The western front on February 1916

On August 2 1914, France enacts the general mobilization. On August 3 the German empire declares war to France, followed-up by the Austro-Hungarian empire. While French organize their armies of conscription, Germans with their professional units, invade Belgium yet neutral country and push some offensive reconnaissances on the French territory.

On August 7, Joffre the French commander in chief orders the march to the Rhine in order to reconquer Alsace and Lorraine territories, lost at the end of the Franco-Prussian war. This revenge so much waited since the defeat of 1870 doesn't have the expected success and only a small part of Alsace is freed. Then, according to its doctrine of excessive attack, elaborated before the war, the French high-command launches a general offensive on the whole front line. In Alsace area, in Lorraine, in Belgium, the best professional troops attack the German lines without any artillery support, to the sound of the bugle like on a parade ground. The entrenched Germans well equiped with machine guns face the assault and make a hecatomb in the adversary ranks. Their long range guns decimate the French reinforcements even before they arrive on the front line. After a few days, many French infantry divisions are reduced to some handfuls of men.

Weakened by these deadly attacks, the French army can't prevent the inexorable adversery advance and on August 25 Joffre orders the retreat. Then, four German armies penetrate in France and progress westward. These armies pass Verdun's salient without investing it and on September 2, their vanguards are at Paris doors. But suddenly, the attack axis of German army initially toward Paris, bends toward the southeast in order to tempt to surround the French divisions positioned on the Marne river to the east of the capital. This sudden maneuver exposes the invasion army right flank to the French divisions parked in Paris that benefitting this tactical mistake attacks on September 6 and drive in the right flank of the German army. In a patriotic burst, the other French armies, exhausted by more than two weeks of retreat and uninterrupted fights, also counter-attack. After six days of fights, French win the battle of Marne and pursuit Germans retreating troops until the Aisne river where these arrive to recover. Then the two adversaries try to carry away the decision in the north, this reciprocal overflow attempt called " race to the sea " whose strategic stakes are Calais, Boulogne then and Dunkerque doesn't clear.

By the end of November 1914, the front stabilizes itself. On a front line of more than four hundred miles long that spreads from the North Sea to the Swiss border, belligerents entrenches themselves. It's the beginning of a position war that will last more than three long years. Germans bring a particular care to organize their defensive positions. Their trenches are deep, sometimes made with concrete and staked out of machine guns. Vast barbed wire networks protect the surroundings. In case of bombardment, troops can get under cover in stollen, which are correctly supported deep shelters. It is quite different on the French side. Indeed the French high-command appraises that it is useless to organize positions because the movement war stop is only temporary. According to his forecast, offensives will take since the spring and will quickly break through the German lines. Besides for French generals, the fact to shelter oneself in entrenchments is similar to abandon all offensive spirit.

The year 1915 is very distressing for the French soldier. Badly equipped, hardly protected in positions built to the hurry, he is to the mercy of new enemy trench artillery which appared on the front at the beginning of the year. The Minenwerfer and their torpedoes with devastating effects quickly win a sad celebrity with the shaggy (name given in France to French soldiers of this war). The French artillery is insufficient and unsuited to trench war. Besides, since the conter offensive of the Marne, munitions lack because reserves are exhausted and armaments industries cannot produce munitions in sufficient quantities. In the units, the too rare machine guns don't cover local offensives, where the shaggy goes up to the assault of enemy lines bayonet to the cannon without artillery preparation according to tactics that hardly evolved since August 1914.
Losses are very high within the army and increase with the bloody offensives of May 9 in Artois area and September 25 in Champagne. Those offensives didn't succeeded to break the German defensive system. By the end of 1915, the French losses for the war rise to 600 000 men.
On his side, the German fighter stayed a good part of the year 1915 in a defensive mode. However, during localized attacks always supported by a more efficient trench artillery, he was able to reconquer a part of the lost territory during September 1914 retreat. By the end of 1915, the Central empires are victorious on the Russian front and in the Balkan where they forced to retreat Serbian armies. So safe from the danger on the southern and eastern fronts, German empire wants to take the initiative on the western front in 1916...


