63: Verdun Pt. 1


In many ways Verdun became the First World War, and it distills down all of the problems that the armies had been facing since 1914, all of the lessons they had thought they had learned, and showcased so many of the problems that they still had to solve before either side could obtain victory. Learn more about your ad choices.



Hello everyone and welcome to episode 63 of History of the Great War. This show is brought to you by people just like you who have become premium members through the podcast’s patreon campaign at patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar that is p-a-t-r-e-o-n.com/historyofthegreatwar and I would like to thank Chris, Don, Gretchen, Taylor, and Mike who have become premium members already. In this episode, we are talking about Verdun. When I think of Verdun I see a French soldier in a broken trench with his gun up but his head hanging down. He is in what used to be a wooded area but the trees have just been shattered by artillery fire, he is covered in mud, and looks completely exhausted. He is also completely alone. This mental picture has stuck with me through the years, even since I first read about the battle. Even now, have reading hundreds of pages, and spending so many hours thinking about the battle, why it happened, what went wrong, if I close my eyes and think of Verdun I still see the exact same image. The battle that would last 10 months on the banks of the Meuse would leave a much greater image on the collective French and German psyche both during and after the war. At first the battle was built up to be the deadliest in the war, and even though this fact is not true, that would not really matter. In many ways the impact of Verdun goes far beyond the casualty lists, even though they are very lengthy. The narrative of the battle is very interesting on both sides, when you look at the German side they were launching a large offensive in the west for the first time since 1914, but what their objectives were and how they slowly completely lost touch with the original intentions of the battle is a story unto itself. On the French side at first they were just trying to defend a spot in the line, just like they would any other area where the Germans attacked, but the city of Verdun and its surroundings slowly became the point that the French army would defend or die trying, and while the French army would survive, Verdun would put cracks in the wall that would finally come tumbling down in 1917. The point that both of these armies put so much of themselves into was strategically completely worthless. It is an odd fate that the two biggest battles of 1916, would take places on points in the line that by themselves were worthless in the grand scheme of things, both Verdun and the Somme were basically just points in the line that became so much more. This will be just the first of many episodes on the course of events at Verdun. Over the course of the next 13 weeks we will first look at the plans as Falkenhayn created them for the attack at Verdun, which ends up being a shockingly confusing story. We will then dig into all of the pre-battle preparations done by both sides in the run up to the battle. Then of course we will chronicle the struggles from their beginning of February 21st until the end of 1916. Over the course of the fighting places like Douaumont, Vaux, Fleury, Mort Homme, Cote 304 would become famous, or infamous. Finally, we will look at how the fighting affected not just the war but found its special place in both French and German society. In many ways Verdun became the First World War, and it distills down all of the problems that the armies had been facing since 1914, all of the lessons they had thought they had learned, and showcased so many of the problems that they still had to solve before either side could obtain victory. It is my belief, and the belief of many historians, that the Germans lost the war in the 10 months of fighting near Verdun, it was not just the casualties or the resources used that so negatively affected the German war effort but the other tasks those troops could have accomplished. There is so much to talk about, so let’s get started by looking at Falkenhayn’s outlook of the situation at the end of 1915.

