Verdun. Alongside the Somme, the name of that unlovely fortress town in eastern France is the most synonymous with the worst horrors of World War One.
The endless rows of white crosses that now cover the area are testament to the war’s longest and hardest-fought battle, which began in February 1916 and dragged on until the year was almost done.
For Germany, defeating France quickly before turning on Russia was the essence of the Kaiser’s plan in 1914, and when war broke out in August the Germans launched a lightning assault. At the Marne in September, however, just a few miles outside Paris, the German advance was halted in its tracks by a Franco-British victory.
“Bleed the French white”
Following the establishment of a relatively static front, the heavily fortified area of Verdun remained a formidable salient into German territory.
As the war carried on into 1916 and with neither side able to forge a decisive advantage, the German high command began to plan a huge assault on the area, designed to “bleed the French white” and break their morale.
French commanders quickly realised that a new approach would be needed to combat the immensely powerful German artillery. Defence of the fortress was therefore focused on holding lightly-manned but heavily protected smaller forts.
The German plan hinged on the amount of artillery firepower at their disposal. The plan was to envelop the defences in shellfire in order to minimise German infantry casualties.
Defending to the death
Initial German attacks proved successful, and French commander Philippe Pétain ordered his men to dig in and defend their new lines to the death. Over the spring of 1916 offensives and counter-offensives were launched at great cost and for little gain for either side.
German commanders became increasingly desperate, and in early summer a new attack began. By the 23rd June their vanguard was within five kilometers of Verdun’s historic citadel, and it finally seemed as though a breakthrough was possible.
Alarmed, allied commanders agreed that something had to be done to take the pressure off the French, and plans were launched for a British attack at the Somme, designed to distract the Germans and draw their men and munitions away from Verdun.
However, while the Germans did move vital guns and men away from the front to combat the new threat, their attacks pressed on. The French were staunch in their defending, and as Summer bled into autumn they began to push the exhausted and overstretched Germans back.
In October and November the peripheral forts lost in February were recaptured, and the battle ended in December with one final French advance which achieved all its objectives. Thousands of Germans surrendered. The battle had been won after nine months of ceaseless fighting. But at what cost?
Was it worth it?
Casualties had been high, estimated at approximately half a million men on either side. In addition, French morale had suffered greatly from the protracted siege. Badly treated and paid, the soldiers had had to endure nine full months of hell.
One French lieutenant, later killed by a rogue shell, wrote in his diary “Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!”
This effect was fully felt after Verdun when, ordered to ready itself for a new offensive, the French army mutinied. Haunted by their experiences defending the giant fortress, thousands of French soldiers refused to fight, forcing Britain to redouble its own efforts further north.
Ultimately however, the French resistance at Verdun had proved a turning point. The German advance was halted, and France survived to fight another day.