The Battlefield of Verdun, as shown in The Sphere, 4 March 1916. The line indicating the Douaumont, right, under heavy French bombardment following its seizure on 25 February. The German advance shows Driant’s Bois des Caures, left, well inside captured territory and Fort picture also gives some idea of the difference in terrain between the right and left banks of the Meuse.
Raymond Abescat took part in the offensive against Douaumont and was lucky to come out of it alive. Eighty years after, as one of the last of the Verdun veterans, he recorded his memories of 24 October 1916 and they were as vivid as if they had happened the day before. He recalled ‘a particularly disturbing moment’ quite unrelated to the military achievement of that day:
There were a few of us in some shell holes. About four in each crater. In one of these hollows there were only three men, whereas the one that I was in held five along with the sergeant. As it was a bit of a squeeze the sergeant said to me: ‘Look, get in with the other three!’ I was about to do so when a comrade volunteered and went there in my place. A moment went by. Suddenly, a German plane flew over us… ‘A bad sign, that!’ And in fact, a few minutes later a whole artillery discharge rained down on our heads and a shell landed right in the hole where I ought to have been. Of the four who were there three were killed and the fourth – the one who had taken my place – was buried under the earth. We got him out gravely wounded. Because of that I have always felt that survival depends on factors that are completely arbitrary.
He was in action again on 16 November:
On that occasion I got a piece of shrapnel in my ankle. It was between nine and ten in the morning and there was no question of moving a muscle because everything that did move was shot down! I had to wait till night-time to get myself as best I could to the first-aid post. My war ended there. The time that had elapsed between being wounded and getting medical care had brought on the beginning of gangrene. I almost had to have my leg amputated. When I got over it, I wasn’t sorry to have left that hell behind me without meeting a tragic end…
Abescat’s reference to the fighting of 16 November shows that the battle did not end with the reclaiming of Douaumont. Nivelle and Mangin were eager to inflict more defeats on the now discomfited Germans. Fort Vaux was added to the tally of success on 2 November, the Germans having abandoned it as being not worth defending; to the French this low-cost seizure helped to cancel out the easy taking of Douaumont that had rankled ever since February. But a more positive flourish was required before the fighting could be closed down. It came in mid-December with a three-day battle on a six-mile front, in which Mangin’s troops advanced two miles beyond Douaumont and took 115 guns, a mass of machine guns and mortars, and 11,000 prisoners. Though only a right-bank offensive it was seen as an unambiguous triumph, and was acknowledged as such by the German Crown Prince. He wrote in his memoirs:
At dawn on December 15th our artillery positions and all the ravines north of the line Louvemont-Hill 378-Bezonvaux redoubt were heavily bombarded with gas shells. The French infantry advanced shortly before 11 a.m., after two hours’ drum-fire on the whole front from Vacherauville to Vaux. On our side the co-operation between infantry and artillery again left much to be desired, and our barrage came down too late.
In the centre of our front in Chauffour and north of Douaumont part of the 10th Division and General von Versen’s 14th held their positions with great stubbornness till late in the evening. In the sectors to the right and left of them, however, the enemy broke through on a wide front. On our right wing Vacherauville, part of Poivre Hill, Louvemont and Hill 378, and on our left the whole Hardaumont and Bezonvaux redoubt ridge were lost. During the latter part of the day the enemy extended his large initial gains, and enveloped the positions still held by our troops in the centre from either flank and in rear. Fighting went on till late in the evening, but all our struggles were in vain… This second defeat before Verdun was marked by a disproportionately high total of prisoners lost, exceeding even those taken on October 24th. The enemy’s communiqué claimed 11,000 prisoners, mostly unwounded, from all five of our divisions engaged…
The spirit of our troops had declined to a marked degree… to a considerable extent their morale and power of resistance was unequal to the demands placed on them by their onerous task…
The mighty drive of the battles for Verdun in 1916 was now at an end! To the bold confident onslaught of the first February days had succeeded weeks and months of fierce, costly and slow advance; then the gradual diminution of our forces had led to the cessation of the offensive, and finally two regrettable setbacks had wrested back from us much of the blood-soaked ground we had so dearly won. Small wonder if this ill-starred end to our efforts wrung the hearts of the responsible commanders.
I knew now for the first time what it was to lose a battle. Doubt as to my own competence, self-commiseration, bitter feelings, unjust censures passed in quick succession through my mind and lay like a heavy burden on my soul, and I am not ashamed to confess that it was some time before I recovered my mental balance and my firm confidence in ultimate victory.
That confidence too, it is scarcely necessary to add, would also end in disillusion.
This final stage of the campaign, spectacularly conducted under new management, was bound to cause casualties in the structure of the French high command. Nivelle and Mangin were so much in the ascendant that they had to be rewarded. Pétain slipped back somewhat into the shadows, to return in a vital role some months later, but the more significant victim was Joffre. On 13 December, two days before the final attack began, he was appointed technical adviser to the government and deprived of direct powers of command. On the 15th Nivelle was summoned to G.Q.G. to take over the post of Commander-in-Chief. On the 26th Joffre effectively fell on his sword by resigning. Some honour was retrieved when he was made Marshal of France on the following day, but the die was cast and he began his journey into an obscurity from which he would never emerge. An embarrassing scene took place at Chantilly in which Joffre, appealing for loyalty among the staff who had worked under him since August 1914, found only one officer prepared to stay with him as he relinquished his command; the fact that he had ‘limogé’ numerous generals in his time did not make his own removal seem the less pathetic. He would still have duties to perform but they would be ceremonial only, such as heading a French military mission to the United States in 1917 or serving as figurehead president of the Supreme War Council in 1918.
