In early 1916, Germany launched a heavy attack on French forces at the fortified city of Verdun, opening one of the bloodiest periods of the war. Despite the fearsome conflict that ensued, Verdun was of relatively little strategic significance for either side in 1916. Rather, the German plan, devised by Chief of the General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, was to weaken the French army by sustained assault on a fixed position. For France, the fall of a French city to German forces would be symbolically devastating, and holding their position at Verdun was therefore of primary importance.
Verdun’s man-made defences were substantial – twenty separate forts were arranged in a double ring around the city. Many of these had been recently reinforced, but they were not backed up by equivalent artillery power, and fortifications did not feature largely in France’s defensive strategy. The German offensive, named ‘Operation Judgement’, was planned for early February 1916, and forces on both sides began gathering near Verdun from January of that year. The armies met north of Verdun, spanning both sides of the River Meuse, which ran north-west out of the city.
The first assault began on 21 February, with a massive bombardment of French troops on the east bank of the Meuse. After nine hours of intense shelling the Germans advanced from the north-east, making substantial gains. By 26 February, the French had been pushed back to the west bank of the river, and one of the larger forts, Douaumont, had fallen. At this point the German advance slowed, but it continued into July 1916, forcing the French to retreat south towards Verdun.
The advance was by no means easy. The French army poured huge resources into the conflict, defending each position ferociously and launching frequent counter-attacks. As a result, losses for both sides were colossal: over 200,000 men killed or injured by the end of June. By mid-July, German resources were wearing thin, and the advance had reached a standstill. The German army was now under pressure elsewhere, Britain had begun a massive offensive on Germany at the Somme, and focus shifted from Verdun. The last German attack on the city was on 16 July.
The condition of Britain’s ally at Verdun was followed closely in the British press. The Illustrated London News reported key events in the conflict, with frequent photographs and illustrations of scenes around the city. The tone was laudatory, emphasising the resilience of French forces. One report in the ILN described the conflict:
Never have French troops fought more magnificently […] Every yard of ground yielded was paid for by the enemy a hundred times over […] The endurance of the French troops during this battle has been beyond all praise.
After several months of quiet, the French launched a counter offensive on German forces in October, regaining a significant proportion of the lost territory. This was reported triumphantly (and rather overstated) in Britain as “Eight Months of German Effort Reversed in a Day”, with particular focus on the recapture of Douaumont, the first fort lost to the German army.
Both the Somme and Verdun, occurring in quick succession in 1916, remain notable for their extraordinary bloodshed, and stand as two of the defining episodes of the war in popular memory. The success of Falkenhayn’s plan to weaken the French army is unquestionable, but at substantial cost to the German army. In the event, losses for both armies were nearly equal – approximately 150,000 French and 143,000 German soldiers were dead by the end of the Verdun Offensive. Including injuries, total French and German casualties are estimated at around 680,000 men.
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