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Road to Slaughter on the French Frontier 1916 : Verdun

Updated on April 19, 2017
Mark Caruthers profile image

Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Arkansas Fayetteville in Geography & History.

The Verdun Battlefield

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. | Source

The First World War and the Western Front

When the German Army invaded western Europe in the opening days of the First World War initially things went according to plan as its armies rolled over Belgium and invaded France. But 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 would extend 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." On the Western Front, no man's land was usually two to three hundred yards wide, often less, in some places as little as twenty-five. Such fortifications had been dug in the past, most notably 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. 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 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 for the horrors of trench warfare.

The Western Front

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A young George Patton in front of his French Renault tank. The United States didn't have tanks of their own the French Armed forces provided the tanks for American tank crews in the First World War.Fort Douaumont the largest of the nineteen forts located on the frontier outside of Verdun before the battle.Fort Douaumont at the end of the First World War.Observation Balloons were used to observe and locate enemy positions for the artillery.British troops with gas masks, poison gas attacks were common on the Western Front.Wounded British troops most likely form a tear gas attack.A French frontier town destroyed by German artillery.A Canadian Tank attacking German positions on the Western Front.  Tanks were used for the first time on the Western Front it would become a decisive weapon toward the end of the war.French troops in the trenches at Verdun 1916.
A young George Patton in front of his French Renault tank. The United States didn't have tanks of their own the French Armed forces provided the tanks for American tank crews in the First World War.
A young George Patton in front of his French Renault tank. The United States didn't have tanks of their own the French Armed forces provided the tanks for American tank crews in the First World War. | Source
Fort Douaumont the largest of the nineteen forts located on the frontier outside of Verdun before the battle.
Fort Douaumont the largest of the nineteen forts located on the frontier outside of Verdun before the battle. | Source
Fort Douaumont at the end of the First World War.
Fort Douaumont at the end of the First World War. | Source
Observation Balloons were used to observe and locate enemy positions for the artillery.
Observation Balloons were used to observe and locate enemy positions for the artillery. | Source
British troops with gas masks, poison gas attacks were common on the Western Front.
British troops with gas masks, poison gas attacks were common on the Western Front. | Source
Wounded British troops most likely form a tear gas attack.
Wounded British troops most likely form a tear gas attack. | Source
A French frontier town destroyed by German artillery.
A French frontier town destroyed by German artillery. | Source
A Canadian Tank attacking German positions on the Western Front.  Tanks were used for the first time on the Western Front it would become a decisive weapon toward the end of the war.
A Canadian Tank attacking German positions on the Western Front. Tanks were used for the first time on the Western Front it would become a decisive weapon toward the end of the war. | Source
French troops in the trenches at Verdun 1916.
French troops in the trenches at Verdun 1916. | Source

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. Verdun became a symbol for 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 moral 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. And 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!"

Images of the First World War

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French cavalry near the Battle of Verdun 1916. French infantry attacking a rail junction which was vital to supporting troops on the battlefield.German poison gas attack Western Front 1916.German troops on the way to battle, railroads prove vital to troop movement in the First World War .British troops in the trenches on the Western Front 1916.German Zeppelins were was used to bomb Paris during the Battle of Verdun.Bomb crater in Paris 1916, a result of a Zeppelin attack, Germans airships designs were light years ahead of Allied airships which were used only for observation on the battlefield.
French cavalry near the Battle of Verdun 1916.
French cavalry near the Battle of Verdun 1916. | Source
French infantry attacking a rail junction which was vital to supporting troops on the battlefield.
French infantry attacking a rail junction which was vital to supporting troops on the battlefield. | Source
German poison gas attack Western Front 1916.
German poison gas attack Western Front 1916. | Source
German troops on the way to battle, railroads prove vital to troop movement in the First World War .
German troops on the way to battle, railroads prove vital to troop movement in the First World War . | Source
British troops in the trenches on the Western Front 1916.
British troops in the trenches on the Western Front 1916. | Source
German Zeppelins were was used to bomb Paris during the Battle of Verdun.
German Zeppelins were was used to bomb Paris during the Battle of Verdun. | Source
Bomb crater in Paris 1916, a result of a Zeppelin attack, Germans airships designs were light years ahead of Allied airships which were used only for observation on the battlefield.
Bomb crater in Paris 1916, a result of a Zeppelin attack, Germans airships designs were light years ahead of Allied airships which were used only for observation on the battlefield. | Source