Forces face to face

The Walled Region of Verdun (WRV) has on the eve of the battle twenty-two works distributed on two concentric belts. Unfortunately most of these works are disarmed. Indeed since the beginning of the conflict, the French artillery is clearly outclassed by its German counterpart. The shortage of cannons makes feel itself cruelly on the French side and the industry hardly manages to compensate losses. Then, like the inshore batteries, cannons of fortified places are taken to the profit of the front line. The WRV didn't escape this rule. Besides, after the fall of Liege forts in August 1914 dislocated by Austrian 305 mm and German 420 mm howitzers, the French high-command doesn't believe anymore in the efficiency of forts. According to him these are too much exposed targets, of real shell traps toward on which converge all the enemy artillery fires. In case of attack, they are vowed to a certain destruction. Campaign works that are able to be camouflaged, can hide themselves in the land.
By February 20, 1916 on the evening, the defense of Verdun is assured by the 30th army corps ordered by general Herr and composed of three infantry divisions. The 72nd that holds the sector situated between the Caures' wood and the Meuse river, the 51st in sector Ornes - Bois de Ville and the 14th division parked between Ornes and Etain's road. Two supplementary divisions and fourteen battalions are placed in reserve. The artillery of Verdun's fortress has two hundred seventy cannons in majority made up of 75 mm campaign guns.

General von Falkenhayn, the German commander in chief on the western front chooses the salient of Verdun to launch his offensive. In this sector, he can count on numerous supply lines that will be able to serve his troops on all the front line. He is sure to stifle the salient of Verdun, because his forces occupy Bar-le-Duc's railroad at the level of Saint Mihiel and Chalon-en-Champagne's railroad is under the fire of his artillery. These two railroads are with Bar-le-Duc's road the only supply ways that can link the Verdun's fortress to the rear. For lack of strategic value, Verdun has a highly symbolic value for France and Germans are persuaded that Joffre and his staff will launch numerous troops in the battle if the city is threatened. The French army will have so heavy losses then and it will come out of the confrontation so weakened that France will be forced to ask for an armistice...

The offensive will be untrusted to the 5. armee composed of ten divisions and commanded by the Crow Prince of the German empire (Kronprinz in German). Six divisions will attack in first line and two in second line. More of one thousand four hundred guns are gathered behind the front line: 380 mm cannons on railroad, 305 mm Skodas howitzers and 420 mm Krupps destructive of Liege forts, a multitude of 77 mm cannons, 150 mm, 210 mm, of trench mortars of 76 mm, 170 mm and 250 mm. The German objectives are simple: it's to saturate a small sector of 20 km large on 4 km depth with shells, in order to destroy all French defense. No offensive of big span is planned, nor a surrounding attempt of the salient from the Argonnen forest or Saint Mihiel area. The only objective is the conquest of the fortress of Verdun by a profusion of destruction means in order to dissuade France to continue the war and to force it to make peace.

The German offensive

The German artillery fire is triggered on February 21, 1916 at 7.15 am, it completely surprises the adversary and prolong itself until 4 pm then it moves on the French rears allowing assault troops to come up to the attack. The first French line has been pulverized by the bombardment and Germans pass it without realize it. The advance is difficult because the artillery flood "erased" all landmarks. Assault troops armed with hand grenades and flamethrowers progress slowly while infiltrating between the French resistance positions. The shaggy surviving can benefit this unexpected respite to entrench themselves in shell craters and to get ready to resist to the main body of German infantry when it will start its progression. So in Caures wood, the 56th and 59th battalions of foot infantry commanded by lieutenant-colonel Driant resist alone facing a German division. But these two battalions loose in twenty four hours more than 80% of their effectives. Isolated fights of fragments of three French divisions prolong themselves until February 25, blocking all new progression and permit to the French high-command to route to the hurry many reinforcements in Verdun's sector.

From February 24 to 25, French reinforcements arrive progressively. The 20th army corps formed by the 37th African division, the 16th, 39th and 153rd infantry divisions (ID) is launched into the furnace with orders to oppose at all costs to the enemy progression. The German artillery well informed by observation balloons and planes make a slaughter and the 25 the French troops are forced to evacuate Woevre's plain. The same day, fort Douaumont is taken by surprise by the German infantry. The 51st and 72nd infantry divisions lost in four days of fight more than 60 % of their strengths.
The 26 after a new bombardment by artillery, the German army leaves to the assault. Kronprinz troops are less than 5 km of Verdun and fort Vaux is now in first line. However, attackers can't progress further. Their reserves of ammunition are exhausted and fighters are exhausted after six uninterrupted fight days. The offensive interrupts itself then during some days. This respite is put to profit by the French command to route new reinforcements and to organize the defense of the salient of Verdun.

