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Battle of Verdun

From Academic Kids

Template:Battlebox "They shall not pass" — Robert Nivelle

The Battle of Verdun was a major battle of the Western Front in World War I. The battle was fought between the German and French armies between February 21 and 19 December 1916 around Verdun in northeast France. It resulted in more than a quarter of a million deaths and about half a million wounded. It was the longest battle of World War I, and the second bloodiest after the battle of the Somme (1916).

Contents

Background

After the Germans failed to achieve a quick victory in 1914, the war of movement soon bogged down into a stalemate on the Western Front. Trench warfare was developed and neither side could achieve a breakthrough.

In 1915 all attempts to force a breakthrough — by the Germans at Ypres, by the British at Neuve Chapelle and by the French at Champagne — had failed, with terrible casualties the only result.

The German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, believed that although a breakthrough might no longer be possible, nonetheless the French could be defeated if they suffered enough casualties. He therefore planned to attack a position from which the French could not retreat, for both strategic reasons and reasons of national pride, and so impose a ruinous battle of attrition on the French armies. The town of Verdun-sur-Meuse was chosen for this "bleeding white" of the French: the town, surrounded by a ring of forts, was an important stronghold that projected into the German lines and guarded the direct route to Paris. Rather than a traditional military victory, Verdun was planned as a vehicle for destroying the French army. Falkenhayn wrote to the Kaiser:

"The string in France has reached breaking point. A mass breakthrough — 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."

Battle

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Map of the battle
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Verdun burning during bombardment with incendiary shells

Verdun was poorly defended, but good intelligence, and a delay in the German attack due to bad weather, gave the French time to rush two divisions to the area.

The battle began on 21 February 1916 with a nine-hour artillery bombardment by 1,200 guns on a front of 40 km, 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, captured the Bois des Caures, and pushed the French defenders back to Samogneux, Beaumont, and Ornes. Poor communications meant that only now did the French command realise the seriousness of the attack.

On 24 February the French defenders fell back again from their second line of defence, 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. On 25 February the 24th Brandenburg Division captured a centre-piece of France's fortifications — Fort Douaumont — with hardly a shot being fired.

With the Germans now within reach of Verdun, the French teetered on the edge of disaster. The chief of staff of the French army, General de Castelnau, appointed General Philippe Ptain commander of the Verdun area and ordered Ptain's French 2nd Corps to Verdun. The German attack was slowed down by tenacious defence of the village of Douaumont by the French 33rd infantry regiment and heavy snowfall. This gave the French time to bring up 90,000 men and 23,000 tonnes of ammunition from the railhead at Bar-le-Duc to Verdun.

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. When the village of Douaumont was finally captured on 2 March 1916 four German regiments had been destroyed.

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Le Mort Homme and Hill 287, May 1916

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 Cumires and Chattancourt to the west of Verdun, and Fort Vaux to the east surrendered on 7 June. The losses were terrible on both sides. Ptain 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. But they were unable to capture Souville, though the fighting around it continued until 6 September.

By the autumn, the German soldiers were exhausted and Falkenhayn had been replaced as chief of staff by Paul von Hindenburg and as commander at Verdun by General Erich Ludendorff.

The French launched a counter-offensive on 21 October 1916, using the technique of the creeping barrage for the first time. Fort Douaumont was bombarded with new 400 mm guns (brought up on rails and directed by spotter planes), and captured on 24 October. On 2 November the Germans abandoned Fort Vaux and retreated. A final French offensive beginning on 11 December drove the Germans back to their starting positions.

However, despite General Petain's offensive in September, Verdun could be called an incomplete victory for the Germans. The German's lack of a large supply of troops created the need for enough equipment to make up for the deficiency, and thus the supply of artillery needed by the Germans was dependant on additional Allied operations on all three of Germany's fronts. The beginning of the Battle of the Somme in July of 1916 forced the Germans to withdraw some of their superior artillery from Verdun to counter the threat of a combined Anglo-French offensive.

Casualties

In the mathematics of the war, it was crucial that the smaller and more slowly increasing populations of the 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. Verdun brought the French to the brink of collapse, but it did not push their forces over the edge.

France's losses were appalling, however. It was the perceived humanity of Field Marshal Philippe Ptain 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 loss of life and effect on morale stretched the French army to the very edge of mutiny, but mutiny was avoided by promises by the French army leadership that they would no longer engage in costly offensives.

France's army was subsequently plagued not with desertions, but rather with a general refusal to march face-first into the teeth of German defensive positions. France's troops remained in their trenches, willing to fight only in a defensive capacity.

Significance

The battle of Verdun became a symbol of French determination, inspired by the sacrifice of the defenders.

The apparent 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.

Verdun memorial
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Verdun memorial

References

External links

de:Schlacht um Verdun fr:Bataille de Verdun he:קרב ורדן nl:Slag om Verdun ja:ヴェルダンの戦い pl:Bitwa pod Verdun sv:Slaget vid Verdun

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