What was the First World War’s defining event? It’s a tricky question, and it invites a variety of answers in almost every country involved.
For relatively small countries embroiled in the conflict, along with colonies drawn in by imperial ties and the newly independent nations born from the ruins of wartime empires, the answer might be one of the great battles or might be a matter of strictly national perspective. In Serbia, for instance, the Great Retreat of late 1915 stands as an emblem for national survival, while Australians and New Zealanders look to Gallipoli as the birthplace of modern national identity.
For most of the great empires at war, an answer is even more difficult to pin down. For most inhabitants of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires, the War was probably defined by the collapse that ended it rather than any event within it, and you can argue that entering the War was its defining moment for the United States.
That leaves Britain and France, the two great European empires that survived the struggle from start to finish and might be said to enjoy an uninterrupted historical view. If you’re British, eyes permanently fixed on the nearest and most costly theatre, the Western Front, the Somme or Ypres is probably the name that defines the War in all its ghastliness, but it’s still a matter of opinion and the title’s still up for grabs. If you’re French, there’s no argument. For France, the event that defines the First World War was the German attack on Verdun, and it began a hundred years ago today.
I shouldn’t have to give you the basic facts about this particular centenary, but the British heritage industry isn’t paying much attention to Verdun, partly because the First World War went off the radar and is back to being subsumed by the Second, partly because the British weren’t involved. So at the risk of boring anyone well informed or French, here’s the deal.
The battle for Verdun was fought from 21 February until 18 December 1916. It was the longest battle of the War and the most costly in terms of casualties. Verdun was a fortified garrison town on the River Meuse, some 200km east of Paris, surrounded by rings of forts and considered the strongest defensive position in France. An important strategic point for French defence during the Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s and the war against Prussia in 1870, the Verdun fortress network was seen by French strategists, politicians and public as the key – or at least the symbolic key – to national security against threats from the east.
Since 1914 the fortified area around Verdun had jutted into German lines as a bulge, or salient, and was an obvious target for a limited German offensive. Despite a growing consensus among French field commanders that defending fortresses was an anachronistic waste of resources, it was considered vital to popular morale by military and political leaders constantly afraid that a traditionally turbulent public would succumb to pacifism or rebellion. So why did the German high command pick on such a tough nut as the target for its big spring offensive on the Western Front?
German Chief of the General Staff Falkenhayn had spent 1915 fighting his corner against the noisy ambitions of Eastern Front commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff, merely able to hold positions in France and Belgium while resources flowed east. By the end of the year, with Eastern Front operations on hold and the distraction of Serbia out of the way, he was ready to concentrate on the West. Compared to Moltke and Hindenburg, his predecessor and successor in overall command, Falkenhayn often gets a fairly easy ride from posterity, but that doesn’t make him lovable, and the calculation behind his decision to attack Verdun is a fairly breathtaking example of cold pragmatism.
Reasoning that nothing he could do would knock either Great Britain or Russia out of the War, Falkenhayn identified France as only enemy Germany could beat in 1916. Experience had taught him that simply breaking through the trench lines, an approach attempted by everyone everywhere since late 1914, was an unlikely route to victory, so he chose to try grinding France to defeat by attacking where they would feel compelled to defend to the death. The offensive’s stated intention was to ‘bleed the French Army white’ by inflicting as many casualties as possible over a sustained period. I know that looks like a very bad idea, and it was, but in the context of early 1916 it was also a reflection of the desperation felt by commanders everywhere to do something, anything to bring an end to the stalemate – and at least Falkenhayn’s timing was good.
A massive build-up of German artillery and ammunition in the Verdun sector had begun in the New Year, at a time when the French Army was in the process of dismantling and reorganising the fortress defences. Field commanders of the French Second Army, drawn up in trenches some 5km in front of the outer fortresses, could hardly fail to notice that trouble was coming and sent repeated warning to the high command, but French c-in-c Joffre was busy planning his own offensive around the Somme and paid only belated attention. In late January a few French reinforcements did reached Verdun, along with some of the artillery stripped from the fortresses for front line use, but by late February, when a million troops of the German Fifth Army were ready to attack, only 200,000 men were defending the sector.
After a 21-hour preliminary bombardment had dropped more than a million tons of shells onto the area around Verdun’s eastern and northern forts, German troops advanced along a 12km front late on the afternoon of 21 February. They met more resistance than expected from surviving defenders, but had driven them back to their second line of trenches by the next day. On 24 February, the French Fifth Army withdrew to a third line of trenches, 8km from Verdun itself, and this exposed the prestigious but barely garrisoned fortress of Douaumont.
By that time French reinforcements were being rushed to the battle, but they were too late to prevent German capture of Douaumont on 25 February – and that triggered exactly the reaction Falkenhayn had been hoping for, in spades. French national outrage exploded into fervent popular determination to hold Verdun at all costs, to an extent that surprised even Falkenhayn, and from that moment any French withdrawal became a political and moral impossibility for the Briande government. So far so good for Falkenhayn, but not for long.
On 24 February command of the Verdun defence had been given to General Pétain. An experienced field commander who had long argued against fortress defence, Pétain responded to Joffre’s order forbidding any kind of withdrawal by rushing every artillery piece to the front from reserve areas and concentrating all his guns on the attacking German infantry. This brought the German advance to a halt by 28 February, when mutual ammunition shortage forced a lull in the fighting for a week. Having saved an apparently hopeless situation, Pétain used the breathing space to complete a thorough reorganisation of his lines , enabling rapid reinforcement and constant supply of French forces for a long battle.
Here’s a map of the battlefield, dull and stolen but efficient and self-explanatory, by way of adding some scale and context to what solidified into one of humanity’s great horror stories.
For now the pattern was set. Pétain had been established as a French military hero for the next 24 years or so, and Falkenhayn’s big plan was working as advertised – but as attrition set in at Verdun the big question begged by the offensive was yet to be answered. Could the French Army be bled into submission?
Nine months later, the answer would be no, delivered at a cost of about 434,000 German and 550,000 French casualties, half of them killed. The German Army had gained a few kilometres of ground, a few villages had been obliterated, most survivors had been scarred for life by the experience and the French nation scarred for all time.
Those are just the bare bones, and I’ll try to add flesh to the horror story during the next few months. Beyond simple information the only real purpose of this post is to make the point that, as usual during the Great War, a really terrible idea destined to go horribly wrong had its root, not in the mental deficiencies of its creators, but in the impossible dilemma of needing total victory in a world designed for anything but.