67: Verdun Pt. 5


Today the action finally begins at Verdun. Today we will look at the opening German attacks on the first and second days of fighting.



Hello everyone and welcome to history of the great war episode 67. This week sees the release of what I think is a very interesting premium episode to those who have chosen to support the show over on Patreon. We have started a series of episodes to do a re-evaluation of the role that cavalry played in the war. The British generals, and their believe that cavalry would be useful during the war, is often criticized. However, by first looking at the evolution of British cavalry doctrine from the middle of the 19th century and then tracing that that through the first world war the conclusions are surprising. If that sounds like something that might interest you, you can get access to it and other premium episodes over at patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar. Today the action finally begins at Verdun. Today we will look at the opening German attacks on the first and second days of fighting. We will also be going into some pretty good detail about some of the fighting, and if you pick up a book about Verdun it is often the case that a substantial amount of it will focus on just the first 5 days of fighting. So do not worry, we will not be hitting this level of detail for the full 10 months of fighting. The first day of fighting was all about the German bombardment followed by the German infantry advancing almost unmolested. However, due to their orders and their numbers, they found themselves held up in a few areas by French defenders. On the French side the first day was one of disorder and disaster. The second day saw the Germans continuing to advance, in greater numbers and with deeper objectives, while the French tried to frantically find something, anything to throw in their way. This was the result of all of the build-up that we have discussed over the previous 4 episodes, and it will be the first day of many for the troops at Verdun.

The weeks of horrible weather finally looked to be over at February 19th when the skies cleared and the sun appeared. All throughout the day of the 20th the sun shown on the battlefield, warming it up and drying it out after weeks of snow and rain. The Germans were finally able to put their plan into motion and at 6AM on the 21st the first German guns began to fire, for the next hour and a half more and more German batteries came online until at 7:30 all of the German guns along the front were firing. One German officer would say that the sound was “as if the horsemen of the apocalypse were riding by.” In his book Verdun: The Longest Battle Paul Jankowski discusses the strategy used by the German artillery “German artillerists were blanketing entire zones with their shells. They directed their fire not merely onto positions they wished to take or onto lines they wished to obliterate, but into all that nature had grown and that man had erected as well, making up in density for what they lacked in precision.” While for the Germans it may have sounded impressive, for the French it was a nightmare. One French officer, in charge of keeping a stretch of telephone lines intact throughout the bombardment would later recall what happened when he would send men out to repair breaks in the line “Thousands of projectiles are flying in all directions, some whistling, others howling, others moaning low, and all uniting in one infernal roar, From time to time an aerial torpedo passes, making a noise like a gigantic motor car. With a tremendous thud a giant shell bursts quite close to our observation post, breaking the telephone wire and interrupting all communication with our batteries. It seems quite impossible that he should escape in the rain of shell, which exceeds anything imaginable; there has never been such a bombardment in war. Our man seems to be enveloped in explosions, and shelters himself in the shell craters which honeycomb the ground; finally he reaches a less stormy spot, mends his wires, and then, as it would be madness to try to return, settles down in a crater and waits for the storm to pass." In the Bois Des Caures, where Colonel Driant and his men were stationed, one corporal would record that the artillery sounded like “a storm, a hurricane, a tempest growing ever stronger, where it was raining nothing but paving stones.” All along the front the French troops were receiving the same beating. All through the morning the shell fell, over 12,000 per mile of front, every hour, it was raining steel. By 8AM, just an hour into the bombardment all communication with the French front lines was obliterated, and the shelling was just getting started. In the various small wooded areas around Verdun, where many French soldiers sheltered in their trenches, tree after tree was shattered by explosions, but no sooner would it fall to the ground than it would be hit again, and again, splintering into a million pieces. Woods that had stood for centuries were destroyed, leaving nothing but splinters everywhere. At noon, the bombardment suddenly stopped. All along the front the French soldiers came out of hiding to prepare for the expected German attack and to look at the devastation that had been wrought. One French officer would say “The violence of the area was such that when we left our shelters we could not recognize the countryside in which we had lived for four months.” The Germans had paused the bombardment not to prepare for the attack but instead to let the French leave their shelters, letting the Germans know where the shelling should continue. Everywhere that a Frenchman stuck his head above the trenches was marked, and there fire would be directed. This pause would become a common tactic on the fronts of the war because it put the defenders in an impossible situation. Should they stay in their shelters, with the possibility of being overrun by German infantry? Or should they look out and prepare, only to risk further bombardment? In this case the Germans would continue their shelling for another 5 hours. Throughout the day a million shells would be fired from the German guns. Over the front, one German pilot looked down and saw the destruction below only to say “It’s done, we can pass, there’s nothing living there anymore.” While the pilot was wrong, for the French the bombardment was devastating. There was not communication from the brigade level down and communication between even the smallest units was nearly non-existent. They had not had time to fully prepare their lines before the 21st, in many places the trenches that were strong enough were then not properly connected with other trenches. This was particularly a problem when it came to communication trenches that could have assisted in getting reinforcements to the front in the coming days, unfortunately they just did not exist and instead any movement often had to be done over open ground with shells bursting all around, a suicide run. When the fight would come, and it would come soon, most French units would find themselves cut off and surrounded almost immediately. The French guns, which should have come online to do counterbattery fire at the Germans, were so overwhelmed with fire that they could do nothing. They sat out the bombardment, hoping to survive until the German guns started firing somewhere else so they could reply. The bombardment was lifted from the front lines at 5PM and many German guns moved their fire deeper behind the French lines. It was now time for the German infantry to move forward and complete their conquest of the theoretically unoccupied trenches in front of them.

