Why did Germany not achieve victory at Verdun in 1916?

French troops at Verdun

The Battle of Verdun was one of the bloodiest of World War I. It was fought between the armies of Germany and France. The battle lasted for almost 11 months for in 1916. It was rather a series of battles fought over the region in and around Verdun. The Battle almost resulted in the collapse of the French army and Verdun was the occasion when the Imperial German army came close to a decisive victory on the western front. Verdun was not a victory for France, rather it was a bloody draw. This article will determine what were the factors that denied Germany an outright victory at Verdun. These factors included the Somme offensive, German overconfidence and dogged French defence under their commander Petain.

Background

In 1914, Germany came close to repeating the success of the Franco-Prussian War. It invaded France via Belgium and pressed onward towards Paris. However, at the battle of Marne in 1914, the French were able to defend Paris and even managed to push the Germans back.[1] The French army had saved Paris but its country was still under grave threat and much of northern France was under the control of the Germans. After the Autumn of 1914, the war became a stalemate. Both sides dug in and they engaged in bloody attempts to seize each other trenches. By 1916, both sides had suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties and all the participants began to feel the strain of waging absolute war. The Germans did not have the resources of the allies, mainly as they had no colonies and also the western allies had the tacit support of the Americans.[2] Some in the German High Command became concerned that if Germany could not deal a blow to the allies and force them to the negotiating table that the Imperial Army would eventually collapse, as it struggled against the allies with their superior numbers and resources. The German commander on the western front, Erich von Falkenhayn, believed that a German victory would not be possible in a set piece battle because of the nature of the war. He argued that if the French suffered enough casualties then they could be forced to the negotiating table. Von Falkenhayn believed that if the Germans killed enough of their soldiers that the French would simply give up. This was based on the idea that the French would not be able, to fight the Germans by themselves and had only been able to continue the war with the support of the British.[3]

Strategy

The strategy adopted by the Germans was to force the French into a battle of attrition.[4] The Germans believed that they were the best soldiers and that in any battle, all things being equal, that they would emerge victorious. The Germans tactics at Verdun was as follows. They hoped to seize the key fortress of Verdun, which had great symbolic and strategic importance for the French. Von Falkenhayn provided five corps from the strategic reserve for the offensive at Verdun in the early spring of 1916[5]. He and other members of the General Staff believed that the French would not take any offensive aimed at Verdun lightly. but only for an attack on the east bank of the Meuse. Falkenhayn considered it unlikely the French would not do all they could to recapture the fortress. He and other generals estimated that the French would do all they could to recapture the area. The Germans expected that the French would send all their strategic reserves to the battle.

The Germans believed that once they had captured Verdun, they could fortify it and establish a strong strategic position. They then wanted to adopt a defensive posture and they would allow the French to destroy their army on repeated assaults in fruitless attempts to recapture Verdun.[6] The Germans in their secure defensive positions would out-kill the French. In particular, they Germans believed that their superior artillery would allow them to inflict devastating casualties on the French and this would ultimately either lead them to collapse or to see a negotiated peace. The strategy of Von Falkenhayn was a simple and brutal one- he wanted to turn Verdun into a killing ground in order to gain a decisive advantage over the French.[7] Verdun was identified as a potential target by the Germans because of geography and its strategic importance. The Verdun region was a salient in the western front and the Germans had surrounded it on three sides. In order to protect it, the French had devoted many soldiers and resources to the area. They had established a series of defensive lines at Verdun and this became known as the Fortified Region of Verdun (RFV). [8]. Within this region there were a series of forts, these were massive structures made of concrete and much of them lay underground. The Verdun forts had a network of concrete shelters, reinforced observation posts, batteries, concrete trenches, command posts and underground stunnels that connected the forts. The primary objective of the German offensive was these forts, especially Fort Douamount and the Fortress of Verdun. This fortress became the symbol of the battle for the French.

Preparing for the Battle

The Famous Long Max cannon used at Verdun

As it was early spring, poor weather delayed the beginning of the German attack by two weeks. It was eventually launched on February 21st. However, the Germans did not know that the French had been made aware of the build-up by the Germans in the area. They had been ignored by British intelligence that a German attack was imminent and had prepared for an assault. Despite this the Germans enjoyed initial success, capturing Fort Douaumont in the first week of the offensive. However, because of unexpected resistance and the weather, which turned the battlefield into a quagmire, the German advance ground to a halt. However, they did manage to inflict heavy casualties on the French. As anticipated by the German High Command the French rushed in reinforcements and they also build up their defences. The French were led by a man who was a born fighter Pétain.[9] He ordered that no withdrawals were to be made and that counter-attacks were to be staged at every opportunity. This involved exposing French infantry to withering artillery fire. The French artillery then began a bombardment of their own and this inflicted massive casualties on the French.

