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Chewing at a steel door with false teeth: the 1916 battle for Verdun

In 1916, in one of history's longest and deadliest battles, 300,000 French and German troops died for a few acres of France. The ghosts still linger.


1914-15

Understandably, the 2014 centennial memorials to the loss and sacrifice of the First World War dwelled in this country on Britain’s contribution. France’s role was often obscured; but, in fact, the French bore the brunt of the German onslaught for virtually the whole of the first two years. In the “Battle of the Frontiers”, the initial, ill-conceived and overzealous offensive by France in the summer months of 1914, its army lost 400,000 men (more than the total number of British killed in the whole of the Second World War) and a further 600,000 were wounded, went missing or became prisoners of war.

The next year, 1915, extended the fruitless and bloody offensives against a German line well entrenched and backed heavily with machine-guns and superior artillery. The line stretched in a continuous belt from the Channel to the Swiss frontier, occupying a large area of industrial northern France, and reaching to less than 100 miles from Paris. This was intolerable for the French, and, supported by the rapidly expanding British Expeditionary Force, their troops hurled themselves repeatedly against unbreakable German positions. French generals called it grignotage, or “gnawing away”, though British critics likened it to “chewing at a steel door with false teeth”. Casualties soared: in one battle, Loos, the British lost 50,380 men to the Germans’ 20,000. By Christmas 1915 the French army had lost 50 per cent of its regular officers.

1916

This was to be a bloodier year still, the most costly one of the whole war – for both sides. It was the year of the Somme, and of Verdun. Between the Battle of the Marne in 1914 and General Erich Ludendorff’s last-gasp offensive in 1918, the Germans attacked only once to break the murderous stalemate called the Western Front: at Verdun on 21 February 1916. Sometimes likened to Stalingrad in 1942, Verdun usually doesn’t appear on British and US screens, because it was almost exclusively a “French v Germans” affair. And yet, perhaps above all the other First World War battlegrounds, the ghosts here refuse to die. They have been preserved largely by the character of the battle, which retains an evil reputation as the longest in any war, and the most intense in its horrors.

Another factor peculiar to Verdun is that, whereas the fighting on the Somme, and elsewhere on the Western Front, took place in ephemeral trenches all but effaced by the passage of time, here it swirled around a ring of 19 huge forts, 14 of them reinforced with concrete. They gave the city its reputation at the time as the world’s most powerful fortress. Two of these bases were Forts Vaux and Douaumont, the latter reputed to be the strongest in the world.

Verdun’s sinister fame as the most atrocious battle in history also derives from the sheer concentration of the battlefield: over a period of ten months from February to December 1916, an area smaller than Manhattan was subjected without let-up to the most intensive artillery bombardment ever experienced. Most of the men who died there did so without ever seeing the enemy.

The German commander-in-chief, General Erich von Falkenhayn, devised a bizarre strategy for his men’s assault in February 1916; it was not to break through, nor even to capture a key city, but to lure the French army into a trap where it would be “bled white” by superior German firepower. The trap was the defence of a bastion that, for strategic, historic (and moral) reasons, the Grand Quartier Général – France’s wartime headquarters – could not afford to give up. The city of Verdun lay only 150 miles along the direct route from Paris, in a temptingly exposed salient on the Western Front.

The very choice of words by General Falkenhayn, “bleed the French army white”, suggested the image by which this battle would for ever be associated. However, Verdun “bled” the attacking Germans in almost equal measure. Yet, well beyond the war of 1914-18, Verdun would stand out in French memory as the amulet signifying supreme courage, and supreme sacrifice.

Taking the French by surprise, the 5th Army, under the command of the German crown prince, Wilhelm, opened its offensive on 21 February 1916 with three elite corps and 1,200 heavy guns, all concentrated on a front just eight miles long. The German assault infantry were used as bait in the trap to draw the French forces into the grinding machine.

Before they could reach the main line of Verdun’s forts, they had to capture the Bois des Caures, and on the first day much of the firepower from the unprecedented concentration of artillery was directed against this one, small wood. It was held by two battalions of French chasseurs, just 1,200-strong. They were commanded by Colonel Émile Driant, a former deputy for Nancy and writer who had tried in vain to warn Marshal Joseph Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, about the threat of an attack. Against impossible odds, Driant held the Bois des Caures for two days until most of his men were dead. Killed at the end of its defence, Driant became a hero to the French. Today, tucked away in the solitude of a clearing in the woods, the concrete bunker that served as his command post still stands, displaying scars from the crown prince’s heavy guns.

Just behind the Bois des Caures lay Beaumont, one of the nine villages in Meuse completely destroyed during the Battle of Verdun. Today, in springtime, you can still catch occasional glimpses of apple and lilac blossom amid the rampant undergrowth: the only traces of the orchards of this small agricultural community that somehow survived the 1916 bombardment. Like most of the other villages, there remains only a signpost to recall Beaumont’s existence.