Throughout the day on the 21st the German infantry had heard all of the shelling, and I am sure they had some idea of the hell that was falling on the French soldiers that were opposite of them. Here is Alistair Horne from Price of Glory “In the Stollen the infantry made their final preparations. Men unscrewed the spikes from their helmets so they wouldn’t get caught on any underbrush, officers turned their caps backwards so as lot to be recognized, every man had a large scale sketch of the French line opposite him, and squads of machine gunners without their weapons were waiting to go in with the assault teams to return to service at once any captured French weapon.” And in Verdun: The Lost History by John Mosier he discusses the tactics that the Germans would use “Instead of a platoon of riflemen, backed by machine gunners and artillery, the Germans put together mixed groups: specially selected infantry, combat engineers, and machine gunners. Instead of a direct frontal assault, these small and heavily armed groups would work around the objectives, attack from the sides. the infantry commanders could ask directly for supporting artillery fire on targets they wanted destroyed, whereas in the French system, that same commander would have to transmit his request all the way up the chain of command, where it would approved or rejected, even if he was a divisional commander.” At roughly 5PM, the units started slowly moving forward. It is interesting that the attack began so late in the afternoon. Throughout most of the war the beginning of large offensives always took place very close to dawn. The idea was to give the attacks the maximum hours of daylight in which to push forward their attack. By starting to late in the afternoon the Germans were putting a hard cap on how much time they would have to move forward. This was determined to be acceptable because this was not the main attack, that would come later, this was instead more of a patrol in force and along the front the infantry and pioneers of 9 divisions moved forward. There were in small clusters and the crept forward looking for any French that survived the bombardment according to Paul Jankowski “They slipped through the intervals between blockhouses or what was left of them, jumped from crater to crater; they skirted the flanks of ruined trenches or hacked and bored their way through them.” This was at least how most of the German troops attacked, except for the 7th Corps under General von Zwehl. The 7th Corps would be the exception often in the early fighting as von Zwehl had a very specific interpretation of the orders that had been given to him which caused him to be far more aggressive with his troops than the other Corps leaders. As the infantry moved forward larger groups of pioneers and soldiers assigned to rebuild the French defenses for German use moved forward behind them. Many German units quickly found themselves constrained by the orders that they had been given. In just an hour on many areas of the front the first lines of trenches had fallen and the goals for the day had been reached. When the German commanders began to fully understand how little resistance was in front of them they tried to order the troops to continue forward. The Fifth Army sent out orders to continue the push forward as far as possible on the first day, until strong resistance was encountered, but by the time the order would reach the front it would be too late and darkness had descended on the battlefield. Most of the German men and officers who had led the attack found themselves sitting in defenses as night fell, with nothing but seemingly open countryside in front of them, only for the order to arrive later. One Colonel would later recall that as darkness fell “A mad rage gripped me [when we were held back] [as] the entire outcome of the war could have been decided here.”

