Before the battle
Before the Battle of Verdun
A war of the trenches
After the fighting of 1914 and 1915 the sector surrounding Verdun calmed down somewhat. After the 1914 offensive, the withdrawal of the Germans along the banks of the Aisne and the route to the sea, a front line of nigh on 800km ran from the North Sea to the Swiss border. The belief in a blitzkrieg which prevailed in both camps in August 1914 faded away and a war of movement gave way to a war of position.
The fragility of the strongholds was one of the lessons learnt by the Staff. In fact, the fortresses of Liège and Namur were barely able to withstand the power of the bombs, meaning that the strategy was now directed to favour armies on campaign.
The Fortified Region of Verdun was created on 10th August 1915 and was a vast area which was better able to adapt to different situations and replaced the former stronghold as far as military organisation was concerned. The FRV covered the entire sector from St. Mihiel to Argonne and the fortifications became somewhat less important. In August 1915, Joffre decided to extend the road between Bar-le-Duc and Verdun to a width of 7m and the road would go on to play a key role during the Battle of Verdun, when it came to be known as the ‘Voie Sacrée’ (Sacred Way).
Joseph Joffre remained in favour of an offensive war, although the attacks carried out in Champagne in September 1915, which also involved the army of General Sarrail in the Argonne sector, failed to produce any results. Despite this, the Generalissimo, although criticised for his actions, was preparing for a new offensive in the Somme, to be led by Foch and consisting of a breakthrough that would put an end to the trench war. As of 5th August, the gunmen in the Verdun sector were ordered to withdraw and the forts that made up the fortified belt surrounding Verdun were largely disarmed. The majority of the garrison force was also removed and active battalions were replaced by Army Reserves and territorials. By early 1916, only two reserve battalions and one active battalion remained posted in Verdun. Joffre didn’t believe in conducting an offensive in this sector, preferring, instead, the idea of a confrontation further west, towards Arras or Reims. The movement of German trains and troops observed in the Woëvre region in January 1916, not to mention the declarations of German ‘deserters’ and inhabitants of Lorraine, failed to convince the Staff. And yet…
From a German perspective
The French Third Army posted in the Verdun sector, initially under the command of General Culey and later General Sarrail, had been confronting the German Fifth Army, under the command of the Kronprinz, who was heir to the throne, since the start of the war. With the dawn of a new year upon them, the Germans needed a victory. Von Falkenhayn, who replaced Moltke after the defeat at the Marne, chose Verdun. Since the Battle of the Marne, the sector had become a salient into German lines, relatively isolated and difficult, at least you would think, from a German perspective, to support and maintain in military terms. The Germans had many railway lines and major stations at their disposal for transporting both men and equipment and were very familiar with the nearby area of Metz, so it is clear to see why this location seemed ideal for them.
Furthermore, the name ‘Verdun’ had a symbolic significance, primarily for the imperial family. After all, it was associated with the treaty of 843 which divided Charlemagne’s empire between his three grandsons, thus creating the future France and the future Germany. Verdun was also the last French village evacuated by the Prussians in 1873, meaning that taking Verdun would always be highly symbolic for them, and despite France’s desire to defend the city at all costs, the French army would be ‘bled dry’, to take the expression used by Falkenhayn in his memoires. Whatever the outcome, Germany would go on to win and cause France a serious setback with the secondary intention of discouraging its great ally, Britain.