progress reports. Dissatisfied, Pétain journeyed on to Herr’s headquarters to assess the situation himself and found a scene of desolation: A crestfallen Herr told him that Fort Douaumont, bulwark of the French defenses at Verdun, had fallen earlier that day. The Germans held most of the high ground east of the Meuse, and Herr had begun preparations for a general withdrawal across the river, which essentially meant abandoning Verdun.
Pétain returned to Souilly and reported Herr’s plans to de Castelnau. Barely containing his anger, de Castelnau explained that Joffre had already decided Herr must go, and this merely confirmed it. De Castelnau wrote out a terse order in Joffre’s name, placing Pétain in command of all French forces in the Verdun sector.
Although he had not slept in the last 24 hours, Pétain ignored requests from his staff to rest. The Souilly town hall was requisitioned for use as his headquarters, and his staff transformed the old building into a modern command post. Pétain placed a large map of the RFV on the wall of his office, and as he studied it, he began to realize the immensity of the task before him. There was little room for maneuver on the east bank of the Meuse, yet to lose it was to lose Verdun. Pétain therefore decided to establish his main line of resistance east of the Meuse while deploying the bulk of his artillery on the heights west of the river, where it would be relatively safe but still able to pour down fire on the attacking Germans. Pétain spent most of the night marking out defensive positions for each corps and issuing orders for deployment of the reinforcements scheduled to arrive over the next few days.
Pétain finally collapsed on a cot in his office just before dawn only to awaken a few hours later with a high fever and a ferocious cough. He was diagnosed with double pneumonia. The physician summoned by his staff said it could be fatal and prescribed medication and rest. Pétain downed a variety of medicines and home remedies, shrugged off the dire warnings and went back to work. He wrapped blankets around his fever-wracked body and placed a potbellied stove next to his cot along with a small writing desk and telephone. There, perched on the edge of his sickbed and hovering at death’s door, Pétain took command of French military operations at Verdun.
Telephoning each of the corps and division headquarters in the RFV, he announced: “This is General Pétain speaking. I am taking over command. Inform your troops. Keep up your courage. I know I can depend on you.” Under his steady direction the French defenders regained their footing and fought back savagely against the surprised Germans, who had thought the battle already won. Although Fort Douaumont had fallen, all other fortresses in the sector remained in French hands. Pétain countermanded Herr’s earlier instructions for the demolition of these forts and instead ordered them reinforced and resupplied. The forts were to become the main centers of resistance on which his defensive line would be based. Still heavily outgunned and outnumbered, the French doggedly clung to their forts and defensive works along the east bank of the Meuse and repulsed numerous German assaults. Within a few days the German offensive began to lose momentum.
With the immediate crisis controlled, Pétain focused his attention on the precarious supply situation at Verdun. Before the war there had been two major rail lines into Verdun, but the German advance of 1914 had cut one, while the other ran precariously close to German lines and was easily interdicted by their fire. This left the nearest usable railhead at Bar-le-Duc, some 45 miles south of Verdun. It was tenuously connected to the fortress city by a 20-foot-wide dirt road and the Meusien, a small, barely operational railway.
Pétain used the Meusien to transport food, but the line was otherwise insufficient. He ordered construction of a proper rail line to Verdun but knew this would take months. Until then his reinforcements, replacements and ammunition would have to be transported by truck from the railhead at Bar-le-Duc to Verdun. So Pétain brought in the Service automobile de l’armée française for what would become the largest use of motorized vehicles in warfare up to that point. He divided the road from Bar-le-Duc to Verdun into six sections, each with repair shops, refueling stations, its own commanding officer and a contingent of military police to direct traffic. Administering the supply convoys were the Service automobile and the specially created traffic commission of Bar-le-Duc, together comprising 9,000 officers and men with 3,900 vehicles. This force was responsible for moving reinforcements, replacements, ammunition and supplies for an entire army, as well as evacuating wounded from the battlefield to hospitals at the rear. The road was christened la Voie Sacrée (“the Sacred Way”), and along it the lifeblood of France poured into the furnace of Verdun.
In the midst of Pétain’s work to organize his supply lines, the frigid temperatures that had dominated the first days of battle unexpectedly rose. The moderate weather transformed la Voie Sacrée into an impassable morass, and French supply columns slithered to a halt in the mud. Pétain met this challenge by conscripting the local populace into labor battalions. He established a number of rock quarries and set up relay teams of civilian workers to move the gravel produced there to the road. Labor battalions of colonial troops from Africa and Asia worked feverishly to shovel the gravel into the mud and firm up the road. These extraordinary efforts solidified the road, and trucks once more began rolling toward Verdun.
The motorized convoys moved men and materiel to the battle zone around the clock. The performance of the Service automobile in the critical opening stages of the Battle of Verdun was stupendous, especially considering the terrible weather and primitive vehicles. In the first two weeks of the battle, French trucks carried 190,000 men, 22,500 tons of munitions and 2,500 tons of various other materiel up la Voie Sacrée to Verdun.
With his logistical lifeline in place, Pétain’s next priority was to establish French fire supremacy. He reorganized the guns at his disposal and sent urgent requests for additional batteries and ammunition. Pétain later recalled: “I unremittingly urged the activity of the artillery. When the liaison officers of the various army corps, meeting at Souilly for their daily report, began to explain to me in detail the course of fighting on their several fronts, I never failed to interrupt them with the question: ‘What have your batteries been doing? We will discuss other points later.’” Pétain issued a directive that artillery fire should be concentrated and ordered observers to report each barrage to him in detail, down to the type of projectile fired by each gun. With these reports he coordinated the fire of every battery in the Second Army.
In 1916 aircraft and observation balloons were the eyes of the artillery. The Germans had established air superiority in the early stages of battle, but the French general was determined to win it back so his guns would have adequate fire direction. He summoned the pioneering French fighter pilot Charles Tricornot de Rose to his headquarters and exclaimed, “Rose, I am blind! Clean the skies for me!”
In the following weeks, Commandant de Rose assembled the best pilots of the Aéronautique militaire, including Jean Navarre, Georges Guynemer and Charles Nungesser. De Rose organized these elite pilots into escadrilles de chasse, the first true fighter squadrons in aviation history, and sent them into battle against the Germans.
The new fighter squadrons scored numerous victories. At Pétain’s urging, they grew dramatically in strength over the course of the battle and upgraded repeatedly with new and better models of aircraft. Eventually there were 15 squadrons, including the famed Escadrille américaine (later rechristened the Escadrille de Lafayette), composed of volunteer American pilots who first experienced air combat in the skies over Verdun. By the summer of 1916 the Allied aviators had gained the upper hand. “Verdun was the crucible where French aviation was forged,” Pétain later wrote. His ability to incorporate the nascent technology of military aviation into his operations at Verdun was a key component in the ultimate French victory.
After the German onslaught of February and March 1916, the battle settled into a grim struggle of attrition in which the French were at a decided disadvantage. Crammed into a narrow bridgehead on the east bank of the Meuse, they were ringed by German artillery that both outnumbered and outgunned their own. The one advantage the French claimed was their forts, which by Pétain’s orders had been transformed into powerful centers of resistance. The central citadel of Verdun served as the main command post. Its massive earth-covered walls and subterranean galleries made it an ideal headquarters, hospital and supply depot. The tactical command center for French operations on the east bank of the Meuse was Fort Souville, one of the more modern forts in the sector. It, too, was well built, with multiple steel-reinforced concrete machine-gun positions that rose hydra-like from the subterranean fortress and spat fire at any who dared approach. This fortress withstood numerous attacks, barring every attempt by the Germans to advance from their ridgeline and take Verdun. The older forts in the sector proved very useful as shelters for reserve formations, supplies and field hospitals.
Pétain, unlike many other commanders of the era, had a sincere concern for the well-being of his men and understood the sacrifice being asked of the soldiers he sent into battle. He instituted a rotational system, whereby after three days at the front a division would be withdrawn and spend a week recovering before returning to battle. This allowed the men just enough respite to keep themselves physically and psychologically strong for the fight. In stark contrast, the German practice was to keep frontline divisions in action until they were virtually destroyed.
General Joffre was pleased by Pétain’s defense of Verdun but grew impatient with the battle. He urged Pétain to launch an immediate counteroffensive, but Pétain refused, insisting that the Germans were still too strong. Joffre was also annoyed by Pétain’s constant demands for more men, guns and supplies the Battle of Verdun was consuming reserves Joffre had earmarked for a joint French-British offensive along the Somme that summer.
Joffre believed that Pétain’s obsession with Verdun had blinded him to the overall Allied strategy. The French commander in chief argued that the best way to halt German attacks on Verdun was for the Allies to launch their own offensive in a different sector. For his part, Pétain was frustrated by a high command that didn’t recognize that the climactic battle of the war had arrived. Pétain believed that if Verdun fell, France itself would not survive.
In April 1916, fed up with Pétain’s intransigence, Joffre kicked him upstairs, naming him commander of the Central Army Group, which included the RFV. He assigned General Robert Nivelle to command the Second Army. Joffre believed this new command arrangement would offer the best of both worlds: Pétain would have the resources of an entire army group at his disposal, and that would enable Joffre to resume stockpiling resources for the Somme Offensive. Joffre also believed Nivelle would be more inclined toward launching the Verdun counteroffensive he had long sought.
On May 22, 1916, soon after this shake-up, Nivelle launched the counteroffensive. The objective was the recapture of Fort Douaumont, with its commanding position on the east bank of the Meuse and its political value as a symbol of Germany’s early success. The French attack made good initial progress, but the Germans, as Pétain had feared, were still too strong. The assault force managed to broach the fortress but was driven off within hours by a strong counterattack.
In the wake of this failed counteroffensive, Pétain reasserted his authority over military operations at Verdun. In theory the new command structure designed by Joffre had relieved Pétain of his tactical responsibilities in the sector, but in actuality Pétain retained control, and he kept Nivelle on a very short leash.
In June the Germans launched a new attack aimed at driving French forces from the east bank of the Meuse. The Germans quickly overran outlying French positions and headed toward Fort Vaux. Commandant Sylvain-Eugène Raynal defended the fort with a force of about 600 men, including many wounded soldiers who had sought shelter there as the German offensive swept forward. Heavy artillery pounded the fort, softening it up for attack by an entire German corps. Raynal and his gallant force managed to turn aside the German assaults for almost a week before succumbing to thirst when their water supplies ran out. Although the fort fell, Raynal’s defensive stand had bogged down the Germans. The engagement had also proved once again the defensive power of the French forts. During the entire 10-month campaign, the Germans only captured Douaumont and Vaux.
The Franco-British Somme Offensive kicked off at long last on July 1, placing tremendous demands on German forces on the Western Front. On July 12, Crown Prince Wilhelm’s Fifth Army made one final effort to capture Verdun, but the French inflicted heavy losses and turned it back after days of intense combat. His plan for victory at Verdun wrecked, Falkenhayn shifted his forces to the Somme to meet the new Allied offensive.
The German failure to capture Verdun had dramatic repercussions: In August 1916 Kaiser Wilhelm II replaced Falkenhayn with Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. Hindenburg and his brilliant chief of staff, General Erich Ludendorff, had achieved a series of great victories over the Russians on the Eastern Front.
Shortly after assuming their new positions, Hindenburg and Ludendorff inspected the Verdun sector and described it as “a regular hell.” The new chief of the General Staff informed Kaiser Wilhelm that “the battles there exhaust our army like an open wound.” Hindenburg later wrote: “To a large extent, the flower of our best fighting troops had been sacrificed in the enterprise. The public at home still anticipated a glorious issue to the offensive. It would be only too easy to produce the impression that all these sacrifices had been in vain.” Hindenburg halted offensive operations at Verdun and directed Crown Prince Wilhelm to consolidate his forces into defensive positions. As far as the German high command was concerned, the Battle of Verdun was over, and they hoped that the French would see it the same way.
