the battle of verdun

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The Great War 100: Decisive Battles of the War

Battle of Verdun - February 21, 1916 - December 18, 1916
- An attritional battle instigated by Germany to destroy the French Army
-On the opening day of the battle, 1,220 German artillery pieces fired over 1,000,000 shells on Verdun and the surrounding areas in a 9 hour period.

Battle of the Somme - July 1, 1916 - November 18,1916
- Originally planned as a French offensive with minimal British support, intended to smash the German army and deplete their manpower.
- With the German attack at Verdun, the French instead asked the British to carry out a large diversionary attack to relieve pressure on the French army.
-The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest battles of the First World War, by the time fighting had petered out in late autumn 1916 the forces involved had suffered more than 1 million casualties, making it one of the bloodiest military operations ever recorded.

3rd Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele - July 31, 1917 - November 10, 1917
- Haig was convinced the fighting of 1916 (Somme and Verdun) had weakened the German Army and wanted to deliver the knockout blow in Flanders
- As well as being Haig’s preferred region for a large attack, the Royal Navy were worried about intense German submarine activity emanating from the Belgium ports and implored Haig to capture these areas.

Gallipoli - March 18, 1915 - January 9, 1916
- Originally a Naval operation, the main reason to attack this area was to open up more reliable trade routes with Russia, via the Black Sea.
- There was also a feeling among senior British leaders that due to a stalemate on the Western Front, a new front was needed to ensure progress in the war.

Kaiserschlacht, The German Spring Offensive of 1918 - March 21, 1918 - June 12, 1918
Germany knew that their only chance of winning the war was to knock out the Allies before the extra resources of men and material from the USA could be deployed. The main thrust of the attack was against the British towards the town of Amiens. It was thought that after the British were defeated the French would quickly look for peace.
- Amiens was a strategically important supply town with a large railway hub that supported both British and French armies. If this town was captured, it would severely impede Allied supply.

August 20, 1917 - French Offensive at Verdun

Pictured - France keeps watch on the Meuse.

On August 20, 1917, French troops attacked at Verdun along an 18-km front. Like their British allies fighting at Passchendaele, France’s offensive was not aimed at a grand breakthrough but an attempt to progressively wear down the Germans, the strategy favored by their commander, General Henri Pétain. After heavy artillery bombardment and weeks of poring over aerial photos, the Second Army went over the top. The battle lasted into mid-September. Although the fight was not on the scale of the first Battle of Verdun, by the end French troops had reclaimed the old front-lines they had occupied in February 1916.

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The Douaumont Ossuary houses the bones of approximately 130,000 unknown French and German soldiers who were killed during the 300 days of fighting at Verdun, France from February 21st 1916 till December of 1916 during World War I.

Both the German and French armies, at the time, referred to Verdun not as a battle but as hell: Die Hölle von Verdun and L'Enfer de Verdun respectively. Due to the savage nature of the fighting during the battle and the inability to bury the dead in a timely manner, the battlefield of 7.7 square miles became littered with bones. Each side suffered approximately 400,000 casualties.

In the interior cloister, small windows allow for the viewing of the bones. The walls and ceiling are inscribed with the names of the missing who may be interned within, outside are the graves of 15,000 identified French dead.

The tower contains a 2 ton bronze death-bell which is rung during official ceremonies such as Armistice Day at Verdun. It also contains a red and white “lantern of the dead” that shines on the battlefield at night.

The Ossuary serves as a tragic and visceral reminder of the cost of the First World War.

French Offensive at Verdun

August 20 1917, Verdun–French morale had recovered from its nadir during the mutinies of May and June, and Pétain was now confident enough to try an offensive, albeit one with limited objectives and an overwhelming concentration of force.  His target was the German lines on around Verdun. Contrary the claims of the French government (and this author), the French counteroffensives of late 1916 had not completely restored the lines they held before the German offensives.  The Germans still held onto some critical hills that could threaten Verdun in case they ever decided to renew last year’s offensive against the city.

The French had an immense concentration of force, having two full army corps on each bank of the Meuse.  Even this paled in comparison to the concentration of artillery; in some areas there were twice as many gunners as first-wave infantry.  The Germans had made their own preparations, however, bringing several divisions from the Eastern Front to the area, and constructing several tunnels under Mort Homme where they could shelter during a bombardment.

