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.

Verdun: The First Day

The remnants of the woods of the Bois des Caures after the ten-hour German bombardment.

February 21, 1916, Verdun–Between 7 and 7:15 AM, 1200 German guns opened fire on the French positions at Verdun.  They kept up their barrage for the next ten hours: “we fired, fired, fired, without letting up…a real pleasure,” one German artilleryman described.  The few French planes able to take off before being cleared from the skies by the Germans reported that the woods on the far side of no man’s land were simply a wall of smoke and flame.  The noise and vibrations of the barrage were felt by soldiers up to 100 miles away.

The French forces were simply incapacitated by the intensity of the barrage.  French artillery was essentially unable to respond, plagued by gas shells, with no visibility due to the smoke from the German lines, and unable to receive additional supplies of shells due to the continued barrage.  On the front lines, it was worse.  Moving even a distance of ten yards was impossible; even if one were not hit by a shell directly, the clods of dirt thrown up were enough to choke or bruise you.  Even when in some form of shelter, the experience was unbearable.  Corporal Stéphane described:

Imagine, if you can, a storm, a tempest, growing steadily worse, in which the rain consists entirely of cobblestones, in which the hail is made up entirely of masonry blocks.  Remember that a mere 120, at the point of impact, has gathered the same energy and releases, just as instantaneously, the same destructive force as an express train hitting the buffers at 90 kilometers an hour….And we’re underneath it, you follow?  UNDERNEATH IT, as quiet as Baptists, smoking our pipes, waiting from moment to moment for the inevitable, fatal moment when our wretched carcasses are going to be be squashed, flattened, ground instantly into dust.

Raymond Jubert described the effects of one such shell:

A great pile of earth, round, shaped like a pyramid, with a hole gouged out all round.  Sticking out of it, symmetrically, to a distance of about 40 centimeters, were legs, arms, hands, and heads like the bloody cogs of some monstrous capstan.

By 1PM, Stéphane described the experience:

Barely able to hear, our eyes bulging, we hang tightly on to things, we bump into each other, we stagger about; around us everything is shaking, everything is breaking apart, everything is about to capsize, and it’s as if we are in a ship scraping its bottom on a reef in a sea of mud.  And, right down into the depths of our bowels, we are choked by the stench of the charnel house.

The bombardment would continue for another four hours, with the last hour the most intense of all.  At 5 PM, the barrage eased in ferocity and began attacking more distant targets, the German infantry began to advance.  Unlike in recent Allied offensives, where the infantry advanced in waves after the end of the bombardment, the Germans were more careful.  They advanced in small groups of 50 to 60 towards specific points, using cover as they advanced, cutting wire and clearing out the small amount of French resistance they found with grenades or flamethrowers.  Many did not even bother taking their rifles off their backs, as they found they did not need them.

In many areas, the French defenders were essentially destroyed; two elite battalions in the Bois des Caures were reduced from 1800 to 70 men by the barrage and assault.  Nonetheless, by the evening, those that survived had mostly recovered from the numbing effects of the shelling.  Many had simply been bypassed by the initial advance of the stormtroopers, and began to attack the Germans once again.  The flamethrowers, in particular, proved an excellent target, already carrying their death on their backs.  The French artillery had also recovered by nightfall and began to pound the German troops.  But the Germans still greatly outnumbered them and were only coming in greater force the next day.

Today in 1915: Russian XX Corps Surrenders in Augustów Forest

Sources include: Paul Jankowski, Verdun; John Mosier, Verdun; Ian Ousby, The Road to Verdun.

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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.

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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.

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.

French Reach Roof of Fort Douaumont

The already shell-pocked Fort Douaumont pictured from the air two days before the French assault.

May 22 1916, Douaumont–The loss of Fort Douaumont in the first days of Verdun had been a distinct embarrassment for the French.  General Mangin, le mangeur des hommes,” commanding the French troops now across from the fort, was determined to retake it.  On May 22, after shooting down German observation balloons and conducting their own precise artillery barrage, Mangin launched his attack just before noon.  The barrage failed to make a dent on what was still the strongest fortress in the world, and the attackers took horrific casualties from multiple sides as they approached the fort.

