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The Battle of Verdun

The Battle of Verdun

The most horrific battle known to man

It is 7:15am on 21st February 1916 and the German army signals for the artillery to be employed on French lines. The first shells fall on Verdun itself at 8:15am, targeting the station and the bridges upstream of the city. Keeping to a strategy which would now be adopted by all armies, the artillery 'prepares the way' by bombarding French lines with a barrage of rolling fire and a storm of steel for several hours. Late in the afternoon an attack is launched on some troops that the German Staff believes to be dying.

As for the French, it came as ‘almost’ a complete surprise and a dreadful shock, but the disarray the enemy was expecting never came. The survivors of both French divisions neither backed off nor surrendered. In a ratio of ten to a hundred, Lebel rifles against Mausers and flame guns, the French defence came together. The German infantry advanced in waves of attack at a distance of around hundred metres from each other, although the difficult terrain often meant they were forced to advance in columns, thus distorting their line formation. Those French soldiers still on their feet, meanwhile, took them from the rear. This ability to resist had not been anticipated by the German Staff, which was heavily ingrained with the latest military doctrine, “the artillery conquers, the infantry occupies”. A relentless battle between the two camps began in the early hours and would be played out on these few square miles for several months to come, eventually leaving 163,000 Frenchmen and 143,000 Germans dead or unaccounted for and 216,000 Frenchmen and 196,000 Germans injured.

Two-thirds of the French army fought in Verdun and the battles that took place here were particularly tough. The soldiers who lived to tell the tale could enjoy a short moment of respite at the rear, with two days’ rest for every four days of fighting, and rebuild their morale insofar as was possible. Of course, this was not the case of the enemy troops who never did get back on their feet, having been consumed by ‘the hell of Verdun’, and hell is certainly what it was. Entire villages were devastated, the surrounding fields ploughed by falling shrapnel, the air polluted with toxic gases and woods destroyed leaving in their wake lunar landscapes of craters and trenches, in which the survivors took shelter. They would often fight for a few metres, bayonet to rifle, covered in mud, thirsty, asphyxiated and broken. Villages lost one day were won back the next; indeed, the village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont was captured and recaptured sixteen times, Vaux thirteen. The slightest overhang became an issue, with the front line never ceasing to move but not giving anything away either.

The attack on Verdun

Lieutenant Colonel Driant and his men before the Battle of Verdun

The early days of the battle were horrific, with a deluge of fire and toxic gas raining down on just 5km of front for over eight hours. Nearly 80,000 Germans were mobilised to carry out the offensive, the likes of which had never before been witnessed in such a small area, and for the first time on such a large scale (an experiment had already been carried out in Malancourt) the flame gun, a truly fearsome weapon, was used by German doughboys. The light cavalry soldiers positioned at outposts in the Bois des Caures area returned fire as best they could, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Driant, who was also deputy in Nancy. He had attempted, the previous month, to alert the highest levels of the state to the weaknesses in the Verdun defence but was killed in battle on 22nd February leaving his units decimated.

Nevertheless, fighting continued with the same degree of intensity in the days that followed. Of the 2,000 men from the 362nd IR only 50 remained standing and the figures relating to the losses already suffered were staggering, with nearly 20,000 men killed over the space of just a few days. The village of Brabant was evacuated on 23rd February and Samogneux, Beaumont and Ornes were lost the following day. Nine villages would be completely destroyed, ‘sacrificing themselves for France’. Douaumont Fort, which was occupied by some fifty or so territorials, was unexpectedly taken on 25th February by an enemy reconnaissance patrol and without any fighting. The German campaign claimed victory, but for everyone else, every piece of land was to be defended at the cost of great suffering. News of the courage and martyrdom on the part of the defenders was starting to reach the rear and it was around this time that General Pétain, leading the French Second Army, took command of operations on the Verdun front on 26th February. The emphasis, now more than ever, was on withstanding attack at all costs, ‘to the point of death’. The enemy was not to take Verdun.

