10 Facts About the Battle of Verdun

Tristan Hughes

4 mins

23 Nov 2018

Few battles in history were more costly than the Battle of Verdun (21 February – 18 December 1916), one of the bloodiest battles of World War One. The defiant French defence of the strategically-vital and symbolic fortress at the cost of an extraordinary amount of human life has led Verdun to become one of France’s most typical memories of the Great War.

Patriotism, bravery and unimaginable suffering – the Battle of Verdun symbolises all of these in French consciousness. Here are ten facts about the battle.

1. The German attack was devised by Erich von Falkenhayn

The chief of the German General Staff, Falkenhayn was confident that 1916 would be a breakthrough year for the German forces on the Western Front. He believed the key to this was to launch a concentrated offensive against the French.

In Falkenhayn’s eyes, the French army was the weaker Allied force on the Western Front: after all they had suffered horrific casualties during the first two years of the war (nearly three million) and the nation was near breaking point.

Falkenhayn therefore came up with the idea of attacking a key strategic location of the French sector on the line: the Verdun salient.

2. Verdun was heavily defended

Surrounded by numerous heavily-armed forts, Verdun was a fortress city and a vital link in the French sector of the Western Front. To the French, Verdun was their national treasure, something Falkenhayn knew full well.

A map of Verdun and the battlefield.

3. Its main defence was Fort Douaumont

Having only recently been completed in 1913, Douaumont dominated the northern approach to Verdun. It was heavily defended with numerous machine gun nests protected in steel pillboxes.

4. The first shot was fired on 21 February 1916

It came from a German long-distance naval gun and damaged Verdun Cathedral, right in the centre of the city. It was followed by a huge barrage of Verdun’s front defences inflicting huge casualties. Of every five French soldiers that had been positioned on the front line, only one survived unscathed.

5. The first flamethrowers were used at Verdun

Dubbed the flammenwer, they were carried by specially-trained German storm troops who also carried numerous grenades. The flamethrower had never been used on the battlefield before, but it proved devastatingly effective.

A later Wehrmacht flammenwafer (flamethrower) in action. Credit: Bundesarchiv / Commons.

6. Douaumont fell to the Germans on 25 February

The largest and most powerful fort in the Verdun system fell without a shot being fired, partly due to German audacity but partly also because the French had removed almost all the defenders from the fort. For the French it was a huge blow, to the Germans a great success.

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7. The Verdun defence was handed over to Philippe Pétain at midnight the same day

Following these disastrous early setbacks, command of Verdun’s defence was given over to Philippe Pétain, who went on to reform and greatly improve the French defences at Verdun – perhaps most importantly improving the supply lines to and from Verdun which were crucial to maintaining the French defence. He later became known as ‘The Lion of Verdun’.

Philippe Pétain.

8. The beginning of the battle of the Somme greatly aided the French defence at Verdun

When the Somme Offensive began on 1 July 1916, the Germans were forced to relocate large numbers of men from the Verdun sector to the Somme to counter the British-spearheaded assault. Contrarily, most of the French army remained defending Verdun.

The need to divert German troops to the Somme meant that 1 July marked the official end of Falkenhayn’s offensive at Verdun, but the battle continued.

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9. Douaumont was recaptured on 24 October

Nine months after Verdun’s most formidable defence had fallen into German hands, French forces successfully stormed Douaumont after a massive two-day bombardment.

A painting showing French forces retake Douaument.

10. It was the longest battle of World War One

The Battle of Verdun was the largest battle of attrition the world had yet seen, lasting ten months.

French cavalry rest on their way to Verdun.

11. There were nearly 1 million casualties

The official records state France lost 162,440 men killed or missing and 216,337 wounded for a total of 378,777 casualties. Some now argue, however, that these figures are an underestimate and that France actually suffered over 500,000 casualties in total.

The Germans meanwhile suffered just over 400,000 casualties.