To put in bluntly, Falkenhayn entered the new year of the war very concerned that Germany may not be able to make it until December 31st. In January he would tell Bethmann-Hollweg that “because of our economic and internal political conditions, it is extremely desirable to bring the war to an end before the winter of 1916/1917.” All of the German leaders wanted the war to end soon, of course, but Falkenhayn thought that the end of the year was a pretty hard date. He looked into the future and saw an alliance against Germany that had far more men and far better sources of supplies. What he could not foresee was the hardships that Germany would experience during the winter of 1916/1917, a winter that would come to be called the Turnip winter due to the food shortages experienced all over Germany and even worse in Austria-Hungary. The fact was that the British blockade was hitting Germany, and hitting them really hard. This fact would change Falkenhayn’s opinions on whether or not German should pursue unrestricted submarine warfare, a pursuit that he would become a huge proponent of over the course of 1916. With all of these thoughts in mind, Falkenhayn began to formulate a plan that he believed would win the war. In his planning he rapidly came to a conclusion that would once again put him at odds with Hindenburg and Ludendorff and would eventually lead to his replacement as Chief of Staff. He wanted to attack in the West, and not in the East. With the line where it was at the end of 1915, on the borders with Russia or even pushing into the country Falkenhayn believed that further attacks were very dangerous. He feared that the Russians would just keep retreating without falling apart and the German army would be sucked further and further into Russia, needing more and more men to man the line and extending their supply lines to the breaking point. Falkenhayn, as well as almost every other military leader in Europe, including most of the Russian high command, believed that large country to be completely incapable of further offensive actions. He also was of the belief that they were tottering on the edge of collapse from internal reasons. “Even if we cannot perhaps expect a revolution in the grand style, we are entitled to believe that Russia’s internal troubles will compel her to give in within a relatively short period. In this connection it may be granted she will not revive her military reputation meanwhile.” Falkenhayn briefly considered an attack on the Italian front, but came to the conclusion an attack there would not be decisive enough without a large number of Austrian troops being involved, Austrian troops that were far better placed on the Russian front. It is interesting to compare the decisions made by Falkenhayn in 1916 to those made by Hindenburg and Ludendorff in 1917, when they would attack on both the Russian and Italian fronts. Another reason that Falkenhayn wanted to attack in the West was that he was becoming genuinely concerned abut the French and British offensive capabilities. The attacks in the fall had come far closer to accomplishing their goal that Falkenhayn was comfortable with. There could no longer be any denying the fact that the French were not being nearly as stupid in their attacks as they used to be, and the British were arriving in ever increasing numbers. Falkenhayn did not know any of the specifics of the planned attack on the Somme, but he made the reasonable assumption that the French and British would both attack together at some point in the Spring or Summer of 1916. He did not necessarily believe it would be at the same point in the line, but the timing was almost certain to be simultaneous. So with these facts in mind he started to formulate his plan.

Falkenhayn tried, in most ways, to be a realist when looking at what was possible in 1916, I like this quote from Verdun the Longest Battle by Paul Jankowski “Falkenhayn in 1915 brooded over the finite realm of the possible. While they craved to annihilate and conquer, or imagined heady imperialist vistas, he struggled to devise deliverance from the unyielding strategic predicament of numbers and geography.” The word they in this case refers to most other German commanders. There were many things that Falkenhayn had to consider if he wanted any chance of making his plan successful while at the same time not losing the war somewhere else. The first and most important was that Germany was now forced to have enough troops in reserve to counter a stroke anywhere, and not necessarily just against their front but also the Austrian fronts as well. This was thought to be essential in early 1916 and it would become somehow even more essential throughout the year. It is traditional thought that to achieve anything with an attack you need at least local numerical superiority. For the Germans in the West they were already outnumbered, so this might be difficult. At the end of 1915 there were 120 German and 140 French and British divisions in the West, with the British number growing dramatically for the first half of 1916. Falkenhayn had the goal of having a 25 division reserve at all times, these were not taken from the Western front, but they also could not be committed to an attack. So with 20 less divisions on the front a broad front attack on the scale of say the Somme was ruled out, it just was not going to happen. It was around the late 1915 that the German word for a war of attrition, or of exhaustion started to swirl around Falkenhayn’s mind and started to appear often in his writings. The German word for such a war is Ermattungskrieg. I know I say this every time I throw out one of this large German words, but it is simply the best language to use when talking about conflict Ermattungskrig, Ermattungskrieg. You could say that the Germans had already been practicing this in the West for a year now, they had been on the defensive while the French and British attacked again and again, and it is likely that if the Germans could say on the defensive for the foreseeable future they would win the war in this way, but that required time and Falkenhayn believed that they did not have the required time. Therefore Falkenhayn started to look for a way to accelerate the rate of exhaustion of his enemies, he wanted the process to go from a few years probably to a few months. What he wanted was a Blitzermattungskrieg, which is not an actual word in German that I can find but it should mean something like lightning exhaustion war, or something like that. His thoughts on how to accomplish this feat and his outline for the German strategy were all written up to a letter to the Kaiser around Christmas. In this letter he outlined his reasoning for attacking the French and Verdun specifically. This letter is extremely important to understand why the Germans made the decisions that they did in the lead up to Verdun, and it is an absolutely critical source for historians researching this area…there is just one problem…nobody is really sure that it actually existed.

