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Verdun, Fort Douaumont, and National Honor at its Worst

July 10, 2016

French troops retake Fort Douaumont outside Verdun. The fighting around Verdun occurred mostly through artillery bombardments, or vicious hand-to-hand fighting – Source: Wikipedia

World War I was a titanic struggle. A struggle which involved millions of men and the destruction of vast quantities of wealth. The conflict, which raged around the world for four, horrible years, was dominated by battles that demonstrated how far Western Civilization had advanced technologically and organizationally, while throwing into sharp relief how stunted it was morally. World War I was not the first “industrial war,” but it was the war where industrialization had been taken to another level. Warfare was becoming a science more than an art. Plans were made and executed without thought to deviation, because the plans had been created by formula, and thus had to be correct. This technological and industrial warfare was wedded to an intense nationalism and militarism. Warfare was supposed to be good for the soul. National honor was sacred, and should be defended to the last drop of blood regardless of what might be lost in the process. The Battle of Verdun in 1916 – it was fought from February through December – was the worst expression of this. In an area of no more 200 square miles just over one million men would be killed or wounded. That equals about 5,000 men per square mile. Verdun’s strategic importance was questionable at best, but national honor had to be satisfied, and it was a god that was satisfied with blood alone. Considering the size of the battle, I will limit my discussion here to the battle in and around Fort Douaumont, which had some of the most dramatic fighting of the campaign.

I. Background

General Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of German General Staff and Minister of War, the author of the bloody drama at Verdun – Source: Wikipedia

Christmas, 1915 looked grim to General Erich von Falkenhayn. He had been promoted to Chief of the German General Staff, a post he held concurrent with his position as Minister of War, and yet these were not good days for the general. The war which had supposed to have ended by Christmas, 1914, had lasted a whole another year. Falkenhayn was now charged with winning a war against a coalition with far greater resources than Germany. Russia, though consistently bested by German troops, seemingly had endless reserves of material and manpower. France and Britain, though badly bloodied by the fighting, were only beginning to call upon the reserves of their empires. If the war lasted until one side dropped, Falkenhayn knew that Germany would drop first. Therefore, Germany would have to construct a series of circumstances to exhaust the allies, thus in a memorandum prepared for the Kaiser over Christmas, Falkenhayn laid out the following logic.

There are targets lying within reach behind the French section of the Western Front for which the French leadership would need to use their very last man. Should they do this, then France would bleed to death, for there is no retreat, regardless if we ourselves reach the target or not. Should they not do this, and should these targets fall into our hands, then the effect on morale in France would be enormous. For these operations, which are limited in terms of territory, Germany will not be compelled to expend itself to a degree that would leave it seriously exposed on other fronts. Germany can confidently await the relief operations that can be expected at these fronts – and, indeed, hope to have enough forces available to meet the attacks with counter strikes. For Germany can conduct the offensive quickly or slowly, break off the offensive for a period of time or strengthen the offensive, according to its objectives.

The targets being spoken of are Belfort and Verdun. What was said above applies to both of them. All the same, Verdun is to be preferred. – General von Falkenhayn – Christmas Memorandum*

Thus Verdun was chosen because of the relative quiet nature of that sector of the front, as well as being a bastion of French national honor. Verdun had been a fortress city since the days of the Romans, and as Falkenhayn adroitly noted the French could be counted upon to defend Verdun even in the face of military logic. The German plan was to attack along a rather narrow front, seize portions of the area around Verdun, entrench and then allow the French to batter themselves to death. Ten German divisions under the Crown Prince Wilhelm, would attack with over one thousand guns in support. Opposing them were only three French divisions, two of which were reserve formations of untested ability. Verdun itself was encircled by forts, but French high command, believing fixed fortifications to be of little value against modern heavy artillery, had stripped the forts of equipment and left them with garrisons below even peacetime strength. Operation Gericht – Judgement – would commence February 12, 1916. The road to Verdun ran through Fort Douaumont.

*There are some doubts as to whether or not Falkenhayn actually wrote this memo, or if he put it into his memoirs after the war as a bit of post facto reasoning. However, it nicely encapsulates the strategic thought and objectives of the German army at Verdun.

II. The Fall of Fort Douaumont, February 25, 1916

Fort Douaumont before the battle, notice the intact nature of the hill surrounding it – Source: Wikipedia

The French for their part were saved from total annihilation by the most unlikely historical agent, the weather. The initial German assault was delayed from February 12 to February 21. Over a week of torrential downpours and intense fog allowed the French, being unable to miss the large movements of men and material across the lines, to reinforce Verdun. It was not enough to stop the  German onslaught cold, but it was enough to bog the Germans down. The fortifications at Vaux and Douaumont were able to hold out even after the French troops supporting them were forced to fall back.

