The Battle of Verdun

21 February until 19 December 1916

It was the longest battle in history and perhaps the greatest involving so many personnel on both sides on such a tiny spot of land. There are an estimated 700,000 dead, wounded or missing on a battlefield less than ten square kilometres.

Such a loss of life at Verdun and its impact on the French became the prime reason for the infamous Battle of the Somme in July of the same year, in an effort to take German pressure off the French. Codenamed ‘Judgement’ by the Germans the Battle of Verdun was the plan of one who wanted “to bleed France white” on an historic French site containing 20 major forts and 40 smaller ones that had protected their eastern front – the man; Chief of General Staff, von Falkenhayn.

“The string in France has reached breaking point. A mass break-through – which in any case is beyond our means – is unnecessary. Within our reach there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death.”

Falkenhayn to Kaiser William II

German troops numbering 140,000, supported by 1200 artillery guns targeting 2,500,000 shells, delivered by 1300 ammunition trains and overhead 168 planes, started the battle on 21st February. 30,000 French opposed them. The battle lasted 300 days. By the 25th 10,000 French prisoners were captured.

One French soldier described the action as follows:

“Men were squashed. Cut in two or divided from top to bottom. Blown into showers; bellies turned inside out; skulls forced into the chest as if by a blow from a club.”

General Philippe Pétain was faced with a difficult situation, just one road into Verdun, 20ft wide, but he moved 25,000 tons of supplies and 90,000 soldiers, using 6000 vehicles, along the ‘Sacred Way’. However, despite this movement the French suffered. By April the French lost 133,00, the Germans 120,000.

Another French soldier commented:

“You eat beside the dead; you drink beside the dead, you relieve yourself beside the dead and you sleep beside the dead.” “People will read that the front line was Hell. How can people begin to know what that one word – Hell – means.”

Verdun © IWM (Q 69971) French machine gunners at Verdun

Verdun © IWM (Q 69971) French machine gunners at Verdun

Pétain asked for more troops but was refused, he had wanted more for a planned attack on the Somme. By the summer France had achieved a modicum of superiority in the air but the battle-ground was simply a war of attrition as the casualties mounted.

Germany attacked on June 1st and by the 23rd they were two miles from Verdun but then failed, they could give no more. June 24th and the bombardment of the Somme could be heard and within days this was to dominate the Western Front.

Verdun continued until December, the French taking back forts and forming a wasteland between them and the German army. Figures differ but it is said the French lost 360,000, the Germans 340,000. In July of course, The British hoped for a swift finish on both fronts, Germany having to move troops from Verdun to fight at the Somme however, the British also got involved in a battle that lasted months instead of days.