As the bombardment on the first day had lifted of the French troops that survived some of them had fallen back, but other had held on. It is somewhat surprising that anybody could have survived the bombardment and the number of troops that survived varied along the front. Troops in wooded areas or on the reverse slopes of hills had a better time of it, since it was more difficult for the Germans to see them and direct fire against their positions. However, where the troops did survive they often found themselves cut off in small units, fighting larger German forces, sometimes to the last man. Alistair Horne calls these actions “countless unrecorded small Thermopylaes.” There were similar actions at various places along the line but we will focus on the action in the Bois des Caures with our old friend Colonel Driant. The Bois des Caures was a very important position, being in the center of the French positions on the Right bank. There were two battalions of chasseurs stationed there, and they had taken a beating from the bombardment. It is hard to know how many men survived the bombardments on the first day, because none of the men who had survived had an accurate count. So of the roughly 1,500 men that were in the woods at the beginning anywhere from a half to a quarter might have been able to meet the German attack at 5PM. One of the few survivors later recalled that “they expected to find nothing before them and found survivors instead.” When the survivors came out of hiding for the second time that day, around them they saw a landscape even more pulverized than at noon. The landscape was nearly unrecognizable, with giant shell holes within shell holes, within shell holes. Trees were almost completely absent, those that were left just a few spikey splinters poking out of the ground. Even the French concrete machine gun posts were not safe, several of them being destroyed by fire. Even the largest of the French infantry shelters were damaged, with two of them being completely destroyed by a direct hit, killing all of the French soldiers inside. All along the woods though, small units were able to put up a fight against the advancing Germans, sometimes at platoon strength, sometimes no more than a handful of men spread out among the shell holes. One the northern side Lieutenant Robin had his men up on what was left of the parapets as soon as the bombardment ended. He was almost instantly attacked by a German patrol of over a hundred men and he was forced to order his men back to the next positions. Even in the few places where the German units were decisively stopped if often just meant that the defending French unit would be outflanked on the left and right and surrounded. Before evening the men under Robin launched a small counter attack when one of their positions was taken, and they managed to capture a few Germans. They told the French that the main infantry advance had not even started, and it would only begin on the second day. The Lieutenant managed to get a hold of Driant to ask him what he should do. Robin asked Driant “What am I do do against this with my eighty men?” to which Driant could only respond “My poor Robin, the order is to stay where we are.” And so the French in the Bois des Caures would hold on, barely, for now. However, wherever the Germans brought forward their new terror weapon, the flamethrower, the French had difficulty in holding the line. It was so feared that men would surrender if a flamethrower even got close to their position. Overall the first day of fighting would cost the French most of the 72nd division, which would be even harder hit the second day, but it was something of a miracle that they managed to mount any resistance at all. The German bombardment had been successful, but it had not worked as well as they had hoped, in some places the patrols the Germans had sent out had been stopped, like in the Bois des Caures. This represented a huge missed opportunity for the Germans. If they had attacked with all of their strength they would have easily rolled over any surviving Frenchmen, something the Germans on the front line could easily see. But as it was some objectives that were supposed to be captured on the first day would roll to the second. On some levels you can almost consider the first day of fighting to be a failure for the Germans, a failure caused, for one of the few times during the war, by orders to the troops that were too conservative instead of too aggressive. One thing was an absolute truth though, there was no way that the men on the ground, after experiencing the cataclysm that was the first 18 hours of fighting at Verdun, could predict that it would just be the first of over 300 days of the fighting. Among the hills and woods behind the front that was hardest hit French rifles, machine guns, and artillery began to move into the line to try and close up the huge gaps in the French line.

As night fell on the first day the fighting died away, but that just meant that the bombardment recommenced. The order to continue found its way to the forward German units during the night, which as I mentioned was too late. What was even worse for the Germans was that the meteorologists had been wrong when they had called for several days of good weather starting on the 21st. Instead the German troops found themselves fighting not against the French overnight, but instead against strong winds and snow flurries. But now that the attack had started, no small changes in weather could stop it. The orders for the next day arrived early in the morning from Knobelsdorf and the gloves were now fully off of the German attack. There were no longer any limits placed on how far the troops could advance and the capture of the Bois des Caures was put at the top of the German priorities list. However, before the Germans could launch their attack in the morning, miraculously, there were some French counter attacks launched. Most of these were launched at first light with the intention of pushing the Germans back off of some of the ground they had gained on the first day. The biggest of these attacks was to take place against the Bois d’Haumont which the Germans had successfully captured. Here the scattered French troops were mustered together at 5AM, only for the commanders to decide that they did not have enough men to execute their attack so they delayed while more troops were moved forward. First it was delayed just an hour until 6AM, then it slipped to 8:30. More troops would continue to arrive, but it would not matter because just before 8:30 a German aircraft would spot the groups of Frenchmen below and the German artillery began dumping huge amounts of artillery on the area. The attack had to be called off, but not all of the troops would receive the order in time. So on this area of the front small French units tried to charge across the shattered battlefield only to be quickly cut down. In other areas the German attack had begun, once again the