The German offensive seemed preordained to failure. Fort Douaumont was a monster of a building. It was built two layers of concrete, both over three feet thick each. The fort was encircled by a twenty-foot deep moat, and beyond that was nearly 100 feet of barbed wire. The position seem to fall by accident, when, on February 25 a patrol of German combat engineers under Sargeant Kunze of the 24th Brandenburg Infantry regiment cut their way through wire entanglements and crossed the moat. The French defenders, dazed by artillery, and convinced of their invulnerability were unaware of anything happening. Kunze and his men swept through the fortress, systematically bluffing the defenders into surrender, or locking them into their positions. By the end of the day the fort was in German hands. No one died during “assault,” but one German did scrape his knee sneaking into the fort.[1]

The fall of Fort Douaumont was trumpeted by the Germans as the beginning of the end for the French. The more pessimistic of the French felt they could only agree. However, the battle was only just beginning. General Joffre, commander of all French armies, sent General Philip Petain, a defensive wizard, to hold Verdun at all costs. Petain would do just that, and more, he organized the only road into Verdun so that trucks ran down it twenty-four hours a day. To maintain the road, a small army of over 10,000 workers worked around the clock to fill holes, and pull off damaged trucks. The road became known as la voie sacrée, “the Sacred Way.” In order to keep his troops from collapsing from exhaustion, Petain ordered units rotated in and out of Verdun. By the end of the war, over 70 percent of the French army had fought at Verdun.[2]

III. “Ils Ne Passeront Pas”

“They Shall Not Pass!” A French propaganda poster commemorating the Battle of Verdun. Over five hundred thousand French soldiers would be killed or wounded during the battle – Source: Wikipedia

French resistance at Verdun can be summed up by the quote above. It was uttered by one of Petain’s subordinates, General Richard Nivelle, who along with Petain would plan and execute France’s attempts to drive the Germans out of the area around Verdun. Petain and Nivelle had decided that French troops would fight for every inch of ground and counter attack the moment they lost any position. The honor of France was at stake, and the that mania fixated on Fort Douaumont.

For some time, March through May, the battle for Verdun had moved away from Douaumont, which was in the north east of the battle space, to the west, across the Meuse River. Two hills in particular were scenes of fierce fighting. The first was cleverly named Hill 287 (its height) the other was more ominous, Le Mort Homme, Dead Man’s Hill. An unnamed French officer who fought at Verdun described the fighting around there in early May, 1916.

Between Saturday morning [May 10th] and noon Tuesday [May 23rd] we estimate that the Germans used up 100,000 men on the west Meuse front alone… The valley separating Le Mort Homme from Hill 287 is choked with bodies. A full brigade was mowed down in a quarter hour’s holocaust by our machine guns. [3]

The battles entered a sort of rhythm. A German artillery bombardment would hit a French position, the French would take cover in shell holes and dugouts. The German infantry would attack, the French infantry would repel them. Then the French artillery would pound the German positions, the Germans would hide in their dugouts, and when the inevitable French assault came, the Germans would manage to repel it as well. This was how 100,000 German troops could be “used up,” in two weeks. [4]

A map of the Battle of Verdun, Fort Douaumont is in the northeastern (upper right), while Hill 287 and Le Mort Homme are to the West (left) of the Meuse River – Source: Wikipedia

By the end of May, Petain was convinced his army could attempt to retake Fort Douaumont. May 20-23 saw some of the fiercest fighting to that point. The officer who was quoted before said of their attack on the Fort,

West of the Meuse, at least, one dies in the open air, but at Douaumont is the horror of the darkness, where the men fight in tunnels, screaming with the lust of butchery, defeaned by shells and grenades, stifled by smoke… Practically the whole sector has been covered by cannonade, compared to which Gettysburg was a hailstorm and Waterloo mere fireworks. Some shell-holes were thirty feet across, the explosion killing fifty men simultaneously. [5]

After three days of fighting, during which the French were able to retake a portion of the fort – but were ultimately forced out by German artillery – Petain was forced to call it a day. Four months into the fight and hundreds of thousands of soldiers – on both sides – were dead, wounded, or missing. The battle was less than half way done.

IV. The Fall of Fort Douaumont Redux

The German offensive, which had proceeded essentially without stop since February, finally petered out July 11, after nearly breaking the French lines just north of Verdun itself. The French could have ended the battle here winning on balance of casualties, but losing on territory. France chose to keep fighting, national honor demanded that the ground that had been lost over the past five months be retaken. Petain and Neville began stockpiling ammunition, moving guns and men into position, and setting objectives for their counter-offensive.