Pétain had no such intention. He knew that before victory could be claimed, Fort Douaumont would have to be retaken. Perched atop the highest point east of the Meuse, its armored turrets commanded the battlefield, raining German artillery fire on French forces and Verdun itself. Pétain planned a major counteroffensive for the autumn of 1916 to recapture Forts Douaumont and Vaux, as well as the entire ridgeline east of the river.
He worked closely with Nivelle to assemble guns and munitions for the attack and to refine Nivelle’s concept of a “rolling barrage,” in which a curtain of artillery fire was dropped directly in front of the assault formations and then shifted forward at timed intervals to provide fire support as the infantry advanced. The two men agreed that General Charles Mangin should lead the attack. Nicknamed “the Butcher” by his detractors, Mangin was a skilled tactician who personally led his troops into battle. Pétain saw to it that Mangin’s battalions were brought up to full strength and equipped with the latest weapons, including grenade launchers, automatic rifles and flamethrowers.
The counteroffensive began on October 19. Pétain had amassed more than 700 heavy guns—including a battery of new “super heavy” 400mm railway guns—and a like number of light and medium pieces. He made counterbattery fire a top priority, and in just three days the French artillery, directed by observation balloons and aircraft, knocked out more than half of the German batteries in the Douaumont sector.
To keep the Germans off balance, Mangin did not attack at dawn as usual but remained in position through the morning. Then, at 2 p.m., battle cries rang through the cool autumnal air. Mangin’s lead assault battalions succeeded in surprising the German defenders and quickly overran their front lines. A heavy artillery shell penetrated Fort Douaumont during the bombardment and started a fire that forced out the Germans. The fire was brought under control, but not before the French infantry had overrun the German positions. An hour after the attack started, signal rockets rose over Fort Douaumont, cueing the French artillery to shift its fire. The assault troops used mirrors to flash a one-word message back to the tactical command post at Fort Souville: Victoire. Cheers resounded at the news that after eight months Fort Douaumont was back in French hands.
The Germans suffered heavy losses during the counteroffensive, and by November 1 the steady advance of French infantry forced Crown Prince Wilhelm to abandon Fort Vaux, his other great prize. Ludendorff later lamented, “The loss [of the forts] was grievous, but still more grievous was the totally unexpected decimation of some of our divisions.”
Pétain persisted with his offensive. After consolidating his positions around Douaumont, he moved to push the Germans farther back, to ensure the safety of the fort. On December 14 the French attacked, inflicting heavy losses on the Germans. As the Battle of Verdun drew to a close in the midst of a snowstorm on December 16, the Germans had fallen back almost to their February starting point. This final attack sealed the French victory. Ludendorff conceded: “We not only suffered heavy casualties, but also lost important positions. The strain during this year had proved too great….We were completely exhausted on the Western Front.”
The Battle of Verdun was one of history’s longest and bloodiest battles, lasting almost 10 months and costing more than half a million French and German casualties. The French victory marked Germany’s descent into the abyss. While many individuals contributed to the triumph, Pétain towered above them all. General Joffre later wrote: “What saved Verdun was [Pétain’s] highly developed tactical sense, his continual perfecting of the methods of defense, and the constant improvement he effected in the organization of the command of the higher units. General Pétain was the heart and soul of the action.”
Robert B. Bruce is the author of Pétain: Verdun to Vichy. For further reading, he also recommends: Verdun, by Henri-Philippe Pétain, and The Price of Glory, by Alistair Horne.
Description of the hydro-pneumatic recoil mechanism [ edit | edit source ]
Canon de 75 breech mechanism.
The gun's barrel slid back on rollers, including a set at the muzzle, when the shot was fired. The barrel was attached near the breech to a piston rod extending into an oil-filled cylinder placed just underneath the gun. When the barrel recoiled, the piston was pulled back by the barrel's recoil and thus pushed the oil through a small orifice and into a second cylinder placed underneath. That second cylinder contained a freely floating piston which separated the surging oil from a confined volume of compressed air. During the barrel's recoil the floating piston was forced forward by the oil, compressing the air even further. This action absorbed the recoil progressively as the internal air pressure rose and, at the end of recoil, generated a strong but decreasing back pressure that returned the gun forward to its original position. The smoothness of this system had no equal in 1897, and for at least another ten years. Each recoil cycle on the French 75, including the return forward, lasted about two seconds, permitting a maximum attainable firing rate of about 30 rounds per minute.
Ammunition [ edit | edit source ]
The French 75 fired two types of shells, both with a purposely high muzzle velocity of 500 metres per second (1,600 ft/s) and a maximum range of 6,900 metres (7,500 yd). The ballistic properties had been specifically designed for relatively flat trajectories extending to the designated targets.
- A 5.3 kilograms (12 lb) impact-detonated, thin-walled steel, high-explosive (HE) shell with a time-delay fuze. It was filled with picric acid, known in France as "Melinite", used since 1888. The delay lasted five hundredths of a second, designed to detonate the shell in the air and at a man's height after bouncing forward off the ground. These shells were particularly destructive to men's lungs when exploding in their proximity.
- A 7.24 kilograms (16.0 lb) time-fuzed shrapnel shell containing 290 lead balls. The balls shot forward when the fuze's timer reached zero, ideally bursting high above the ground and enemy troops. During 1914 and 1915, the shrapnel shell was the dominant type of ammunition found in the French 75 batteries. However by 1918, high-explosive shells had become the virtually sole type of 75mm ammunition remaining in service. Furthermore, several new shells and fuzes were introduced due to the demands of trench warfare. A boat-tailed shell (with a superior ballistic coefficient) which could reach 11,000 metres (12,000 yd) was also used during the latter part of the war.
Every shell, whether it be a high-explosive or shrapnel shell, was fixed to a brass case which was automatically ejected when the breech was opened.
Rapid fire capability [ edit | edit source ]
The French 75 introduced a new concept in artillery technology: rapid firing without realigning the gun after each shot. Γ] Older artillery had to be resighted after each shot in order to stay on target, and thus fired no more than two aimed shots per minute. The French 75 easily delivered fifteen aimed rounds per minute and could fire even faster for short periods of time. This rate of fire, the gun's accuracy, and the lethality of the ammunition against personnel, made the French 75 superior to all other regimental field artillery at the time. When made ready for action, the first shot buried the trail spade and the two wheel anchors into the ground, following which all other shots were fired from a stable platform. Bringing down the wheel anchors tied to the braking system was called "abattage". The gun could not be elevated beyond eighteen degrees, unless the trail spade had been deeply dug into the ground however, the 75 mm field gun was not designed for "plunging fire". The gun could be traversed laterally 3 degrees to the sides by sliding the trail on the wheel's axle. Progressive traversing together with small changes in elevation could be carried out while continuously firing, called "fauchage" or "sweeping fire". A 4-gun battery firing shrapnel could deliver 17,000 ball projectiles over an area 100 meters wide by 400 meters long in a single minute, with devastating results. Because of the gun's traversing ability, the longer the distance to the enemy concentration, the wider area that could be swept.
In choosing Verdun as the main German objective for 1916, General Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff and Minister for War, pre-dated the jibe that the British would fight to the last man in the armies of their allies. Falkenhayn reasoned that, for the British, the European fronts in the First World War represented nothing more than a sideshow, with the Russian, Italian and French armies as their whipping boys. The Italians and Russians, Falkenhayn believed, were already foundering on their own ineptitude. Only France remained.
“France has almost arrived at the end of her military effort.” Falkenhayn wrote to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II in December 1915.
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 . . . breaking point would be reached, and England’s best sword knocked out of her hand . . . Behind the French sector on 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 bleed to death, as there can be no question of a voluntary withdrawal.
The objective Falkenhayn chose to put France in this moral and military dilemma was the massively fortified town of Verdun, on the canalized river Meuse. Verdun fitted Falken-hayn’s bill admirably. It had immense historic and emotional significance for the French and formed the northern linchpin of the double defense line of fortifications built to protect France’s eastern frontier after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1. Mount an assault here, with enough threatening potential, Falkenhayn reckoned, and the French Army would be inextricably lured to Verdun and mangled to extinction by the Germans. The mangle would be provided by a series of limited, but attritionist advances, intensively supported by artillery and spiced with surprise.
Falkenhayn’s proposals appealed to the Kaiser and to his son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, whose Fifth Army had been pounding away at Verdun with little success since 1914. But the prince and his Chief of Staff, General Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, seemed to see the Verdun campaign more in terms of shattering the French with a bombardment than of bleeding them dry by attrition. Wilhelm, who wanted to attack on both sides of the Meuse, not on the right bank only, as Falkenhayn proposed, stated the campaign’s purpose as “capturing the fortress of Verdun by precipitate methods”. Compared with this fierce phraseology, Falkenhayn’s notion of “an offensive in the Meuse area in the direction of Verdun” seemed enigmatic. Despite the suitably malevolent code-name of Operation Gericht (Judgement) given to his offensive, Falkenhayn’s essentially halfhearted approach to it planted the seeds of ultimate German failure at Verdun. Basically, that failure was rooted in Falkenhayn’s timid choice of too narrow a front for the initial attack and also in his extreme parsimony in doling out reserves.
Although Crown Prince Wilhelm and others seemed to suspect this outcome, preparations for the campaign went ahead as Falkenhayn had originally planned. It did so at a pace remarkable for those leisurely times. Weeks, rather than the usual months, divided Falkenhayn’s preliminary consultations with the Kaiser at Potsdam on or about 20 December 1915 from the issue of final orders on 27 January 1916 and the projected attack date of 12 February.
During this period, the Germans amassed in the forests that surrounded Verdun a massive force of 140,000 men and over 1,200 guns – 850 of them in the front line – together with 2.5 million shells brought by 1,300 munitions trains, and an air arm of 168 aircraft as well as observation balloons. A superlative standard of secrecy was achieved by deft camouflage of the guns, by the building of underground galleries to house the troops instead of the more usual, give-away “jump-off” trenches, and by dawn-to-dusk air patrols to prevent French pilots from casting spying eyes over the area.
These gargantuan preparations were, however, being directed against a military mammoth whose teeth had been drawn. By early 1916, Verdun’s much-vaunted impregnability had been seriously weakened. It had been “declassed” as a fortress the previous summer and all but a few of its guns and garrison had been removed. This was primarily the work of General Joseph J. C. Joffre, C-in-C of the French Army, who, with others, had presumed from the relatively easy fall in 1914 of the Belgian fortresses at Liège and Namur that this form of defense was redundant so far as modern warfare was concerned. Between August and October 1915, therefore, Verdun was denuded of over 50 complete batteries of guns and 128,000 rounds of ammunition. These were parcelled out to other Allied sectors where artillery was short. The stripping process was still going on at the end of January 1916, by which time the 60-odd Verdun forts possessed fewer than 300 guns with insufficient ammunition.
The result was that on the eve of the German offensive, the French defenses at Verdun were perilously weak, from the trench-works, dug-outs and machine-gun posts to the communications network and barbed-wire fences. Far-sighted men who protested at the headlong disarmament of Verdun did so in vain. One of them, General Coutanceau, was sacked as Governor of Verdun and replaced in the autumn of 1915 by the ageing and apparently more tractable General Herr. Another, Colonel Emile Driant, commander of 56th and 59th Chasseur Battalions of 72nd Division, 30th Corps, warned as early as 22 August 1915: “The sledge-hammer blow will be delivered on the line Verdun-Nancy.” After his opinion reached the ears of Joffre, Driant was sharply reprimanded in December for arousing baseless fears. Gen. Herr quickly realized that Coutanceau’s alarm had been perfectly justified, and that he was in dire need of reinforcements to prepare the defense line Joffre had ordered at Verdun. But Herr’s pleadings did little to penetrate the cloud of smugness that swirled about the question of defending Verdun. This mood remained impervious for some weeks, despite information from German deserters about troop movements and cancelled leave and other glimpses at the dire truth.