***

By 24 February, the fourth day of the battle, the attacking German infantry had reached the approaches to Fort Douaumont. A quarter of a mile across, the fort’s eight-foot-thick concrete carapace could resist even the Germans’ 420mm “Big Bertha” howitzer, the heaviest artillery in the army of any combatant. Douaumont mounted a 155mm gun and twin 75s in retractable steel turrets, as well as numerous smaller guns and machine-guns; in its vaults, it could house a whole battalion of infantry. But unknown to the Germans and the French local commander alike, Douaumont, the world’s most impregnable fort, was, by a series of almost incredible errors in February 1916, virtually undefended.

On 25 February the fort was captured, without a single death, by a handful of Prussian infantrymen led by Eugen Radtke, a 24-year-old lieutenant. Wandering down an unprotected tunnel, Radtke penetrated to the centre of the edifice, capturing an ancient guardian and his skeleton crew. It was one of the most remarkable feats in the whole war. (After many abortive attempts, Douaumont was recaptured in October; its recovery is estimated to have cost the French as many as 100,000 men.)

On the day Douaumont fell, General Philippe Pétain was appointed to take over the threatened Verdun sector, even though he was stricken with pneumonia. He was regarded as an officer who would not waste the lives of his men in vain offensives, unlike most French leaders at that time; yet even he could not resist the strategy that called for unit after unit to be poured into Verdun. In his memoirs, he records the anguish with which he watched from the balcony of the town hall as three-quarters of the French army marched past up the road from Bar-le-Duc – the future “Voie Sacrée” – towards the terrible attrition of Verdun.

Each kilometre of the Voie Sacrée is now marked by a cairn surmounted with the helmet of a poilu, an infantryman.

With Pétain’s arrival, French resistance stiffened and the German attack got bogged down. But still, battalion after battalion had to be thrown into the defence of Verdun. Pétain’s own regiment, the 33rd, was decimated. Among the casualties was a gangly young captain, Charles de Gaulle, wounded, gassed and taken prisoner near Douaumont. De Gaulle was then a fervent admirer of Pétain’s economy with lives. A generation later in the Second World War, as leader of the Free French and of Nazi-occupied Vichy France respectively, they became bitterest enemies.

In March the French began to hit back at the attacking Germans with flanking fire from long-range artillery on the west side of the River Meuse. As in so many battles where the original impetus is lost, the attacking commander now ordered an extension of the front. For the next three months, the fighting swayed back and forth across a small ridge already ominously known as Le Mort-Homme. The aim of “bleeding France white” seemed to become obscured as German losses spiralled, too. It was as if the battle, removed from human control, had assumed a murderous authority all of its own.

All through April and May the killing continued, the French sticking with desperate determination to the toeholds protecting
Verdun. By the end of March, little over a month into the battle, the French had suffered 89,000 casualties; but the Germans, too, had lost 81,607 men. By 1 June the casualty figures had risen to 133,000 and 120,000, respectively. So much for Falkenhayn’s doctrine of bleeding France white. Now, with the honour of das Vaterland so deeply challenged, his strategy shifted to one of capturing Verdun regardless of cost.

At the beginning of June he launched a final, all-out attack on Verdun, the immediate objective being Fort Vaux. The smallest of the forts, Vaux had lost its water supply and had all its guns knocked out by the 420mm “Big Berthas” long before the assault began. But, for seven days, its garrison of 600 men under Major Sylvain Raynal held out in its underground corridors, under attack from gas and flame-throwers, and contributing one of the most heroic episodes of the battle, until thirst forced them to surrender.

On 1 July, in what became known as “the Black Day of the British army”, nearly 20,000 men lost their lives on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a gallant but disastrously conceived offensive to take pressure off Britain’s allies at Verdun. Yet still Prince Wilhelm’s troops battered on. Their last attack, on 12 July, finally narrowed down to about 30 men atop Fort Souville, the last fortification before Verdun, and well within sight of the twin towers of the city’s cathedral. Then, at last, the Germans abandoned their costly offensive.

Verdun was saved; it was the turn of the French to go over to the attack. On 24 October, Fort Douaumont was recaptured. It is estimated that its recovery cost more than 100,000 French lives. By 19 December the Battle of Verdun was over. It had achieved nothing: a few ruined acres of France, with 800,000 casualties across the two sides, over ten months. The longest, and possibly the deadliest, battle in history, it could be judged the unnecessary battle in an unnecessary war.