Nevertheless, a substantial number of French soldiers survived the first eleven minutes of the attack and made it successfully on top of the fort.  However, once up there, they were no closer to capturing the fort itself, now beneath them.  The entrances via moats and windows that the Germans had used in February had long since been sealed off or destroyed, leaving the French separated from their goal by multiple feet of concrete or a few extremely well-defended access points.  Exposed to artillery fire from both sides and repeated sallies from Germans inside the fort, the few remaining French troops were forced to surrender in 36 hours.

The attacks made on either flank of the fort were even less successful, taking fire both from the fort and from the intact trenches ahead of them.  Major Lefebvre-Dillon was one of the few to make it to the German lines successfully, but soon found his men completely isolated: “How on earth is my poor battalion, crushed, decimated, going to manage to hold?” He told his officers that he would “fight, fight, right to the end, wait for reinforcements or a counterattack from our lines.  There can be no question of surrendering.”  However, that night, after suffering 70% casualties, the major surrendered his battalion.  Over 48 hours, Mangin’s division would lose 5500 men, just under half its strength.

Today in 1915: Rail Disaster at Quintinshill 

Sources include: Ian Ousby, The Road to Verdun; John Mosier, Verdun; Paul Jankowski, Verdun.

French Retake Fort Douaumont

French soldiers outside Douaumont after its recapture.

October 24 1916, Verdun–The fall of Fort Douaumont, the largest fort at Verdun, to under a hundred Germans in the first day of the battle was a continuing embarrassment for the French.  They had attempted to retake it on several occasions, reaching its roof once, but had never been able to crack into the fort itself.  Since the opening of the Somme offensive, the Germans had stopped attacking at Verdun, and the sacking of Falkenhayn meant his venture there fell to an even lower priority under Hindenburg & Ludendorff.  Casualties continued to mount, but reinforcements were not forthcoming.  Arnold Zweig described:

The Germans had held on hitherto beyond all imagination…[reduced now to] about seventy thousand men, scattered and lost in that ravaged land.  They had starved, they had crouched waist-high in watery slime, they had burrowed into the mud because it was their only cover, they had not slept, they had struggled against fever and held on.  And now they were beginning to crack.

Unlike the battles in the spring, the French this time were able to properly prepare an assault.  Instead of throwing in new reinforcements directly at the fort, three whole divisions would attack on a broad front.  For days before, heavy artillery would pound the fort and its environs (which already had the “appearance of a vast surface of boiling milk which characterizes a raging sea.”).  The bombardment caused severe damage and caused some fires among munitions stores.  Fearing a repeat of the explosion in May that had killed 650 men within the fort, the Germans began to panic.  The commanding officer, unable to keep his men in line, largely evacuated the fort on the night of October 23.

The next morning, the French divisions, equipped with compasses, advanced behind a creeping barrage.  What remained of the German trenches were taken with ease, the French taking over 6000 prisoners on the 24th alone.  Entering the fort itself, French soldiers quickly rounded up what stragglers remained.  Eight months later, the French had finally retaken Douaumont.  Despite the devastation on the outside (and the explosion in May), the interior was remarkably intact, much to their surprise.

Today in 1915: British Indian Advance on Baghdad Approved
Today in 1914: Maritz Defeated in South Africa

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

Fort Vaux Surrenders at Verdun

Some exhausted and thirsty defenders of Fort Vaux.

June 7 1916, Verdun–The once-imposing fort system around Verdun was largely neglected after the opening stages of the war; in large part, this led to the embarrassing fall of Fort Douaumont to a handful of German companies in February.  The nearby Fort Vaux had been disarmed since August of 1915, and had been in fact scheduled for demolition on February 26; only the general German assault had saved it.  Despite its weaknesses it held off the Germans in the initial stages of the attack, though the Germans still hoped to take it and then strike towards the Meuse.