The very last moment had almost arrived before a glimmer of sense started to seep through. On 24 January General Nöel de Castelnau, Joffre’s Chief of Staff, ordered a rush completion of the first and second trench lines on the right bank of the Meuse, and a new line in between.
On 12 February, two new divisions arrived at Verdun – much to Herr’s heartfelt relief – to bring French strength up to 34 battalions against 72 German. Had the German attack begun on 12 February as planned, it would doubtless have smashed through the weak French defenses to score a stunning steamroller victory.
As it was, 12 February was not a day of savage battle, but of snow-blizzards and dense mist which afforded less than 1,100 yards visibility. The Verdun area was said to “enjoy” some of France’s filthiest weather. For a week it lived up to its reputation with snow, more snow, rain-squalls and gales.
Not until 21 February – just before 0715 – did a massive shell, almost as high as a man, burst from one of the two German 15-in (380 mm) naval guns and roar over the 20 miles that separated its camouflaged position from Verdun. There, it exploded in the courtyard of the Bishop’s Palace. At this signal, a murderous artillery bombardment erupted from the German lines and a tornado of fire – including poison gas shells – began to flay the French positions along a six-mile front. The earth convulsed and the air filled with flames, fumes and a holocaust of shrapnel and steel which, the Germans clearly hoped, would destroy every living thing within range. The bombardment hammered on and on until about 1200, when it paused so that German observers could see where – if anywhere – pockets of French defenders survived. Then the artillery began afresh, smashing trenches, shelters, barbed wire, trees and men until the whole area from Malancourt to Eparges had become a corpse-littered desert.
Between 1500 and 1600, the barrage intensified as a prelude to the first German infantry advance along a 4.5-mile front from Bois d’Haumont to Herbebois. The advance began at 1645 when small patrol groups came out over the 656 to 1,203 yards of No Man’s Land in waves 87.5 yards apart. Their purpose was to discover where French resistance might still exist and to pinpoint it to the artillery – which would then finish off the surviving defenders. This tentative approach, the result of Falkenhayn’s excessive caution, was not to the taste of the belligerent General von Zwehl, commander of 7 Reserve Corps of Westphalians. Von Zwehl, whose position lay opposite Bois d’Haumont, paid brief lip-service to Falkenhayn’s orders by sending out probing patrols first, but only a short while elapsed before he ordered his fighting stormtroopers to follow them. The Westphalians surged into the Bois d’Haumont, overran the first line of French trenches and within five hours had seized the whole wood.
To the right of the Bois d’Haumont lay the equally devastated Bois des Caures. Here, 80,000 shells had fallen within one 500,000-square-yard area. In this shattered wasteland, the advance patrols of the German 18 Corps expected to find nothing but mounds of shattered bodies in the mud. Instead, they were faced with a fierce challenge from Colonel Driant’s Chasseurs. Of the original 1,200 men under Driant’s command, fewer than half had survived the artillery bombardment. Now, these survivors poured machine-gun and rifle fire at the infiltrating Germans from the concrete redoubts and small strongholds which Driant had cunningly scattered through the trees.
Similarly ferocious isolated resistance was occurring all along the front, causing the Germans more delay and more casualties – 600 by midnight – than they had reckoned possible. By nightfall on 21 February, the only hole decisively punched in the French line was in the Bois d’Haumont, where Gen. Zwehl’s Westphalians were now solidly entrenched. Elsewhere, the Germans had captured most of the French forward trenches, but were held up when darkness put an end to the first day’s fighting which had yielded only 3,000 prisoners.
On the next two days, the Germans attacked with far greater force and much more initiative. On 22 February they blasted the village of Haumont, on the edge of the wood, with shellfire and flushed out the remaining French defenders with bombs and flamethrowers. That same day, the Bois de Ville was overwhelmed and in the Bois des Caures, which the Germans enveloped on both sides, Col. Driant ordered his Chasseurs to withdraw to Beaumont, about half a mile behind the wood. Only 118 Chasseurs managed to escape. Driant was not among them. On 23 February, the Germans saturated Samogneux with a hail of gunfire, captured Wavrille and Herbebois, and outflanked the village of Brabant, which the French evacuated. Next day – 24 February – despite their inch-by-inch resistance, the pace of disaster accelerated for the French with 10,000 taken prisoner, the final fall of their first defense line and the collapse of their second position in a matter of hours.
The Germans were now in possession of Beaumont, the Bois de Fosses, the Bois des Caurieres and part of the way along La Vauche ravine which led to Douaumont.
Incredibly enough, at first the magnitude of the disaster did not sink in at Joffre’s HQ at Chantilly, where the Staff had persuaded themselves that the German attack was a mere diversion. “Papa” Joffre, who had long believed a serious German offensive was more likely in the Oise valley, Rheims or Champagne, maintained his customary imperturbability to such an extent that at 2300 on 24 February, he was fast asleep when General de Castelnau came hammering on his bedroom door bearing bad news from the front. Armed with “full powers” from Joffre, who then went calmly back to bed, de Castelnau raced overnight to Verdun.
At about the time he arrived there, early on 25 February, a 10-man patrol of 24th Brandenburg Regiment of 3 Corps walked into Fort Douaumont and took possession of it and its three guns while the French garrison of 56 reserve artillerymen slept. This farcical episode, which German propaganda exaggerated into a hard-fought victory, shocked the French into melancholic despair and realization of the true state of affairs. At Chantilly, many officers openly advocated abandoning Verdun.
There, de Castelnau drew the conclusion that the French right flank should be drawn back and that the line of forts must be held at all costs. Above all, the French must retain the right bank of the Meuse, where de Castelnau felt that a decisive defense could, and must, be anchored on the ridges. The hapless Gen. Herr was replaced forthwith by 60-year-old General Henri Philippe Pétain. De Castelnau cannibalized Pétain’s Second Army with the Third Army to form for him a new Second Army.
Pétain took over responsibility for the defense of Verdun at 2400 on 25 February, after arriving that afternoon to find Herr’s HQ at Dugny, south of Verdun, in a chaos of panic and recrimination. Pétain, however, judged the situation to be far less hopeless than it seemed, even though the loss of Fort Douaumont and its unparalleled observation point was a serious blow. He decided that the surviving Verdun forts should be strongly re-garrisoned to form the principal bulwarks of a new defense. Pétain mapped out new lines of resistance on both banks of the Meuse and gave orders for a barrage position to be established through Avocourt, Fort de Marre, Verdun’s NE outskirts and Fort du Rozellier. The line Bras–Douaumont was divided into four sectors – she Woevre, Woevre–Douaumont, astride the Meuse, and the left bank of the Meuse. Each sector was entrusted to fresh troops of the 20th (“Iron”) Corps. Their main job was to delay the German advance with constant counterattacks.
Pétain saw to it that the four commands were supplied with fresh artillery as it arrived along the Bar-le-Duc road – which was soon rechristened “Sacred Way”. Three thousand Territorials labored unceasingly to keep its unmetalled surface in constant repair so that it could stand up to punishingly heavy use by convoys of lorries – 6,000 of them in a single day. Along La Voie Sacrée came badly needed reinforcements to replace the 25,000 men the French had lost by 26 February – five fresh Corps of them by 29 February. Already, Pétain was topping up his stock of artillery from the 388 field guns and 244 heavy guns that were at Verdun on 21 February towards the peak it reached a few weeks later of 1,100 field guns, 225 80–105 mm guns and 590 heavy guns. He also set the 59th Division to work building new defensive positions.
His injection of new strategy, new blood, new supplies and new hope into the Verdun defense soon began to disconcert the Germans. In any case, their impetus was gradually grinding down. On 29 February, their advance came to an exhausted halt after the last of their initial energy had been expended in three days of violent attacks against Douaumont, Hardaumont and Bois de la Caillette.
At that juncture, apart from their own mood of ‘grievous pessimism’, the most damaging factor for the Germans was the French artillery sited on the left bank of the Meuse. Here, more and more Germans came under fire the farther along the right bank they advanced. The solution was obvious, as Pétain had long feared and Crown Prince Wilhelm and Gen. von Knobelsdorf had long urged. On 6 March, after a blistering two-day artillery barrage, the German 6 Reserve and 10 Reserve Corps, partly pushed across the flooded Meuse and in a swirling snowstorm, attacked along the left bank. A parallel prong of this new onslaught was planned to strike along the right bank towards Fort Vaux, whose gunners had been savaging the German left flank.
Despite a plastering from French artillery in the Bois Bourrus, the Germans sped along the left bank and swept through the villages of Forges and Regneville – ending by nightfall in possession of Height 265 on the Côte de l’Oie. This ridge was of crucial importance, since it led through the adjacent Bois des Corbeaux towards the long mound known as Mort Homme. Mort Homme possessed double peaks and offered two advantages to the Germans. First it sheltered a particularly active battery of French field guns, and secondly, from its heights there stretched a magnificent all-round vista of the surrounding countryside. This gave whoever possessed it a prize observation point.
But Mort Homme soon lived up to its grisly name. After storming the Bois des Corbeaux on 7 March and losing it to a determined French counter-attack next day, the Germans prepared another attempt on Mort Homme on 9 March – this time from the direction of Béthincourt in the NW. They seized the Bois des Corbeaux a second time, but at such a crippling cost that they could not continue.
Results were depressingly similar on the right bank of the Meuse, where the German effort faded out beneath the walls of Fort Vaux. Difficulties of ammunition supply had made the attack there limp two days behind the left bank assault. With that, the parallel effect of the German offensive was ruined.
Inexorably, perhaps inevitably, the fighting around Verdun was acquiring that quality of slog and slaughter, and of lives thrown away for petty, short-lived gains that was so familiar a characteristic of fighting in the First World War.
Both Pétain and, in his own way, von Falkenhayn, were devotees of attrition by gunpower rather than manpower, but between March and May, the struggle at Verdun, like some Frankenstein’s monster renouncing its master, assumed a will of its own and reversed this preference. German casualties mounted from 81,607 at the end of March to 120,000 by the end of April, and the French from 89,000 to 133,000, as the two sides battered each other for possession of Mort Homme. By the end of May, when the Germans had at last taken this vital position, their losses had overtaken their enemy’s. On the right bank of the Meuse, in the same three months, the fighting swung to and fro over the “Deadly Quadrilateral” – an area south of Fort Douaumont – to the tune of maniacal, endless artillery barrages, never resolving itself decisively in favor of one side or the other.
The process greatly weakened both contestants. Mutinous behavior and defeatist gossip became more common in the French ranks and French officers tacitly condoned this mood. More and more Germans, many of them terrified, clumsy 18-year-old boys were becoming sickly from exhaustion, the din of the guns and the filth in which they were forced to live.
Ennervation and dismay affected the heads as well as the bodies of the two opposing war efforts. By 21 April, Crown Prince Wilhelm had made up his mind that the whole Verdun campaign was a bloody failure and ought to be terminated. “A decisive success at Verdun could only be assured at the price of heavy sacrifices, out of all proportion to the desired gains,” he wrote. These sentiments were echoed by Gen. Pétain, who was being nagged by Joffre to mount an aggressive counter-offensive. Pétain baulked at the increase in human sacrifice which that implied and clung to the principle of patient, stolid defense. Pétain was in a difficult position. Verdun had already become a national symbol of implacable resistance to the Germans, and Pétain himself a national idol. On the other hand, Verdun was threatening to gobble up the whole French Army and it certainly presented a serious drain on the manpower being reserved by Joffre for the coming Anglo-French offensive on the Somme.
