They Shall Not Pass:
Lessons of Verdun, Part One
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
As 1915 drew to a close, the German Army could record great successes against the Russian Empire in a whole series of offensives. On the Western Front, outside of the Battle of Ypres in April the Germans stood on the defensive and repelled French and British attacks. Hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers fell in these futile assaults, and some German leaders began to suspect that the time was ripe to strike a serious blow on the Western Front and collapse the French Army, Germany’s strongest remaining foe.
Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff, saw an opportunity. A major attack would draw in French reserves, and allow the Germans to use their local superiority to inflict even more casualties on them. Three British armies had taken the field in France, and German intelligence reports estimated that a further 40 or more “New Army” divisions would join them in coming months. Perhaps France could be knocked out of the war before this new British strength arrived at the front.
Did Falkenhayn really intend to “bleed France white,” or was this justification after the fact? Did he think that massive losses on both sides might induce their leaders (as well as his own) to seek a negotiated peace?
Almost a century later, it’s difficult to say for sure. Many historians have tried to penetrate Falkenhayn’s thinking, and his attempt to cover his tracks with an apparently post-dated “Christmas Memorandum” to Kaiser Wilhelm calls all of his statements into question. On the other hand, the phrase “bleed themselves white” in regards to upcoming operations appears as early as 2 December 1915, in a diary entry by Col. Gen. Hans von Plessen, commandant of the Imperial General Headquarters.
What Falkenhayn intended at Verdun may be hard to fathom; what he achieved is very clear. Total losses at Verdun came to over 700,000: the French suffered 161,440 dead and missing and 216,377 wounded, the Germans 142,000 dead and missing and 187,000 wounded. Those listed as “missing” can almost all be assumed to have died: the massive artillery barrages simply obliterated huge numbers of men, leaving their remains unidentifiable.
The impact went far beyond the numbers. French forces had actually suffered proportionately greater casualties during the last four months of 1914 than they did during the similar period of the Battle of Verdun, and half again as many men died in combat during 1915 as would be killed in 1916. But in attempting to relieve the enormous psychological pressure on the units fed into “the mill,” as soldiers of both sides called Verdun, the French Army managed mostly to spread the suffering. Three-quarters of the army’s active divisions saw combat at Verdun, as Gen. Philippe Petain’s “conveyor” policy rotated them in and out of the line. Morale problems became noticeable after several weeks of intense fighting. By April 1916 the troops coming up the road from Bar-le-Duc, dubbed the “Sacred Way” by French newspapers (but not by the troops) no longer sang as they marched. And French soldiers normally sang every time they hit the road.
Verdun became a symbol of France’s suffering during the entire Great War, and much larger casualty figures would be cited in the years that followed. Serious works written in the 1920’s cited numbers as high as two million, and while these were fantastic inventions as far as objective reality, they very accurately described the pain felt by every surviving Frenchman and Frenchwoman. “I did Verdun,” as French veterans put it, came to carry a much deeper meaning. Those who survived would never be the same. Nor would their country.
The general staff drafted attack orders on Christmas Eve, 1915. The attack would be carried out by the German Fifth army, commanded by Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, with its target the French fortress-city of Verdun. The staff looked at both Verdun and Belfort as possible targets, with subsidiary attacks at other points along the line to fix French reserves in place. Belfort held some attraction: known as Beffert in German, it had been part of the Holy Roman Empire until 1648 and was capital of the part of Alsace not annexed by Germany in 1871. At the far end of the Western Front, it withstood a 103-day siege in 1870 and as such would have symbolic meaning to the French. But while the French communications network could easily service Belfort, rail lines did not approach it very closely from the German side of the line. Fall Schwarzwald, the main attack on Belfort, would be supported by Fall Waldfest against Verdun.
With Schwarzwald a non-starter, the staff looked more closely at Waldfest. Troops and supplies could be easily moved up here; Metz, a major communications center and fortress, was only 20 miles away. With some new rail lines and the application of simple horse-and-wagon transport, the assault forces would have the ammunition and replacements they needed. Verdun would be a much more practical target, and planning went forward for Fall Gericht – Operation Judgment.
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.
The river Meuse winds its way past Verdun, and Fifth Army’s staff believed it important to attack on both sides of the river, else the attacking force’s flank would be exposed to fire from the French on whichever side was not attacked. Falkenhayn vetoed this part of the plan: the attack would be launched only on the east bank, with 10 divisions. All reserves would be under Falkenhayn’s direct control and not under Fifth Army authority.
Fifth Army planned to take Verdun, but Falkenhayn’s directive did not make it clear whether he expected the capture of the fortress-city itself, or merely an advance to take the nearby heights that would make it impossible to hold the city under German artillery fire. Falkenhayn chose not to correct them, as he felt the troops would have greater motivation with a concrete objective for the attack.
If Falkenhayn was stingy with troops, he was generous with artillery. The Crown Prince’s army would have 1,200 guns and massive quantities of ammunition: over 2.5 million shells (1,300 train loads) filled Fifth Army’s bunkers. The divisional guns would fire on French positions, while the big batteries controlled by the five corps headquarters and Fifth Army itself would interdict French supplies and reinforcements.
Behind the lines, the Germans evacuated French villages and built covered positions for the assault troops to hide them from prying French eyes and protect them from French artillery. They laid new rail lines, dug in their guns and sent up a screen of fighter planes to make sure the French would not detect the preparations.
On the French side of the line, Gen. Frédéric Herr had three divisions with 34 battalions in his front line, with 270 guns. The most useful fortress guns had been removed over a year earlier, and much of the divisional and corps artillery had not been properly dug in to withstand a major attack. While Emile Driant and a few other enterprising local commanders energetically dug trenches and shelters, along much of the line the French were vulnerable.
But information leaked through the German screens, and slowly some changes took place. Some French aerial spotters did suspect something was up, but Herr’s staff noted that the Germans had dug no attack trenches to bring up their assault troops. Every German attack since the opening of the war’s trench phase had been preceded by massive digging; its absence proved the Germans did not intend to attack Verdun. French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre denied repeated requests for reinforcements, artillery and barbed wire: Joffre had held off the Germans in 1914 by carefully guarding France’s reserves and would not fritter them away now to meet phantom threats. But French civilians deported from the area filtered through the lines with reports of massive collections of troops and ammunition, and as the date of the attack approached German deserters began to come in as well. Finally, Joffre gave in – two divisions were detailed to support the Verdun sector, arriving on 12 February 1916. Fresh supplies of barbed wire and telephone line (vital to restore communications after heavy bombardment) also started to show up.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.
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