The Hell of Verdun - 1916
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Battle of Verdun

Verdun is one of the greatest artillery battles in history. Even though they were deluged by millions of shells, the French repelled the Germans for 8 months. The Germans lost 500,000 troops in their failed attempt to reach Paris.

French Forces, 500,000
General Petain, Commander (Succeeding General Castelnau)
Corps Commanders:
General Balfourier
General Neville
General Mangin
General Humbert
General Sarrail
General Herr

German Forces, 1,000,000
General Falkenhayn, Chief of Staff Army Commanders:
Crown Prince Frederick
General von Haesseler
General Daimling
General von Guretski-Cornitz

The invincible spirit of France, proved on a thousand battlefields, was put to its supreme test in the inferno of Verdun, where for eight months the slim band of French heroes, guarding the gateway to Paris, held back the overwhelming forces of Germany in the face of a hurricane of artillery fire unequalled in history. Deluged daily with shells, their trenches blown to dust, fighting without adequate shelter and hopelessly outnumbered, the superb soldiers of France heroically defended their line and once again saved Europe from Hun domination. Five hundred thousand Germans were sacrificed in this vain attempt of the German Crown Prince to crush France in one overpowering operation.

Von Ludendorff Resigns as Chief of Staff

The siege of Verdun was launched in compliance with the wishes of Crown Prince Frederick William, who had a roseate vision of himself as a world conqueror entering Paris at the head of a horde of Huns. Upon his suggestion the best shock troops in Hindenberg's victorious army on the Russian front were transferred to his command. This so angered General von Ludendorff, the German Chief of Staff, that he resigned his office in a huff and was succeeded by General yon Falkenhayn. Nor did the great Hindenberg take kindly to the withdrawal of his best troops from the Russian front; on the contrary, he frankly predicted the failure of the Verdun enterprise. Regardless of their protests, however, the Crown Prince was permitted to indulge his royal ambition. In the end, the failure of the siege involved th( disgrace, both of the Crown Prince and of von Falkenhayn.

Why Verdun Was Attacked

Verdun, though accounted the strongest citadel in all Europe, in reality was the most exposed point along the whole Western front of 500 miles from Calais to Switzerland. The rapid reduction of the Belgian fortresses at Liege and Namur had demonstrated beyond cavil that no modern fort could long withstand the pounding of great siege guns. Once the forts at Verdun were reduced, the German command believed the march to Paris, 140 miles away, along the Valley of the Oise, would be as a holiday stroll. Verdun, moreover, constituted a menace to the adjacent iron fields of Lorraine, whence Germany derived the ore needed for her guns and ammunition. The destruction of the forts, therefore, would insure the safety of the indispensable iron fields and open the gateway to Paris.

Germany was well aware that a war of erosion must of necessity result to her disadvantage, inasmuch as the resources of the Allies tended constantly to increase as hers tended to diminish. Her last opportunity of winning the War lay in crushing France, before the Allies could bring their full strength to bear upon the Western front. England already had placed 600,000 men in the Western trenches and had promised an additional army of 2,000,000 by midsummer of 1916. Italy was preparing to enter the War on the side of the Allies. It was imperative, therefore, that Germany should endeavor to crush France in one colossal blow.

In pursuance of this general policy, Germany had assembled on the Franco-German front a group of armies whose total strength was estimated at 1,000,000. Of this number, 509,000 were already concentrated at Verdun, the balance being held in reserve. In preparation for the siege, which had been forecasted a year before, the German High Command had assembled the greatest concentration of artillery in the history of warfare. Mountains of shells had sprung up; thousands of huge howitzers and field guns had been solidly set upon placements for the grand assault; great stores of asphyxiating bombs, poison gases, and other infernal devices were in readiness. To lend eclat to the siege, the "god-man," Kauer Wilhelm, was present and conferred the chief command upon his son and heir, the Crown Prince.

