world war i: 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.

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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.

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How it took one German soldier to capture Fort Douaumont,

Constructed in the 1890’s, Fort Douaumont was the largest of a series of 19 forts which protected the French city of Verdun and would be a key feature of the Battle of Verdun. A large hill fort constructed of steel reinforced concrete, the fort was armed with one 155mm gun, five 75mm guns, a number of Hotchkiss revolving cannon, and dozens of machine guns.  The fort was also manned by a garrison of 800 French soldiers, and surrounded by a moat and fields of barbed wire.

During World War I the French greatly downscaled the fort, removing all weaponry except for a few heavy guns, and reducing its garrison to 56 men, all of whom were middle aged reservists.  After the Battle of Liege in 1914 where large German siege guns had destroyed a number of Belgian forts, military planners believed that the forts would not withstand a similar German attack. In addition, Verdun was out of the way of the main German offensive, thus French military planners felt that it did not need to be so heavily armed. Little could they predict that the Germans would launch a major offensive with the capture of Verdun as its goal.

On the 21st of February, 1916 the Germans launched their attack.  After only four days German forces were within reach of Ft. Douaumont.  On February 25th, a group of ten German combat engineers lead by Sgt. Kunze came upon the fort.  Kunze entered the fort alone under the cover of rain and darkness, then wandered its labyrinth of tunnels and corridors.  Nearing one of the gun turrets, he found an artillery crew manning one of the forts guns.  Armed with a bolt action rifle, he took the crew prisoner and locked them up.  He then found the rest of garrison inside a barracks.  The sneaky Sgt. Kunze managed to eliminate the rest of the garrison by locking and barricading the barracks door, trapping the French soldiers inside.

The fall of Fort Douaumont was one of the most embarrassing military defeats for the French during World War I.  After being captured, the German heavily armed and fortified the fort.  Despite the predictions of French military planners, the fort withstood repeated bombardment by heavy artillery and siege guns, as the fort’s walls was constructed of steel reinforced concrete, whereas the Belgian forts at Liege were simply made from regular concrete.  While it only took one German soldier to capture the fort, it’s recapture would cost the lives of over 100,000 French soldiers.

Big Bertha (42 cm howitzers)

Made with Krupp steel. Was THE legendary example of WWI artillery. 

Only four Big Bertha were produced, the first two rolling off the production line a mere matter of days after the onset of hostilities, on 9 August 1914. With a range of 15km the 420mm shells proved devastating and all four were used during the German assault upon Verdun from February 1916.

The Earth Story:
Battle Scars: Remnant of Verdun

In 1916, the Western Front near Verdun was decimated by some of the bloodiest fighting between the French and the Germans during World War I. For 303 days, the two sides launched approximately 40 million artillery shells at each other. One hundred years later, France is still attempting to clean up the mess.

Roughly 140 miles east of Paris lies the Zone Rouge (Red Zone), an area that even 100 years later is still a deadly reminder of the battle that claimed over 700,000 casualties. Pockmarked by the continued bombardment, the landscape is forever altered. But today, the danger comes from unexploded shells scattered throughout the Red Zone. Some estimates claim it may take between 300 and 700 years to safely clear the region of shells. But the shells are only part of the problem.

World War 1 introduced many new machines of war, including airplanes, tanks, flamethrowers, and a variety of deadly gases. Verdun saw the use of phosphine gases by the German troops, and those shells are among the deadliest in the region. Apart from the continued threat to munitions removal workers from toxic buildup, the chemicals have seeped into the soil and in some places, nothing grows and animals die from exposure. Previously, hunters were allowed on the land with special permits, but high levels of lead and other chemicals in the animals have driven them away.

Studies on soil and water in the region have shown that instead of fading with time, the toxicity has increased. Arsenic is as high as 17 percent in some regions, and some water sources contain 300 times more arsenic than is considered safe. Lead from shrapnel is a common toxin, as are mercury and zinc, which are also found in high concentrations and can remain for up to 10,000 years in the soil.

World War I decimated old growth forests on the Western Front. Even today, unexploded shells are unearthed by farming along the line where the front existed in stalemate for four years. Toxins threaten the water supply of nearby municipalities. Though France tried to move back in once the war was over, it is clear it will be a long time before Verdun can be reclaimed.

Last French Attack at Verdun Recaptures Original Lines

French military photographers pose next to the wreck of a reconnaissance plane shot down over the new front lines on December 15.

December 15 1916, Verdun–Although the Germans had long since stopped actively threatening Verdun, the French continued to methodically attack the Germans and retake lost ground, often at great cost.  In part, this was to ensure that the Germans would not threaten Verdun again next year, but largely it was for symbolic and political reasons.  General Nivelle hoped that recapturing the areas lost in February would give France a much-needed victory, as well as furthering his own career.  The latter, at least, certainly worked, as Nivelle had been tapped to essentially replace Joffre as overall commander on the Western Front.  Before he left, however, he wanted one more success.

At 10 AM on December 15, the French launched an attack with four divisions (with four more in reserve), striking north from Fort Douaumont.  They had a great superiority in artillery, and the demoralized German defenders were not willing to oppose the French vigorously.  In the first day, the French took 3500 prisoners and advanced over two miles. By the 18th, when offensive operations ceased for the year, they had taken over 11,000 prisoners and had largely returned the front line east of the Meuse to where it had been before the battle began in February.

Nine months of nearly-constant warfare had killed around 150,000 men on each side, for no significant gains.  Nivelle, however, was confident that the tactical lessons learned at Verdun would win the war in 1917.  Leaving to assume command at GQG, he told his troops: “The experiment has been conclusive….I can assure you that victory is certain.”