After a week’s bombardment, the French infantry attacked on August 20.  On the west bank, they reached the entrances of the German tunnels before the Germans did, and faced little opposition, taking most of their objectives (Hill 304 excepting) on the first day.  They faced stiffer opposition on the east bank, but were still able to make substantial gains.  The fighting continued over the next several weeks, but by September 6 they had taken all of their objectives, along with 10,000 PoWs, with relatively few losses.  The French had not quite restored the lines of February 1916, but had taken all of the tactically significant points they had lost that year.  The victory was a boost to morale for the French troops in the sector; it could not be better publicized nationwide, however, as the French government had claimed that they had already liberated the areas last year.

Today in 1916: U-35 Completes Most Successful Submarine Patrol in History
Today in 1915: Novogeorgievsk Fortress Surrenders
Today in 1914: Germans Defeated by Russians at Gumbinnen

Two Armies at Passchendaele - The Germans

Defense in depth: the German Fourth Army is dug in at Ypres in three defensive lines, each 2000 yards deep. They will not budge easily when the attack comes on July 31, 1917.

The German army was begin worn away. There was no doubt about it. The replacements that filtered into the line were always a little bit older, or a little bit younger. The proud and might army that steamrolled through Belgium and France had ceased to exist; in its place was a grim grey force that had spent three years fighting from trenches in the ground. The Battle of Verdun had bled it white as much as the French, and for all the talk of British casualties at the Somme, the Germans had suffered worse and could not afford it as easily. But while bloodied, the German army was still unbowed.

In the first battles of 1914 the Germans surrounded but failed to capture the Belgian city of Ypres. Subsequent battles created the Ypres Salient, a jutting geographical protrusion in which the German army surrounded the city on three sides. They could not drive out the British defenders inside, but they did not waste their time either. Since the fall of the positions at Messines, south of Ypres, in June 1917, the Germans concentrated on turning their lines at Ypres into a bastion that could hold back any coming attack.

Multiple German defensive lines outside the Belgian city of Ypres.

This they had done expertly. After three years of warfare the German army recognized that there was more to defense than simply holding the front-line at all costs. Instead, they created what is called a defense in depth.

As John Keegan explains, the Germans “recognized that the defence of a position required two separate formations and reorganized their divisions accordingly. The trench garrison, which was excepted to bear the initial assault, had been thinned out, to comprise only the companies and battalions of the division in line. Behind it, in the rearward zone, were disposed the counter-attack divisions, whose mission was to move forward once the enemy assault had been stopped by the fixed defenses and local ripostes of the troops in front.”

The Germans could sacrifice ground but cause scores of enemy casualties in return, than counter-attack and recapture what was lost while the British were still disorganized. Instead of trying to maintain an unbroken line, the defense was composed of a series of strong-points, each of which could support one another. These positions included incredibly strong networks of pillboxes and barbed wire, each an individual fortress for a company of troops.

Ready and waiting.

From Keegan again: “The completed Flanders Position was actually nine layers deep: in front, a line of listening posts in shell holes, covering three liens of breastworks or trenches in which the defending division’s front-line battalions sheltered; next a battle zone consisting of machine-gun posts, supported by a line of pillboxes; finally, in the rearward battle zone, the counter-attack units of the division sheltered in concrete bunkers interspersed between the positions of the supporting artillery batteries.”

A British officer’s map of local German positions gives some idea of the strength and depth of the German defense. Machine gun emplacements and wire dot the front line, while concrete pillboxes and dugouts anchor the battle zone farther back.

To break the German line, British troops would have to fight their way through at least four groups of trenches, while being counter-attacked by fresh troops and harassed by pillboxes and snipers scattered behind the lines.

Plan of a German pillbox.

Manning these positions were ten divisions of the German Fourth and Fifth armies of Crown Prince Rupprecht’s army group. Some 1,556 field and heavy guns deployed along seven miles supported the foot-soldiers, which included such vaunted units as the 3rd Guard Division and the 111th Infantry Division, whose ranks included the solder-cum-philospher Ernst Jünger. British guns had been bombarding the German positions around the Salient for fifteen days straight. But the Germans held the high ground, they were well dug-in, and they were ready to fight.