The Verdun Defences

The French, on their part, knew full well that the forts were indefensible. Accordingly they had advanced their defensive eastward across the River Meuse, where two parallel lines of trenches were constructed in a semi-circle along a line of hills, forming a salient whose apex pointed toward the north. Guarding this line, though not wholly in the trenches, was an army of 120,000 Territorials, under the immediate command of Generals Sarrail and Herr. Both ends of the French salient were held by the Germans; St. Mihiel had been seized in September 1914, and Montfaucon had been occupied during the retreat from the Marne. These positions gave the Germans absolute control of the two principal railroads that supplied Verdun with food and ammunition. More important still, they were able to sweep the salient with a crossfire from east to west.

Only one narrow gauge railroad remained in the possession of the French, and this being totally inadequate to carry the needed supplies of food and ammunition to Verdun, and within range of the German guns besides, it was necessary to improvise a new transport system. Motor vehicles of all descriptions, some 10,000 in number, were requisitioned from all parts of France, and this mobile service proved the salvation of Verdun. Thirty-thousand drivers were constantly employed in operating their motor vehicles.

The units of the French Army, crouching in myriad crater holes, or lurking in the wooded stretches along the line, with only a few troops left to guard the trenches, were in a precarious situation, due to the fact that the River Meuse, at their back, was now in flood. A forced retreat across the river might end in disaster. The Germans, in addition to the advantage they held in numbers, guns, positions and supplies, had constructed a system of railways along the front of the Verdun salient enabling them quickly to transfer their men and supplies to any point where the exigencies of battle called for rapid concentration.

The Preliminary Bombardment

The French strategists had anticipated the launching of a powerful German offensive in the Western theater early in 1916, but the general expectation had been that the attack would be deferred until the March winds had dried the ground. The probabilities pointed toward an attack in force against the British front in Flanders. So sure of this were the Allied commanders that they had drawn from the forces defending Verdun, in order to strengthen the British position. The Germans had encouraged this illusion of a Flanders offensive by making a feint attack on a five-mile front at Lihons with rolling gas clouds followed by infantry rushes in mass.

While this feint against the British front was in progress, on February 19, 1916, the real artillery assault on the Verdun salient was begun. Using only a part of their field guns, the Germans seemed to be feeling out the French position, to get the range and to locate the French batteries. But even this preliminary bombardment was a terrible demonstration of German power. This trial bombardment by field guns continued without cessation for 48 hours, the French gunners answering the fire as best they could, with the inferior artillery at their command.

The Immortal Battle Begins in a Blizzard

Having found the range of the French trenches, the Germans, on February 21, 1916, began the bombardment in force. A blizzard was raging and the French soldiers, unsheltered on the bleak hills of the Meuse, suffered greatly from the cold. With a roar that shook the earth for many miles around, thousands of field guns swept the French lines along the heights of the Meuse from St. Mihiel to Montfaucon. Then the huge Austrian howitzers, firing 12-inch shells, were brought into action, concentrating now upon one, then upon another, center of resistance.

The first hurricane of shells reduced the salient from Brabant to Haumont; in a trice the trenches were obliterated. Had they been occupied in force, as the Germans supposed them to be, the entire French Army must have perished. Fortunately the French Army, for the most part, were crouching low in dugouts, tunnels, crater holes or in the adjacent woods, and only a few thousand perished in the trenches. Soon, like a puff-ball, the entire sector from Herbebois to Mancourt was blown to dust. Then the Central front of the salient was smothered in a hail of shells pouring down from three directions. Thus the entire front line of trenches was wiped out. One hour after the opening of the battle, every yard of ground behind the first trenches had been plowed by German shells and the telegraph lines destroyed.

German Infantry Attack Repelled

In spite of the blasting fire, the valorous French soldiers clung to their dugouts and tunnels, which the shells had failed to penetrate, and from widely scattered positions along their front they operated their batteries of light guns with cool and deadly precision. As, wave upon wave, the German infantry advanced to secure the trench-line, they were repeatedly checked by the heroes in the dugouts, who cut them down with a relentless machine-gun fire. Only in the Center was the assault successful, the Germans occupying the Haumont and Caures Woods. All this time the French units, isolated in their tunnels and dugouts, were fighting upon their own initiative without general direction.