« Have courage. We'll get them! »

Finally, in late February, Germany’s advances had resulted in a lot of bloodshed but remained limited. Their greater numbers and the fact that they were better-equipped had not been enough and Germany had lost more men than their command had initially anticipated. Then, in early March, the village of Douaumont was taken. It was during this period of fighting that Captain Charles de Gaulle, who was still relatively unknown at the time, got injured by gunshot and held prisoner. The Germans had advanced a few kilometres along a restricted front since the start of the offensive but had still not managed to break through. On 5th March, the Kronprinz's army launched a new attack, this time encompassing the left bank of the Meuse, which was easier to access. Forges fell on 6th March but the Germans were stopped in Morthomme on the 8th.

A noria of trucks was deployed from Baudonvillers and Bar-le-Duc along the road between Bar-le-Duc and Verdun, which was later Christened the ‘Voie Sacrée’ (Sacred Way) by Maurice Barrès. This enabled initial reinforcements to be transported, along with supplies for the front, and fresh troops to be brought in regularly. With nearly 1,500 trucks making the round-trip daily like a well-oiled machine and a total of some 2,500,000 French soldiers taking the Voie Sacrée, Verdun was certainly not isolated.

"Have courage. We’ll get them!", the famous order given by General Pétain which can now be seen the War Museum housed in City Hall.

German attacks were now being followed by French counter attacks and the French army was no longer prepared to suffer, choosing instead to fight back. On 9th April, Morthomme was taken by the Germans but the French put up a fierce defence and their progress was limited, with regards to the huge resources deployed by the attacking forces. The following day, General Pétain was able to issue the historic order which wasn’t quite yet a victory cry but certainly a sign of a certain optimism: “Have courage. We’ll get them!”

For the time being, fighting continued, on both banks of the Meuse and even as far as Les Eparges, which witnessed many atrocities. Men were dying under falling shrapnel and gunfire; they were dying asphyxiated, pierced by a bayonet; they were dying alongside trenches and shell craters, enmeshed in barbed wire; they were dying buried in the bloodied mud of the battlefield. Those who didn’t die came back injured, disabled, beaten up and, in all case, forever scarred by the suffering they had both endured and witnessed. That was pretty much the fate of a Verdun soldier.

The Germans persist

In May that year, the French attempted to get nearer to Douaumont since the loss of the fort had never been accepted by the French command. On 1st May, General Pétain was replaced by General Nivelle, who Joffre considered to be more aggressive. Under the command of Nivelle, General Mangin attempted to recapture Douaumont Fort but failed, notably due to insufficient artillery preparation, so the operation was postponed.

At the start of June, meanwhile, the Germans, despite having suffered significant losses, persisted in wanting to take Verdun. At the cost of much intense effort and following a seven-day siege, they managed to gain control of the Fort Vaux on 7th June. The heroic resistance of Major Raynal and his men imprisoned within Fort Vaux and dealing with shortages of both air and water was saluted by the enemy at the time of surrender, which had become inevitable.

Reproduction of ‘Champ de Bataille de Verdun’ (Verdun Battlefield) in ‘Le Petit Journal’.

On 23rd June, following a period of incessant bombing made all the more traumatic by the fact that the Germans were using toxic gas shells, 60,000 men advanced along a 6km front. Fleury was taken by the enemy and many losses were suffered on both sides. Nevertheless, German attempts to conquer Verdun once again failed. The final attack was launched on 12th July in the Souville sector and marked the furthest point of enemy advancement but this time, too, enemy advances were warded off and Souville Fort remained in French hands. The Germans never came within 5km of Verdun and none of the objectives were met. On 12th July the Kronprinz, Wilhelm of Prussia, leading the German Fifth Army, received the order to now settle for defensive action.

From this day forward, the Germans abandoned any hope of taking Verdun, but this did not mean that the fighting would also stop. Indeed, the French would spend the entire summer gradually encroaching upon enemy lines. On 24th October, Douaumont Fort was recaptured by the Colonial Infantry Regiment of Morocco with the help of Senegalese and Somali skirmishers. Fort Vaux was recaptured on 3rd November and by 21st December, after 300 days and nights of fighting, most of the positions that had been lost during the battle had been recaptured by the French army. As winter settled in, the Battle of Verdun had been won.