After a long hard fought offensive the Germans were finally stopped by the end of July and now it was time for the French to start pushing them back, it is these actions that we will discuss today.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 74. After a long hard fought offensive the Germans were finally stopped by the end of July and now it was time for the French to start pushing them back, it is these actions that we will discuss today. That is not all that we will be talking about though, because they actually are not, quite frankly, that interesting. We will also finally get around to talking some more about what life was like in the trenches for the troops at Verdun. We will specifically be covering the food and medical care situations at the front. The last part of this episode will be a somewhat lengthy discussion about why Verdun become Verdun. And no, that does not mean I will be giving a history of the town, what I mean by this is how what started as a limited offensive for the Germans became the focal point of effort for the entire attacking strength of the German army and the entire defensive strength of the French army. All of this and more will be covered in this, the penultimate episode of our Verdun story.
We will start off this episode by covering something that I have not done a great job of discussing so far and that is what was happening on the other fronts that was effecting the fighting at Verdun. It will be a long time before we find out what the Brusilov offensive was in the east, something like 3 more months, so I think I should just give a quick summary of what was happening over there since it had robbed the Germans of so much strength early in the summer. The Russians had received a message from the French back in March that asked them to launch an attack as soon as possible to try and pull German troops away from Verdun. The French pointed out the attacks that they had launched in the fall of 1915, partially to help the Russians out of the dire straits that they were in at the time. This pressure that was put on the Russians spurred them into action and they launched an attack on March 18th near Lake Naroch in modern day Lithuania. The Russians seemed to have the advantage here, their supply lines along the entire front had been greatly shortened after the retreat from Poland and they drastically outnumbered the Germans across from them. But even with these advantages the attack would still result in a spectacular failure. Five times the number of Russians attacked the Germans and overran the first two German trenches but they could make it no further. For another week the Russians tried to advance, and then it was over. This action caused so few casualties for the Germans that it had basically no effect on the fighting at Verdun. However, it did play a role in luring the Germans even further into the belief that they did not need to fear the Russians or their offensive capabilities. They would soon learn that this was not the case when in June General Brusilov would launch an attack on the southern end of the Russian front. Here Brusilov would take advantage of the weak Austrian units and a new strategy that involved attacks along a massive front to prevent a counter attack. Over the course of just a few week the Austrian army, after suffering hundreds of thousands of casualties, was once again very close to the breaking point. A constant stream of German reinforcements would have to be brought into the area. This did drastically effect the fighting at Verdun as we discussed last week when divisions were forced to be moved directly out of the reinforcement pool for Verdun to replace the troops sent eastward. This would cause the beginning of the end of German attacks as this movement of troops, coupled with the action soon to start on the Somme, would rob the 5th army of necessary troops to continue their push.
With that out of the way, lets get back to our chronicle of events. Throughout the entire summer Joffre had wanted Petain to be more aggressive. In the middle of June he, multiple times I might add, insisted that Petain execute attacks to push the Germans back in a few key areas. These requests were resisted by Petain and so Nivelle was brought in to replace him. Nivelle would just attack and attack, and given the state of the German troops at the time it was bound to work in some areas. If you hit your head against a wall enough eventually you will get through, might just have to go through a few heads first. By the end of July the Germans were set up perfectly for more attacks from the French and throughout August several French attacks hit them at various parts of the line. None of these were particularly large, but they went a long way to showcasing to everyone watching what the German situation was. Petain once again began to advocate that more troops be brought in, this time for attacking instead of rotating troops out. Petain argued that he could not launch a successful attack without these extra troops, part of the problem was due to how depleted many French units were “The experience of several months proves that a unit that has lost a third of its combatants no longer offers sufficient resilience to resist an attack or, as a minimum, to maintain the integrity of the front.” Even though August was one of the quieter months at Verdun there were still casualties that required a constant movement of replacements into the theater, these would have to be added to the additional troops needed for the attack, for which preparations soon began.