For both sides at Verdun, these falterings at the top opened the way for men more ruthlessly determined to escalate the fighting onto even more brutal levels. On 19 April, Pétain was made Commander of Army Group Center, a position which placed him in remote rather than direct control of operations. His place as commander of Second Army was taken by General Robert Georges Nivelle, whose freebooter style of warfare had caught Joffre’s attention during his series of audacious, if expensive, attacks along the right bank of the Meuse. Nivelle took over on 1 May, and arrived at headquarters at Souilly with the brash announcement: “We have the formula!” He was also responsible for a quotation attributed sometimes to Pétain: “Ils ne passeront pas!”
Nivelle’s formula displayed itself in all its gory wastefulness on 22/23 May, when General Charles Mangin staged a flamboyant attack on Fort Douaumont. After a five-day bombardment, which barely chipped the fort’s defenses, Mangin’s troops streamed out of their jump-off trenches straight into a hurricane of deadly German gunfire. Within minutes, the French 129th Regiment had only 45 men left. One battalion had vanished. The remnants of the 129th charged the fort and set up a machine-gun post in one casemate against which the defending Germans flung themselves in a matching mood of suicidal madness. Out of 160 Jägers, Leibgrenadiers and men of the German 20th Regiment who attempted to overcome the French nest, only 50 returned to the fort alive. By the evening of 22 May, Fort Douaumont was in French hands, but the Germans staged violent counterattacks, capping their onslaught with eight massive doses of explosive lobbed from a minethrower 80 yards distant. One thousand French were taken prisoner, and only a pathetic scattering of their comrades managed to stagger away from the fort.
This bloody fiasco ripped a 500-yard gap in the French lines and greatly weakened their strength on the right bank of the Meuse. Together with the fact that German possession of Mort Homme largely nullified French firepower on the Bois Borrus ridge, the self-destructive strife at Fort Douaumont gave great encouragement to the so-called “May Cup” offensive which the Germans planned for early June.
The inspiration behind “May Cup” was Gen. von Knobelsdorf, who had temporarily eclipsed Crown Prince Wilhelm. As Nivelle’s new opposite number, von Knobelsdorf soon displayed an equally implacable resolve to overcome the enemy by brute force. “May Cup” comprised a powerful thrust on the right bank of the Meuse by five divisions on under half the 21 February attack frontage. Its purpose was to lift Verdun’s last veil – Fort Vaux, Thiaumont, the Fleury ridge and Fort Souville.
On 1 June, the Germans crossed the Vaux ravine and after a frenzied contest forced Major Sylvain Raynal – commander of Fort Vaux – to surrender on 7 June. By 8 June, Gen. Nivelle had mounted six unsuccessful relief attempts, at appalling cost. He was stopped from making a seventh attempt only when Pétain expressly forbade it. Elsewhere – totably round the Ouvrage de Thiaumont – the fighting brought both sides terrible losses. The French alone were losing 4,000 men per division in a single action. By 12 June, Nivelle’s fresh reserves amounted to only one brigade – not more than 2,000 men.
With the Germans now poised to take Fort Souville – the very last major fortress protecting Verdun – ultimate disaster seemed imminent for the French. Eleventh-hour salvation came in the form of two Allied offensives in other theaters of war. On 4 June, on the Eastern Front, the Russian General Alexei A. Brusilov threw 40 divisions at the Austrian line in Galicia, in a surprise attack that flattened its defenders. The Russians took 400,000 prisoners. To shore up his war effort, now threatened with total collapse, Field Marshal Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austrian C-in-C, begged Falkenhayn to send in German reinforcements. Grudgingly, Falkenhayn detached three divisions from the Western Front. Meanwhile, the French had been doing some pleading on their own account. In May and June, Joffre, de Castelnau, Pétain and French Prime Minister Aristide Briant had all begged General Sir Douglas Haig, the British C-in-C, to advance the Somme offensive from its projected starting date of mid-August. Haig at last complied on 24 June, and that day the week-long preliminary bombardment began.
At this juncture, a German 30,000-man assault on Fort Souville, which had begun with phosgene – “Green Cross” – gas attacks on 22 June had already crumpled. Despite its horrifying effects on everything that lived and breathed, the novel phosgene barrage was neither intense nor prolonged enough to sufficiently paralyze the power of the French artillery. This shortfall, together with German failure to attack on a wide enough front, their recent loss of air superiority to the French, their shrinking store of manpower and the ravages thirst was wreaking in their lines, combined to scuttle the German push against Fort Souville on 22 June. July and August saw increasingly puny attempts by the Germans to snatch the prize that had come so tantalizingly close, but all ended in failure and exhaustion. German morale was at its lowest. On 3 September, the German offensive finally faded in a weak paroxysm of effort. Verdun proper came to an end.
For the Germans, this miserable curtain-fall on the drama of Verdun was assisted by the fact that after 24 June, the exigencies of the fighting elsewhere denied them new supplies of ammunition and, after 1 July, men.
All that remained was for the French to rearm, reinforce their troops and counter-attack to regain what they had lost. By 24 August 1917, after a brilliant series of campaigns masterminded by Pétain, Nivelle and Mangin, the only mark on the map to show the Germans had ever occupied anything in the area of Verdun denoted the village of Beaumont.
During this counter-offensive, the formerly maligned forts reinstated themselves as powerful weapons of defence. As the French recaptured them, they found how relatively little they had suffered from the massive artillery pounding they had received. This discovery made forts fashionable among French military strategists once more. It did so most notably, and later mortally for France, in the mind of André Maginot, Minister for War from November 1929 to January 1931 and in that time sponsor of the Maginot Line of fortifications.
Of course, fortress-like durability was given neither to the 66 French and 43.5 German divisions which fought at Verdun between February and June 1916, nor to the terrain they so bitterly disputed for so long. Both suffered permanent scars. The land around Verdun, raked over again and again by saturation shelling – over 12 million rounds from the French artillery alone – became a ravaged, infertile lunar-like wasteland. By 1917, the soil of Verdun was thickly sown with dead flesh and irrigated by spilled blood, having claimed more than 1.25 million casualties. Between February and December 1916, the French had lost 377,231 men and the Germans about 337,000 in a scything down of their ranks. In these circumstances, the Western Front ceased to be a sideshow for the British – of it had ever been so. They were forced to assume the star role in the Allied war effort which the French had formerly played. A repetition of Verdun was simply inconceivable.
Lord Northcliff on Verdun
What is the secret motive underlying the German attempt to break the French line at Verdun, in which the Crown Prince's army is incurring such appalling losses? Is it financial, in view of the coming war loan? Is it dynastic? Or is it intended to influence doubting neutrals? From the evidence of German deserters it is known that the attack was originally intended to take place a month or two hence, when the ground was dry. Premature spring caused the Germans to accelerate their plans. There were two final delays owing to bad weather, and then came the colossal onslaught of February 21st.
The Germans made a good many of the mistakes we made at Gallipoli. They announced that something large was pending by closing the Swiss frontier. The French who were not ready, were also warned by their own astute Intelligence Department. Their avions were not idle, and, if confirmation were needed, it was given by deserters, who, surmising the horrors that were to come, crept out of the trenches at night, lay down by the edge of the Meuse till the morning, and then gave themselves up, together with information that has since proved to be accurate. Things went wrong with the Germans in other ways. A Zeppelin that was to have blown up important railway junctions on the French line of communications was brought down at Revigny, and incidentally the inhabitants of what remains of that much-bombarded town were avenged by the spectacle of the blazing dirigible crashing to the ground and the hoisting with their own petard of 30 Huns therein. It is not necessary to recapitulate that the gigantic effort of February 21st was frustrated by the coolness and tenacity of the French soldiers and the deadly curtain fire of the French gunners.
Though a great deal of calculated nonsense has been sent out in official communiques and dilated upon by dithyrambic Berlin newspaper correspondents as to the taking by storm of a long-dismantled fort at Douaumont, nothing whatever has been admitted by the Germans as to the appalling price in blood they have paid since February 21st and are still paying. The French losses are, and have been, insignificant. I know the official figure. It has been verified by conversations with members of the British, French and American Red Cross Societies, who are obviously in a position to know. The wounded who pass through their hands have, in many cases, come straight from where they have seen dead Germans, as has been described by scores of witnesses, lying as lay the Prussian Guard in the first Battle of Ypres. The evidence of one army as to another army's losses needs careful corroboration. This exists amply in the evidence of many German prisoners interrogated singly and independently at the French Headquarters.
The case of one man, belonging to the 3rd Battalion of the 12th Regiment in the 5th Division of the 3rd Army Corps, may be taken as characteristic. On the morning of February 28th this prisoner reached the fort of Douaumont and found there one battalion of the 24th Regiment, elements of the 64th Regiment and of the 3rd Battalion of Jaegers. The strength of his company had been, on February 21st, 200 rifles with four officers. On February 22nd it had fallen to 70 rifles, with one officer. The other companies had suffered similar losses. On February 23rd the prisoner's company was re-enforced by 45 men, bearing the numbers of the 12th, the 52nd, the 35th, and the 205th Regiments. These men had been drawn from various depots in the interior. The men of the 12th Regiment believed that five regiments were in reserve in the woods behind the 3rd Corps, but, as time went on and losses increased without any sign of the actual presence of these reserves, doubt spread whether they were really in existence. The prisoner declared that his comrades were no longer capable of fresh effort.
None of the prisoners questioned estimated the losses suffered by their companions at less than one-third of the total effectives. Taking into account all available indications, it may safely be assumed that, during the fighting of the first 13 days, the Germans lost in killed, wounded, and prisoners at least 100,000 men.
The profits -- as the soldier speaks of such matters -- being so small, what then were the overwhelming motives that impelled the attack on Verdun, and the chicanery of the German communiques? Was it any of the reasons I have given above, or was it an effect of economic pressure which led to the miscalculation that the possible taking over of the French line at Verdun was a means of ending the war? The Germans are so wont to misread the minds of other nations that they are quite foolish enough to make themselves believe this or any other foolish thing. It cannot be pretended that the attack had in it anything of military necessity. It was urged forward at a time of year when weather conditions might prove, as they proved, a serious handicap in such matters as the moving of big guns and the essential observation by aeroplanes.
The district of Verdun lies in one of the coldest and also the most misty sectors in the long line between Nieuport and Switzerland. Changes of temperature, too, are somewhat more frequent here than elsewhere and so sudden are these changes that not long ago here occurred, on a part of the front, one of nature's furious and romantic reminders of her power to impose her will. The opposing French and German trenches, their parapets hard frozen, were so close that they were actually within hearing of each other. Towards dawn a rapid thaw set in. The parapets melted and subsided, and two long lines of men stood up naked, as it were, before each other, face to face with only two possibilities wholesale murder on the one side or the other, or a temporary unofficial peace for the making of fresh parapet protections.
The situation was astounding and unique in the history of trench warfare. The French and German officers, without conferring and unwilling to negotiate, turned their backs so that they might not see officially so unwarlike a scene, and the men on each side rebuilt their parapets without the firing of a single shot.
This instance serves to illustrate the precarious weather in which the Germans undertook an adventure in the quick success of which the elements play such a part. That the attack would certainly prove more costly to them than to the French the German Staff must have known. That the suffering of the wounded lying out through the long nights of icy wind in the No Man's Land between the lines would be great did not probably disturb the Crown Prince. It is one of the most grewsome facts in the history of the War that the French, peering through the moonlight at what they thought to be stealthily crawling Germans, found them to be wounded men frozen to death.
