Battle of Verdun
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Battle of Verdun
Part of the Western Front of World War I
Date: 21 February – 18 December 1916
Location: Verdun-sur-Meuse, France
Result: French victory
Combatants: France & German Empire
Commanders: French Philippe Pétain, Robert Nivelle. German Erich von Falkenhayn
Strength: French About 30,000 on 21 February 1916, German About 150,000 on 21 February 1916
Casualties: French 378,000; of whom 163,000 died. German 330,000; of whom 143,000 died
The Battle of Verdun was one of the most important battles in World War I on the Western Front, fought between the German and French armies from 21 February to 18 December 1916 around the city of Verdun-sur-Meuse in northeast France. It remains one of the longest battles in history, spanning roughly 10 months. The Battle of Verdun resulted in more than a quarter of a million deaths and approximately half a million wounded. Verdun was the longest battle and one of the bloodiest in World War I. In both France and Germany it has come to represent the horrors of war, similar to the significance of the Battle of the Somme in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. The Battle of Verdun popularised the phrase ''Ils ne passeront pas'' (''They shall not pass'') in France, uttered by Robert Nivelle, but often incorrectly attributed to Henri Philippe Pétain.
For centuries Verdun had played an important role in the defense of its hinterland, due to the city's strategic location on the Meuse River. Attila the Hun, for example, failed in his fifth century attempt to seize the town. In the division of the empire of Charlemagne, the Treaty of Verdun of 843 made the town part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Peace of Munster in 1648 awarded Verdun to France. Verdun played a very important role in the defensive line that was built after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. As protection against German threats along the eastern border, a strong line of fortifications was constructed between Verdun and Toul and between Épinal and Belfort. Verdun guarded the northern entrance to the plains of Champagne and thus the approach to the French capital city of Paris. In 1914, Verdun held fast against German invasion, and the city's fortifications withstood even Big Bertha's artillery attacks. The French garrison was housed in the citadel built by Vauban in the 17th century. By the end of the 19th century, an underground complex had been built which served as a workshop, munitions dump, hospital, and quarters for the French troops.
Precursor to the battle
After the Germans failed to achieve a quick victory in 1914, the war of movement soon bogged down into a stalemate on the Western Front. Trench warfare developed and neither side could achieve a successful breakthrough. In 1915 all attempts to force a breakthrough by the Germans at Ypres, by the British at Neuve Chapelle and by the French at Champagne had failed, resulting only in terrible casualties.
The German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, believed that although a breakthrough might no longer be possible, the French could still be defeated if they suffered a sufficient amount of casualties. He planned to attack a position from which the French could not retreat, both for strategic reasons and for reasons of national pride, so imposing a ruinous battle of attrition on the French armies. The town of Verdun-sur-Meuse was chosen to ''bleed white'' the French: the town, surrounded by a ring of forts, was an important stronghold that projected into the German lines and guarded the direct route to Paris. In choosing the battlefield, Falkenhayn looked for a location where the material circumstances favoured the Germans: Verdun was isolated on three sides; communications to the French rear were poor; finally, a German railhead lay only twelve miles away, while French troops could only resupply by a single road, the Voie Sacrée. In a war where materiel trumped élan, Falkenhayn expected a favorable loss exchange ratio as the French would cling fanatically to a death trap. Rather than a traditional military victory, Verdun was planned as a vehicle for destroying the French Army. Falkenhayn wrote to the Kaiser: ''The string in France has reached breaking point. A mass breakthrough which in any case is beyond our means is unnecessary. Within our reach there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death.''
Recent scholarship by Holger Afflerbach and others, however, has questioned the veracity of the Christmas memo. No copy has ever surfaced and the only account of it appeared in Falkenhayn's post-war memoir. His army commanders at Verdun, including the German Crown Prince, denied any knowledge of a plan based on attrition. It seems likely that Falkenhayn did not specifically design the battle to bleed the French Army, but justified ex-post-facto the motive of the Verdun offensive, despite its failure. Current analysis follow the same trend and exclude the traditional explanation. The offensive was planned to crush Verdun's defense and then take it, opening the whole front. Verdun, as the core of an extensive rail system, would have immensely helped the Germans.
