Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Battle of Verdun was one of the most important battles in World War I on the Western Front, fought between the German and French armies from 21 February to 18 December 1916 around the city of Verdun-sur-Meuse in northeast France. It remains one of the longest battles in history, spanning roughly 10 months.
The Battle of Verdun resulted in more than a quarter of a million deaths and approximately half a million wounded. Verdun was the longest battle and one of the bloodiest in World War I. In both France and Germany it has come to represent the horrors of war, similar to the significance of the Battle of the Somme in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.
The Battle of Verdun popularised the phrase "Ils ne passeront pas" ("They shall not pass") in France, uttered by Robert Nivelle, but often incorrectly attributed to Henri Philippe Pétain.

Battle of Verdun Precursor to the battle
Verdun was poorly defended because most of the artillery had been removed from the local fortifications, but good intelligence and a delay in the German attack due to bad weather gave the French time to rush two divisions of 30th Corps—the 72nd and 51st—to the area's defense.
The battle began on 21 February 1916 with a nine-hour artillery bombardment firing over 1,000,000 shells by 1,200 guns on a front of 40 kilometres (25 mi), followed by an attack by three army corps (the 3rd, 7th, and 18th). The Germans used flamethrowers for the first time to clear the French trenches. By 23 February the Germans had advanced three miles capturing the Bois des Caures after two French battalions led by Colonel Émile Driant had held them up for two days, and pushed the French defenders back to Samogneux, Beaumont, and Ornes. Poor communications meant that only then did the French command realize the seriousness of the attack.
On 24 February the French defenders of 30th Corps fell back again from their second line of defense, but were saved from disaster by the appearance of the 20th Corps under General Balfourier. Intended as relief, the new arrivals were thrown into combat immediately. That evening French Army chief of staff, General de Castelnau, advised his commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre, that the French Second Army under General Phillipe Petain, ought to be sent to man the Verdun sector. On 25 February the German 24th (Brandenburg) Infantry Regiment captured a centrepiece of the French fortifications, Fort Douaumont.
Castelnau appointed General Philippe Pétain commander of the Verdun area and ordered the French Second Army to the battle sector. The German attack was slowed down at the village of Douaumont by the tenacious defense of the French 33rd Infantry Regiment and heavy snowfall. This gave the French time to bring up 90,000 men and 23,000 tons of ammunition from the railhead at Bar-le-Duc to Verdun. This was largely accomplished by uninterrupted, night-and-day trucking along a narrow deparmental road: the so-called "Voie Sacree" . The standard gauge railway line going through Verdun in peacetime had been cut off since 1915.
As in so many other offensives on the Western Front, by advancing, the German troops had lost effective artillery cover. With the battlefield turned into a sea of mud through continual shelling it was very hard to move guns forward. The advance also brought the Germans into range of French artillery on the west bank of the Meuse. Each new advance thus became costlier than the previous one as the attacking German Fifth Army units, often attacking in massed crowds southward down the east bank, were cut down ruthlessly from their flank by Pétain's guns on the opposite, or west, side of the Meuse valley. When the village of Douaumont was finally captured on 2 March 1916, four German regiments had been virtually destroyed.
Unable to make any further progress against Verdun frontally, the Germans turned to the flanks, attacking the hill of Le Mort Homme on 6 March and Fort Vaux on 8 March. In three months of savage fighting the Germans captured the villages of Cumières and Chattancourt to the west of Verdun, and Fort Vaux to the east surrendered on 2 June. The losses were terrible on both sides. Pétain attempted to spare his troops by remaining on the defensive, but he was relieved on 1 May and replaced with the more attack-minded General Robert Nivelle.
The Germans' next objective was Fort Souville. On 22 June 1916, they shelled the French defences with the poison gas diphosgene, and attacked the next day with 60,000 men, taking the battery of Thiaumont and the village of Fleury. The Germans, however, proved unable to capture Souville, though the fighting around the fort continued until 6 September.
The opening of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, forced the Germans to withdraw some of their artillery from Verdun to counter the combined Anglo-French offensive to the north.
By the autumn, the German troops were exhausted and Falkenhayn had been replaced as chief of staff by Paul von Hindenburg (Prussian Army) and his co-commander General Erich Ludendorff (Bavarian Army).
The French launched a counter-offensive on 21 October 1916. Its architect was General Nivelle. It combined heavy bombardment with swift infantry assaults. The French bombarded Fort Douaumont with new 400 mm guns (brought up on rails and directed by spotter planes), and re-captured it on 24 October. On 2 November the Germans lost Fort Vaux and retreated. A final French offensive beginning on 11 December drove the Germans back to their starting positions.

It was crucial that the less populous Central Powers inflict many more casualties on their adversaries than they themselves suffered. At Verdun, Germany did inflict more casualties on the French than they incurred—but not in the 2:1 ratio that they had hoped for, despite the fact that the German Army grossly outnumbered the French.
France's losses were appalling, nonetheless. It was the perceived humanity of Field Marshal Philippe Pétain who insisted that troops be regularly rotated in the face of such horror that helped seal his reputation. The rotation of forces meant that 70% of France's Army went through "the wringer of Verdun", as opposed to the 25% of the German forces who saw action there.

The Battle of Verdun—also known as the 'Mincing Machine of Verdun' or 'Meuse Mill'—became a symbol of French determination, inspired by the sacrifice of the defenders.
The successes of the fixed fortification system led to the adoption of the Maginot Line as the preferred method of defense along the Franco-German border during the inter-war years.

See also