The battle of Verdun is the largest and longest battle between German and French troops during the First World War on the Western Front, from February 21 to December 18, 1916. One of the largest and one of the most bloody military operations in the First World War and history in general, it went down in history as the Verdun meat grinder, a textbook example of a war of attrition. During the battle, French troops were able to repel a large-scale German offensive near Verdun.
The Germans failed to win quickly, right at the beginning of the war, as outlined by the Schlüffen Plan. Thus, the war turned into trench warfare, in which neither side achieved any breakthroughs.
After a series of bloody battles on both fronts in 1914-1915. Germany did not have the strength to attack on a broad front, so the goal of the offensive was a powerful blow to a narrow sector – in the area of the Verdun fortified area, which stood out in the form of a small ledge on the French-German front. The encirclement and defeat of eight French divisions in the Verdun ridge meant the breach of the French defenses on a broad sector of the front, followed by the possibility of striking the flank and rear of the Allied forces defending Paris.
On a small section of the front, a length of 15 km, Germany concentrated 6.5 divisions against two French divisions. To maintain a continuous offensive, additional reserves were introduced. The sky was cleared of French aviation allowing the unimpeded efforts of German fire and bomber spotters, but by May, France had deployed a squadron of fighters of the “Newport” Company. Both sides sought to dominate the airspace.
The Verdun operation began on 21 February. After a massive 8-hour artillery barrage, the German troops launched an offensive on the right bank of the Meuse River, but were met with stubborn resistance. The German infantry led the offensive in dense battle formations. The formations were built in one echelon. The divisions had two regiments in the first line and one regiment in the second. The battalions in the regiments advanced on sections of 400-500 men and were echeloned in depth. Each battalion created three chains advancing at a distance of 80-100 m. In front of the first chain were scouts and assault groups, consisting of two or three infantry divisions reinforced with grenade launchers, machine guns and flamethrowers. During the first day of the offensive, German troops advanced two km and occupied the front position of the French. In the following days, the offensive was conducted along the same lines: during the day the artillery destroyed the next position, and by evening the infantry occupied it.
By February 25, the French had lost almost all their fortifications. Almost without resistance, the Germans managed to take the important fort of Duamont. However, the French command took measures to eliminate the threat of encirclement of the Verdun fortified region. On the only highway linking Verdun with the rear, troops were transferred from other sectors of the front. For the period from February 27 to March 6, about 190,000 soldiers and 25,000 tons of military cargo were delivered by motor vehicles to Verdun. The German offensive was halted by French superiority in manpower.
In March, on the Eastern Front, Russian troops carried out operations which helped the situation of the French troops. The French organized the so-called “sacred road” through which their troops were supplied.
The battle became more and more violent. After intense fighting, the German troops managed to advance by May only six to seven km. On May 1, after the change of the French 2nd Army commander from Henri Philippe Petain to Robert Nivell, the French troops attempted to take Fort Duamon on May 22, but were repulsed.
In June, a new attack was launched. On June 7, the Germans seized Fort Vaux, advancing one km; On June 23, the offensive was stopped.
The Brusilov breakthrough on the Eastern Front and the operation on the river Somme forced the German troops to go the defense in the autumn, and on October 24, the French troops launched an offensive and by the end of December reached the positions that they occupied February 25, having thrown the enemy two km from Fort Duamont.
The battle did not bring any tactical or strategic results. By December 1916, the front line returned to the positions originally occupied by both armies in February 25, 1916.
In Verdun, the German strategic plan for the 1916 campaign crashed, intended to be one powerful and swift blow to take France out of the war. The Verdun operation, as well as the Battle of the Somme, marked the beginning of the weakening of the military potential of the German Empire.
For the Central Forces, it was crucial for the enemy to suffer more losses than the enemy would inflict on them. In Verdun, France had more losses, but it was not in the 2:1 ratio as the Germans hoped, although the German army was more numerous than the French in that battle. During the battle of Verdun, both sides lost about a million troops. In Verdun, light machine guns, rifle grenade launchers, flamethrowers and chemical shells were widely used for the first time. Artillery barrages increased significantly, a struggle for air supremacy was fought, and aviation assault actions were applied. The infantry in the offensive built deep battle formations and created assault groups. For the first time, with the help of road transport, operative regroupings of troops were carried out.
This battle showed the craziness of this war that would take even more lives in the end. Introducing industrial warfare made human lives not matter. This war, and this battle, would shape the world for the next generations and France would always remember the great victory and the great sacrifice.
- “The Verdun Operation of 1916” // TSB, 3rd edition.
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- Popov V. T. Battles for Verdun
- Der Weltkrieg 1914-1918. Die militärischen Operationen zu Lande