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, day and night. 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 Verdun Battlefield

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The battle for control over the sky at Verdun brought the best pilots Germany and France had available such as Manfred von Richthofen, also known as The Red Baron, the highest scoring ace of WWI with 80 victories.Poison gas grenade used by British soldiers on the Western Front.Flamethrowers were used for the first time in WWI, this picture shows French troops in action.The Verdun Battlefield in 2005.The FokkerTriplane used by the Red Baron during the air war over Verdun 1916. Over 165 German warplanes massed over the battlefield of Verdun the largest in the history of warfare.Machine gun team in action during a gas attack on the Western Front 1916.Manfred von Richthofen also know as the Red Baron the Highest scoring ace of World War I.German railroad gun used to hammer French positions at Verdun.German film crew in action on the Western Front, World War I was the first war ever filmed in the history of warfare.British Vickers machine gun in action on the Western Front. The machine gun revolutionized the way war would be fought in the twentieth century.An unexploded zeppelin bomb dropped on London during the Zeppelin Blitz.French heavy mortar at Verdun 1916.French long gun over-run at Verdun by German troops 1916.
The battle for control over the sky at Verdun brought the best pilots Germany and France had available such as Manfred von Richthofen, also known as The Red Baron, the highest scoring ace of WWI with 80 victories.
The battle for control over the sky at Verdun brought the best pilots Germany and France had available such as Manfred von Richthofen, also known as The Red Baron, the highest scoring ace of WWI with 80 victories. | Source
Poison gas grenade used by British soldiers on the Western Front.
Poison gas grenade used by British soldiers on the Western Front. | Source
Flamethrowers were used for the first time in WWI, this picture shows French troops in action.
Flamethrowers were used for the first time in WWI, this picture shows French troops in action. | Source
The Verdun Battlefield in 2005.
The Verdun Battlefield in 2005. | Source
The FokkerTriplane used by the Red Baron during the air war over Verdun 1916. Over 165 German warplanes massed over the battlefield of Verdun the largest in the history of warfare.
The FokkerTriplane used by the Red Baron during the air war over Verdun 1916. Over 165 German warplanes massed over the battlefield of Verdun the largest in the history of warfare. | Source
Machine gun team in action during a gas attack on the Western Front 1916.
Machine gun team in action during a gas attack on the Western Front 1916. | Source
Manfred von Richthofen also know as the Red Baron the Highest scoring ace of World War I.
Manfred von Richthofen also know as the Red Baron the Highest scoring ace of World War I. | Source
German railroad gun used to hammer French positions at Verdun.
German railroad gun used to hammer French positions at Verdun. | Source
German film crew in action on the Western Front, World War I was the first war ever filmed in the history of warfare.
German film crew in action on the Western Front, World War I was the first war ever filmed in the history of warfare. | Source
British Vickers machine gun in action on the Western Front. The machine gun revolutionized the way war would be fought in the twentieth century.
British Vickers machine gun in action on the Western Front. The machine gun revolutionized the way war would be fought in the twentieth century. | Source
An unexploded zeppelin bomb dropped on London during the Zeppelin Blitz.
An unexploded zeppelin bomb dropped on London during the Zeppelin Blitz. | Source
French heavy mortar at Verdun 1916.
French heavy mortar at Verdun 1916. | Source
French long gun over-run at Verdun by German troops 1916.
French long gun over-run at Verdun by German troops 1916. | Source

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.

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