The vast battle of Verdun might have been arranged for the benefit of interested spectators, were it not that the whole zone for miles around the great scene is as tightly closed to the outer world as a lodge of Freemason. Furnished with every possible kind of pass, accompanied by a member of the French Headquarters Staff in a military car driven by a chauffeur whose steel helmet marked him as a soldier, I was nevertheless held up by intractable gendarmes at a point twenty-five miles away from the great scene. Even at that distance the mournful and unceasing reverberation of the guns was insistent, and, as the gentry examined our papers and waited for telephonic instructions, I counted more than 200 of the distant voices of Kultur.
As one gets nearer and nearer the great arena on which the whole world's eyes are turned today, proofs of French efficiency and French thoroughness are countless. I do not pretend to any military knowledge other than a few scraps gathered in some half-dozen visits to the War, but the abundance of reserve shells for guns, from mighty howitzers to the graceful French mitrailleuse of the aeroplane, of rifle ammunition, of petrol stores, and of motor-wagons of every description, was remarkable. I can truly say that the volume exceeded anything in my previous experience.
As one approaches the battle the volume of sound becomes louder and at times terrific. And it is curious, the mingling of peace with war. The chocolate and the pneumatic tire advertisements on the village walls, the kilometer stone with its ten kilometers to Verdun, a village cur'8e peacefully strolling along the village street, just as though it were March, 1914, and his congregation had not been sent away from the war zone, while their houses were filled by a swarming army of men in pale blue. Such a wonderful blue this new French invisible cloth! A squadron of cavalry in the new blue and their steel helmets passes at th e moment, and gives the impression that one is back again in what were known as the romantic days of war.
When one has arrived at the battlefield, there are a dozen vantage points from which with glasses, or, indeed, with the naked eye, one can take in much that has happened. Verdun lies in a great basin with the silvery Meuse twining in the valley. The scene is, on the whole, Scottish. Small groups of firs darken some of the hills, giving a natural resemblance to Scotland.
The town is being made into a second Ypres by the Germans. Yet, as it stands out in the sunlight, it is difficult to realize that it is a place whose people have all gone, save a few of the faithful who live below ground. The tall tower of Verdun still stands. Close by us is a hidden French battery, and it is pretty to see the promptitude with which it send its screaming shells back to the Germans within a few seconds of the dispatch of a missive from the Huns. One speedily grows accustomed to the sound and the scene, and can follow the position of the villages about which the Germans endeavor to mislead the world by wireless every morning.
We journey farther afield, and the famous fort of Douaumont is pointed out. The storming of Fort Douaumont, gunless and unmanned, was a military operation of little value. A number of the Brandenburgers climbed into the gunless fort, and some of them were still there on March 6th, supplied precariously with food by their comrades at night. They were practically surrounded by the French, whose Headquarters Staff regarded the whole incident as a simple episode in the give-and-take of war. The announcement of the fall of Fort Douaumont to the world evinces the great anxiety of the Germans to magnify anything concerning Verdun into a great event. It should also cause people to apply a grain of salt to German official communiques before swallowing them.
Who are the men who organized the great battle for the French side? Let me at once say that they are young men. General Petain, one of the discoveries of the war, till lately colonel and after this date promoted to chief command is still in his late fifties most of the members of his staff are much younger. One hears of luxury at Headquarters, but I have not experienced it, either at our own Headquarters or at the French. General Petain, when I enjoyed his hospitality at luncheon, drank tea. Most of his young men contented themselves with water, or the white wine of the Meuse.
In the brief meal he allowed himself the General discussed the battle as though he were merely an interested spectator. In accordance with the drastic changes that the French, like the Germans, are making in their Command, his rise has been so rapid that he is little known to the French people, though greatly trusted by General Joffre and the Government. I naturally did not ask his opinion on any matters connected with the War. We discussed the Australians, the Canadians, the great growth of the British army, and kindred matters.
At another gathering of officers some one asked whether the French would not expect the British to draw off the Germans by making an attack in the West. "It is questionable," replied one young officer, "whether such an attack would not involve disproportionate losses that would weaken the Allies." The same officer pointed out that, although the capture of Verdun would cause great regret, owing to the historic name it bears, it would not, for many reasons, be more important than the pressing back of any other similar number of miles on the front. Forts being of little account since the introduction of the big German hammers, he believed that General Sarrail had said that the question was not one merely of dismantling the forts, but of blowing them up. As it is, whenever the Germans capture a piece of land where an old fort happens to be, they will use it as an advertisement. But though the French officers are not looking to Britain, so far as I could learn, for active cooperation now, they are most certainly urging that when our new armies and their officers are trained we shall aid them by bearing our full share of the tremendous military burden they are carrying.
The present attack on the French at Verdun is by far the most violent incident of the whole Western War. As I write it is late. Yet the bombardment is continuing, and the massed guns of the Germans are of greater caliber than have ever been used in such numbers. The superb calm of the French people the efficiency of their organization, the equipment of their cheery soldiery, convince one that the men in the German machine would never be able to compare with them. Whatever may be the result of the attack on the Verdun sector, every such effort will result in adding many more thousands of corpses to those now lying in the valley of the Meuse, the numbers of which are being so carefully concealed from the neutral world and the Germans themselves and could neutrals see the kind of men whom the Germans do not scruple to use as soldiers, their faith in Teutonic physical efficiency would receive a shock.
Bloody first day
At dawn on 1 July both armies went into action. The disaster that befell the British, Irish and Commonwealth troops is well known.
Less celebrated are the successes of the French. In the first 10 days they achieved most of their objectives, advancing several miles at some points and taking 12,000 German prisoners.
"The French were more realistic in their ambitions, and they were also more experienced," says historian Marjolaine Boutet.
"Many of the British troops were Kitchener volunteers, for whom the Somme was the first experience of fighting. The French had the battles of 1914 and ✕ behind them."
Above all the French army seems to have been better at advancing under supporting artillery.
British units, less experienced, moved forward at a set rhythm - theoretically timed to match the slow advance of the rolling barrage. Hence the famous descriptions of Tommies walking into machine-guns.
The French expected less of their artillery, and their troops were encouraged to use terrain and "duck and run".
The other factor behind the French success was that they faced a lesser enemy.
"The Germans were not expecting a French attack. They were far more worried about the British, so they had concentrated their reinforcements on the northern part of the sector. That meant that the French had an easier time of it," says historian Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau.
In the end the Somme settled into a dreadful four-month battle of attrition, in which the French suffered, just as the British and the Germans did.
Most estimates put the number of French casualties at about 200,000 (killed, missing or wounded). The British and Germans had more than 400,000 casualties each.
As Audoin-Rouzeau points out, this makes the Somme a more costly battle than the simultaneous battle of Verdun - in which about 300,000 men died.
The Somme was also vastly more significant, from a strategic point of view.
In the end, Verdun had virtually no impact on the course of the war. But historians now believe that the Somme convinced German generals of growing Allied strength, and thus tipped them into the submarine war on shipping - which in turn brought in the Americans.
So how come the French care so little about a battle of such importance, in which so many of their own troops were killed?
"The Somme has been completely forgotten in France," says Audoin-Rouzeau.
"Sometimes I take groups of French people around the battlefields, and they are dumbfounded. They are discovering it for the first time."
The “Red Zone” In France Is So Dangerous that 100 Years After WWI It Is Still A No-Go Area
The Zone Rouge (Red Zone) is a region near Verdun, France spanning some 460 square miles of mostly virgin forest – at least on the surface. It’s teeming with history, making it a major tourist attraction and a source of income for locals – yet no one lives there and nothing is built there.
Despite its draw, access is restricted because not everyone who goes in comes out alive. If they do, there’s no guarantee that they’ll do so with all of their limbs intact. Of those who do come out (whole or otherwise), death sometimes takes a while to catch up.
This is because of events that took place during World War I. The Germans and the French faced off on the hills north of Verdun-sur-Meuse in north-eastern France two years later in February 1916.
On the offensive was the German 5th Army, who were trying to dislodge the Région Fortifiée de Verdun (RFV) and the Second Army garrisons who dug themselves along the right bank of the Muse River.
Verdun has long held sentimental value to the French because the area around it held 20 large forts and 40 smaller ones which had protected France’s eastern border for centuries. The Germans were convinced that if they took the area, the French would go berserk and commit everything they had to secure it. In so doing, they’d bleed themselves dry.
While it worked, it didn’t go entirely the way the Germans had hoped. The result was one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts – not just within World War I, but in recorded history, as well.
Lasting 303 days, the Battle of Verdun cost 377,231 French soldiers their lives and 337,000 German ones – about 70,000 casualties a month. Recent figures suggest, however, that that figure may actually be far higher – some 976,000 deaths and about 1,250,000 seriously injured, if you include civilians.
Rusted shells and munitions in a farmyard near the Bapaume-Albert main road, just after the turning towards Thiepval, France. It is still common, in this area that was part of the Somme battlefields, more than 90 years after World War I, for artillery shells to resurface each year during the harvesting and tilling of the soil. Carcharoth (Commons) – CC BY-SA 3.0
While the French relied mostly on 75 mm field guns at the outset of the battle for Verdun, the Germans used new inventions notably stormtroopers with flamethrowers. Grenades, machine guns, and poison gas were also introduced, but the favorite used by both sides was high explosive artillery shells designed to obliterate trenches and stone forts. Millions of shells were used, forever changing the landscape.
When WWI ended in 1918, the French realized that it would take several centuries to completely sweep the area clear – some experts suggest it could take between 300 to 700 years, maybe more. Small farming villages used to dot the area, but they’ve all been moved because the government found it cheaper and more practical to do so. Today, all that’s left of these villages are forlorn signs as a bleak reminder of what once was.
A map of the Red Zone. Tinodela – CC BY-SA 2.5
There are guided “Battle of Verdun” tours, a recreated village complete with trenches, memorial sites, and even restaurants within the Red Zone – but don’t let that fool you. It’s still a dangerous place. The government has set up a Département du Déminage (Department of Mine Clearance), but so far, they’ve only scratched the surface.
Sign indicating the site of the destroyed village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont.
While some bits look like pristine forest, they hide millions of explosives – both the ones that have gone off, as well as those just waiting for someone or something to set them off. Weapons, helmets, and even skeletal fragments are still being found, something that’s likely to go on for centuries to come and ensure employment for those brave enough to work for the Département du Déminage.
The forest at Mort-Homme, deep in the Red Zone. You are not allowed to stray off the paths because the area is littered with unexploded ordnance. – © War History Online
But explosives, even those already spent, are made out of dangerous chemicals. And remember how they used poison gas? Millions of tons of that gunk compacted together in such a confined area has had an impact on the soil and ground water of the region, resulting in patches where little grows and where animals die.
And it’s getting worse. Up until 2004, foresters and hunters were allowed in with special permits till scientists made an awful discovery. Soil analysis in some parts of the Red Zone found arsenic levels of up to 17%. That’s several thousand times higher than in previous decades, meaning those chemicals are acting up, not down.
A very common warning sign on the battlefields of France. © War History Online
The water in the area has also been impacted. Besides an increase in arsenic levels of up to 300 times what scientists consider to be “tolerable” levels, they’ve also found an increase in the non-biodegradable lead from shrapnel. But it’s not just in the water. They’ve also discovered non-biodegradable lead in some animals, especially wild boars, so that turned the hunters off and with good reason.
According to scientists, it can only get worse, not better, because they’ve also confirmed high levels of mercury and zinc. And how long can those substances contaminate water and soil? Up to 10,000 years.
