The Battle of Verdun.
A symbol of French resilience in the darkest of days.
It was the longest and one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, lasting over 300 days at the cost of a combined estimated total of one million casualties on both sides. It was an offensive masterminded by General Erich Von Falkenhayn to break the Allies in spring 1916 before fresh British troops arrived on the Western Front.
Verdun was chosen by Falkenhayn as the point to punch a hole through the allied lines for two reasons. The strategic position and patriotic significance of Verdun made it a perfect point for the Germans to attack. If Verdun was in German hands, then it was hoped by the German high command that the French spirit would crumble.
The sheer scale of what was to come was shown through the opening bombardment by the Germans. In an eight-hour period on February 21st, 1916 two million shells fell in and around Verdun. This was the prelude to the first of many German attacks to claim the ancient city.
The initial days of the attack saw the Germans make significant ground towards Verdun with the capture the tallest of the 19 towers protecting the town. The tide changed for the first of many times when the forces led by Crown Prince Wilhelm changed from Falkenhayn’s plan. The German forces stepped up the attack, leaving them vulnerable to French counter-attacks. This resulted in German casualties rising considerably.
The resilience of the French Army which has become synonymous with Verdun was first constructed by General Phillipe Petain. He had the French second army dig into defensive positions behind the front line to hold off the Germans for longer periods. Petain also kept his troops fresh by rotating them from the frontline trenches more often than usual, keeping the men replenished.
The area around Verdun was turned into a slaughter as the Germans pushed the French to the brink. Arguably the main reason the French were able to fight for so long was because of the transportation of munitions down a single road into Verdun. The road was dubbed Voie Sacree’, the Sacred Way. Divine intervention or not, this single road allowed the French war machine to keep rolling on.
A factor which helped the French to hang on to Verdun was the battle of the Somme. Drawn up to stretch the German army across the French landscape, the Somme was successful to this extent. It will be forever remembered as its own slaughter, particularly for the British, yet in the context of Verdun, the Somme was a relief effort. Had no such attack taken place on the Somme, albeit an overwhelming failure, then the city of Verdun would surely have fallen completely into German hands; taking with it the French will to fight on across the Western front. Verdun was a French battle. It was a major French stronghold which needed to be defended and it was mostly French soldiers tasked with defending it.
The opening of other assaults by the allies coupled with divisions amongst German commanders allowed the French to regain much of the ground lost in the spring by late summer. By the autumn the Germans were fighting British and Commonwealth soldiers at the Somme whilst facing a battle-hardened French army in Verdun.
The final casualty list, like many large battles of the First World War, has been contested for decades. However, it is agreed by many historians that there was in the region of a million men killed or wounded; with over half a million French soldiers becoming casualties. The nine-month-long battle epitomised trench warfare with both sides cancelling each other out at the cost of thousands of lives, but the failure of the German army to capture a landmark of French spirit ultimately enabled the French to dig in for the second half of the war. It wouldn’t have been realised at the time, but the significance of holding Verdun was enough to inspire the French public to remain behind the war effort.
It was made clear by the French government and military from the outset that everything would be done to defend Verdun, no matter what the cost. In December 1916 the battle came to a grinding conclusion as winter weather made assaults almost impossible. Heavy casualties for the Germans on the Somme and Verdun weakened their manpower to a point which it never truly recovered. The city of Verdun was held but at the cost of a staggering loss of life.
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