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Verdun: Slaughter on the French Frontier 1916

Mark Caruthers holds a Bachelor's degree in Geography and History from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

The sheer breadth and depth of the battlefield at Verdun is impressive. One French historian would give a figure at the start of the 1916 German offensive of 166 kilometers or 103 miles.

The sheer breadth and depth of the battlefield at Verdun is impressive. One French historian would give a figure at the start of the 1916 German offensive of 166 kilometers or 103 miles.

The First World War and the Western Front

As the German Army invaded western Europe in the opening days of the First World War, things initially went according to plan as its armies rolled over Belgium. Soon afterwards, the French and British armies put up stiff resistance as they met the invading German Army on the French frontier, and soon both sides would be locked into a hopeless bloody stalemate.

The battle line extended over 1,300 miles from the English Channel to the Swiss border, in what would become known as the "Western Front."

Millions of young men lost their lives fighting in the space between the two enemy's trench systems known as "no man's land." No man's land was usually two to three hundred yards wide, often less, in some places as little as twenty-five yards, close enough to smell the enemy's morning coffee brewing.

Such trench fortifications had been dug in the past, most recently outside the Confederate capital of Richmond during the American Civil War in 1865. The earthworks were quite simply a fortification as much offensive as defensive.

On the land separating the trenches, both sides laid massive fields of barbed wire, an invention by American cattle ranchers in the 1870s, to further impede troops from crossing the no man's land that lay between the trenches.

The term no man's land has a long history in warfare. It was first used to describe the land that lay just beyond the castle walls of London in feudal times. The modern defensive weapons of the First World War made winning the war on the Western Front all but impossible for either side.

When soldiers attempted to climb out of their trenches to cross no man's land, to go over the top as they termed it, they were cut down like sheep and led to the slaughter by machine guns and rapid-firing artillery.

By the end of 1916, more than 250,000 troops from both sides of the trenches would die, mostly by artillery, battling for a series of forts that lay just outside the frontier town of Verdun in northeast France. The battle for Verdun would become a symbol of the horrors of trench warfare.

Verdun: A Battle of Attrition

The battle of Verdun was the longest, bloodiest, and most ferocious battle of the First World War. Known as the "Bone Mill," the French lost approximately 550,000 men and the Germans 434,000 in what was the bloodiest battle of the First World War.

After the battle, the French would bury 140,000 unknown soldiers at Fort Douaumont alone. French soldiers who fought in the battle commonly spoke of it as a furnace or called it a hell, an inferno.

The hilltops above the city of Verdun were by day covered in a cloud of smoke and dust. At night as troops made the final approach to their positions, flames and flares lit up the sky above the hills. By sunlight and darkness, the hills above Verdun constantly gave off a steady rhythmic thunder as countless batteries of artillery discharged their projectiles.

The battle lasted nearly ten months. In that time, each side dropped more than twenty million shells on the other; it is believed that 70% of the casualties at Verdun, some 750,000, were caused by artillery.

The Germans very nearly bled the French Army white in the hills surrounding Verdun and Fort Douaumont.

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Verdun became a symbol of the French Amy's will to resist. The battle brought about slaughter on a terrifying scale; one death per minute night and day for the entire ten months of the battle.

The Fall of Fort Douaumont

Fort Douaumont was the site of the largest and the most strategically important of the 20 large and 40 small forts that protected the city of Verdun from future German invasions. The surrounding area was mostly forest, ringed on three sites by commanding heights, having no military value, Verdun could have been easily bypassed by an invading army.

But Verdun was tremendously important to the French people, even if that importance was, in fact, no more than symbolic. Its fall would have damaged French morale immeasurably. Even so, France's high command realized early in the war that Verdun's defenses, once believed impregnable, couldn't withstand an indefinite German assault and bombardment.

So, in 1915, the French began to transfer Verdun's armaments elsewhere and even planned the demolition of the ring of sixty forts that surrounded the city.

The Germans, with their superb network of spies, discovered what the French were up to and decided to launch a colossal assault on Verdun's forts, assuming that the French people would never stand for the abandonment of Verdun.

To the German general Faukenheim, the city of Verdun wasn't all that valuable, his objective was to bleed the French armed forces white at the gates of Verdun.

The French military leadership obliged them by taking the bait when on the 25th of February 1916, on only the fifth day of battle, a small German raiding party forced its way into the impregnable Fort Douaumont and, without firing a single shot, captured it from the even smaller French force inside. The defeat at Fort Douaumont caused a panic throughout the French nation which declared, "That this shall not pass!"

Road to Verdun: The "Sacred Way"

After the capture of Fort Douaumont, the French general staff now threw everything they had into defending Verdun, shuttling men and material around the clock along a slender forty-five-mile lifeline that would become known as "The Sacred Way."

Before the battle was a month old, vehicles were passing up the road at a rate of one every 14 seconds. Along this road which was nowhere wider than 20 feet, some 3,000 French trucks passed day and night for seven months.

For the first time in warfare, motorized trucks were the only means of transport because using horses would have choked up the movement of supplies.

Each week, an average of 50,000 tons of food and material was brought up and some 90,000 men transported in one direction or the other, for Petain's policy was to rotate his troops so that none should be in the "cauldron of fire" for long. There were staff cars, ambulances, and lorries carrying supplies in cargo compartments that made them look like covered wagons from an earlier time.

The drivers, men of the Service Automobile, who were too old to fight on the front, worked shifts of 40, 50 and even 75 hours behind the wheel to supply French troops holding the front at Verdun. The battle lasted nearly ten months. Finally, the French Army took back Fort Douaumont, but at a tremendously high cost; in the end, the French soldier held Verdun.

The video below is part 1 of a 4 part video series, the rest can be found on YouTube.

Sources

Mosier John. Verdun: The Lost History of the Most Important Battle of World War I 1914-1918. Penguin Group. 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014. 2003

Oushy Ian. The Road to Verdun: World War I's Most Momentous Battle and the Folly of Nationalism. Doubleday 1540 Broadway, New York, New York, 10036. May 2002

Smith Rupert. The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World. Alfred A. Knopf Press London England 2005.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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