By the time major European war broke out in 1914, Verdun cast an imposing shadow over the French landscape. It featured a total of nineteen major forts, armed with concrete- and metal-emplaced 155m and 75mm cannon and machine guns, with a total of forty-seven armoured observation posts set about the landscape. The garrison of the Verdun region numbered 65,000 men. Occupying a bulging salient, it was actually one of the most defensible French positions along the entire frontline, although not everyone on the French staff appreciated that fact.
In September 1914 German forces had attempted to encircle and cut off the fortified town. This effort came close to success, not only because the German pincers nearly closed around Verdun, but also because Joffre had actually ordered the town to be abandoned. Thankfully for the French, Verdun’s commander disobeyed the order. Yet the Germans did succeed in weakening Verdun’s defensive integrity. The outlying Fort Troydon and Fort Camp des Romains were destroyed and captured respectively, and two of the main railway lines into Verdun were cut, leaving the town with just a single road and a narrow-gauge railway track from Bar-de-Luc as its main routes of supply from the west. The Germans also managed to capture the Les Éparges ridge, a strategically useful piece of high ground 24km (15 miles) to the south-east of Verdun. A French counter-attack from 17 February 1915 reclaimed much of the ridge, although some eastern parts of the feature remained in German hands almost until the end of the war. Twenty-four kilometres (15 miles) to the west of the town, the elevated Butte de Vauquois was similarly contested. The German capture of the feature brought vigorous French counter-attacks in the early months of 1915, but while infantry combat largely ground to a halt by 4 March, mine warfare continued for months to come, as each side attempted to secure the feature.
While fighting continued around Verdun, the town and its fortresses themselves came in for German attention, chiefly in the form of aerial and artillery bombardment. The latter included a fearsome pounding of Forts Douaumont and Vaux by 420mm howitzers, which succeeded in creating some significant external damage but without disabling critical French gun emplacements. Apart from such fiery interruptions, however, Verdun was actually one of the quieter sectors on the front. This was reflected not only in an encroaching complacency amongst the French garrison, but also in the stripping of many of the fortress’ guns to provide artillery for batteries elsewhere. Unknown to the French in Verdun, decisions were being taken within the German high command that would eventually make this relaxed existence nothing but a haunted and shattered memory.
In 1915, the German high command began to contemplate its next major strategic move to turn World War I in its favour. Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of staff, began writing a lengthy memorandum for Kaiser Wilhelm, in which he outlined the state of the conflict and the route to victory. Falkenhayn, giving priority to the Western Front over the Eastern Front (earning the enmity of many of his peers), identified Britain as Germany’s most pressing foe, with its vast industrial resources and the human capacity of its great empire. Falkenhayn laboriously listed the strategic options for taking on Britain, but through circuitous logic arrived at the conclusion that the best strategy was to knock the French out of the war.
The place chosen to ‘bleed’ France to death was Verdun. The action was to be called Operation Gericht – options for translation include ‘tribunal’, ‘judgement or even ‘place of execution’. In rough outline, Gericht involved drawing the French into a battle of attrition around Verdun, dealing it a crippling blow in its already weakened state. With France brought to its knees, Falkenhayn envisaged, the British would lose a supporting strut and its motivation to prosecute a terribly costly war on French soil. Falkenhayn knew that the forthcoming battle would also be costly in terms of the lives of his own men, but he believed that the final equations of cost would work out in Germany’s favour. How wrong he would be.
At 4.00 a.m. on 21 February 1916, the Battle of Verdun opened with the deep thump of three 380mm naval guns opening fire, lobbing their sky-splitting shells deep behind the French frontlines. Their targets were bridges over the Meuse, the Bishop’s Palace at Verdun, plus the city’s railway station. The eruptions of the massive shells at point of impact were devastating, but as the frontlines were untouched, the men slowly roused themselves from slumber with the expectation of another quiet day in the trenches. Then, as night gave way to dawn at around 7.00 a.m., hundreds of German artillery pieces and mortars unleashed a bombardment of soul-destroying ferocity. Such was the continual thunder of this barrage that it could be heard 241km (150 miles) away. For those on the receiving end, even for combat veterans, the experience was one of overwhelming, helpless horror. In minutes entire landscapes were re-contoured, turned inside out and moulded by tons of metal and explosive ripping into the earth.
For the French, these first few hours of the battle were about nothing more than survival. They hunkered into every trench, dug-out, shellhole or other depression they could find, and trusted in nothing more than blind luck and meagre cover to keep them this side of death. The battering ranged far and wide along the French lines, running through the morning and into the afternoon. The nature of the bombardment gradually shifted its weight from the heavy-calibre howitzers to smaller field artillery and mortars, which delivered more precision targeting against positions that were still believed to hold opposition to the forthcoming German advance.
At 4.45 p.m., after a total of nine hours of unbelievable bombardment, German troops left their trenches and began the infantry assault across wrecked ground. Assault troops raced forward under the supporting fire of machine-guns, moving quickly in small groups, closing on the French trenches and showering them with grenades, or sending a jet of flamethrower- powered burning oil along their length. Some positions fell without a fight, the defenders being too few to put up any sort of meaningful resistance. Yet this was not the case everywhere, and here were the seeds that made the Battle of Verdun an equal bloodbath for the Germans.
During the terrifying nine-hour bombardment, the 1,300 men of the 56th and 59th Divisions suffered in the region of 60 per cent casualties. Men were interred in their trenches, buried alive by displaced earth, or physically rent asunder, their unrecognisable body parts scattered yards from the shell’s impact point. Others died from shrapnel, or from the effects of blast alone, their lungs destroyed without an outward mark on their bodies. Once the shelling stopped, however, dizzied survivors emerged and began an attempt to hold the line.
They faced the German 42nd Brigade, 21st Division, and did so with astonishing bravery given the experience of the last hours and the odds that they now faced – twelve battalions of enemy infantry. The machine-guns, rifles and grenades that weren’t buried and still working were quickly put into action, and German troops began to fall. Individuals performed heroically to protect small outposts, fighting in small groups until killed, seriously wounded or out of ammunition. Ironically, the devastated landscape assisted the defence, creating a complicated terrain for the German attackers to move across. In some cases, French troops even mounted minor counter-attacks on outposts captured by the Germans.
In this way, Driant’s men held onto much of the Bois des Caures until night fell, a shock to German troops who couldn’t conceive that anyone, or anything, could have survived the bombardment they had unleashed. We should qualify this picture of French resistance a little by noting that only parts of the three German corps had been committed to these first stages of the battle; many troops were held back in expectation of an easy advance. Furthermore, progress had been made elsewhere. Either side the Bois des Caures, the Bois d’Haumont and the Bois d’Herebois were taken (although Haumont itself remained in French hands). The German forces were confident that their overwhelming superiority in numbers and firepower would take the field the next day.
Extracted from Battle Story: Verdun by Chris McNab