The letter is only mentioned the Falkenhayn’s memoirs, something that we are covering in great detail in the premium episodes right now if you are curious, but the problem is that the memoirs are the only place that it appears. Nobody else deems it important enough to mention in their memoirs or in any documents from the time. The Kaiser specifically, the person who the letter was addressed to, does not mention it, which is somewhat concerning. In the letter Falkenhayn specifically states that the reason for the attack at Verdun, from the very beginning, was attrition, the goal was never to actually capture the town itself. Since the Germans would never capture the city of Verdun there is a lot of concern among historians that this letter was fabricated to reduce the blame placed on Falkenhayn. Maybe he is only backdating the idea of attrition to make up for the fact that Verdun was never captured. The unfortunate fact is that we will never know if the letter truly existed, to the great detriment of history, in the allied bombings of 1945 the archives of the Imperial Germany Army were destroyed, it is an almost certainty that if the letter existed it was in those archives. So all we have to go on is Falkenhayn’s word, which is not corroborated by any contemporaries or by any physical evidence. Since the publishing of his memoirs most historians have accepted the letter as a matter of fact, this was especially true right after the war when the French writers were trying to portray the German high command in the worst possible light. For most of the rest of the 20th century the same narrative was spun by historians and this viewpoint has become the standard view of the events. But in recent years the view on the topic has shifted, and it is starting to be considered as an excuse by Falkenhayn for his failure. If you believe that the letter is not real, it could completely change the motivations for the attack. So this puts things in an interesting position. So I am going to be pretty clear on the position that I am taking about Falkenhayn’s motives, because we are going to be talking about the plans for the attack for the rest of this episode and a good portion of the next episode. I am going to proceed forward under the assumption that even if the letter did not exist the contents as stated by Falkenhayn accurate represent his mindset in late 1915 and early 1916. I am assuming that Falkenhayn did not willfully misrepresent its contents to make him look better after the war. Please remember that this is a disputed fact of history. I would also like to caution everybody to be wary of any source that does not mention the dubious authenticity of the letter. Even some very recent books proceed as if it exists without mentioning its disputed nature at all. I know this has been a pretty lengthy discussion of this letter, but I think it is important, so lets continue to look at Falkenhayn’s opinions of what was to be done in early 1916.

Falkenhayn’s overall goal for the 1916 campaign was to break the Entente and bring them to the peace table before the end of the year. Falkenhayn believed that he could launch an attack , and if it was successful it would force one of the countries to the peace table, even without the other and in this, already, the whole concept for the offensive may have been built on a fantasy. Falkenhayn had believed in 1915 that it was possible to bring Russia to the peace table to negotiate a separate peace, this proved to be impossible. Here again he believed that it was possible to do the same with one of the Western countries, with this idea in mind there were many decisions to make, the first of which was who to attack. Falkenhayn considered the British to be the primary enemy of Germany, and he really wanted to get them out of the war with the added benefit of ending the blockade, which he believed as a facet of a war of exhaustion that Britain was already waging against Germany. In 1915 he would write that “She is staking everything on a war of exhaustion, We have not been able to shatter her belief that it will bring Germany to her knees. What we have to do is dispel that illusion." But, while Falkenhayn considered them a great threat, he also believed that he could not attack them directly. By the beginning of 1916 the density of troops on the British front was great than at any point on the French front, they had many fewer troops than the French, but they were also holding only a fraction of the total front. This meant that the German attack would have to fall against the French, whom Falkenhayn did not think very highly of, especially their ability to continue to wage war. His thoughts on their ability to wage war were built on some pretty shakey assumptions, the first being that the strain on the French society and the failures of the armies and the casualties that they had suffered meant that they were close to a breaking point. “The strain on France,” he wrote, “has reached breaking point—though it is certainly borne with the most remarkable devotion. If we succeed in opening the eyes of her people to the fact that in a military sense they have nothing more to hope for, that breaking point would be reached and England’s best sword knocked out of her hand" Falkenhayn believed that this strain would manifest in several ways, the most important was that the French people would demand the government seek peace. In this belief Falkenhayn also shows his belief that the government form of a republic, which the French were in 1914 was fundamentally flawed during times of national strain like a war. He believed that if giving the citizens of the country such power over the government the ability of the country withstand the strain of a war was fundamentally weakened. You see this same assumption at times today when looking at the various democracies around the world and their wars with other countries. The problem with this assumption was that it depended on the French people fully understanding the failures of the army, and how bad the situation was, which they absolutely did not. Joffre had many failings, but his ability to keep the true situation at the front secret from the government and the people was stunning. The second piece of Falkenhayn’s assumption was the casualties he believed the French to be suffering, which he was grossly overestimating. This overestimating is not a fault of Falkenhayn’s, it was a problem that every side suffered from throughout the war. In this case this led Falkenhayn to believe that even just a little strain placed upon the French army, over a long enough period, might result in it falling apart.