February 25, day of the fall of fort Douaumont, general Petain is nominated commander of the IInd army now affected to Verdun's front. The front is now consolidated, it is about reorganizing supply lines between Verdun and the rear in order to prevent the salient from asphyxia. Railroads being impassable, the only usable way is the departmental road from Bar-le-Duc to Verdun. Petain makes repaired this road and organizes the traffic that must pass in transit on that will be named later the " Voie Sacrée " (the Holly Way): two thousand tons of ammunition, two thousand tons of supplies and twenty thousand men per day. Nearly all the supplies for Verdun's front goes night and day through this way forbidden to horses convoys. A turnover system is established that allows troops not to stay too long on the front line: two days in first line, two days in second line and two days to the rear. This rotation will be soon lengthened to three days to make up for heavy losses suffered to the front. With this system nearly all the divisions of the French army will know the hell of Verdun. Units are literally slaughtered during their stay in first line. They loose average 25% of their strengths the first day of their presence on the front. Facing them, German divisions are not relieved, but their losses are constantly filled by a constant contribution of new troops. Therefore, the German fighters perfectly know the land and can instruct soldiers who are newly called up to fill losses. However this absence of fighting strength turnover has a negative impact on the moral of soldiers that once on the front, think they won't leave this furnace alive. Thus, facing nine French divisions present in first line since the beginning of March with more or less complete strength, the nine German divisions always fight with full number of soldiers. Besides the number of fighters, disproportion is even more flagrant in the equipment. The German troops are well provided in howitzers, trench mortars, campaign cannons and heavy artillery. Deep shelters immediately dug in the occupied land allow troops of second line to take a rest under cover to French shells. The current water is brought until second line by deeply buried pipelines. The German fighter is not constantly tortured by thirst like the French fighter.


The battle of wings

The German offensive resumes March 4 on the right bank of the river Meuse. But Petain fears an attack on the left bank and according to his instructions, general de Bazelaire commander of the 7th army corps made reinforce the sector between Cumieres and Avocourt. Defense lines, hold by four divisions go from spot height 304 to the Mort-Homme hill. March 5, a violent bombardment of the German artillery falls on the left bank. Two German divisions, the 11. and 12. Reserve Divisionen rush to the assault on March 6 to the morning. Germans seize of Corbeaux wood but confronted to a great inimical resistance, they can't progress further. March 8 a French counter-attack rejects the Germans beyond of wood. Germans reiterate their attacks March 9 and 10. On the 10 to the evening they occupy Corbeaux, Cumiere woods and Mort-Homme's north slopes to which top is held solidly by French. In spite of new attacks from 13 to March 15, the top of Mort-Homme remains French. Then the German activity is going to move to some kilometers to the west.
March 20, the 11. Bayerische Infanterie Division breaks up a brigade of the 29th ID. The neighboring division, the 11th ID resists foot on foot but it cannot prevent the conquest of Malancourt and Haucourt villages. The north slopes of spot height 304 are German. Then attackers occupy the village of Bethincourt between spot height 304 and the Mort-Homme. German attacks continue until April 9 but they cannot progress further. In one month of unceasing attacks on the left bank, Germans only advanced two kilometers on a six kilometers wide front. Losses are very important at the attacker. From April 10, von Falkenhayn changes tactics, to big attacks follow localized attacks with a constant beat up of French positions by the German artillery still in control of the battle field.

The French counter-offensive

May 1st, general Joffre nominates general Petain to the lead of the center army group (IInd, IIIrd, IVth and Vth armies). This promotion marks a change of tactics within the French general headquarters (GHQ), indeed Petain the defender is replaced on Verdun's front by an attacker, general Nivelle formerly to the lead of the 3rd army corps. To the nomination of Nivelle, the IInd army counts 7 army corps (the 2nd, 3rd, 7th, 9th, 12nd, 14th and 32nd AC) namely 25 divisions.

Verdun's front being consolidated, general Nivelle considers an attack to recapture fort Douaumont. The date of the French offensive on the Somme approaching, divisions has priority to be directed to this front so that Joffre doesn't allow the use that of one alone a division in the attack of the work delivered to the enemy without fights on February 25. The 5th division, the "Iron Division" of general Mangin is chosen for this attack. The preparation of artillery begins May 17 and assault troops reach their positions of departure from May 20. The French artillery always outclassed by its adversary counterpart is not able to counter-fire the enemy batteries to which shells cause heavy losses within Mangin's division during the two days preceding the attack. Preliminary works to the assault are insufficient because shelters and approach trenches that are destroyed methodically during the day by the German artillery have to be re-dug every night.

The attack starts May 22 to 11.50 AM behind a 75 mm rolling fire that dislocates the first German lines to the center and to the left side of the axis of attack. Attackers progress, crossing without worrying about the murderous fire of the enemy machine guns and artillery the zone of half mile separating the first French trenches to the fort and arrive to the back ditches of the work from where they infiltrate on superstructures. On the right side the strong German resistance prevents all progression.
The west superstructures of the work are conquered. Germans entrenched in the underground parts of the fort ask for a support to their artillery and positions on top of the work become quickly unbearable for French that in spite of reinforcements arrival cannot invest the rest of the work. From May 23 French troops entrenched on the fort lose contact with their lines, their encircling becomes clearer. The surviving soldiers fight again with despair energy and surrender in the small hours of May 24. The attempt of fort Douaumont recapture ends in a bitter failure with heavy losses.

