(French soldiers moving into attack from their trench during the Verdun battle, 1916, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
The Great War
In February, 1916, the world was in utter turmoil. A Great War had erupted after Serbian-backed assassins shot to death Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife (and their unborn child) while they drove in their car around Bosnia. In response to the assassination, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, and the two belligerent nations pulled in their broad nets of alliances. Soon major countries from all over the world were called into what would be later named World War I.
At the onset of the war, Germany had pressed quickly through Belgium into France, but became bogged down well shy of Paris, and the war gridlocked into WWI’s iconic trench warfare. In early 1916, however, General Erich von Falkenhayn of Germany believed he knew a way to crush France and weaken Britain’s will to fight—by seizing the French defensive position at Verdun.
On February 21, 1916, German forces barraged the French line at Verdun with an artillery bombardment. In a period of twelve hours, around 1,400 guns fired around 1.2 million shells (100,000 per hour) at the region of Verdun. After the shelling, the Germans advanced against the French positions on the east side of the Meuse River. Overall, this first offensive at Verdun gained little ground against France’s return fire—in two days they only advanced around three miles.
Nevertheless, the Germans were about to have a breakthrough. The advancing German troops were nearing Fort Douaumont, a major fortification near the front line, and possibly France’s most important fort at Verdun. The French commanders defending Verdun were confident that the powerful garrison guarding Douaumont would be able to defend the position, so the commanders focused their attention elsewhere. These commanders, however, made a crucial mistake—there was no great garrison holding Fort Douaumont. In actuality, only a scattering of French soldiers defended the fort.
Fort Douaumont was an impressive sight. The fortress was built mainly during the late 19th century, but construction continued until 1913. The 1,200 foot tall (around 366 meters) Fort Douaumont was built sturdy—its walls were reinforced with two layers of meter-thick concrete and its ceiling was protected with around six meters of material. In addition to the intrinsic defenses of the fort, Douaumont also reportedly had a moat about six meters deep and a jungle of barbed wire around its perimeter around thirty meters wide.
Douaumont was designed to comfortably garrison around 635 soldiers, but many more could be crammed into the fortress. The complex had its own water tank, kitchen, dormitories, and latrines. It even had wiring, presumably for messaging or sounding alarm. Nevertheless, by 1916, Fort Douaumont had been neglected by the French military.
When the German advance reached Fort Douaumont, only 57 French soldiers were manning the fortress that was constructed to house over six hundred men. In addition to the tiny garrison, the fort had also been stripped of nearly all of its heavy firepower. When the Germans attacked, the French garrison had too few men to defend all the entrances to the large fort and too little firepower to repel an assault.
The almost effortless fall of Fort Douaumont was a miracle for Germany. On February 25, 1916, the German 24th Brandenburg Infantry Regiment managed to sneak into the fort without any of the few French soldiers inside realizing what had happened. The German soldiers were able to surprise the garrison of Fort Douaumont, then capture and disarm them without firing a single shot. Without a fight, without discharging any firearms and without causing any bloodshed, a small squad of German soldiers was able to capture the most important French fort at Verdun. Ironically, the bloodless capture of Fort Douaumont would only prolong the Battle of Verdun, which would cause hundreds of thousands of casualties.
After losing several miles of ground—including defensive positions like Fort Douaumont—the French forces at Verdun needed some new brainpower. General Henri-Philippe Pétain (future Vichy France Chief of State) arrived at the scene to ensure that the French lines would hold under Germany’s ferocious attack. He made sure his forts were well garrisoned and he maintained and improved the infrastructure between Verdun’s defensive positions. Pétain also reorganized his forces, making sure all of Verdun’s corps had artillery support and employed a new strategy that called for the French defenses to be less rigid and more adaptable to German pressure.
With General Pétain’s measures in place, the German advance began to stall by the end of February. Germany responded by attacking the Verdun defenses to the west of the Meuse River. As with the earlier attack, Germany made progress, but it was frustratingly slow. By the end of March, the German attack had only resulted in two miles of gained ground.
As patience evaporated and restlessness grew unbearable, the Germans launched another attack on Verdun on April 9, 1916. This time they applied pressure from both the east and the west that lasted for around two months, with little result. By August, the Germans had, once again, returned the main force of their attack to the side of Verdun that was east of the Meuse River. Yet, the German and French forces remained locked in a stalemate.
Around this time, Germany made a change in leadership. Paul von Hindenburg usurped power in Verdun from General Erich von Falkenhayn. Even though Falkenhayn had spent months attempting to wrest Verdun from the French, Hindenburg immediately de-escalated Germany’s attack in that region.
The French Fight
Once the German advance broke off, the French launched into a counter-attack with an offensive of their own. They pressed against the German lines that had enclosed on Verdun with a combination of artillery and infantry. Eventually, France regained much of its lost ground, and reestablished the equilibrium between the sides. By the time the Battle of Verdun was officially over, French and German casualties may have reached higher than 700,000 people. Of these casualties, the French suffered 377,231, with 162,308 either killed or missing in action.
Fort Douaumont fell back into the hands of the French on October 24, 1916. The Germans had utilized the fortress much more than the French had—around 3,000 German soldiers may have been garrisoned inside the fort at one point. In another incident, over 800 German soldiers died when an explosion, thought to have been caused by flamethrower fuel, occurred in Fort Douaumont.
In Germany, some called the bloody Battle of Verdun a ‘sausage grinder,’ where opposing armies ground each other’s soldiers into sludge with bullets and bombs. In a similar fashion, the French called the battle a ‘furnace.’ Both are apt names for a battle that caused hundreds of thousands of casualties over a couple miles of land.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Warfare in the Western World: Military Operations Since 1871 (Volume II) by Robert A. Doughty and Ira D. Gruber et al. Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1996.