In these beliefs Falkenhayn was pulling from everything he had learned from 1915. The war was a constant learning process, and we will spend some time before the battle of the Somme talking about the lessons learned by Joffre and Haig, but on the German side the most important lesson learned by Falkenhayn was that the Germans were not capable of launching some great decisive offensive that would lead to a glorious victory and a march through Paris. The French attacks in 1915 reaffirmed this belief. If we look at all of the offensives we discussed last year, it becomes clear that the side on the defense has a great advantage in the long run. Sure, everybody had solved the taking of the first Trench, maybe the first couple of trenches, but moving that success further still remained an unsolved problem that often resulted in a lot of casualties. The defense was just too good at falling back onto second and third lines of trenches and being reinforced by more troops and then counter attacking while the attackers were moving away from their supplies and reinforcements. Even when the Germans had launched a huge offensive that was successful, like in Poland, there still was no decisive victory. Most importantly, at least to Falkenhayn, the French had tried several times with more troops than he could commit to his attack, and they had failed spectacularly. Even if you assume that the Germans would have better artillery, and attributing some sort of super human ability to the German infantry, it still seemed impossible for the Germans to do so much more with so much less. All of these facts would turn Falkenhayn’s belief in the impossibility of a decisive breakthrough into an iron clad assertion that he would base everything on “the lessons to be deduced from the failures of our enemies’ mass attacks are decisive against any imitation of their battle methods. Attempts at a mass break-through even with the extreme accumulation of men and material, cannot be regarded as holding out the prospects of success.” The other lesson that Falkenhayn learned from the French offensives, which I mentioned earlier was that he always had to keep a reserve. No matter what, no matter how tempting it was to put in just a few more divisions into an attack, he had to keep a reserve. I think that in some ways I undersold how impactful the fall French offensives were last year. They really spooked Falkenhayn and some other German leaders. While from the French side they seemed like horrible failures, the Germans saw how close they came to breaking through with very few German troops available to stop them due to how thin German troops were spread all around Europe. To quote Falkenhayn “I am repsonsible. I do not want to come to the same dangerous situation as in the autumn [of 1915] during the battle in the Champagne. I will not allow that to happen again.” Falkenhayn would roll these lessons into his plan, which we will now, finally, discuss in some detail.

“To achieve that object the uncertain method of mass break-through, in any case beyond our means, is unnecessary. We can probably do enough for our purposes with limited resources. Within our reach behind the French sector of the Western front there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death….The objectives of which I am speaking now are Belfort and Verdun. The considerations urged above apply to both, yet the preference must be given to Verdun.” That is another direct quote from Falkenhayn. He went through several different iterations of the German operational plan for 1916. The first iteration involved 3 German offensives with the targets of Belfort, Verdun, and then somewhere in the Vosges mountains. Belfort was a fortified city similar to Verdun only much further to the South near the Swiss border. In subsequent iterations of the plan the other two offensives were taken off the table due to manpower needs and it was narrowed down to just Verdun. But there was another piece of the plan, beyond the attack at Verdun that is often forgotten because it never came to pass. The attack on Verdun was just the first phase of Falkenhayn’s plan. He believed that there were three ways that the French might respond to such an attack and all of them played into the the second phase in some way. The first option was that they might believe Verdun to be unassailable, in which case the Germans would just attack, take the city, and maybe be done. This might be a bit disappointing but would be a solid propaganda victory if nothing else. The second option was that the French might send massive reinforcemtns to the city, this was also generally thought to be an okay outcome since it would limit the French troops availability for offensives later in the year and it would increase the number of French troops in an area that was under heavy German artillery control. The third option, and the most desirable to Falkenhayn was that the French might launch an attack somewhere use to relief the pressure on Verdun, probably in Champagne or Artois again. The hope was that the attack at Verdun would force them to launch these attacks prematurely before preparations were complete and this would let Falkenhayn enact phase 2 of his plan. In phase 2 the Germans would be ready with a number of divisions to launch a huge counter attack immediately after a failed French attack. Up to this point most German counterattacks had been small and localized, just trying to roll back some French gains, but in this case Falkenhayn hoped to turn a counter attack into a full fledged offensive, right into a depleted and disorganized French army. Falkenhayn believed he would need to use part of his 25 division reserve in this attack. While this was the plan, it would never come to pass because one thing that Falkenhayn did not foresee happening, and that was just how important Verdun would become for both sides and its magnetic attraction that would constantly pull more and more troops into the lines to replace those that were lost. The Germans would end up getting pulled far deeper into the attack than Falkenhayn originally wanted, and it would mean that they would lose any hope of launching a large counter attack against the future attacks by the French and British.

