friedrich paulus

June 23, 1916 - Last Major German Attack at Verdun

Pictured - German soldiers during the battle.  One pulls the cord out of a stick-grenade.

The Battle of Verdun had by June long since become a grinding, daily, war of attrition, where hundreds of soldiers on each side died every day.  After capturing Fort Vaux and the hill of Cote 304, Germany sat on some of the battlefield’s most important features.  But the German plan to “bleed the French army dry” at Verdun had ended up sucking Germany into an equally painful clash.  Germany could ill-afford to lose hundreds of thousands of troops, especially with the situation in the East, where Russia was storming ahead, and knowing that Britain and France’s summer offensive must come soon.

Therefore, the last major German effort to capture Verdun took place on June 22 and 23.  German artillery pounded French lines using a new weapon: Green Cross phosgene gas.  The toxic fumes flooded the lungs of men of horses, causing them to die in terrible agony.  French doctors, laboring tirelessly to save the wounded, were themselves struck down by the gas. 

After several hours of this rain of death, 30,000 German landsers went over the top of their trenches, rushing the French lines.  Fort Thiaumont, merely two miles north of the town of Verdun itself, was conquered.  An entire French division of 5,000 troops was also wiped out in the village of Fleury.

Hans Forster, a young German university student in the army, recorded in his diary his recollections of that day. “To the front of us a railway embankment; to the right a curve in it.  There forty-five Frenchmen are standing with their hands up.  One corporal is still shooting at them - I stop him.  An elderly Frenchman raises a slightly wounded right hand and smiles and thanks me.”  Also among the German attackers was twenty-five year old Lieutenant Friedrich Paulus.  Twenty-six years later, he was to surrender the German Sixth Army at the Battle of Stalingrad.

“Germany’s Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus at Red Army Headquarters for interrogation at Stalingrad, Russia, on March 1, 1943. Paulus was the first German Field Marshal taken prisoner in the war, defying Hitler’s expectations that he fight until death (or take his own life in defeat). Paulus eventually became a vocal critic of the Nazi regime while in Soviet captivity, and later acted as a witness for the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials.”

(AP)