The Sacred Way, Verdun
At the turn of the New Year 1916, Germany’s overall military position could have been far worse. Its armies stood deep in Russia and the Balkans. Allied initiatives in the Middle East had to date achieved only marginal success. The Italian theater seemed permanently stabilized. Austria-Hungary was wobbling but no longer staggering. The Ottoman Empire was doing well enough with German infusions at command and staff levels supplemented by minor direct military assistance. Domestically, Germany’s morale and economy alike, though unexpectedly highly stressed, showed no serious signs of erosion, much less exhaustion. The navy was still a fleet in being, if it had not yet achieved successes commensurate with its cost. Above all the Second Reich’s trump card, the army, had shown itself the Great War’s most comprehensively effective fighting force—even if in part by default. Strategic planning was not its forte. Its high command’s record was at best questionable. But the same could be said for its opponents. And in the crucial categories of administration, operational art and tactics, above all fighting spirit, the German Army stood at the head of the list. At Neuville when the final order to evacuate the town resulted in a near panic, it was a Sanitätsgefreiter, a Landsturm medic officially well over-age for the front line, armed with nothing deadlier than bandages and iodine, who restored calm in his hard-hammered company. Every engagement, large or small, seemed to produce similar examples among junior officers, NCOs, and rear-rank privates.
All these positives nevertheless added up to a negative. Germany was, after eighteen months, without any reasonable doubt fighting a war of attrition, the kind of war history, theory, and statistics alike indicated the Reich ultimately could not win. In early January 1916, Falkenhayn summarized his position to Bethmann: Germany’s political and economic circumstances made it “extremely desirable” to end the war before the end of the year.
In a more immediate, practical context, from Falkenhayn’s perspective the military and political capital of Hindenburg and Ludendorff had never been higher. In particular Hindenburg, the duo’s front man, was a household name. His short-cropped hair and prominent stomach suggested a man “in the best years,” undiminished by the inroads of time, epitomizing the older generation’s virtues and virility. There was talk in high circles of having Kaiser William deposed and hospitalized, with the Crown Prince becoming regent and Hindenburg as imperial administrator (Reichsverweser). No one doubted who would exercise the real power in that structure.
Falkenhayn was an easy man to dislike. His manners and his grooming were alike impeccable, inviting characterization as a soft-shoed carpet-knight. His manner in public and private was courteous, ironic, casual—and inscrutable. By comparison with Hindenburg and Ludendorff, Falkenhayn could readily appear a self-centered, desk-and-papers general ill-placed in charge of a real war. Instead he emerged in 1916 as Schlieffen’s spiritual successor, with a plan that was no less a gambler’s gambit: a plan he saw as a chance to decide the war and dish his opponents at the same time. It involved a shift of emphasis to the West, albeit not in quest of a decisive victory in the traditional model. Germany lacked the resources to overthrow both Britain and France. Instead Falkenhayn proposed to win the war by inverting its attritional character, increasing the military pressure on the Allies to unbearable, or at least unacceptable, limits and thereby impelling negotiations in the style of Bismarck.
The consistent failure of the French offensives in 1915 had convinced not only Falkenhayn, but many of his close General Staff associates, that the Third Republic was near the end of its resources. In particular, French soldiers were morally and militarily inferior to their German opponents. On the other hand, German experience indicated that even significantly weaker forces occupying typical Western Front positions could hold off and see off the mass attacks that were the norm in 1914/15. The risk of seeking to invert attrition was to reverse the past year’s circumstances: bleeding Germany while storming French defenses.
It was a Hegelian conundrum: offense-defense, thesis-antithesis. Falkenhayn saw the synthesis as involving a shift from tactics to psychology: breaking the French will by overloading and short-circuiting the French psyche. Demonstrate that France’s military situation was hopeless, and its labile national character would collapse. Britannia’s best sword would be struck from her hand, and—with a little help from the U-boats—Germany’s real archenemy would be ready to conclude peace as well.