I’m not going to spend too long on allied plans right now, I feel like that is something better held until later episodes, and we did touch on it a bit in 61, but it is important to at least touch on some fact here before we move on with our story. That fact is that Verdun would be hugely disruptive for the French and British plans for 1916. Joffre would try, and boy let me tell you he tried, to not let it happen, but it would. Even into March, while the Germans were at their strongest at Verdun Joffre treated it like a secondary theatre. This response was due to the fact that Joffre was fully convinced that the German attack was just a feint, designed to make him change his plans and lose the initiative. The plans that had been made had been in the planning stages for almost 3 months when Verdun started, at the end of 1915 the French and British looked upon their manpower advantage and were quite happy. The British now had a million men on the continent and the number kept growing. The introduction of conscription on the islands meant that the flow of men to the front would not be slowing down anytime soon either. On the French side they had almost 3 million soldiers on the front. In the minds of the two army leaders they just had to find out how to use all of these men and the slow road to victory would begin. The coming attack, and the belief that headcount really mattered that much at all, showcases a somewhat fundamental misunderstanding, even at this late date, of just how strong the Germans were in 1916. The first problem was that manpower simply did not mean that much on the battlefields of the western front, and in some way all the commanders knew this, but they just did not know how little an advantage the size of theirs mattered. They could take some ground here and there by sheer numbers, sure, but there was a finite limit to what that would allow them to do, as the British would find out on July 1. Machine guns and artillery would always restore the battlefield to its static nature once the attack left the comforting blanket of the artillery and almost no number of soldiers could fix this in 1916. There was also a underestimation of how many troops the Germans had, and this is why Joffre put so much stock in having every country attack at the same time. Everybody believed that the only way the Germans were able to survive was to frantically shuffle troops back and forth between fronts as crisis arose. The Germans certainly did this at some level, but it was rarely out of panic, and you would almost never use the word frantic to describe it. This belief by the French and British caused them to misunderstand how many troops the Germans had, believing each front to be, in a vacuum, weak. Joffre even wished that the Germans would attack, since they would be attacking a numerically superior enemy “That development,” Joffre told the government and his allies at the end of January, “would thus be entirely favorable to us and we can only hope it will come to pass.” So you can see how all of these beliefs just made Joffre and Haig more confident in their upcoming attack. They believed that the Germans were weak, and that every day that they attacked at Verdun they were crippling themselves and there ability to react to the coming attack. As the spring wore on though the plans for the Somme began to be affected by the attack, first it was the movement of the attack from late summer to mid summer. Then it was the drastic reduction of French forces from 40 to 25 divisions. All of this meant that when the attack on the Somme came it was reduced significantly from the original plans. The worst part about it from a French perspective is that if the Germans had decided to say attack Russia in 1916, the attack on the Somme would have had a high chance of making a huge dent in the German line. It would have been almost a third larger than it was, and had much more French artillery. The podcast will not be covering the attacks on the Somme for several months, but expect it to weave in and out of our narrative in the coming months as the two giant battles on the Western front affect and change each other.

This week our source of the week is The Price of Glory by Alistair Horne. Since its release in 1994 this book has become THE book for people who want to learn about the struggle for Verdun in 1916. It isn’t the longest, or the most in depth, but it gives the reader a ton of information while being actually readable. This book probably comes in my top five recommendations for books to read about the war and it is the perfect book to give to anybody who has never read about Verdun and has only heard the name in larger histories. If there was a criticism to level against the book it would be that it is largely French focused in its story telling, but that is really expected from English accounts of the battle. Overall I give this book my highest recommendation. Next week we dive deeper into the German plans at Verdun as well as give a quick history about the city and its fortifications. Thank you for listening, and have a great week.