Yet over the interwar years it justly came to be seen as France’s “finest hour”. Under Pétain’s noria system of rapid relief, three-quarters of the 1914-18 French army passed though l’enfer de Verdun, witnessing its carnage. Veterans’ associations kept alive its memories. But at the same time, because of the losses suffered in the battle, its symbolism also came to play a baneful role in the defeatism that brought France low in 1940. Forts Vaux and Douaumont had displayed remarkable success in standing up to bombardment by the heaviest Krupp guns. This suggested to André Maginot, the old soldier with a limp from a wound in the leg at Verdun who served three times as minister of war between 1922 and 1932, that the only way France could survive another war would be to surround herself with a chain of such forts. Yet the “Maginot Line” coupled a defensive strategy with defeatism – as represented by the octogenarian hero of the battle, Marshal Pétain. As one young officer, Second Lieutenant Raymond Jubert, wrote shortly before he was killed at Verdun:

They will not be able to make us do it again another day; that would be to misconstrue the price of our effort. They will have to resort to those who have not lived out these days . . .

***

What were the lessons of Verdun, if any? In 1940, Hitler’s smart new generals, such as Heinz Guderian, tackled the problem of static warfare with a blitzkrieg technique of fast-moving armoured attack. They went round the side, and back, of Maginot’s costly fortresses, making them capitulate without firing a shot. Verdun fell in a matter of hours, France after a six-week campaign. But Hitler missed the main point, militarily: never make a fetish of any fortress, any stronghold, so that you become committed to hold it however unacceptable the costs.

The capture of Verdun in 1916 would have been unlikely to have caused France to lose the war. Yet in the Second World War, Hitler’s orders to his generals not to surrender an inch of ground, led to repeated disasters – beginning with the sacrifice of Friedrich Paulus’s entire 6th Army at Stalingrad, which eventually brought about the destruction of the Third Reich.

And yet, in the heart of the French army, the myths and the slogans of Verdun, chimeric as they were, persisted well into the 1950s. Brave young paras died at Dien Bien Phu in the First Indochina War with Verdun on their lips.

 

Verdun today

On the handful of hills bordering the city on the sleepy Meuse, just 150 miles from Paris, the big guns on either side exacted hundreds of thousands of French and German casualties over the ten-month duration, so torturing the soil that after the war whole sections of the land defied all attempts to return them to cultivation.

Today Forts Vaux and Douaumont, scenes of some of the bloodiest fighting of the battle, are kept open to the public. Battered and crumbling, they stand like Shelley’s Ozymandias: monuments to the folly, pride and heroism that epitomised what we still call the Great War. Each year, visitors in their thousands still troop through their rugged casemates. One French writer, Jean Dutourd, taken to Verdun as a boy, claimed:

No historical remains I have seen since, however impressive, not even the Coliseum or the Temples of Paestum, moved me so profoundly as the forts of Vaux and Douaumont.

Nearby stands the spooky ossuary housing, heaped in vaults visible to the casual eye, 100,000 unidentified victims of the battle.

In the half-dozen or more times that I’ve been to Verdun since writing The Price of Glory, the grim majesty of the place – and its sadness – have never failed to haunt me. The ghosts refuse to be exorcised. On many trips there I noted that no birds sang, as did others who were with me. Two things repeatedly brought a lump to my throat. One, on the wall of Fort Vaux, is a small ceramic plaque, placed there by an unknown mother: “À mon fils; depuis que tes yeux sont fermés, les miens n’ont cessé de pleurer” (“To my son; your eyes closed, and since then mine have not stopped shedding tears”). At some point, it was destroyed by some heartless vandal. The second is a German military cemetery. In it stand a number of stones bearing not the usual Teutonic cross, but a Star of David: memorials to Jewish soldiers loyal to the kaiser who died for Germany at Verdun. It appals the mind to reflect on the probable fate of the kith and kin of these valiant patriots less than a generation later.

On 22 September 1984 the then German chancellor, Helmut Kohl (whose father fought near Verdun in the First World War), and President François Mitterrand of France (who was taken prisoner by the Germans near Verdun in 1940) stood at Douaumont, holding hands for several minutes in the driving rain. The huge stature of Kohl next to the slender, nimble figure of Mitterrand seemed like a tableau out of Franco-German history; the gesture of reconciliation was a memorable one between two foes who had torn Europe apart three times in a century.

Since then, the killing fields of Verdun have become a healing place for Europe’s self-inflicted wounds of the past. To symbolise this, the small memorial chapel formerly known as Saint-Nicolas de Fleury, erected on
the fragments of the old church in one of the battlefield’s lost villages, has been renamed “Notre-Dame de l’Europe”. Even the song
of birds can be heard once more.

Alistair Horne’s “The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916” was first published in 1962. The following year, it was awarded the Hawthornden Prize – the first time that a work of non-fiction had been selected for it. The book remains in print, published in paperback by Penguin


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