While the French government and the EU officially monitor crops harvested in the region and its outskirts, there are many who question the efficacy of their efforts. Some have even suggested that the authorities aren’t doing anything because they’re afraid of the impact to the local economy. There’s also political survival since the French have never been shy about mass protests.
A live shell in a forest near Verdun. © Mark Barnes / War History Online
Even on the outskirts of the Zone Rouge, however, farmers aren’t safe. Not a year passes without someone driving a tractor over an unexploded shell that goes off. Fortunately, there haven’t been any casualties in several decades… except for ruined tractors and badly shaken farmers.
The real danger, however, comes not from explosive shells. They come from the gas shells – the number one killer of those who work in munitions removal. Despite regular checkups, the build-up of toxins can take a while to detect in the human body. And by the time doctors find it, it can be too late.
This is the business end of a French mortar bomb, one of many that can still be found in the woods around Verdun. © Mark Barnes / War History Online
Another danger lies in the eagerness to reclaim the Red Zone. After the war, cleanup efforts were superficial because the French economy was devastated. Some communities were allowed to rebuild in the Red Zone prematurely, resulting in casualties due to explosives and poisonous chemicals. To exploit war tourism, many restaurants and shops were opened in so-called “safe” areas which were later found to be otherwise.
The Battle of Verdun ended a century ago, but it’s still devastating the land and still impacting human lives.
The Battle of Verdun During World War I
Lasting just three days less than ten months, the Battle of Verdun was a ghastly bloodletting between the German Army and the French Army in 1916. Over 300,000 men on both sides died, an average of 3,000 killed per month. For the French the battle was a victory, because they defeated the German attacks to reduce the salient in the front lines which was anchored by the fortresses ringing Verdun, which the French had decided to abandon and destroy before the Germans attacked it. It was one of the costliest battles of human history, as well as one of the longest.
French troops move forward to attack during the nearly year-long Battle of Verdun. Wikimedia
Verdun was an ancient fortress in French history. Attila had failed to capture it in the fifth century. In the 1600s a defensive citadel was erected in the center of the city, and in the 19 th century additional fortifications were built around the town. They continued to reinforce the defensive emplacements in the early years of the 20 th century. When early battles in World War I revealed fortifications unsuccessful in resisting German attacks, the French decided to remove the heavy guns emplaced at Verdun and destroy the forts, denying them to the Germans. They were in the process of doing so when the Germans attacked. The French decided to stand firm because it was important symbolically.
Fortresses and fortified batteries on the hills on both sides of the Meuse River surrounded Verdun. Wikimedia
1. Verdun was a series of forts and battery emplacements which defended each other
The forts which made up the Fortified Region of Verdun (Region Fortifee de Verdun, or RFV) had been built over the years, many of them modernized prior to World War One. During the first year of the war, before it shifted to trench warfare along the Western Front, the French recognized their enemy&rsquos heavy guns, some as large as those found on battleships, were effective in reducing fortified positions. The French withdrew many of their own heavy guns and field artillery from the Verdun forts. The 18 forts and batteries were stripped until only about 300 guns and minimal ammunition remained by the end of 1915.
Several of the forts were manned with maintenance crews, and Forts Vaux and Douaumont had explosive charges emplaced to destroy them if the Germans attempted to advance. The supporting forts and emplacements were on the hilly ground which surrounded Verdun sur Meuse, both east and west of the Meuse River. Besides the forts and reinforced batteries there was a surrounding maze of machine gun emplacements. Earlier fighting had all but isolated the RFV, with only one light railway in place to provide ammunition and supplies to the garrison, which maintained sufficient supplies for six months. The lack of railway transport had delayed the removal of the remaining guns within the RFV.
The Battle of Verdun
“Neither in France nor in Germany, up to the present moment, has the whole story of the battle been told, describing its vicissitudes, and following step by step the development of the stirring drama.”
The Battle of Verdun, which dragged its length from February 21, 1916, to the 16th of December, ranks next to the Battle of the Marne as the greatest drama of the world war. Like the Marne, it represents the checkmate of a supreme effort on the part of the Germans to end the war swiftly by a thunderstroke. It surpasses the Battle of the Marne by the length of the struggle, the fury with which it was carried on, the huge scale of the operations. No complete analysis of it, however, has yet been published—only fragmentary accounts, dealing with the beginning or with mere episodes. Neither in France nor in Germany, up to the present moment, has the whole story of the battle been told, describing its vicissitudes, and following step by step the development of the stirring drama.
1. The Object of the Battle, and the Preparation for It
The year 1915 was rich in successes for the Germans. In the West, thanks to an energetic defensive, they had held firm against the Allies’ onslaughts in Artois and in Champagne. Their offensive in the East was most fruitful. Galicia had been almost completely recovered, the kingdom of Poland occupied, Courland, Lithuania, and Volhynia invaded. To the South they had crushed Serbia’s opposition, saved Turkey, and won over Bulgaria. These triumphs, however, had not brought them peace, for the heart and soul of the Allies lay, after all, in the West—in England and France. The submarine campaign was counted on to keep England’s hands tied it remained, therefore, to attack and annihilate the French army. And so, in the autumn of 1915, preparations were begun on a huge scale for delivering a terrible blow in the West and dealing France the coup de grâce.
The determination with which the Germans followed out this plan and the reckless way in which they drew on their resources leave no doubt as to the importance the operation held for them. They staked everything on putting their adversaries out of the running by breaking through their lines, marching on Paris, and shattering the confidence of the French people. This much they themselves admitted. The German press, at the beginning of the battle, treated it as a matter of secondary import, whose object was to open up free communications between Metz and the troops in the Argonne but the proportions of the combat soon gave the lie to such modest estimates, and in the excitement of the first days official utterances betrayed how great were the expectations. On March 4 the Crown Prince urged his already overtaxed troops to make one supreme effort to ‘capture Verdun, the heart of France’ and General von Deimling announced to the 15th Army Corps that this would be the last battle of the war. At Berlin, travelers from neutral countries leaving for Paris by way of Switzerland were told that the Germans would get there first. The Kaiser himself, replying toward the end of February to the good wishes of his faithful province of Brandenburg, congratulated himself publicly on seeing his warriors of the 3d Army Corps about to carry ‘the most important stronghold of our principal enemy.’ It is plain, then, that the object was to take Verdun, win a decisive victory, and start a tremendous onslaught which would bring the war to a triumphant close.
We should next examine the reasons prompting the Germans to select Verdun as the vital point, the nature of the scene of operations, and the manner in which the preparation was made.
Why did the Germans make their drive at Verdun, a powerful fortress defended by a complete system of detached outworks? Several reasons may be found for this. First of all, there were the strategic advantages of the operation. Ever since the Battle of the Marne and the German offensive against St. Mihiel, Verdun had formed a salient in the French front which was surrounded by the Germans on three sides, —northwest, east, and south, — than the rest of the French lines. Besides, Verdun was not far distant from Metz, the great German arsenal, the fountain-head for arms, food, and munitions. For the same reasons, the French defense of Verdun as made much harder because access to the city was commanded by the enemy. Of the two main railroads linking Verdun with France, the Lérouville line was cut off by the enemy at St. Mihiel the second (leading through Châlons) was under ceaseless fire from the German artillery. There remained only a narrow-gauge road connecting Verdun and Bar-le-Duc. The fortress, then, was almost isolated.
For another reason, Verdun was too near, for the comfort of the Germans, to those immense deposits of iron ore in Lorraine which they have every intention of retaining after the war. The moral factor involved in the fall of Verdun was also immense. If the stronghold were captured, the French, who look on it as their chief bulwark in the East, would be greatly disheartened, whereas it would delight the souls of the Germans, who had been counting on its seizure since the beginning of the war. They have not forgotten that the ancient Lotharingia, created by a treaty signed eleven centuries ago at Verdun, extended as far as the Meuse. Finally, it is probable that the German General Staff intended to profit by a certain slackness on the part of the French, who, placing too much confidence in the strength of the position and the favorable nature of the surrounding countryside, had made little effort to augment their defensive value.
This value, as a matter of fact, was great. The theatre of operations at Verdun offers far fewer inducements to an offensive than the plains of Artois, Picardy, or Champagne. The rolling around, the vegetation, the distribution of the population, all present serious obstacles.
The relief-map of the region about Verdun shows the sharply marked division of two plateaus situated on either side of the river Meuse. The plateau which rises on the left bank, toward the Argonne, falls away on the side toward the Meuse in a deeply indented line of high but gently sloping bluffs, which include the Butte de Montfaucon, Hill 304, and the heights of Esnes and Montzéville. Fragments of this plateau, separated from the main mass by the action of water-courses, are scattered in long ridges over the space included between the line of bluffs and the Meuse: the two hills of Le Mort Homme (295 metres), the Côte de l’Oie, and, farther to the South, the ridge of Bois Bourrus and Marre. TO the east of the river, the country is still more rugged. The plateau on this bank rises abruptly, and terminates at the plain of the Woëvre in the cliffs of the Côtes-de-Meuse, which tower 100 metres over the plain. The brooks which flow down to the Woëvre or to the Meuse have worn the cliffs and the plateau into a great number of hillocks called côtes: the Côte du Talon, Côte du Poivre, Côte de Froideterre, and the rest. The ravines separating these côtes are deep and long: those of Vaux, Haudromont, and Fleury cut into the very heart of the plateau, leaving between them merely narrow ridges of land, easily to be defended.
These natural defenses of the country are strengthened by the nature of the vegetation. On the rather sterile calcareous soil of the two plateaus the woods are thick and numerous. To the west, the approaches of Hill 304 are covered by the forest of Avocourt. On the east, long wooded stretches—the woods of Haumont, Caures, Wavrille, Herbebois, la Vauche, Haudromont, Hardaumont, la Caillette, and others—cover the narrow ridges of land and dominate the upper slopes of the ravines. The villages, often perched on the highest points of land, as their names ending in mont indicate, are easily transformed into small fortresses such are Haumont, Beaumont, Louvemont, Douaumont. Others follow the watercourses, making it easier to defend them—Malancourt, Béthincourt, and Cumières, to the west of the Meuse Vaux to the east.
These hills, then, as well as the ravines, the woods, and the favorably placed villages, all facilitated the defense of the countryside. On the other hand, the assailants had one great advantage: the French positions were cut in two by the valley of the Meuse, one kilometre wide and quite deep, which, owing to swampy bottom-lands, could not be crossed except by the bridges of Verdun. The French troops on the right bank had therefore to fight with a river at their backs, thus imperiling their retreat. A grave danger, this, in the face of an enemy determined to take full advantage of the circumstance by attacking with undreamed-of violence.
The German preparation was, from the start, formidable and painstaking. It was probably under way by the end of October, 1915, for at that time the troops selected to deliver the first crushing attack were withdrawn from the front and sent into training Four months were thus set aside for this purpose. To make the decisive attack, the Germans made selection from four of their crack army corps, the 18th active, the 7th reserve, the 15th active (the Mülhausen corps), and the 3d active, composed of Brandenburgers. These troops were sent to the interior to undergo special preparation. In addition to these 80,000 or 100,000 men, who were appointed to bear the brunt of the assault, the operation was to be supported by the Crown Prince’s army on the right and by that of General von Strautz on the left—300,000 men more. Immense masses of artillery were gathered together to blast open the way fourteen lines of railroad brought together from every direction the streams of arms and munitions. Heavy artillery was transported from the Russian and Serbian fronts. No light pieces were used in this operation—in the beginning, at any rate only guns of large calibre, exceeding 200 millimetres, many of 370 and 420 millimetres.