Brabant Proves "A German Graveyard"

The second day of battle opened cold and snowy. To warm the French, the Germans threw jets of liquid fire into the Wood of Consenvoye, forcing an evacuation. There followed an infantry assault on Herbebois and the Wood of Ville in which the hand- to-hand fighting was especially bloody and determined. The German artillery fire, meanwhile, was growing in violence; great gusts of flame swept over Anglemont, the Mormont Farm and La Wavrille; the second French trench line was churned with shells; Haumont was reduced to ruins. Still the hordes of Huns had difficulty in expelling the small body of French defenders; it was evening before they gained possession of the ruins. When night fell, the French had lost the Wood of Ville and evacuated Brabant, but still held most of Herbebois and La Wavrille. In the cold and snow, under the ceaseless bombardment, the dauntless Frenchmen hastily dug themselves in again. The German losses were so appalling that they afterward named Verdun, "The German graveyard."

Germans Slaughtered at Herbebois

With both trenches gone, the battle was now to be fought in the open. Determined upon carrying the wood of L'Herbebois at any cost, the Germans on the third day of battle attacked in great force and in close formation. Waiting until the Huns were at close range, the French "75's" opened fire on the solid mass. Whole ranks were wiped out at a time; it was downright slaughter. Five successive attacks were made, with the same result. The fighting became furious beyond description. Yet, despite their reckless squandering of life, the Germans could not gain a foot of ground.

Unfortunately, as night fell, the Germans succeeded in taking La Wavrille and the defenders of Herbebois were obliged to fall back or risk being flanked. Many of the French soldiers, fighting mad, refused to retreat, choosing rather to die where they stood. In other directions the Germans were advancing more cautiously. On February 24, 1916, the French evacuated the dangerous position in the village of Samogneux, and by evening the Germans had gained the hill known as "cote 344," the villages of Beaumont, Le Chaume and Ornes, the Wood of Fosses, and had thrown the French back to the line of the Verdun forts. The Germans were now confident that they had won the battle. One last effort would make them masters of the heights above Verdun and the French Army would be forced to retire in disorder.

General Petain Takes Over the Command

In This critical juncture, aid came to the French. General Petain arrived, with all his staff, to succeed General Castelnau in active command, bringing with him a corps of 50,000 veterans who had won laurels in Flanders, Artois and Champagne. This corps was at once thrown into the furnace and checked the German advance. At the same time, Crown Prince Frederick's Army of 14 divisions was increased to 25, giving him a force of 800,000 to oppose the French force of 300,000.

Germans Make a Breach at Douaumont

The battle, on February 25, 1916, centered on the borderland of Douaumont. Early that day the Germans made a fierce attack on the cote of Poive, carrying the villages of Louvemont and Bezonvant. Before Douaumont the fighting was intense; by 5 in the afternoon the village seemed to be surrounded. A German brigade had indeed secured a foothold at Fort Douaumont, and the German General Staff had trumpeted to the world that "the armored fort of Douaumont, the cornerstone of the French defense of Verdun, had been carried by a Brandenburg regiment," but their boast was premature.

"They Shall Not Pass"

Declaring that "they shall not pass," the French by a vigorous counter-attack, thrust back the enemy. A desperate struggle followed ; the Germans did their utmost to widen the breach they had made toward the fort; the village of Douaumont was taken and retaken, but all the German effort and waste of men were in vain. They could not pass on; henceforth their advance was definitely controlled.

The "Iron Corps" Retakes Douaumont

General Petain met the peril of this crisis, February 26, 1916, by launching a counter offensive. The veterans of the immortal "Iron Corps," led by General Balfourier, flinging themselves in front of the whole German advance in the Ravine of Death, on the edge of the Douaumont Plateau, first halted the onrush of the Great German Army and then retook Fort Douaumont. During the ensuing three days Douaumont changed hands three times, but try as they might, the Germans could not dislodge the heroic Iron Corps. Single positions were regained and lost twice in a day.