The capture of Vaux

On German side, losses increased in a substantial way and territorial gains are tiny since February 25. So general von Falkenhayn, decides to resume the offensive in order to justify by a consequent progression losses undergone since the beginning of the battle. Fort Vaux will be the first objective. It is defended by a two hundred men garrison under orders of major Raynal plus four hundred surviving men of units initially positioned to surroundings. Those troops found shelter in the underground parts of the work in order to escape the beat up of the German artillery that set the fort against for several days. Germans fire in front of all the fort openings with gas shells and the fight zone comes closer. June 2 to the morning, German pioneers are on the counterscarp, they penetrate in ditches and occupy with difficulty counterscarp bunkers. From there, they try to progress toward depths of the work while taking link tunnels. But these galleries are blocked with barricades that French fit with machine guns. The battle rages on between German pioneers in control of the top of the fort and the French garrison entrenched in the underground parts. In this moles war, protagonists face themselves with hand grenades. Germans project some flaming liquids to reduce points of resistance. When a barricade becomes unbearable, French fall five meters back, put a machine gun in battery and reconstitute another tunnel-block with earth sacks from where they receive the attacker with hand grenades and machine guns burts of which bullets rebound against walls. June 5, the garrison suffers from thirst because there is not any more water for more than four days. To the favor of the night, a part of troops who took refuge in the work succeeded in returning to the French lines now far behind the fort. June 6, a French counter-attack cannot clear the work. Inside, the atmosphere is so polluted that carbide lamps and candles put out themselves. Injured, valid men and cadavers lie higgledy-piggledy in galleries. In the tunnels, barricades always hold and in the best cases Germans have progressed of twenty-five meters in five days. Major Raynal capitulates June 7. During the surrender, to greet the courage of defenders, Germans present weapons to survivors of the garrison. Major Raynal will have the honor to be received by the Kronprinz.

June 23, after a gas fire and a powerful bombardment, sixty ten thousand Germans come to the attack. Their thrust is only contained with difficulty by the sacrifice of the 114th and 121st light infantry battalions, the 39th, 239th and 407th infantry regiments. The Thiaumont's fortification and the village of Fleury are conquered of high struggle. The front line was never before so close to the city of Verdun and now goes through the line Fleury-Thiaumont-Vaux. The command of this sector is untrusted to Mangin then promoted army corps general. Fron June, 24 to 27, Mangin launches four counter-attacks with very little preparation to attempt to reconquer a part of the territory conceded to Germans. These attacks end in bloody failures.

The ultimate German offensive

The last German offensive begins on July, 11. The French offensive in the Somme front is controlled with difficulty and due to a lack of reserves, Germans won't be able to keep initiative for a long time on Verdun's front. They need to make the decision as quick as possible on this battlefield. At 4.30 am a very dense artillery bombardment falls on four kilometers of front between Souville and Fleury. The German Mountain Corps launches an attack reinforced by three infantry divisions. By July 12, to the morning, Germans hold Saint Fine crossroads at four hundred meters from fort Souville. At 6 am, 150 feldgrau move toward fort Souville strongly damaged by their heavy artillery. A French lieutenant manages to reorganize the defense of the fort and launches a counter-attack with the sixty surviving soldiers of the garrison when the adversary arrives to the work ditches. Germans are forced to fall back. At the evening of July 12, losses of attackers are huge (more than two third of the committed strengths) and none of objectives fixed is reached. At this moment, the Kronprinz receives from the GHQ, the order to hold in a strict defensive strategy on Verdun's front and during the following days, several divisions are taken from the 5.Armee to be transferred toward the Somme front to counter the Franco-English offensive. The initiative is now definitely on the French side...

The reconquest of forts

August 18, the Colonial Infantry Regiment of Morocco definitely reconquers ruins of Fleury's village that changed of hands eighteen times in a month. Then the recapture of fort Douaumont can be considered. The objective is so important than nothing is disregarded for this decisive assault. Many guns converge on this sector of which two 400 mm mortars on railroad track that, when the moment will come, will knock the fort out with their one ton shells. The preparatory works are meticulous, telephone lines are deeply buried between the first lines and the headquarters. Approach paths are rebuilt and metaled. News trenches and departure parallels are dug. The bombardment done by six hundred fifty-four French pieces of artillery begins on October 21. On the 23, three divisions (38th, 74th and 133rd) reach their positions for the attack, with in reserve three other divisions (7th, 9th and 63rd) and two in second line. Facing them German troops composed of seven divisions are supported by eight hundred guns. However the German device is distributed in depth so that in first line Germans only gathered twenty-two battalions.