When Joffre sent an officer to Verdun on September the 13th the goal was to discuss a possible future operation. He wanted Petain and his generals to give him an outline for a new attack that could then be refined, but Petain was more than ready. He had a detailed plan that he was ready to put into motion. Petain’s plan was ot attack with 6 divisions on a 5 kilometer front. Petain asked for several new divisions to enact this plan and after seeing Petain’s plan, which Joffre called an “offensive of great energy” he was provided with 2 new divisions and 5 other mostly rested ones to replace those in the line. Here is historian Alistair Horne “The counter-offensive reveal the Verdun team of Petain-Nivelle-Mangin working together in greater harmony than ever before.” Mangin would execute the attacks and be responsible for carrying out the details. Part of this was a reorganization of the infantry platoons to shift the mix up of riflemen, grenadiers, and machine guns to better suit the needs of the battlefield. Neville was responsible for planning the details that Mangin would carry out. With his history in the artillery he was particularly involved with the planning of that part of the operation. Part of his plan was to lay telephone wire below the bottom of the trenches to try and improve the coordination between the front lines and the gun lines. With this coordination he planned to use a barrage that would stay just ahead of the infantry and also be able to adapt if the infantry needed to go slower or faster. Petain, the man at the top, was responsible for overall planning and for all of the logistical and support functions that are so critical to large operations. Petain would get the troops from Joffre that he needed and he was also able to bring in more artillery both from the areas of the front that he controlled and from all along the line. To go along with these functions Petain also played another very important role, he was the restraining factor to hold the other generals back. He made sure that the goals of the opening attacks were attainable and more importantly the attack did not go off half cocked like so many French counter attacks of the past several months. The goal for this attack was a big one, Douaumont, of course it was Douaumont. The preparations were in depth, including a full size outline of the fort laid out behind the line for French soldiers to practice on. One of the interesting innovations that was developed for this attack was a method of getting water up to the front line and beyond. An engineer was brought in, one apparently involved in the creation of the Panama canal and he created a system of easily transportable canvas pipes that could be used to go out from the French lines and reach out with the advancing infantry. The system was, while slightly fragile, also easily mendable and also flexible which are two aspects that are critical on the world war 1 battlefields. The French would go into this attack more confident than at any previous point in time at Verdun. On the other side the Germans knew they were in trouble. It was obvious they had less men, it was obvious the French had fresher men, it was obvious that the French now had the advantage in artillery.
The offensive was originally scheduled for early October, but as was typical it got pushed back until the 21st of the month. During all of this time, both preparations and the delay, the French continued to concentrate more and more artillery on the front. By the 19th when the bombardment really got going they had over 700 guns. These included some of the largest guns in the French arsenal with 2 270mm, 2 280mm, 1 370mm and 2 400mm guns that were just as powerful as anything that the Germans had brought to Verdun throughout the campaign. For 2 days these guns and many more focused mainly on shelling Douaumont in preparation for the attack. During those two days the shelling did not cause too much damage to the fort, however at others areas along the line the German units were getting hit brutally. By the start of the attack the German infantry’s ability to offer any resistance at all was hanging by a thread. One interesting tactic that the French tried in the middle of the bombardment was to stop firing the guns and the troops were ordered to yell like they were getting ready to run forward in the attack, but they were not. The Germans of course did not know that the French meant to stay in their trenches and called down the German artillery on no-man’s land. Up until this point the German artillery had been almost completely silent to prevent the French from finding their locations. But now, with the German guns firing they revealed their positions and the French artillery rained down masses of counterbattery fire. As the bombardment began to reach its crescendo Douaumont, which had been standing so strong for so long, was beginning to show some serious wear. The French 400mm shells were hitting it hard with a predictable interval of 15 minutes between shots and suddenly there was a huge explosion within the fort, shaking it to its very foundations. Several of the French shells had been penetrating what was left of the concrete and earth carapace above the fort and were starting to explode within the corridors. One of these shells got very close to the large caches of French shells that had been deep within the fort for the entire battle. It was clear that every time a shell landed it was putting the entire fort at the risk of exploding, there was also a fire raging through the corridors of the fort and so that night the German commander ordered the fort to be abandoned. By morning the Germans had successfully abandoned the fort. Early the next morning, as the first wave of French attackers moved into the fort they found it completely empty. What they found was that the fires had extinguished themselves during the night, instead of igniting the ammunition stores like the Germans feared. The French units sent back runners to bring in more French soldiers to once again put the fort in French hands. And with that the strongest fortifications at Verdun was taken in an attack for the second time against almost no opposition. It is really crazy that it happened twice, a French commander would say “a singular fate for a fort which during 8 months had been the key to a field of battle watered with the blood of hundreds of thousands of men…” When the French soldiers ran forward they did it under the protection of a thick morning fog, they quickly captured Douaumont and continued to push forward. Fleury and Ouvrage de Thiamont fell in a matter of hours, something that had taken the Germans months to accomplish. The Germans that had been in the line had been worn down by the constant fire from the French guns and some units had been without food or water for up to 6 days. Mangin did not begin to learn how well the attack was going until well into the afternoon since communications to the rear had for the most part broken down. Even when rumors began to make it to headquarters everyone was far more cautious with broadcasting the news. All of these great gains should have been instantly broadcast out to all of France, earlier in the war they would have been. But too many times the French press and military leadership had been burned when they publically announced events only to have to retract them later. On the 24th a few German units tried to counterattack, but there simply was not the strength available to make it happen. By November the 2nd Vaux had also been retaken after having also been evacuated by the Germans. The German propaganda machines played down these setbacks but for most of the people in the army they knew what the losses of these key areas meant. The German threat at Verdun was definitively over. Hindenburg would be quoted as saying around this time that “On this occasion the enemy hoisted us with our own petard. We could only hope that in the coming year he would not repeat the experiment on a greater scale and with equal success.” During November and most of the December there was little action at Verdun with both sides completely exhausted. Nivelle did decide to push forward with an attack on December the 16th to push the line beyond Douaumont and Verdun. This was approved by Petain and it would advance up to 3 kilometers and a minimum of 1 kilometer. What they found was only token resistance from few German troops. And that…was sort of the end. What had started with a bang in February had ended with French divisions rolling over German troops that were exhausted, outnumbered, and massively outgunned. Verdun, was over.
