Verdun – the sacred wound is buried deep in the French psyche. A frontier town on the banks of the Meuse, it had been fought over previously by the French and the Germans. Its strategic position, blocking the way through the Champagne region, had ensured that the great engineer Vauban had built a massive Fort to defend the town. There were also a series of other fortifications surrounding the town. Whilst these may have appeared impressive, even impregnable, events were to show that many of the fortifications had been stripped of their guns, and much of the infantry garrisons had been moved elsewhere.
In his memoirs written after the war, the Chief of the German general staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, believed that a clean breakthrough by means of a decisive battle could no longer be achieved. An attack on Verdun however, for historical and emotional reasons, would be resisted. In this way they could ‘bleed the French Army white, and the British forced to launch a counter offensive elsewhere. With the French Army defeated and ‘England’s best sword knocked out of her hand’ the Allies would be forced to sue for peace. Whether this was really Von Falkenhayn’s plan is somewhat opaque; perhaps he really meant to capture Verdun, but this discussion I will leave to others.
In January 1916 the German plans were well in hand, and large numbers of heavy guns were being moved into the salient. Over 1,200 guns were in place, enough for one to every 150 yards of French Trench. There were also 150 ‘Minnenwerfers’ – Flamethrowers, following their introduction at Hooge in July 1915. Ammunition trains had brought a vast number of shells from the Ruhr which were in dumps hidden in the surrounding hills and woods and every available farm, barn and house had been occupied by troops.
Dutch Intelligence had passed on to the French some warnings as to the German intentions, but these were ignored, which accounts for the total lack of preparedness before the initial bombardment. Not even the increased activity by more than 150 German aircraft on the salient could persuade General Joseph Joffre the French Commander in Chief, who continued with his planning for an offensive on the Somme.
The long range German naval guns opened up at 7.12am on February 21st 1916, followed by the 1,200 guns concentrating their fire on a front of 12 miles. The bombardment was like nothing previously experienced. It reduced whole villages to rubble and the landscape to a wasteland. It pushed men beyond the limit of endurance, bodies were left unburied and were pulverized and dismembered by the continuing bombardment.
A key victory for the Germans was on February 25th when they seized Fort Douaumont, the most elevated of the 19 forts protecting Verdun. When the Germans made their way into the fort, none of the machine gun bunkers on the four corners of the fort were manned. The guns had been removed in 1914 following the destruction of the Belgian forts, and the fort designed for a garrison of 900 men had only a token force of around 60 men led by a warrant officer. Many of these were found by the Germans sheltering from the bombardment in the lower levels of the fort.
There was an attempt to recapture Fort Douaumont on February 26th which failed, and the decision was made there would be no further attempts in the short term. It was to be many months at the cost of up to 10,000 French casualties before it was back in French hands. It was decided that the existing French lines would be consolidated and the other forts occupied, armed and supplied to withstand a siege.
These decisions were made by General Phillipe Petain who was appointed to be in charge of the sector by General Noel de Castelan, General Joffre’s chief of staff. Petain, a 60 year old bachelor, was summoned from the bed of his mistress in the Hotel Terminus in Paris to be informed of his new command.
While Petain ordered limited counter attacks he also brought up additional guns to counter the German artillery. He also needed to urgently secure the supply route into Verdun. There was still a light railway available but the main supply route was the road from Bar le Duc to Verdun. Petain ordered that the road be widened, but lorries were still nose to tail with essential supplies and the ’poilu’ marching into battle often behind a military band. By June 1916 there were some 6,000 vehicles a day on the road, and Auguste Maurice Barres referred to it as ‘La Voie Sacre’ – the sacred way to the Calvary of Verdun. The road remained open despite constant bombardment, and a Territorial Division was on hand to shovel stone under the wheels of trucks to maintain the surface.
These measures were effective in impeding the German offensive, but Petain realised that with the horror and intensity of the battle infantry divisions would need some respite before casualties and exhaustion had too great an effect. Close to 75% of the French Army at the time served at Verdun at some point. Despite these measures there was discontent among the French troops by the summer of 1916 and there were what has been described as ‘episodes of collective indiscipline’ within five Infantry Regiments. This was a cause of continuing concern for Joffre as he continued to work on his plans for a Somme offensive.
As the battle for Verdun continued the cost in men’s lives mounted on both sides. The French were encouraged by Petain’s message, ‘Courage. On les aura.’- Take courage, We’ll get them, and Nivelle’s Order of the Day on June 23rd ‘Ils ne passeront pas ! – They shall not pass.
Villages like Fleury were reduced to rubble but it changed hands 16 times. The concentration of the bombardment had shattered the landscape. The German infantry had to scramble and crawl over and around craters towards the French lines with the fumes of explosives and the smell of death in their nostrils. The French were determined to protect every inch of the sacred soil of France. A soldier of the 65čme Division wrote, ’Anyone who has not seen these fields of carnage will never be able to imagine it’.
Although historians have come up with different figures for the number of casualties for Verdun, recent estimates suggest 377,000 French casualties and 337,000 German casualties by the time fighting ended on December 19th.
If we are to accept Falkenhayn’s post war memo that his objective had always been about attrition and not the capture of Verdun or a breakthrough one can accept that his plan was a partial success. The German losses however were as great as those of the French, and there would be no further German offensive until March 1918. It was possibly only the collapse of Russia in 1917 that made this possible. Haig was certainly forced to attack on the Somme sooner than originally planned, though its impact on the outcome is more difficult to assess.
Whatever his intentions his perceived failure at Verdun contributed to Falkehayn’s replacement by Hindenburg and Ludendorff on August 29th 1916.
SINKING OF THE P&O LINER MALOJA
The Times in late February 1916 reported the sinking of the liner Maloja only two miles off the coast of Dover. The ship had struck a mine and sank within 20 minutes but the crew received much praise for their behaviour, the Captain and the officers being the last to leave the ship.
There were 411 people on board with a loss of about 150 lives. What is most striking is the heavy loss of life among the crew who were referred to as lascars. This was not a term I have come across before and the Oxford Dictionary says the term refers to a sailor from the East Indies.
The Times reporter felt that the behaviour of the lascar crew members was worthy of special mention. ‘They were quite as cool as the Europeans on board, their behaviour was magnificent, I was told over and over again.’ Of the 203 lascars on board only 85 were saved.