Ninety-seven years ago today, on 25 February, 1916, a company-sized patrol of the 24th Brandenbergers of the German 6th Infantry Division captured Fort Douaumont, the strongest of the Verdun forts. Fort Douaumont sat atop the dominant high ground in the sector of the Western Front that German Chief of Staff Falkenhayn had chosen for an offensive which he rightly anticipated the French to respond to aggressively. Just four days into the German offensive, the most important objective had been secured. The French would endure an especially ghastly kind of hell in retaking it.
Verdun carried great national significance for the French, being the last of the fortifications to hold out in 1871, and had been reinforced throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But with the destruction of the Belgian forts in 1914 by the German 42cm super-heavy gun-mortars, it was estimated by the French High Command that the Verdun forts were vulnerable to such bombardment. The decision was made to strip these fortifications of most of their defensive cannon and a large number of machine guns, which were distributed in support of the French sectors elsewhere on the Western Front.
So when the Verdun offensive began on 21 February 1916, the fortifications there were skeletons of their true capabilities, and the initial German push by Kronprinz Wilhelm’s Fifth Army captured some 25 square miles, including Fort Douaumont, in the initial four days.
Falkenhayn knew the French would fight for Verdun, and justified his offensive in these terms:
“Our precise problem is how to inflict heavy damage on the enemy at critical points at relatively small cost to ourselves. But we must not overlook the fact that previous experience of mass attacks in this war offers little inducement to imitate them.”
He would induce the French Army into the killing fields, and “bleed them white”.
The study of the First World War, especially examination of the Western Front, is for me a most difficult task. The quest to understand what the Great War did physically and emotionally to Western civilization has been a lifelong one. As a student of military history (which I do fancy myself), the conduct of the war on the Western Front by the respective high commands fills me with a seething anger and revulsion.
Especially at Verdun, one of the two great bloodbaths of that most terrible year of 1916 (the other being Picardy and the Somme madness under Haig), those whose duty it was to provide a tactical and operational purpose to the expenditure of lives abjectly failed to do so. Falkenhayn, with his ill-considered plan whose cost was supposed to be “relatively small”, and the criminal stupidity of Joffre, and Nivelle, who replaced the much more sensible Petain, and the arrogant and stubborn Mangin (nicknamed “the Butcher” by his men), all played their respective and reprehensible parts in the appalling losses at Verdun.
Douaumont was not recaptured again until October, and the line not restored entirely until December 1916, by which time Falkenhayn had been replaced by Hindenburg, and Joffre by Robert Nivelle. The latter was an exceedingly unfortunate choice. The French High Command’s indifference to the terrible conditions and calamitous casualties at Verdun was a direct cause of the mutinies in the French Armies in May of 1917, when Nivelle’s disastrous offensives (enthusiastically supported by Mangin) spent the remainder of the flower of French youth against the teeth of German defenses.
When the fighting in the Verdun sector petered out in late 1916, more than 300,000 French Poilus lay dead, and an equal number had been wounded. German casualties totaled almost 450,000, of which almost 200,000 had been killed. More than a million men, including half a million dead, for 75 square miles of shell-pocked wasteland, an area not much larger than the City of Boston. The effects of the slaughter on the psyche of Western Democracies is still being felt.
I have visited a small number of Great War battlefields, Vimy Ridge and the trench lines in Flanders. Unlike the battlefields of the American Civil War, or World War II, there is little of the palpable feeling of reverence for the skill and heroism which accompanied the feats of arms there. Rather, the overwhelming emotion is one of oppressive sadness and melancholy, much more similar to that which seems to permeate Dachau. Though I have not been to Verdun, I strongly suspect that the young men on both sides whose lives were thrown away there would make it so, as well. The profligate effusion of blood, especially on the part of the Allies, and the French at Verdun, is a crime for which the sentence is still being served.