Two topics that have been in my notes this entire time for Verdun and have been in the outline of every episode but have never made it in are Food and Medicine in the trenches. I refuse at this point to not put them in an episode, so I am putting them in right here. Food was extremely important to the fighting, second only to water as the most important things for the troops at the front. Beyond the obvious biological reasons for this was the effect that food had on morale. All of the commanders recognized this fact, according to Ludendorff “The efforts of the Army in the field, depend to a high degree on their rations. That, next to leave, has the most decisive effect on the morale of the troops.” Getting food to the front was always difficult during the war, especially during attacks. During quieter times the rations were brought up nightly to the front lines, generally 3 or 4 men would be sent back to the rear for every company of men. These groups would go on a journey of up to 10 miles which felt far longer since on the way back they were weighed down by food and water. During the rainy seasons this was even more difficult due to the mud that slowed everybody down. The guns of the enemy would of course also not be silent during all of this. There were always artillery shells falling behind the lines and if a specific resupply route was discovered it would inevitably be targeted. Because of all of these factors it was not unusual for the food and water to get up to the front. This meant that at times mean had little food or water for days at a time. Generally men would understand how difficult it was to get food to the front lines, even if they did not like it. However, when they were off the front lines and in the rear they became far less understanding. When food, and decent food, made readily available to troops behind the front it had an instant and noticeable effect on morale. This caused the French to undergo some serious reforms in 1916 to try and improve the food available to the men when they were off the line, especially to increase the availability of hot food, this type of reform would play an even larger role in 1917 when trying to solve the mutiny problems the French army would have. This is not the last time we will discuss food and drink both in the line, behind the line, and on the home front. There will hopefully be an entire episode focusing strictly on this topic later this year.
During World War 1 the medical facilities were never known to be great. But of course like any other aspect of keeping the armies at the front each country did things a little differently. For the French soldiers this was very bad news because they had the worst medical facilities and success rate of any of the three armies on the Western Front. For a soldier wounded at the front the first link in the medical chain was the stretcher bearers. Every unit had a specified group of stretcher bears at the beginning of th ewar, but most of these groups quickly ran out of members. Regimental musicians were also used for stretcher bearers, until their numbers also began to fall short of the requirements. Finally, a call for volunteers went out at the front to try and increase the number of stretcher bears and the response was less than amazing. Being a stretcher bearer was a very difficult and very dangerous job, especially when there was often a shortage of actual stretchers to use and the men were forced to find other means of transit. I do not know if you have ever tried to carry a full grown man who is absolutely no assistance any great distance, but the few times I have tried I did not make it very far. Trying to bring in the wounded without proper stretchers, or suitable replacements, was almost impossible on the battlefields of 1916 because they often needed at least 2 men to get a wounded off the battlefield, but without stretchers it was impossible to properly utilize the abilities of two men at the same time, and it of course also did not do the wounded any favors. The problem with stretcher bearers, especially in the French army, was that it was a cascading problem whereby as there were less stretcher bearers there was a lower chance of any particular soldier being picked up when injured when then resulted in less men feeling like it was worth it to risk their lives to be stretcher bearer which resulted in a lower chance of any particular soldier being picked up, so on and so forth. This got to the point, especially on the more hotly contested battlefields like Verdun where soldiers just assumed that if they were injured they would not be helped in any way, which did nothing to help morale. Even those that were brought off the battlefields and behind the lines were just at the beginning of their journey. If they survived their initial injury, and got picked up and brought behind the lines, and then survived through the ambulance ride, and the ride in often unsanitary railway cattle cars they then arrived at base hospitals that were completely overwhelmed pretty much constantly. At the beginning of the war the French military had been planning on a short war, just like everybody else, and they were also planning on the war involving mostly bullet wounds. This meant that the number of surgeons was actually lower than might have otherwise been. With bullet wounds there is often a cleaner wound, with entry and exit points that sometimes does not even require a surgeon to work on it. However, since there would be so many artillery casualties on the battlefields of World War 1, and for these injuries you almost always needed a surgeon they were forced to make some choices. When the men arrived at these hospitals they were split into three groups, those that would die anyway and were not worth the time, those that would survive but would not be able to do any more fighting, and those that could be saved to fight another day. In the cruel math of war the third group got the lion’s share of attention. This type of triage was used by other armies as well, but they always seemed to be a bit better at getting men stabilized and shipped out of the base hospitals and usually back home. For the French this was always a challenge. For example from February 23rd to the end of June 1916 23,000 French soldiers died after they had arrived at a hospital. In fact the French would have the highest ratio of deaths for the wounded on the Western Front with 420,000 men dying during the war after they arrived at some form of aid station. The end result of all of this was a definitive callousness among the French soldiers when it came to the wounded.