In March, the German offensive was switched to the left of the Meuse River , to deny the French artillery the observation posts they were using to target German positions. The German divisions advanced by the French were able to deny the Germans of their objectives.[10] This was the opportunity that Petain sought, and he ordered the French to attack positions in and around Fort Douaumont. The French managed to penetrate the actual fortress but a German counter-attack drove them back and they suffered many casualties.[11] The Germans then launched a counterattack and in June captured Fort Vaux, which they had hoped to capture in February. The Germans continued the offensive beyond Vaux, and they drove a wedge between the French forces and neared the fortress of Verdun. This was the main objective of the offensive and according to Petain, the most ‘dangerous period for France in the entire battle.’[12]

In July 1916, the German offensive slowed as forces had to be moved to the Somme in order to withstand the British advance. The fighting was brutal one village was to change hands over a dozen times during the summer. This was the bloodiest period of the battle. A German attempt to capture Fort Souville in early July was thwarted because of the bravery of the French garrison. The Somme battle meant that more and more German troops had to be transferred to fight the British and Empire forces. This was to drastically reduce the ability of the Germans to undertake offensive operations. The battle then went into a new phase and the French began a massive counter-attack and the French began to regain lost ground and they even recovered the key forts of Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux. The battle petered out in the rain and frosts of winter and the French lines had held.[13]

Consequences of the Battle

The battlefield in 2005

Verdun was a very bloody battle even by the standards of WW I. The name of Verdun has become a by-word for butchery. A modern estimate found that there was in total, 714,231 casualties, 377,000 of these were French and some 330,000 German. This translates into an average of 70,000 casualties per month. However, even more, recent estimates indicated that the numbers were even greater and higher than even the battlefields of the Somme. The Battle of Verdun lasted for 300 days and became the longest and one of the most costly battles in modern warfare. At the end of the battle little territory had been gained by either side and the situation after the battle was much the same as it had been a year earlier. To many it appeared that the battle had been inconclusive however, the French had thwarted the Germans and they had weakened them and they had not been knocked out of the war. France won the battle by not being beaten and because it was able to continue the war and this helped the western allies to prevail on the western front.

Military Reasons for the Failure

There were several reasons for the failure of the Germans to achieve their objectives in the almost year-long battle of Verdun. The Germans had underestimated the depth and extent of the French fortifications and also their ability to repair them in lulls during the battle. The French defences were much more resilient than the High Command in Berlin had anticipated. Then the French artillery had performed much better than expected. They had been located on the heights above the Meuse River and they were able to kill and wound thousands of German soldiers. Then there was the Anglo-French offensive on the Somme.

Von Falkenhayn had underestimated the ability of the British to launch an attack. When Haig ordered the British over the top, the Germans were not prepared. This meant that in order to salvage the situation on the Somme sector, that the Germans had to move badly needed forces out of Verdun and towards the Somme.[14] Some four divisions had to be transferred from an assault on Verdun, in order to help defend German positions on the Somme. This meant that the German advance lost steam in the Summer of 1916 and they were reduced to only local offensives. The commanders in Berlin were forced to use most of their strategic reserves on the Somme and the units in Verdun were starved of any reinforcements. The fighting in the Verdun sector was intense and many German divisions became badly depleted and they were unable to receive the reinforcements that they needed and this prevented them from continuing with their offensive.[15] The transfer of German units from Verdun meant that they were eventually forced to adopt a defensive posture. This encouraged the French to launch a full-scale offensive and to many local successes in the Autumn of 1916.

French Defense

One of the reasons why Germany was thwarted was the brilliance and stubbornness of the French commander at Verdun. Petain proved to be a brilliant general and was able to inspire his men to defy continuous German attacks. Pétain rotated the French troops at Verdun after a short period, which meant that most troops of the French army served at the Verdun front.[16] The troops were not as tired as the Germans and their morale was much better. Petain also did not tolerate any dereliction of duty and severely punished incidents of cowardice such as those ‘that lead to the desertion of Fort Dounamount on February 25th.’[17] The French as a result became more formidable opponents than the Germans had anticipated. At the start of the Battle of Verdun, the Germans could kill two French soldiers for every soldier that they lost.

However, under Petain, the French by the end of the war were able to kill one German for every man that they lost. The French government effectively used propaganda to fortify the common soldier and to inspire them to victory. This proved very effective and stiffened the French resistance in and around Verdun. The Germans gravely underestimated the French and their ability to defend Verdun. They proved to be much more committed and dogged that the High Command in Berlin had planned for. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the German army believed that the French did not have the stomach for the fight and they would evenutally break. This assumption was misguided and played an very role in the German High Commands failure to secure their objectives in Verdun.</ref> Keegan, p. 234</ref>

Conclusion

The Germans did not attain their goals in the offensive centred on Verdun.[18] They did manage to inflict catastrophic casualties on the French but they did not manage to attain key forts or positions such as the Fortress at Verdun. The Germans badly underestimated the French as soldiers and indeed as they battle progressed the French proved themselves to be brave and resourceful fighters.[19] Then the High Command in Berlin overestimated the Germans ability and placed too much emphasis on their perceived advantages over the French and this was to prove a costly miscalculation. Perhaps the key reason that denied the Germans victory at Verdun was the Battle of the Somme. The Germans had to divert forces from the assault on Verdun to the Somme sector of the western front. This meant that the Germans could not deliver the decisive blow and eventually weakened them to such an extent that French were able to take an advantage of it and to launch a devastating counter-attack.

References

  1. Clayton, A. Paths of Glory: The French Army 1914–18. London: Cassell, 2003), p. 117
  2. Clayton, p. 116
  3. Clayton, p. 120
  4. Jankowski, P. Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 118
  5. Jankowski, p. 135
  6. Philpott, W. Attrition: Fighting the First World War. London: Little, Brown, 2014, p. 201
  7. Philpott, p. 234
  8. Phillpott, p. 234
  9. Keegan, J. The First World War (London: Hutchinson, 1998), p. 234
  10. Clayton, p. 232
  11. Philpott, p 214
  12. Pétain, H. P. Verdun (trans. M. MacVeagh ed.) (London: Elkin Mathews & Marrot, 1939)
  13. Petain,p.111
  14. Keegan, p 167
  15. Phillpott, p. 245
  16. Petain, p. 115
  17. Petain, p. 92
  18. Keegan, p. 234
  19. Phillpott, p. 115