„Wer durch dies Schlammfeld voll Sterben und Schreien gewatet, wer in diesen Nächten gezittert, der hatte die letzten Grenzpfähle des Lebens passiert und trug nachher tief in sich die dumpfe Erinnerung an irgendeinen Raum, der sich zwischen Tod und Leben oder jenseits beider befinden mag…“ (Schlachten des Weltkrieges, Douaumont)
“He who had waded through this field of mud full of death and screams, who had shivered in these nights, had passed the last border-posts of life and ever after carried deep within himself the dull memory of some place or other that may be found between death and life, or beyond both…” (Schlachten des Weltkrieges, Douaumont, my translation)
In the winter of 1915/16 Imperial Germany was mired in war on two fronts and propping up its tottering ally, Austria-Hungary. The country was outnumbered everywhere by the Allied forces, and suffering from shortages of supplies of all kinds due to the British blockade of its ports. Heavy casualties had taken a toll of its manpower and in particular of officers and non-commissioned officers.
This situation could not continue for long. The two possible options were peace or a desperate attempt at knocking out one of the Allies.
Falkenhayn decided to attack France’s most fortified zone: Verdun. He wrote later that his intention was to force the French to counter-attack, and thus bleed the French Army white, but there is considerable doubt as to whether this was his purpose at the time. Had the German Army succeeded in taking Verdun it would have dealt a significant blow to French prestige. Whether it would have led to victory is quite another matter.
The offensive was supposed to start on 12 February, but the weather was so bad that the artillery could not see their targets. The assaulting infantry had to wait over a week, until 21 February, in cramped and insanitary conditions, wet and freezing cold.
Finally the sky cleared. An estimated 1 million shells were fired at the French positions on the eastern side of the Meuse on the first day, with the intention of so obliterating them that the infantry would just walk in.
The bombardment was very effective along much of the French front line and little resistance was met. However, men of the elite Brandenburg Corps found themselves in the Herbebois wood, full of obstacles that created a superb killing-ground and that had hardly been touched by the bombardment.
In spite of that, the early successes were encouraging. Fort Douaumont, the largest and highest in the rings of forts around the city, fell to a group of Brandenburgers without a shot being fired. The French were falling back everywhere.
It did not take them long to re-organise themselves. Marshal Pétain was put in charge, and led a determined and heroic defence with the slogan, “They shall not pass”. The only supply route was the gravel road from Bar-le-Duc to Verdun, and along it the traffic flowed day and night in endless columns. It is still known as the Voie Sacrée (Sacred Way).
By mid-March the offensive was stalling. The Germans attacked on the western side of the Meuse, but met stoic resistance. It took weeks to capture the high points of Hill 304 and the Mort Homme (Dead Man). On the eastern side progress in May was estimated at 5 metres per day in a bloody slog from shell-hole to shell-hole.
In mid May the French launched a counter-attack with the objective of retaking Fort Douaumont. Although they managed to get troops onto the top of the Fort the Germans held them off and then pushed them back. Fort Vaux finally fell to the Germans in early June, forced to surrender when the water ran out.
At French insistence the battle of the Somme started earlier than originally planned, and succeeded in reducing the Germans’ ability to fight at Verdun. The German offensive there ceased with the dismissal of Falkenhayn in August, and from then on the German forces tried to hold the ground they had taken.
This proved impossible. There was little cover on the wasteland of the battlefield, and the German troops were at the mercy of the French artillery. Every night they dug fresh positions, and every day the French flattened them again and then attacked with great determination.
The Germans were driven back almost to their starting points. The French retook Fort Douaumont in October and Fort Vaux at the start of November. The battle finally ceased on 18 December, having raged for 300 days and nights.
The French had indeed stopped the German attack and can say in triumph, “They did not pass”. However, each side had dealt the other a severe blow, and both armies’ effectiveness suffered as a result. The Germans had advanced a short distance and the French had pushed them back again, with appalling casualties estimated at a total 700,000.
Both Germans and Frenchmen fought with extraordinary courage on a battlefield that belonged in Hell, surrounded by the decomposing remnants of their enemies and their comrades, knowing they were likely to be next.
After the war the Verdun battlefield was assessed as too dangerous and too poisoned for resettlement and agriculture. The former inhabitants of the destroyed villages were rehoused elsewhere. The battlefield was cleared as far as possible of unexploded munitions and human remains.
Some of the latter were buried in the military cemeteries, but the majority are housed in the Douaumont Ossuary, which contains the bones of an estimated 130,000 French and German soldiers. Forests were planted on both the eastern and western parts of the battlefield, preserving the shell-holes and remains of trenches, dugouts and blockhouses.
The Verdun forests are strange and atmospheric, at once a haven for wildlife and a dark place haunted by extreme violence. The trees, well-fertilised with flesh and blood, have grown strong and tall. The ground can still be lethal, and visitors are advised to keep to paths and not touch anything they find.
The battered state of Fort Douaumont and other strongpoints testifies to the shattering force of heavy artillery.
For more information:
Alastair Horne The Price of Glory Verdun 1916 (Penguin Books)
Olaf Jessen Verdun 1916 Urschlacht des Jahrhunderts (C. H. Beck)
Reichsarchiv Schlachten des Weltkrieges Die Tragödie von Verdun Bände 13 – 15 (Archiv Verlag)
Reichsarchiv Schlachten des Weltkrieges Douaumont Band 1 (Archiv Verlag) (not a complete narrative account of the battle but rather a series of impressions)
Christina Holstein Walking Verdun A Guide to the Battlefield (Pen & Sword Books)
Christina Holstein Fort Douaumont (Pen & Sword Books)
The Douaumont Ossuary: http://www.verdun-douaumont.com/?lang=en
Mémorial de Verdun: http://memorial-verdun.fr/en/ This is an excellent museum situated on the old battlefield, not far from the Ossuary.
Verdun Tourist Office: https://en.tourisme-verdun.com/