flamethrowers played a big role in the attacks, once again devastating French morale wherever they were used. The German troops advanced out of the Bois d’Haumont towards the village of Haumont behind a German barrage just finishing up on the French who were going to launch their attack. The Germans advanced slowly, not due to French resistance but because they were waiting while some 420mm guns continued to pound the French troops in the town. The flamethrowers were sent in with the first waves of infantry to finish off the job. But Haumont, as dramatic as the French counter attack had been a failure, was a sideshow, the main act was taken place in the Bois des Caures and there the German bombardment increased in intensity at 7AM. The French suffered more from the artillery on the second day than on the first, their positions which had never been great had deteriorated over the first 24 hours of the fighting and the 5 hours of bombardment on Driant’s men on the 22nd of February fell among defenses that were already almost worthless. Around noon the artillery moved its fire on and the Germans came forward to mop up what was left of the French solders in the Bois des Caures. The French defenders were in an impossible situation, they were surrounded on 3 sides and they had fired all of their remaining rockets, vainly hoping for French artillery assistance, no help was coming though and they would have to fight on alone. Once the Germans came into what was left of the woods they came under fire from isolated French units and the few machine guns that were left. This caused the Germans, who were not expecting much resistance, to bunch up and make the situation worse. With more men the French might have actually stopped them, but there just were not enough of them. Lieutenants Robin and Stephane were captured. Stephane would remark after the war how surprised he was at how clean and organized the Germans were behind the line, he was also impressed by the huge stack of shells that he saw at the German gun line. By this point Driant had gathered as many men as he could find, just around 80 and they held onto just one position in the wood, but soon the Germans brought up two 77mm guns and began firing at the French at point blank range. Driant had no choice but to order a retreat, the men that were left split into 3 groups to try and escape. Driant’s group was ambushed while making their way back and most of the men with him, including Driant himself, were killed. Of the 1,500 men Driant had started the battle with, a few hundred in total made it out of the woods alive, and many of those were wounded. They had held up the Germans though, for almost all of the second day of fighting which was quite a feat considering the situation. Driant’s body was later found by the husband of the German Baroness and it was because of this that his personal effects found their way back, in time, to his wife in France. It is small bits of humanity like this, of a German officer sending the effects of the French officer to his wife, who then took the time to mail them through Switzerland to France, that seem so out of place on the battlefields of the First World War, but it certainly happened and more than just once. Near the end of the second day some of the French artillery, mainly those guns over on the Left bank, began to have an effect by hindering the Germans advancing closest to the river. Overall the French artillery had been hit hard during those first 48 hours, when they did manage to fire they had no spotters to direct their fire and all they could do was fire on targets identified before the fighting started, which meant that they were little help to the infantry who were under attack, but they were at least doing something. Often though, as soon as a French battery came online and fired a few rounds they would be targeted by German 150mm guns and destroyed. Some of the guns were moved further back to escape the advancing German infantry and the worst of the shelling, but many had to be abandoned because of casualties in the horse teams that would have pulled them to safety. All along the front the best word to describe the French situation was desperate, or maybe confused. The 72nd division, the most critical in the fighting, was left without a commander for much of the 21st and 22nd when the command center was moved twice. An example of the confusing at the highest levels of French command can be seen in the situation pertaining to the town of Brabrant, an important strongpoint on the Meuse river. General Bapst, the commander of the 72nd, received word that it was close to being surrounded, he then sent a messenger to ask for permission from his superior, General Chretein, to abandon the city to save the troops within. Chretein did not answer immediately and only several hours after receiving the message would he answer back, telling Bapst to just do what he thought was best. By giving this order Chretein should have known that Bapst would then abandon the town, which is exactly what Bapst ordered. A few hours later when Chretein had more reinforcements available to him, he changed his mind and sent this order to Bapst “The Brabrant position should have been evacuated without the permission of the superior command…the General commanding the 72nd Division will take measures to reoccupy Brabrant.” While Brabant had been evacuated in time and few Frenchmen had lost their lives, there were not enough men to launch the ordered counterattack and so the town would remain in German hands. By the end of the second day the German advance had continued about 2 kilometers along most of the front, not as far as expected but still a good distance. The French were still resisting stubbornly though, and counterattacking at every available opportunity. This slowed the Germans down, but it also cost the French dearly in casualties. During the first two weeks of the battle 3/5th of the French troops involved would become casualties, partially due to these counter attacks. The German casualties on the other hand would be light, in the two divisions in the attack there were less than 2000 men killed or missing in the entire first month of the battle, there were of course many more wounded, but even this number was quite small. As night settled in on the 22nd the artillery again began to target the French lines. The weather again became very cold and windy, which was miserable for the troops on both sides, but nothing compared to all of the wounded scattered along the battlefield. For the French there was hope, reinforcements were coming into the line now, men of the 20th Corps were arriving over the night of the 22nd, with three brigades reaching the front during the night and more on the way. However, as bad as the first two days had been for the French, the next three would be even worse, but that is a story for the next episode when the German attack continue and the mighty fortress of Douaumont falls, almost without a fight.