Today in 1915: Sir John French Resigns As Head of British Expeditionary Force
Today in 1914: Serbians Liberate Belgrade

Sources include: David Mason, Verdun; Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War.

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Today, a Hundred Years ago the German army launched one of the biggest military operations of the Great War. The Battle of Verdun. The objetive was to swarm french positions in order to lure them to commit mistakes, and therefore, advance positions along the Meuse River. During the first stages of the Battle, the germans achieved succes, but as it endured, the french army, under command of general Joseph Joffre was able to regain its positions. But no big advances were made, but the human losses and the moral impact was massive. Over 2.390.000 men were mobilized prior to the Battle, 1,250,000 on the german side and 1,140,000 on the french side. Almost a million casualties were counted, on which approximately 305,000 were dead.

May our remembrance honor those who gave their lives in this Battle (and this war) that changed the world.

Special thanks to @janwilhelms for the reminder.

At the pictures:
1 - German soldiers charge from their trenches to face the french, Verdun, 1916.
2 - French soldiers take positions in a bombarded trench at the first stages of the Battle of Verdun, 1916.

An unlikely hero.

During the First World War homing pigeons were used widely to transport communications between front line units and commanders in the rear. When the United States Army landed in large numbers on the Western Front in the summer of 1918, British pigeon fanciers donated 600 birds to them, one of which was a hen, soon to be named Cher Ami - French for ‘dear friend’.

On 3 October 1918 she, with Major Charles Whittlesey and more than 500 men, became trapped in a small depression on the side of a hill as an offensive was halted by German forces. There behind enemy lines, in dense woodland, food and ammunition quickly ran low and friendly fire began to rain down from allied guns oblivious to their location. After the first day just 194 men remained alive. Two pigeons were sent up with messages for aid but both were quickly shot down by German soldiers atop the hill. With just Cher Ami left, the following note was attached to her leg and she was released with the lives of 194 men dependent on her survival:

We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.

Rising into the treetops she met a hail of fire, taking a round to her breast (her punctured sternum is shown on the left in the photograph) she began to bleed profusely. Another severed her the right leg leaving it hanging by a single tendon and yet another blinded her in one eye. She fell from the sky, only to pick herself back up and fly 25 miles in just 25 minutes. Her message was received and a push was made to rescue the 194 men of the lost 77th Division.

Army medics worked hard to save the life of Cher Ami and succeeded in doing so. A small wooden leg was crafted for her stump and once sufficiently recovered she was put on a boat to the United States, with General John J. Pershing personally seeing her off as she departed France. On 13 June 1919 she died at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey,  from the wounds she received in battle. She had been awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal with a palm Oak Leaf Cluster for her heroic service, delivering 12 messages during fighting at Verdun and also received a gold medal from the Organized Bodies of American Racing Pigeon Fanciers. She was later inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame in 1931.

Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s Cher Ami was as well known to American school children as any human World War I hero. Her body mounted by taxidermists, she currently sits in the National Museum of American History’s ‘Price of Freedom’ exhibit, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

30.5cm Beta i.R. howitzer deployed to shell the French fortress at Verdun in 1916. “i.R.” - in Räderlafette - refers to the wheeled carriage. The siege gun still required breaking down to move, and would take the crew about two hours to prepare the gun for use.

(Collection of M. Romanych)

A message is attached to a carrier pigeon by British troops on the Western Front, 1917.

One of France’s homing pigeons, named Cher Ami, was awarded the French “Croix de Guerre with Palm” for heroic service delivering 12 important messages during the Battle of Verdun

Soldier’s Kits

Telegraph did a story about “ Nations at war: What does a World War I soldier’s kit say about his country? ” by artist Thom Atkinson. In the article they talked about different equipment used by the nations involved in WWI.

Equipment of a British Sergeant in the Battle of the Somme, 1916, supplied by Nigel Bristow, The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment.

Equipment of a German Private in the Battle of the Somme, 1916, collection provided by Paul Bristow, Croix de Guerre Living History Group

The kit of a French Private Soldier in the Battle of Verdun, 1916, collection provided by Paul Bristow, Croix de Guerre Living History Group

Equipment from the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death, supplied by Bruce Chopping, Ian Skinner and Laura Whitehouse of the 1914-21 Society

US Infantryman (Doughboy), arrival in France, 1917. Equipment provided by: Lee Martin, historical adviser, collector and living historian

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The Terror of Big Bertha, The M-Gerat 14

The term “Big Bertha” was the name given to a series of massive siege howitzers developed by Krupp in the early 20th century and fielded by the Germany Army during World War I.  These massive guns were 42 cm in caliber (420mm, or 16.5 inches) that could fire an 1,800 pound high explosive shell roughly 8 miles.  For transportation, the gun could be mounted on a large field carriage or could be moved by rail.   The gun was officially called the M-Gerat 14 Kurze Marine-Kannon (short naval cannon).  This was done in order to trick foreign powers into believing the weapon was a naval gun rather than a land based howitzer.

The M-Gerat 14 made it’s debut in the early days of World War I in 1914, especially at the Battle of Liege.  As the German Army marched through Belgium, they were stopped at the city of Liege where the Belgians had constructed a series of forts.  These impressive fortifications were constructed of  concrete and were armed with heavy artillery guns and numerous machine guns.  At first the German Army attempted to storm the fortresses with infantry, which led to a horrific and bloody slaughter.  The Germans then brought up their heavy guns, a number of 380mm siege guns and two M-Gerat 14 howitzers.  Within a matter of days, the big guns reduced the forts into dust and rubble.

The M-Gerat 14 was used throughout the war, especially during the Battle of Verdun and the shelling of Belgrade.  The nickname “Big Bertha” was eventually used for any German big gun, not just the M-Gerat 14.