Meanwhile Mangin celebrated the new regime with an Order of the Day that trumpeted greater glory to come: ‘We know the method and we have the Chief. Success is certain.’ Future events – though not this time at Verdun – would show that his claim was as empty as Nivelle’s ‘We have the formula’ assertion on the steps at Souilly all those months before. But for the moment Nivelle was the hero of the hour, and Verdun was his triumph. And if nothing else the long struggle was over.
What kind of a battle was it that had thus come to an end after 298 days? Where in its almost ten grim months had Verdun taken the concept of modern war?
The Germans seized the opportunity of a major campaign to try out certain technical innovations. Von Knobelsdorf’s use of phosgene in his June offensive added another name to the burgeoning list of noxious gases; curiously, or perhaps not in view of the way the secretive Falkenhayn was running the campaign, the Kaiser only heard about it from the newspapers. Flamethrowers, initially tested in the region in 1915, were also employed on a major scale here for the first time. In July the flamethrower units were given the insignia of the death’s head; this would later become the insignia of the Waffen SS. Steel helmets were first used en masse at Verdun; the British equivalent came into use roughly at about the same time. Additionally German Sturmtruppen – ‘Stormtroopers’, trained to break through at speed leaving other units to ‘mop up’ behind them – had their first trial runs at Verdun: they would wreak much havoc in the great German attacks of 1918.
Artillery dominated the battle, and was by far the greatest killer. It was used on a massive scale. In White Heat, specifically devoted to ‘the new warfare 1914–18’, John Terraine wrote about Verdun: ‘The statistics of the artillery war… are staggering. For their initial attack the Germans brought up 2,500,000 shells, using for the purpose some 1,300 trains. By June the artillery on both sides had grown to about 2,000 guns, and it was calculated that in just over four months of battle 24 million shells had been pumped into this stretch of dedicated ground.’ But artillery on both sides was often massively inefficient and wasteful. Heavy guns were not always the super-weapons they were thought to be; some had to be re-bored after firing 50 to 100 rounds; moving them meant rendering them ineffective for many hours at a time. There were innumerable instances on both sides of casualties by ‘friendly fire’; thus the infantry could find themselves hating their own apparently careless or uncaring gunners more than the enemy. Communications were primitive and vulnerable; telephone wires were constantly being cut by shell fire; runners with vital messages often took hours to get through or never got through at all. Any assumption that one might have of cool Teutonic precision or brilliant Gallic inspiration and dash should be put to one side. This was for much of its time a monster of a battle in which gallantry had little meaning and glory was only in the eye of the distant beholder.
The cost in human terms was enormous. Estimates vary but one much quoted is that total French casualties, dead, wounded, missing, or taken prisoner, were around 377,000 while the Germans lost about 337,000, a very high proportion of these figures being fatalites.
The concept and conduct of the battle attracts few approving nods from military historians. Summing up the campaign Peter Simkins has written:
The French Army had come through major crises in February and June and had saved Verdun, but nobody had gained any strategic advantage from the bloodletting, certainly not the Germans. Falkenhayn’s fatal irresolution and failure to match the means to the end had merely resulted in the German Army being bled white along with the French. Neither side ever fully recovered from the hell of Verdun before the end of the war.
Adding together the casualty figures as given above, and noting some of the collateral consequences of the battle, Richard Holmes has commented:
700,000 and for 1916 alone: rather more than half the casualties suffered by Britain and her Empire in the Second World War. Nine villages, which had stood on those uplands for a thousand years, were destroyed and never rebuilt. Woods and fields were so polluted by metal, high explosive and bodies that they were beyond cultivation. Declared zones rouges, red zones, they were cloaked in conifers and left to the recuperative powers of nature.
A distinguished scholar of the German Army in the twentieth century, Michael Geyer, has written:
More than any other battle, Verdun showed the military impasse of World War I, the complete disjuncture between strategy, battle design and tactics, and the inability to use the modern means of war. But most of all, it showed, at horrendous costs, the impasse of professional strategies.
Alistair Horne has been honourably referred to, and frequently quoted, in these pages, so that it is perhaps superfluous to include him in this brief gathering of opinions. But there is one passage towards the end of his book which sums up so much so pertinently that it virtually demands its place, if offered here in slightly abbreviated form:
Who ‘won’ the Battle of Verdun? Few campaigns have had more written about them (not a little of it bombastic nonsense) and accounts vary widely. The volumes of the Reich Archives dealing with it are appropriately entitled ‘The Tragedy of Verdun’, while to a whole generation of French writers it represented the summit of ‘La Gloire’…
[I]t suffices to say that it was a desperate tragedy for both nations.
Among the century’s great battles, Verdun has been bracketed with Stalingrad (no more tellingly so than by Hitler.) However, Antony Beevor, in his book Stalingrad, gives that battle the palm, stating: ‘In its way, the fighting in Stalingrad was even more terrifying than the impersonal slaughter at Verdun. The close-quarter combat in ruined buildings, bunkers, cellars and sewers was soon dubbed “Rattenkrieg” by German soldiers. It possessed a savage intimacy which appalled the generals, who felt that they were rapidly losing control over events.’ (One might add that, in common with the whole Russo–German war of 1941–45, Stalingrad was conducted with a racial-cum-ideological viciousness which would have appalled both sides at Verdun.) But if there was no ‘savage intimacy’, there was at Verdun a kind of terrifying loneliness. As the French historian Marc Ferro has written, ‘Each unit was on its own, often bombarded by its own guns, and told only to “hold on”… The only certainty was death – for one, or other, or all.’ It could be said that this was not so much a battle between victors and vanquished – such terms rapidly lost all meaning in so attritional an encounter – as between victims.