The next question, the critical one from Falkenhayn’s perspective, was how best to force France’s breakdown? His answer was to weaken the French army by compelling, or impelling, it to repeat the behavior of 1915 and take high casualties attacking German positions. A large-scale breakthrough attempt was likely—indeed almost certain given Germany’s continued overall inferiority in men and guns—to suffer the same fate as the Allied efforts of 1915: an initial break-in that turned, in Falkenhayn’s words, to a mass grave. The chief of staff initially considered mounting a series of small operations sufficiently threatening or embarrassing to generate immediate French responses. No combination seemed likely to be appropriately provocative, and Falkenhayn increasingly turned to a single initiative centered on Verdun. Since Roman times it had been a fortress covering the Meuse Valley. Logistically, the area was well served from the German side by rail lines. Operationally, Verdun was the focus of a French salient so narrow that it could readily be turned to a killing ground by German heavy artillery. Strategically it was difficult to reinforce, being connected to the rest of France by one road and a single railroad line. In a policy context, Verdun was sufficiently important militarily and psychologically—at least from a German perspective—that the French would have to make every effort to retain it. Verdun, moreover, lay in the sector of the army commanded by Crown Prince William. Placing him in command of the attack would reinforce Falkenhayn’s position with the heir and his father, who though by now a figurehead still occupied the Imperial throne.
A traditional recipe for rabbit stew begins with the instruction “catch one large, plump rabbit.” Falkenhayn’s intention was to commit initially only ten divisions to the attack—a modest force by Western Front standards. The real work was to be done by a mass of heavy artillery, assembled with the greatest possible secrecy and unleashed with the largest possible surprise. The infantry would advance to the high ground on the east bank of the Meuse, within easy artillery range of Verdun, but short of the city itself. Falkenhayn proposed to force the French into an inescapable dilemma. They might abandon Verdun when casualties inflicted by the German guns became unsupportable and hand the Germans a major prestige victory. They might seek to relieve pressure on Verdun by attacking on other sectors, inviting a repetition of the blindfolded butcheries of 1915. Or they might seek to retake the high ground around Verdun under the heaviest barrages of the entire war, with their own artillery unable to deploy effectively in the salient. The élan of the French soldiers would become the means of their destruction—this time not by desperate close-quarters fighting with rifles, grenades, and machine guns, but under German artillery at long range.
Falkenhayn expected the third alternative with anticipation that at times seemed more than professional. His constant references during the operation to “bleeding them white,” “bleeding them to death” and “blood spurting” disturbed even Crown Prince William, never exactly remarkable for sensitivity on any subject. Perhaps the chief of staff sought to convince himself. No one at general headquarters remembered much of this kind of talk during the planning stages. Did it matter to Falkenhayn exactly what happened at Verdun, as long as the Allies were weakened? Support for that hypothesis can be drawn from his reaction to Fifth Army Headquarters’ proposal for the attack. This expanded Falkenhayn’s initial plan, first by following up the attack on the east bank with one on the west and then by setting the objective as taking either Verdun itself or the heights directly dominating it. Knobelsdorf, the Crown Prince, and their senior subordinates understood well enough Falkenhayn’s intention of wearing down the French without concurring in the details. The Fifth Army, however, regarded reducing the salient and neutralizing the fortress as primary objectives whose achievement would best secure an eventual decision.
Falkenhayn expressed reservations, but in the end not only accepted the revision but agreed to provide two more corps for the attack—at a time of his choosing. Perhaps he was more concerned with possibilities and eventualities than specifics. Thus Verdun’s capture would be acceptable, perhaps even welcome, if it contributed to weakening the Allies, whether in futile direct counterattacks or equally futile offensives elsewhere, to be followed by Germany’s resumption of a war of movement: a series of initiatives to break what remained of the Allied armies—assuming France did not, as expected, sue for peace earlier.
Strategically, Falkenhayn’s conception was a departure from both the massive frontal breakthroughs that had proved so expensively futile for the Allies in 1915, and the battles of envelopment on the Schlieffen model that had been no more decisive for Moltke in the west and Ludendorff in the east. Nor did he overlook that if the Crown Prince were hailed as the victor of Verdun, it meant a transfusion for a monarchy also suffering from “bleeding,” and corresponding reinforcement of Falkenhayn’s position.
The chief of staff was confident that he had created a no-lose situation that would impel the Allies, whatever they did, to assume the role of an obliging enemy: behaving as though their orders were being written by the German High Command. His code name for the operation was Gericht. Like a good few German words, Gericht has variant connotations. It means “law court.” It means “judgment”, as in Last Judgment. And it is the root for “execution ground.”