One of the most important questions to ask, and one that is often asked and discussed at great length and in excruciating detail is why Verdun continued on so long. Why did something that for both sides was accomplishing to little other than grind units into dust continue? I think the reason that this topic is discussed so much is because there is not a definitive answer. It took the decisions of so many people involved to create the situation where the fighting continued, and there was also a lot of luck and chance in there as well. On the French side the reasoning seems a bit more obvious. The Germans were attacking a position on the line that the French were defending, so they defended it. However, while Verdun was a semi-famous location it could have been abandoned early in the fighting without too much of a fuss. The French could have spun a story in the press about how fixed fortifications like those at Verdun were not important and they were saving their strength for other operations. However, when Castlenau arrived and gave the order to hold the East Bank at all costs the French military decided that it was important. Joffre could have altered this order, but he did not, but if he was going to it would have to have been shortly after the decision by Castlenau was made. Castelnau’s decision did not put the military in a position where they physically could not retreat but by deciding that Verdun was important it made retreat a difficult option politically. The political dimension and the pressure from Poincare and other members in the French leadership cannot be underestimated. They were strongly urging for the French to defend Verdun very strongly, and certainly to not abandon the East Bank even if it was militarily prudent. Their concern reached beyond just Verdun though, for more than a year the French army had known nothing but failure. The French offensives to start the war, the late year attacks to try and drive the Germans bank, then all of the actions of 1915, all horrible failures. They hoped that Verdun would turn into a victory, finally a victory. While all of these men could have changed the French army’s stance toward the fighting the blame still has to rest at the top and on Joffre. Throughout my research I have always been a bit baffled as to why the French did not retreat, which would have allowed them to save more men for the attack on the Somme which may have actually accomplished something, and in an attack instead of a defense which Joffre preferred. At the end of the day the French decisions could have been expected because they were in line with their tactical and strategic planning since the start of the war, defend every step of French soil no matter the cost. For the Germans trying to understand why Verdun lasted so long is more complicated. They were the ones attacking after all, and throughout much of the battle they had the initiative and could have called it off at any time. In fact Knobelsdorf’s replacement as Chief of Staff for the Fifth Army gave his evaluation after the war and said that the Germans should have completely withdrawn from Verdun at the end of April when it became clear that the attacks on the West banks were not going as planned. This type of retreat, at about this period of time was considered, but neither Falkenhayn or Knobelsdorf thought it was a good idea. The problem for the Germans was that they put artificial pressure on the army to capture Verdun, completely fabricated pressure. For example the Kaiser would say near the beginning of the fighting that “The decision of the War of 1870 took place in Paris. This war will end at Verdun.” The Germans fell into their own trap of placing too much prestige on one target even when experiencing crippling losses. Even after Falkenhayn was replaced this would continue, with Hindenburg and Ludendorff trying to hold onto what had been gained at Verdun instead of pulling their troops back to better positions. To summarize everything, I think there are two reasons that Verdun continued from February 21st until near the end of the 1916, first prestige. For the Germans the prestige they placed on capturing the town of Verdun and for the French the prestige of keeping it out of German hands. I would say that this reason was at a peak in late February and then slowly tapered off in importance as the fighting continued. As it tapered off it was replaced by what I think is one of the greatest textbook definitions of the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy is often used in the business world when a company continues on with a project not because it is the correct move, and not because it is likely to be successful, but because so many resources have already been spent on it. At Verdun this can be applied to all of the fighting at March. After hundreds of thousands of men died for both the attackers and defenders it becomes extremely difficult to tell the army that the sacrifice was pointless and they should just abandon the positions. Making that decision in say July or August means that all of the decisions of May, April, and March were probably wrong, and that all of those men who were now dead or wounded were wasted. The power of the sunk cost fallacy would peak in the last few months of the war when the Germans were barely holding onto horrible positions against French counter attacks. Positions that were completely worthless, except for the fact that hundreds of thousands of Germans had died to take them. By the end of 1916 the nightmare of Verdun was over, but its effect on the armies and the German and French societies was just beginning and we will talk about it next week.