In this engagement the losses of the Germans were unbelievably heavy; 100,000 fell in a single day. The future of France, of the world, was at stake and the Iron Corps would have died to a man rather than suffer defeat. In that maelstrom of death, every reserve corps available had been used by the Germans. At the moment of victory they had been thwarted by a single brave French Corps which was forced to fight facing uphill and with a flooded river at its back.

"The Battle of the Wings"

Failing to force the French line at its Center, the Germans, on March 2, 1916, attacked the two ends. The French salient was now inverted, with its apex pointing toward Verdun, the right wing resting on Fort de Vaux and the left on Dead Man's Hill. The breach in the Center was swept continually by the efficient artillery fire of the French gunners. It was necessary to capture these wings before the German direct advance on Verdun could be continued.

In these hellish attacks the Germans made use of liquid fire, asphyxiating gas, bombs, machine guns and bayonets upon a scale hitherto unknown. Thousands of brave Frenchmen melted away like snow flakes, in this crucible of war. Their only shelter was that afforded by swamps, forests and shell- craters, which were half filled with water and ice. Continually the ground was swept by a rain of shells. So fiercely was every inch of ground contested, that advance was possible only after the shelter holes had been pulverized and their occupants blown to atoms. It was downright butchery ; the soldiers contending not only against the infernal weapons of warfare, but also against the sullen forces of nature. Snow fell interminably during March and there was little protection against the weather in the coverts of the forest, the swamps and the hillside. In this bleak theater of war, during a period of three months, was fought one of the most terrific battles of the entire War.

Battle of "Dead Man's Hill"

Across the Meuse River, opposite to Douaumont, is an eminence known as Le Mort Homme ("Dead Man's Hill"). Adjacent to this, and separated from it by a brook, is another eminence known as Hill 304. These hills, which commanded Verdun, were held, but not occupied in force, by the French. The defending French Army at this time occupied the higher elevation along the Charny Ridge, which extended westward from the River Meuse four miles north of Verdun. If the Germans could capture these hills, the gate to Paris would be opened.

The Germans, by a great sacrifice of men, advanced during the first week of March to the foot of Dead Man's Hill. Another week found them in possession of one of the summits. Here they were stopped. "They shall not pass" declared the French. During the next ten days the Germans wasted regiment upon regiment in futile attacks upon Hill 304. Still hoping to break through to Verdun, they next assailed Pepper Ridge, which stretches between Douaumont and Dead Man's Hill. Here the resistance was equally stubborn, and on April 18, 1916, the Crown Prince desisted from further efforts in this direction.

Returning to the assault on Dead Man's Hill, the Germans, in the last week of May, succeeded in expelling the French. Hill 304 soon after succumbed. But it was an empty triumph, bought at frightful cost. The Germans still found they could not break through to Verdun.

Fort de Vaux Holds Out Three Months

The German bombardment of the village and Fort of Vaux at the right wing of the salient, was begun on May 29, 1916. Vaux stood on a broad plateau whose slopes were seared with ravines, which assisted the Germans greatly in their operations. Having first seized the little village of Vaux-devant-Damloup in the valley below, the Germans cautiously worked up through the ravines and in the ensuing weeks gradually advanced their trench lines around the fated fort. Continual bombardment finally reduced the fort to powder.

The slim French garrison of 600 men, now completely isolated from the rest of the army, took refuge in the underground passages of the fort. They were in sore straits for lack of food and water. On June 3, 1916, the Germans reached the summit and by dropping gas bombs and liquid fire down upon the French garrison, sought to suffocate them in the shelter below. Finally, on June 7, 1916, with death by suffocation as the only alternative, Major Raynal, the brave commander of Vaux and his plucky garrison, surrendered. The Germans, after 100 days and at a loss of thousands of men, had gained an objective which profited them little.