On June 2, the Germans opened a fresh assault on Fort Vaux with a heavy bombardment.  Like the earlier French attack on Douaumont, they made it to the roof, but, unlike the French, were prepared with mining equipment to dig through the concrete into the fort.  This was largely unnecessary; several breaches filled only with sandbags were found, and the Germans used grenades and flamethrowers to try to break their way in.  Where this did not work, intense hand-to-hand combat ensued in the dark underground passages.  Over the course of five days of subterranean fighting, the Germans would gain less than a hundred yards of tunnels.

For the French inside the fort, conditions were terrible.  The Germans had blocked the ventilation system (or worse, pumped in gas), making breathing difficult.  They were cut off from the French lines and unable to resupply.  Most dire was the water supply; they had no fresh source and their cisterns were low or cracked.  One junior officer described their predicament:

Everywhere there was nothing but fire and dust…[their] attacks renewed every day, striking now at this point, now at that; never did we yield an inch of ground so long as there was a man to defend it.  I will not speak…of all we went through.  No water, no revictualling, those who went out to bring us supplies never got back.  The only thing that we were not short of was munitions….They attacked us from three sides at once, but they never got us in their claws.

The water ran out on June 6, as the fort’s commander recalled:

So I decided to serve out the last drops of the corpse-smelling water which remained in the cistern.  It represented scarcely a quart per man, and yet we drank this horrible liquid with avidity.  But there was too little and our thirst continued.

General Nivelle ordered two attacks to relieve the fort, equipped with scaling ladders (which were unnecessary to reach the fort’s roof); both were quickly cut down.  On June 7, out of water entirely, the fort surrendered.

Today in 1915: Inaugural Meeting of UK Dardanelles Committee

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

Disaster in Tavannes Railway Tunnel; Halfway Point of the War

The entrance to the Tavannes tunnel after the devastating fire.

September 4 1916, Tavannes–The one constant of the Verdun battlefield was the shelling, making any area in the open unsafe for either side.  This meant that any underground bunkers or tunnels were highly prized as shelters.  This included the single-track railway tunnel at Tavannes, just south of Fort Vaux.  The railway was no longer useful itself, with one end of the tunnel opening very close to the Germans, but it had been used for shelter and storage by French troops for the last six months.  Conditions inside were abysmal, with one French writer calling it “purgatory.”  There was little water and no latrines; soldiers relieved themselves in a ditch running the length of the tunnel which was never cleaned out for fear of disease.  Ventilation was deliberately poor; the air shafts had been blocked up for fear of German gas attacks.

At 9:15 PM on September 4, a set of flares being brought by donkey to the tunnel caught fire, understandably spooking the donkey, which ran into the tunnel.  This spread the fire to the gasoline supplies, and then to stores of ammunition in the tunnel.  The resulting explosion killed most of the soldiers inside the tunnel.  A few on the far end managed to escape, only to be met with intense German shelling and machine-gun fire that killed many who survived the fire.  Over 500 French soldiers died in the blaze, which continued to burn out the tunnel for two days; exact numbers are unclear as so many bodies were completely incinerated.  The incident was completely censored in the French press; families of the dead were simply told their relative had gone missing.


Today also marks the halfway point between the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 and the Armistice in November 1918.  After over two years of war, to most the end is not in sight.  However, at the highest levels of government in both Germany and Austria-Hungary, there are serious doubts as to whether the war can be brought to a successful conclusion.  Many urge a renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare, hoping to cripple Britain (and dismissing the specter of American intervention).  The Austrians and Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, however, argue that Germany is in a relatively strong position, having occupied Belgium, northern France, Poland, and much of the Baltic coast.  If Romania could be defeated as well, this would put them in an excellent position to discuss peace terms with the Allies.  On September 4, at the halfway point of the war, the Kaiser and Hindenburg & Ludendorff agree to put off unrestricted submarine warfare until Romania can be defeated and such a peace proposal can be made.

Today in 1915: Lusitania U-Boat Sinks Another Passenger Liner
Today in 1914:
French, German Armies Prepare For Battle; British Continue Retreat

Sources include: David Mason, Verdun.