The three divisions go to the assault at 11.40 am October 24. Timing is precise, assault waves must follow the rolling artillery barrage progressing by one hundred meters every four minutes. To midday Thiaumont's work is captured, to 3.00 pm soldiers of the Colonial Infantry Regiment of Morocco are on superstructures of fort Douaumont which German garrison capitulates at 8 pm. Assaults in direction of fort Vaux are unsuccessfull. October 28, Nivelle decides a new attack to reconquer this work. November 1st the 7th, 9th, 22nd and 33rd ID kept in reserve until this time reach the first lines. The preparation of artillery starts this day and November 3 to 1 am, elements of the 22nd ID occupy fort Vaux evacuee by its German garrison. The two symbols of the battle, forts Douaumont and Vaux are again under French control. December 15, a new attack done by the 37th 38th 126th and 133rd ID frees the forts cover zones and more in the west the Cote du Poivre is reconquered.

For many historians the battle of Verdun ends with the resumption of the two symbols of the battle, forts Vaux and Douaumont. But if fights decrease in intensity from the end of the year 1916 and if French and Germans staffs try now to take the decision elsewhere on other battlefields, fights continue with harshness until the end of 1918.


The clearing of the salient or second battle of Verdun

After the attack of December 15, activity on Verdun's front decreases. French reinforce their reconquered positions in order to dissuade all new enemy offensive. Works are done under the fire of the German artillery which uses more and more gas shells. Yperite gas (mustard gas) clouds stagnate permanently on the battlefield. Nevertheless, the French artillery keeps its superiority acquired before the recapture of Douaumont. During the night, German assault troops do commando attacks in the adversary trenches. In January and February 1917, the cold weather making the battlefield completely impassable limits works and operations. On the left bank, on January 25 after an attack, Germans occupy a part of spot height 304. On the right bank, another attack on February 4 on the Chambrettes and on the west side of Caurières wood is stopped by French troops.

Beginning 1917, general Nivelle replaces Joffre to the head of the GHQ. The new "generalissimo" prepares an offensive that he wants to be decisive on the Chemin des Dames (the Ladies Way) front (near Soissons). This offensive is a bloody failure and demoralizes the French army of which some units rebel. April 29 Petain is named Chief of Staff of the French army and May 15 Nivelle is relieved from his command. The French Army henceforth applies a merely defensive strategy because Petain, thrifty of the life of his men, applies to reconstitute units harshly slaughtered by bloody offensives without any serious results. To improve the state of mind of troops, he gives up the idea of doing any big offensive and set up a defensive strategy destined to wear out the adversary. He only allows some offensives with limited objectives. In this setting, an attack is organized on Verdun's salient. This one must clear the Mort-Homme and spot height 304 on the left bank and permit the recapture of spot height 344 on the right bank. On the left bank, August 20, 1917, behind a rolling barrage of artillery, the 16th Army Corps launch an assault on a front of eight kilometers wide. The Bois des Corbeaux, the north slopes of the Mort-Homme and the spot height 304 are retaken from Germans. On the right bank the same day the 15th army corps reconquered spot height 344. It will be the last two big attacks on Verdun's front. But the battlefield will be beaten up by the artillery until April 1918.

By August 1918 the American troops relieve French in Argonnen and in Saint Mihiel's sector. After an Franco-American offensive Saint Mihiel's salient is cleaned out on September 16. The American offensive of September 26 in Argonnen definitely clears Verdun.

The German army has lost 330 000 men (of which 143 000 killed) on Verdun's front during the year 1916. None of the objectives fixed by its staf has been reached: neither the occupation of the city, nor the destruction of the French army because losses are as high in the two camps. And the French army didn't bleed to death because it has the operations initiative by the end 1916 and the beginning 1917. At the end of the year 1916, on the western front the German army is wear out and is really down. On the French side, Verdun will have revealed strategists as general Petain the defender, saving of the life of his soldiers or the binomial of attackers generals Nivelle and Mangin who by the application of new tactical concepts allying a meticulous cooperation between the infantry, the artillery and of the modern weapons as the air forces, knew how to take the decision on the salient. Verdun, symbol of the resistance of the French Army of which almost all its divisions fought on this battlefield, is a strategic and psychological victory. But it is especially the victory of the first line fighter, that managed to stop the German offensive by his sacrifice.