The German Thrust at Verdun Fails

Having captured the two wings of the French line, the Crown Prince then launched his final thrust for Verdun through the center of the salient. The two armies faced each other on lines running north and south. The Germans, on the Douaumont Plateau, were now but four miles from Verdun. Their first intent was, by frontal attack, to expel the French from the narrow ridge which barred the way to Verdun. In this effort they were doomed to disappointment. After two months of the most terrific fighting of which history has a record, the Germans succeeded in penetrating only six miles into French territory on a 15-mile front. The limit of their advance was Thiaumont, which was taken on June 23, 1916 after an assault by 100,000 picked German troops. On the next day the battle raged in the streets of Fleury where the French held their ground and stayed the advancing tide.

The Souville Fort still held, and until that had been reduced, the German passage of the Meuse would be hotly contested. The Crown Prince had promised his troops in July that the push for Verdun would continue, but the battle of the Somme was now raging further north, and the Crown Prince was forced to withdraw his reserves from the Verdun battle field to assist in the Somme operations. Failing to dislodge the French at Souville he could not hope to reach Verdun. On the other hand, while the Germans held Douaumont, a renewal of the Verdun offensive might be expected at any time. The French, in August, attacked the positions gained by the Germans at Fleury and Thiaumont, but were repulsed with heavy losses. So matters rested until the great French offensive began in September.

German Losses 500,000, French 200,000

The Germans, so far in the Verdun campaign, had sacrificed 500,000 lives and their only recompense for this fearful loss was a paltry gain of a few miles of French territory on a 15-mile front. The French losses were estimated at 200,000. France had again saved civilization. Russia had been given time to recuperate from her disaster, and England had been able to bring 2,000,000 soldiers to the Western front.

Recapture of Douaumont and Vaux

Though the German pressure against Verdun had relaxed in July, because of the transfer of men and guns to the Somme battlefield, nevertheless the Germans were able to hold Foils Douaumont and Vaux and seriously threaten Verdun. The situation being intolerable to the French, early in September they began preparations for a counter-offensive. Artillery of the heaviest type was concentrated about Verdun and there was also a great assent blage of aviation.

General Mangin, in command of the offensive, planned a threefold attack. One division was to advance on the town of Dauaumont by way of the Hardamont Quarries. A second division, advancing from Froide Terre, was to take Fort Douaumont. A third division was to assault Vaux. The triple attack was launched on October 24, 1916, preceded by a concentrated artillery fire which crumpled up the enemy's trenches. Just before noon in the obscurity of a dense fog, the three divisions rapidly advanced towards their several objectives. Whole sections of the German first line were taken without resistance.

The ravines, especially those at Hardamont, were the scenes of savage fighting. A battalion of Senegalese, newly arrived from Africa, here encountered a terrific fire of musketry and machine guns. Wavering for a moment, the troops swept on again. Split in the Center by an enemy force, the Senegalese rushed ahead on either side, attacking on the first lines. Due to the heroic action of these brave colonials, the resistance of the Germans at Douaumont was broken. Despite the desperate resistance of the Germans, Douaumont was taken in four hours, the victors traversing ground which it had taken the Brandenburgers six months to cross after an expenditure of hundreds of thousands of lives. This victory netted the French 6,000 prisoners and much booty, their losses being less than 3,000.

End of Battle of Verdun

The assault on Vaux was less successful. The French advance was halted on the line of the old ditch, but with Douaumont in French possession the fate of Vaux was sealed. The Germans held the fort until November 2, 1916, then suddenly evacuating the position and retiring to the Woevre Plain. With the restoration of Vaux, the circle of Verdun defences was once more complete. Eight months before the French had said : "They shall not pass." And the Germans did not pass Verdun. Instead they had retired a defeated army, leaving half a million of their dead on the slopes round about Verdun.

Final Dispersion of the Germans

Though the Germans had withdrawn, their guns were still within range of the Verdun forts. It was necessary to drive them out of range. This the French did in a second and final counter-offensive, which opened on December 15, 1916. In a few brief hours, four French divisions swept twice their number of Germans out of the Meuse district to the north; clearing the interval between Douaumont and the Woevre and reestablishing the main defensive position beyond the circle of forts. At the same time they took 11,000 prisoners, together with 115 guns and much booty. Of all the territory seized by them, the Germans retained only Dead Man's Hill and Hill 304. These were destined to fall in the following year.