The battle plans were based, in fact, on the offensive power of the heavy artillery. Their inspiration was drawn from the events of 1915 in Champagne, where the French artillery had so completely broken up the German first line that the infantry was able to do its work with insignificant losses. The new formula was to run, ‘The artillery attacks, the infantry takes possession.’ In other words, a terrible bombardment was to play over every square yard of the terrain to be captured when it was decided that the pulverization had been sufficient, a scouting-party of infantry would be sent out to look the situation over behind them would come the pioneers and then the first wave of the assault. In case the enemy still resisted, the infantry would retire and leave the field once more to the artillery. The advance was to be slow, methodical, and certain.
The point chosen for the attack was the plateau on the right bank of the Meuse. The Germans would thus avoid the obstacle of the cliffs of Côtes de Meuse, and, by seizing the ridges and passing around the ravines, they could drive down on Douaumont, which dominates the entire region, and from there fall on Verdun and capture the bridges. At the same time, the German right wing would assault the Meuse the left wing would complete the encircling movement, and the entire French army of Verdun, driven back to the river and attacked from the rear, would be captured or destroyed.
The plan was worked out meticulously it is even reported that every colonel of the regiments which were to take part in the operation had been summoned to the Great Headquarters at Charleville, and that a sort of general rehearsal was gone through in the presence of the Kaiser. As in the beginning of the war, the Germans felt that success was assured. They had taken every precaution their resources were immense, their adversary had grown careless. They could not fail. But once more Germany had counted without the mettle and adaptability of the French soldiers—their genius for improvisation and their spirit of self-sacrifice.
With such thorough preparation, the Germans felt that the contest would be a short one. As a matter of fact, the Battle of Verdun lasted no less than ten months, — from February 21 to December 16, — and in its course various phases were developed which the Germans had scarcely foreseen. First of all, came the formidable German attack, with its harvest of success during the first few days of the frontal drive, which was soon checked and forced to wear itself out in fruitless flank attacks, kept up until April 9. After this date the German programme became more modest: they merely wished to hold at Verdun sufficient French troops to forestall an offensive at some other point. This was the period of German ‘fixation,’ lasting from April to the middle of July. It then became the object of the French, in their turn, to hold the German forces at Verdun and prevent their transfer to the Somme. This was the period of French ‘fixation,’ which ended in the successes of October and December.
The first German onslaught was the most intense and critical moment of the battle. The violent frontal attack on the plateau east of the Meuse, magnificently executed, at first carried all before it. This success was due to the thoroughness of the preparations, the admirable strategy, and also to weaknesses on the part of the French. The commanders at Verdun had shown a lack of foresight. For more than a year this sector had been quiet, and undue confidence was placed in the natural strength of the position. There were too few trenches, too few cannon, too few troops. These soldiers, moreover, had had little experience in the field compared with those who came up later to reinforce them and it was their task to face the most terrific attack ever known.
On the morning of February 21 the German artillery opened up a fire of infernal intensity. This artillery had been brought up in undreamed-of quantities. French aviators who flew over the enemy positions located so many batteries that they gave up marking them on their maps the number was too great. The forest of Grémilly, northeast of the point of attack, was just a great cloud shot through with lightning-flashes. A deluge of shells fell on the French positions, annihilating the first line, attacking the batteries and attempting to silence them, and finding their mark as far back as the city of Verdun. At five o’clock in the afternoon the first waves of infantry went forward to the assault and carried the advanced French positions in the woods of Haumont and Caures. On the 22d the French left was driven backwards for a distance of about four kilometres.
The following day a terrible engagement took place along the entire line of attack, resulting toward evening in the retreat of both French wings on the left Samognieux was taken by the German on the right they occupied the strong position of Herbebois, which fell after a magnificent resistance.
The situation developed rapidly on the 24th. The Germans enveloped the French centre, which formed a salient at two in the afternoon they captured the important central position of Beaumont, and by nightfall had reached Louvemont and La Vauche forest, gathering in thousands of prisoners. On the morning of the 25th the enemy, taking advantage of the growing confusion of the French command, stormed Bezonvaux, and, after some setbacks, entered the fort of Douaumont, which they found evacuated.
The German victory now seemed assured. In less than five days the assaulting troops sent forward over the plateau had penetrated the French positions to a depth of eight kilometres, and were masters of the most important elements of the defense of the fortress. It seemed as if nothing could stop their onrush. Verdun and its bridges were only seven kilometres distant. The commander of the fortified region himself proposed to evacuate the whole right bank of the Meuse the troops established in the Woëvre were already falling back toward the bluffs of Côtes de Meuse. Most luckily, on this same day there arrived at Verdun some men of resource, together with substantial reinforcements. General de Castelnau, Chief of the General Staff, ordered the troops on the right bank to hold out at all costs. And on the evening of the 25th General Pétain took over the command of the entire sector. The Zouaves, on the left bank, were standing firm as rocks on the Côte du Poivre, which cuts off access from the valley to Verdun. During this time the German, pouring forward from Douaumont, had already reached the Côte de Froideterre, and the French artillerymen, outflanked, poured their fire into the gray masses as though with rifles. It was at this moment that the 39th division of the famous 20th French Army Corps of Nancy met the enemy in the open, and, after furious hand-to-hand fighting, broke the backbone of the attack.
That was the end of it. The German tidal wave could go no farther. There were fierce struggles for several days longer, but all in vain. Starting on the 26th, five French counter-attacks drove back the enemy to a point just north of the fort of Douaumont, and recaptured the village of the same name. For three days the German attacking forces tried unsuccessfully to force these positions their losses were terrible, and already they had to call in a division of reinforcement. After two days of quiet the contest began again at Douaumont, which was attacked by an entire army corps the 4th of March found the village again in German hands. The impetus of the great blow had been broken, however after five days of success, the attack had fallen flat.
Were the Germans then to renounce Verdun? After such vast preparations, after such great losses, after having roused such high hopes, this seemed impossible to the leaders of the German army. The frontal drive was to have been followed up by the attack of the wings, and it was now planned to carry this out with the assistance of the Crown Prince’s army, which was still intact. In this way the scheme so judiciously arranged would be accomplished in the appointed manner. Instead of adding the finishing touch to the victory, however, these wings now had the task of winning it completely—and the difference is no small one.
These flank attacks were delivered for over a month (March 6-April 9) on both sides of the river simultaneously, with an intensity and power which recalled the first days of the battle. But the French were now on their guard. They had received great reinforcements of artillery and the nimble ‘75’s,’ thanks to their speed and accuracy, barred off the positions under attack by a terrible curtain of fire. Moreover their infantry contrived to pass through the enemy’s barrage-fire, wait calmly until the assaulting infantry were within 30 metres of them, and then let loose the rapid-fire guns. They were also commanded by energetic and brilliant chiefs: General Pétain, who offset the insufficient railroad communications with the rear by putting in motion a great stream of more than 40,000 motor trucks, all traveling on strict schedule time and General Nivelle, who directed operations on the right bank of the river, before taking command of the Army of Verdun. The German successes of the first days were not duplicated.
These new attacks began on the left of the Meuse. The Germans tried to turn the first line of the French defense by working down along the river, and then capture the second line. On March 6 two divisions stormed the villages of Forges and Regnéville, and attacked the woods of Corbeaux on the Côte de l’Oie, which they captured on the 10th. After several days of preparation, they fell suddenly upon one of the important elements of the second line, the hill of Le Mort Homme, but failed to carry it (March 14-16). Repulsed on the right, they tried the left. On March 20 a body of picked troops just back from the Russian front—the 11th Bavarian Division—stormed the French positions in the wood of Avocourt and moved on to Hill 304, where they obtained foothold for a short time before being driven back with losses of from 50 to 60 per cent of their effectives.
At the same time the Germans were furiously assaulting the positions of the French right wing east of the Meuse. From the 8th to the 10th of March the Crown Prince brought forward again the troops which had survived the ordeal of the first days, and added to them the fresh forces of the 5th Reserve Corps. The action developed along the Côte du Poivre, especially east of Douaumont, where it was directed against the village and fort of Vaux. The results were negative, except for a slight gain in the woods of Hardaumont. The 3d Corps had lost 22,000 men since the 21st of February—that is, almost its entire original strength. The 5th Corps was simply massacred on the slopes of Vaux, without being able to reach the fort. New attempts against this position, on March 16 and 18, were no more fruitful. The battle of the right wing, then, was also lost.
The Germans hung on grimly. One last effort remained to be made. After a lull of six days (March 22-28) savage fighting started again on both sides of the river. On the right bank, from March 31 to April 2, the Germans got a foothold in the ravine of Vaux and along its slopes but the French dislodged them the next day, inflicting great damage, and drove them back to Douaumont.
Their greatest effort was made on the left bank. Here the French took back the woods of Avocourt from March 30th to the 8th of April, however, the Germans succeeded in breaking into their adversaries’ first line, and on April 9, a sunny Sabbath-day, they delivered an attack against the entire second line, along a front of 11 kilometres, from Avocourt to the Meuse. There was terrific fighting, the heaviest that had taken place since February 26, and a worthy sequel to the original frontal attack. The artillery preparation was long and searching. The hill of Le Mort Homme, said an eye-witness, smoked like a volcano with innumerable craters. The assault was launched at noon, with five divisions, and in two hours it had been shattered. New attacks followed, but less orderly, less numerous, and more listless, until sundown. The checkmate was complete. ‘The 9th of April,’ said General Pétain to his troops, ‘is a day full of glory for your arms. The fierce assaults of the Crown Prince’s soldiers have everywhere been thrown back. Infantry, artillery, sappers, and aviators of the Second Army have vied with one another in heroism. Courage, men: on les aura!’
And, indeed, this great attack of April 9 was the last general effort made by the German troops to carry out the programme of February—to capture Verdun and wipe out the French army which defended it. They had to give in. The French were on their guard now they had artillery, munitions, and men. The defenders began to act as vigorously as the attackers they took the offensive, recaptured the woods of La Caillette, and occupied the trenches before Le Mort Homme. The German plans were ruined. Some other scheme had to be thought out.
3. The Battle of German ‘Fixation’
Instead of employing only eight divisions of excellent troops, as originally planned, the Germans had little by little cast into the fiery furnace thirty divisions. This enormous sacrifice could not be allowed to count for nothing. The German High Command therefore decided to assign a less pretentious object to the abortive enterprise. The Crown Prince’s offensive had fallen flat but, at all events, it might succeed in preventing a French offensive. For this reason it was necessary that Verdun should remain a sore sport, a continually menaced sector, where the French would be obliged to send a steady stream of men, material, and munitions. It was hinted then in all the German papers that the struggle at Verdun was a battle of attrition, which would wear down the strength of the French by slow degrees. There was no talk now of thunderstrokes it was all ‘the siege of Verdun.’ This time they expressed the true purpose of the German General Staff the struggle which followed the fight of April 9 now took the character of a battle of fixation, in which the Germans tried to hold their adversaries’ strongest units at Verdun and prevent their being transferred elsewhere. This state of affairs lasted from mid-April to well into July, when the progress of the Somme offensive showed the Germans that their efforts had been unavailing.
It is true that during this new phase of the battle the offensive vigor of the Germans and their procedure in attacking were still formidable. Their artillery continued to perform prodigies. The medium-calibre pieces had now come into action, particularly the 150 mm. guns, with their amazingly mobility of fire, which shelled the French first line, as well as their communications and batteries, with lightning speed. This storm of artillery continued night and day it was the relentless, crushing continuity of the fire which exhausted the adversary and made the Battle of Verdun a hell on earth. There was one important difference, however: the infantry attacks now took place over restricted areas, which were rarely more than two kilometres in extent. The struggle was continual, but disconnected. Besides, it was rarely in progress on both sides of the river at once. Until the end of May the Germans did their worst on the left then the French activities brought them back to the right side, and there they attacked with fury until mid-July.
