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The Battle of Verdun: World War One Research Paper

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Updated: Aug 10th, 2021

The Verdun war was one of the longest during the First World War. Verdun was one of the strongest holds of France and it contained well prepared trenches with quite a number of fortresses. The details of the war are contained in a letter written by Falkenhayn, who was the field commander in Germany. The attack on France by the Germans begun on 21st February 1916, the letter was written to Kaiser. He believed that in order to win the battle he had to attack the western front. Falkenhayn knew that the attack on Verdun would not automatically lead to a breakthrough into France territory, but at least it would drain the French men. This is because this battle would drain the French army of its resources even the spare resources. This would ensure that subsequent attacks would be successful. Ant success by the Germans would have had some form of psychological victory. This is because the Verdun forts were respected throughout France.

Falkenhayn reasoned that if Germany defeated France, then Britain would seek an alliance with Germany or risk being defeated. Britain formed an allied effort against Germany and therefore Falkenhayn believed that she must be eliminated from the war. He therefore recommended a policy that would enable warfare submarines to have unrestricted merchant shipping. The implementation of this policy would ensure that Britain starved. This in turn would block France out. To him this move would end the hostilities that were there. Kaiser implemented the policies as he had been advised by Falkenhayn. He agreed on the policy of unrestricted submarines warfare’s even though he knew he risked bringing the United States into the war. This was a very dangerous move. Kaiser also authorized the implementation of a siege against Verdun. He also shifted his focus from the eastern front to the Western front, which is towards Britain. (Jeremy, 2002) This particular move had its disadvantage because Germany was unable to capture the Russian army and this compromised the position of the Germans.

The choice of Verdun as the center of interest by the Germans was not very effective because the French men lost faith in the fortresses and the need to defend them. But still Verdun remained a psychological pride for the French men. This is because of its status as a fortress even during the period of the Romans and also the recognition of Verdun’ by most French men. Falkenhayn depended on the fact that Verdun was important to the Frenchmen symbolically rather than strategically. So practically the woods behind Verdun were easier to defend than the fortresses. During the Franco-Prussian war the last fortress town fell on the hands of the Prussians.

Falkenhayn plan was to bomb Verdun thus diverting the attention of the French troop who were stationed at the western front and draw them into Verdun. The troops were thus spread across the eight mile front. Verdun was a French salient into German territory and this opened up three sides of attack. This was an added advantage to Falkenhayn. (Jeremy, 2002)

Crown Prince Wilhelm was the fifth army commander who was responsible of besieging Verdun. The assault was supposed to take place from two different sides that surrounded Meuse River. This plan was not good for Falkenhayn, who was very cautious. He thus ordered the attack to be restricted to the eastern side of the river (east bank). This is because he feared a lot of losses.

The original plan was to start the attack on 12th February. But due to poor weather the plan was changed and the attack started on 21st February. (John, 2000) The attack was supposed to be preceded by a preliminary bombardment. This was to last for 21 hours.

Before the war started, the French Commander-in-chief, Joffre, was attacked. This move made him to have reinforcement given to French second army. The fortress commander, Lieutenant Colonel Emile Driant, also tried to improve the trench system. He posted two battalions, which he led, on river Meuse (east bank) but the German troops out numbered the French army. The German troops were one million against two hundred thousand French troops.

The attack finally started on February 21st at 7:15. The fifth army commander, Crown Prince Wilhelm, began the attack with 1,400 guns. They were stationed along an eight mile front. These guns were served by railway facilities. Around 100,000 shells were directed into Verdun after every hour. The intention of the Germans was to kill the Frenchmen even before they advanced into the fortresses. It was later reported by a scouting party that nearly half of the French troops were killed. This meant that half of the French force had remained for the counter attack. By the end of the first day German forces had only managed the trenches that were in front. This was less had they had planned (John, 2000).

Verdun remained in the hands of the French though not for long. This is because on 23rd February it was confirmed that Driant, the French commander in chief had been killed and the battalions reduced to 180 men from 600 men. On 24th February, the German troops managed to force their way into the second line of trenches. They were within 8 kilometers of Verdun, but still two forts held on, these were Douamont and Vaux. Later on the next day Douamont fell into the hands of the Germans. This clearly affected the morale of the French troops. The withdrawal of German troops from Verdun was politically impossible but the French chief commander remained tough. He threatened everyone who did not oppose the advancement of the German troops into Verdun. This move made him to sack General Langle de Cary, he was responsible for defending Verdun against attacks. (Jeremy, 2002) He was sacked because he decided to remove his troops along the east banks of Meuse river. Henri-Philippe Petain was promoted to defend Verdun.

Petain was ready to defend Verdun at all cost (William, 2001) He knew that in the defense of Verdun there will be a lot of casualties. But he was prepared to inflict damage to the German troops. He therefore re-organized the French troop and took charge of defense in Verdun. He ensured that an effective route was established in order to ensure that the needed supplies reached Verdun. Petain also stationed troops to guard the road and do the necessary repairs; this road was called ‘Voie Sacree’ to mean the ‘sacred road’. On 6th march the French troops received fresh supplies and this helped them to push back the advancing German troops. Falkenhayn sent another troop to attack the left bank of river Meuse towards the Le Morte-homme (the ‘dead man’) ridge. This battle was fought for long both sides had huge numbers of casualties. And by the time the war ended there were about one million casualties on both sides (William, 2001)

On April 6th, Germany mounted another attack on both sides of the salient but still Petains defense was strong to sustain the attacks and have counter-attacks until may. By May 29th Mort Homme fell in the hands of the Germans and by June 7th, they had also captured fort Vaux. This fort had held against the bombardment by the Germans in February. But now the French troops in the fort had run out of water and the fort was now in ruins. The capture of this fort by the German troops increased their morale and this enabled them to break the French lines by the end of June and beginning of July. At this stage the German troops started the chemical warfare. They used phosgene gas which turned into hydrochloric acid if and when inhaled.

At this stage France urged Britain to form a counter-attack on the western front to help drain the German troops. Thus the Battle of the Somme began on 1st July. The Russians attacked the Germans from the eastern front and this weakened the German troops because it had to defend the eastern side. The unsuccessful capture of Verdun led to the Dismissal of Falkenhayn as the commander of the German troops.

Third army General, Charles Mangin, was appointed as the commander of the forts (Martin Gilbert 2004). He managed to recapture Douaumont on October 24th followed by Vaux on November 2nd. The period of rest allowed Mangin to reorganize his troop, and thus he was able to recapture lost ground from the Germans. The Battle of Verdun ended in December and between 15th -18th the French troops had managed to recapture around 11,000 prisoners from the Germans. They also got around 115 guns. By the end of the war, no army had any advantage over the other, be it strategically or tactical. The casualties were estimated to be 550,000 French casualties and the German losses were about 434,000.

References

Jeremy, Black. Warfare in the Western World, 1882-1975. New York: Indiana University Press, 2002.

John, Keegan. The First World War. New York, Vintage. 2000.

Martin, Gilbert. The First World War: A Complete History. London, Henry Holt & Company. 2004.

William, Martin. Verdun 1916: They Shall Not Pass. London, Osprey. 2001.

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