Verdun was poorly defended because most of the artillery had been removed from the local fortifications, but good intelligence and a delay in the German attack due to bad weather gave the French time to rush two divisions of 30th Corps the 72nd and 51st to the area's defense. The battle began on 21 February 1916 with a nine hour artillery bombardment firing over 1,000,000 shells by 1,200 guns on a front of 40 kilometres (25 m), followed by an attack by three army corps (the 3rd, 7th, and 18th). The Germans used flamethrowers for the first time to clear the French trenches. By 23 February the Germans had advanced three miles capturing the Bois des Caures after two French battalions led by Colonel Émile Driant had held them up for two days, and pushed the French defenders back to Samogneux, Beaumont, and Ornes. Poor communications meant that only then did the French command realize the seriousness of the attack.
On 24 February the French defenders of XXX Corps fell back again from their second line of defense, but were saved from disaster by the appearance of the XX Corps under General Balfourier. Intended as relief, the new arrivals were thrown into combat immediately. That evening French Army chief of staff, General de Castelnau, advised his commander in chief, Joseph Joffre, that the French Second Army under General Phillipe Petain, ought to be sent to man the Verdun sector. On 25 February the German 24th (Brandenburg) Infantry Regiment captured a centrepiece of the French fortifications, Fort Douaumont.
Castelnau appointed General Philippe Pétain commander of the Verdun area and ordered the French Second Army to the battle sector. The German attack was slowed down at the village of Douaumont by heavy snowfall and by the tenacious defense of the French 33rd Infantry Regiment, which had been commanded by Pétain himself in the years prior to the war. Captain Charles de Gaulle, the future Free French leader and French President, was a company commander in this regiment, and was taken prisoner during the battle. This gave the French time to bring up 90,000 men and 23,000 tons of ammunition from the railhead at Bar-le-Duc to Verdun. This was largely accomplished by uninterrupted, night and day trucking along a narrow deparmental road: the so-called ''Voie Sacree'' . The standard gauge railway line going through Verdun in peacetime had been cut off since 1915. As in so many other offensives on the Western Front, by advancing, the German troops had lost effective artillery cover. With the battlefield turned into a sea of mud through continual shelling it was very hard to move guns forward. The advance also brought the Germans into range of French artillery on the west bank of the Meuse. Each new advance thus became costlier than the previous one as the attacking German Fifth Army units, often attacking in massed crowds southward down the east bank, were cut down ruthlessly from their flank by Pétain's guns on the opposite, or west, side of the Meuse valley. When the village of Douaumont was finally captured on 2 March 1916, four German regiments had been virtually destroyed.
Unable to make any further progress against Verdun frontally, the Germans turned to the flanks, attacking the hill of Le Mort Homme on 6 March and Fort Vaux on 8 March. In three months of savage fighting the Germans captured the villages of Cumières and Chattancourt to the west of Verdun, and Fort Vaux to the east surrendered on 2 June. The losses were terrible on both sides. Pétain attempted to spare his troops by remaining on the defensive, but he was removed from command by being promoted to command Army Group Centre 1 May, being replaced with the more attack-minded General Robert Nivelle. The Germans' next objective was Fort Souville. On 22 June 1916, they shelled the French defences with the poison gas diphosgene, and attacked the next day with 60,000 men, taking the battery of Thiaumont and the village of Fleury. The Germans, however, proved unable to capture Souville, though the fighting around the fort continued until 6 September.
The opening of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, forced the Germans to withdraw some of their artillery from Verdun to counter the combined Anglo-French offensive to the north. By the autumn, the German troops were exhausted and Falkenhayn had been replaced as chief of staff by Paul von Hindenburg (Prussian Army). Hindenburg's deputy, Chief Quartermaster-General Erich Ludendorff (Bavarian Army), soon acquired almost dictatorial power in Germany. The French launched a counter offensive on 21 October 1916. Its architect was General Nivelle. It combined heavy bombardment with swift infantry assaults. The French bombarded Fort Douaumont with new 400 mm guns (brought up on rails and directed by spotter planes), and re-captured it on 24 October. On 2 November the Germans lost Fort Vaux and retreated. A final French offensive beginning on 11 December drove the Germans back almost to their starting positions. A further minor French offensive took place at Verdun in August 1917, recapturing the Mort Homme.