The end of April was a period of recuperation for the Germans. They were still suffering from the confusion caused by their setbacks of March, and especially of April 9. Only two attempts at an offensive were made—one on the Côte du Poivre (April 18) and one on the front south of Douaumont. Both were repulsed with great losses. The French, in turn, attacked on the 15th of April near Douaumont, on the 28th north of Le Mort Homme. It was not until May that the new German tactics were revealed: vigorous, but partial, attacks, directed now against one point, now against another.
On May 4 there began a terrible artillery preparation, directed against Hill 304. This was followed by attacks of infantry, which surged up the shell-blasted slopes, first to the northwest, then north, and finally northeast. The attack of the 7th was made by three divisions of fresh troops which had not previously been in action before Verdun. No gains were secured. Every foot of ground taken in the first rush was recaptured by French counterattacks. During the night of the 18th a savage onslaught was made against the woods of Avocourt, without the least success. On the 20th and 21st, three divisions were hurled against Le Mort Homme, which they finally took but they could go no farther. The 23d and 24th were terrible days. The Germans stormed the village of Cumières, they made no attempt to progress farther. The battles of the left river-bank were now over on this side of the Meuse there were to be only local engagements of no importance, and the usual artillery fire.
This shift of the German offensive activity from the left side of the Meuse to the right is explained by the activity shown at the same time in this sector by the French. The French command was not deceived by the German tactics they intended to husband their strength for the future Somme offensive. For them Verdun was a sacrificial sector to which they sent, from now on, few men, scant munitions, and only artillery of the older type. Their object was only to hold firm, at all costs. However, the generals in charge of this thankless task, Pétain and Nivelle, decided that the best defensive plan consisted in attacking the enemy. To carry this out, they selected a soldier bronzed on the battlefields of Central Africa, the Soudan, and Morocco, General Mangin, who commanded the 5th Division and had already played a distinguished part in the struggle for Vaux, in March. On May 21 Mangin’s division attacked on the right bank of the Meuse and occupied the quarries of Haudromont on the 22d it stormed the German lines for a length of two kilometres, and took the fort of Douaumont with the exception of one salient.
The Germans replied to this with the greatest energy for two days and nights the battle raged round the ruins of the fort. Finally, on the night of the 24t, two new Bavarian divisions succeeded in getting a footing in this position, to which the immediate approaches were held by the French. This vigorous effort alarmed the enemy, and from now on, until the middle of July, all their strength was focused on the right bank of the river.
This contest of the right bank began on May 31. It is, perhaps, the bloodiest, the most terrible, chapter of all the operations before Verdun for the Germans had determined to capture methodically, one by one, all the French positions, and get to the city. The first stake of this game was the possession of the fort of Vaux. Access to it was cut off from the French by a barrage-fire of unprecedented intensity at the same time an assault was made against the trenches flanking the fort, and also against the defenses of the Fumin woods. On June 4 the enemy reached the superstructure of the fort and took possession, showering down hand-grenades and asphyxiating gas on the garrison, which was shut up in the casemates. After a heroic resistance the defenders succumbed to thirst and surrendered on June 7.
Now that Vaux was captured, the German activity was directed against the ruins of the small fort of Thiaumont, which blocks the way to the Côte de Froideterre, and against the village of Fleury, dominating the mouth of a ravine leading to the Meuse. From June 8 to 20, terrible fighting won for the Germans the possession of Thiaumont on the 23d, six divisions, representing a total of at least 70,000 men, were hurled against Fleury, which they held from the 23d to the 26th. The French, undaunted, returned to the charge. On August 30 they reoccupied Thiaumont, lost it at half-past three of the same day, recaptured it at half-past four, and were again driven out two days later. However, they remained close to the redoubt and the village.
The Germans then turned south, against the fortifications which dominated the ridges and ravines. There, on a hillock, stands the fort of Souville, at approximately the same elevation as Douaumont. On July 3, they captured the battery of Damloup, to the east on the 12th, after insignificant fighting, they sent forward a huge mass of troops which got as far as the fort and battery of L’Hôpital. A counter-attack drove them away again, but they dug themselves in about 800 metres away from the position.
After all, what had they accomplished? For twelve days they had been confronted with the uselessness of these bloody sacrifices. Verdun was out of reach the offensive of the Somme was under way, and the French stood before the gates of Péronne. Decidedly, the Battle of Verdun was lost. Neither the onslaught of the first period nor the battles of fixation had brought about the desired end. It now became impossible to squander on this field of death the munitions and troops which the German army needed desperately at Péronne and Bepaume. The leaders of the German General Staff accepted the situation. Verdun held no further interest for them.
4. The Battle of French ‘Fixation’
Verdun, however, continued to be of great interest to the French. In the first place, they could not endure seeing the enemy intrenched five kilometres away from the coveted city. Moreover, it was most important for them to prevent the Germans from weakening the Verdun front and transferring their men and guns to the Somme. The French troops, therefore, were to take the initiative out of the hands of the Germans and inaugurate, in their turn, a battle of fixation. This new situation presented two phases: in July and August the French were satisfied to worry the enemy with small forces and to oblige them to fight in October and December General Nivelle, well supplied with troops and material, was able to strike two vigorous blows which took back from the Germans the larger part of all the territory they had won since February 21.
From July 15 to September 15, furious fighting was in progress on the slopes of the plateau stretching from Thiaumont to Damloup. This time, however, it was the French who attacked savagely, who captured ground, and who took prisoners. So impetuous were they that their adversaries, who asked for nothing but quiet, were obliged to be constantly on their guard and deliver costly counter-attacks.
The contest raged most bitterly over the ruins of Thiaumont and Fleury. On the 15th of July the Zouaves broke into the southern part of the village, only to be driven out again. However, on the 19th and 20th the French freed Souville, and drew near to Fleury from the 20th to the 26th they forged ahead step by step, taking 800 prisoners. A general attack, delivered on August 3, carried the fort of Thiaumont and the village of Fleury, with 1500 prisoners. The Germans reacted violently the 4th of August they reoccupied Fleury, a part of which was taken back by the French that same evening. From the 5th to the 9th the struggle went on ceaselessly, night and day, in the ruins of the village. During this time the adversaries took and retook Thiaumont, which the Germans held after the 8th. But on the 10th the Colonial regiment from Morocco reached Fleury, carefully prepared the assault, delivered it on the 17th, and captured the northern and southern portions of the village, encircling the central part, which they occupied on the 18th. Form this day Fleury remained in French hands. The German counter-assaults of the 18th, 19th, and 20th of August were fruitless the Moroccan Colonials held their conquest firmly.
On the 24th the French began to advance east of Fleury, in spite of incessant attacks which grew more intense on the 28th. Three hundred prisoners were taken between Fleury and Thiaumont on September 3, and 300 more fell into their hands in the woods of Vaux-Chapître. On the 9th they took 300 more before Fleury.
It may be seen that the French troops had thoroughly carried out the programme assigned to them of attacking the enemy relentlessly, obliging him to counter-attack, and holding him at Verdun. But the High Command was to surpass itself. By means of sharp attacks, it proposed to carry the strong positions which the Germans had dearly bought, from February to July, at the price of five months of terrible effort. This new plan was destined to be accomplished on October 24 and December 15.
Verdun was no longer looked on by the French as a ‘sacrificial sector.’ To this attack on October 24, destined to establish once for all the superiority of the soldier of France, it was determined to consecrate all the time and all the energy that were found necessary. A force of artillery which General Nivelle himself declared to be of exceptional strength was brought into position—no old-fashioned ordnance this time, but magnificent new pieces, among them long-range guns of 400 millimetres calibre. The Germans had fifteen divisions on the Verdun front, but the French command judged it sufficient to make the attack with three divisions, which advanced along a front of seven kilometres. These, however, were made up of excellent troops, withdrawn from service in the first lines and trained for several weeks, who knew every inch of the ground and were full of enthusiasm. General Mangin was their commander.
The French artillery opened fire on October 21, by hammering away at the enemy’s positions. A feint attack forced the Germans to reveal the location of their batteries, more than 130 of which were discovered and silenced. At 11.40 a.m. October 24, the assault started in the fog. The troops advanced on the run, preceded by a barrage-fire. On the left, the objective points were reached at 2.45 p.m., and the village of Douaumont captured. The fort was stormed at 3 o’clock by the Moroccan Colonials, and the few Germans who held out there surrendered when night came on. On the right, the woods surrounding Vaux were rushed with lightning speed. The battery of Damloup was taken by assault. Vaux alone resisted. In order to reduce it, the artillery preparation was renewed from October 28 to November 2, and the Germans evacuated the fort without fighting on the morning of the 2d. As they retreated, the French occupied the villages of Vaux and Damloup, at the foot of the côtes.
Thus the attack on Douaumont and Vaux resulted in a real victory, attested to by the reoccupation of all the ground lost since the 25th of February, the capture of 15 cannon and more than 6000 prisoners. This, too, despite the orders found on German prisoners bidding them to ‘hold out at all cost’ (25th Division), and to ‘make a desperate defense’ (von Lochow). The French command, encouraged by this success, decided to do still better and to push on farther to the northeast.
The operations of December 15 were more difficult. They were directed against a zone occupied by the enemy for more than nine months, during which time he had constructed a great network of communication trenches, field-railways, dug-outs built into the hillsides, forts, and redoubts. Moreover, the French attack had to start from unfavorable ground, where ceaseless fighting had been in progress since the end of February, where the soil, pounded by millions of projectiles, had been reduced to a sort of volcanic ash, transformed by the rain into a mass of sticky mud in which men had been swallowed up bodily. Two whole divisions were needed to construct twenty-five kilometres of roads and ten kilometres of railway, make dug-outs and trenches, and bring the artillery up into position. All was ready in five weeks but the Germans, finding out what was in preparation, had provided formidable means of defense.
The front to be attacked was held by five German divisions. Four others were held in reserve at the rear. On the French side, General Mangin had four divisions, three of which were composed of picked men, veterans of Verdun. The artillery preparation, made chiefly by pieces of 220, 274, and 370 mm., lasted for three full days. The assault was let loose on December 15, at 10 a.m. on the left the French objectives were reached by noon the whole spur of Hardaumont on the right was swiftly captured, and only a part of the German centre still resisted, east of Bezonvaux. This was reduced the next day. The Côte du Poivre was taken entire Vacherauville, Louvemont, Bezonvaux as well. The front was now three kilometres from the fort of Douaumont. Over 11,000 prisoners were taken by the French, and 115 cannon. For a whole day their reconnoitring parties were able to advance in front of the new liens, ddestroying batteries and bringing in prisoners, without encountering any serious resistance.
The success was undeniable. As a reply to the German peace proposals of December 12, the Battle of Verdun ended as a real victory and this magnificent operation, in which the French had shown such superiority in infantry and artillery, seemed to be a pledge of future triumphs.
The conclusion is easily reached. In February and March Germany wished to end the war by crushing the French army at Verdun. She failed utterly. Then, from April to July, she wished to exhaust French military resources by a battle of fixation. Again she failed. The Somme offensive was the offspring of Verdun. Later on, from July to December, she was not able to elude the grasp of the French, and the last engagements, together with the vain struggles of the Germans for six months, showed to what extent General Nivelle’s men had won the upper hand.
The battle of Verdun, beginning as a brilliant German offensive, ended as an offensive victory for the French. And so this terrible drama is an epitome of the whole great war: a brief term of success for the Germans at the start, due to a tremendous preparation which took careless adversaries by surprise—terrible and agonizing first moments, soon offset by energy, heroism, and the spirit of sacrifice and finally, victory for the Soldiers of Right.