Fort Douaumont or the surface of the moon? The fort and the surrounding hillside have been devastated by millions of shells – Source: Wikipedia

By late October, over 600 guns and one millions shells had been assembled, as well as three divisions for the attack on Fort Douaumont. Two massive 400mm French railway guns had pounded the fort for two days and millions of shells had turned the area around the fort into something like the surface of the moon. The weather on October 24, the day that the French would attempt again to take the fort was foggy. Another French officer reported this,

A thick fog prevent my seeing anything except the nearest tortured slope and here and there a mutilated tree trunk. The fog however, was by no means inert. It seemed as though it was being stirred about… by the constant and invisible flight of shells… I looked up as though I had expected them to form a vault of steel above my head. Our artillery was pounding the enemy’s positions, and I recalled the terrible days of the end of February when the shells were rushing upon us. This time it was the opposite impression that I got, an impression of our definite superiority. [6]

The French infantry went over the top, scrambling up the sides of the hill toward the German wire. They stumbled through the fog and the shell holes – most of which were small lakes from the rain – into the German positions. The Germans, having been pounded by those railway guns had begun removing the garrison, but the fighting was still fierce. The aforementioned French officer,

At eleven-fifty on the right I heard the tick-tick of machine guns. If machine guns were in action the attack must have been launched [he could not tell through the fog, if the troops had attacked]. If machine guns are firing our men have been seen and are meeting with resistance. Then I heard them no more. The roar of the guns drowned everything and again I go through uncertainty and anxiety. [7]

The French troops, benefitting from the weight of their artillery and the exhaustion of the German defenders finally overcome Douaumont’s defenses. A French reconnaissance plan flew over the fort to seeing colonial troops from Morocco atop the fort. The observer penciled a notation on his map showing the Moroccan Division’s position, flew over French headquarters and dropped it. The notation stated simply, “La Gauloise [Division] 16:30. Viva la France.” Douaumont was officially back in French hands. As the officer who watched the assault through the fog exclaimed, “Douaumont is ours. The formidable Douaumont, which dominates with mass, its observation points, the two shores of the Meuse, is again French.” National honor had been satisfied. [8]

V. Conclusion

The French would continue fighting into December of 1916 before exhaustion and poor weather stopped them. The battle was one of the most costly not only in the war, but also in human history. German losses were around 434,000, while the French, being on the offensive longer, suffered 542,000. The battle had more impact than simple carnage. The Germans began to seriously think about shock trooper tactics to get around heavily fortified enemy positions. Petain too had developed theories about the war. He would be sure to have clear advantages in men and material before attacking, and would call off attacks before they cost too many casualties. The battle had negative side effects as well. The French army would come close to collapse the next year because of heavy casualties at Verdun followed by a poor conceived offensive in the spring of 1917. The battle would see the removal of Falkenhayn removed from his post as Chief of the General Staff, he was replaced by Paul von Hindenburg. While in France, Marshal Joffre, the man had ignored too many signs of the impending German attack, was promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the French army, which took him out of the field, he would resign rather than be relegated to figurehead position. Verdun was a monument to national honor. It was Falkenhayn’s understanding of French national honor that led him to the battlefield, and it was Petain and Neville’s obsession with honor that led to a period of French attacks that lasted longer than the initial German attacks. For such an abstract concept over one million men were killed, wounded, or otherwise devastated. [9]

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to comment, I will attempt to answer them as quickly as possible.

Footnotes:

  1. “February 25, 1916: German Troops Capture Fort Douaumont (Verdun),” History.com, accessed June 29, 2016, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/german-troops-capture-fort-douaumont-verdun.
  2. James L. Stokesbury, A Short History of World War I (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), 145-146.
  3. Charles F. Horne, ed. Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV (National Alumni, 1923) accessed June 29, 2016, http://www.firstworldwar.com/diaries/verdun_douaumont.htm
  4. Stokesbury, A Short History of World War I, 145.
  5. Horne, ed. Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV.
  6. Charles F. Horne, ed. Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V (National Alumni, 1923) accessed June 29, 2016, http://www.firstworldwar.com/diaries/verdun_douaumont2.htm
  7. Ibid.
  8. Stokesbury, A Short History of World War I, 147.
  9. Ibid., 147-148 and 196

Bibliography

History.com Staff. History.com, Accessed June 29, 2016. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/german-troops-capture-fort-douaumont-verdun.

Horne, Charles F. ed. Source Records of the Great War, Vols IV and V. National Alumni, 1923.

Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.

Marshall, S.L.A. World War I. New York: Mariner Books, 2001.

Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of World War I. New York: Harper Collins, 2002.

Strachen, Hew. The First World War. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

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