75: Verdun Pt. 13


Verdun, is over.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 75, our 13th and last on the battle of Verdun. This week I would like to thank Gary and Richard and ask everybody, if they had the time, to leave a review for the podcast on iTunes. A few weeks ago I said the show would be up on Google Play Podcasts and while there have been a few technical difficulties in making that happen I believe it is now available, so if you are listening on that platform consider leaving a review for the show there as well. Just like Verdun has been a long journey for us it was also an incredibly long ordeal for the French and German armies. What started as an attempt by Falkenhayn to draw in the French army had drawn in the German army as well. It had lasted from February the 21st 1916 until basically the end of the year, although there is not a date that is set in stone for its end. This episode will just be a general discussion about the failures on both sides, both German and French. Falkenhayn had failed in his attempt to beat the French army, whether that was an attempt to bleed it white as he says in his memoirs or if he was actually trying to take Verdun. The French army had, I guess been successful in their defense of Verdun, but at such great cost. After talking some numbers we will move on to discuss for just a bit why and how Verdun has played a role in French and German societies for the last 100 years. And then, roughly 18 minutes from now, our story of Verdun will be over, and we will finally move our story off the banks of the Meuse.

Before we move onto the whys and hows, I think it is important to fire talk about straight up concrete numbers. The number of casualties on both sides is staggering. After the war Verdun for a time got the reputation of the most costly battle of the entire war and while it is not strictly true, in fact the first few months of the war the Battle of the Frontiers, had cost far more men with over 1.5 million casualties. Verdun would get this reputation because of the vast scale of suffering on such a small geographical area. The one area that Verdun is very high up, and maybe at the top, is to the highest percentage of casualties when compared to the number of men involved. The actual numbers seem to vary a bit. The official figures for the French are just a hair over 375,000 casualties and the Germans right around 337,000. Many historians that I have read think that this number is undershooting it quite a bit and generally think the numbers may be closer to 50,000 more on both sides. Regardless of the exact number it is still a staggering sum. It is important to remember that this huge number was spread out over 10 months of fighting, with such a long timespan the daily wastage rate was pretty small when compared with shorter and more intense battles. One fact that I found to be interesting with regards to casualties was that I expected French casualties to be the highest in February and March while they were struggling to hold off the German attack and this is actually correct. What I did not expect was on the German side February was not even close to the most costly month for their army, in fact it would not even be in the top five. Instead German casualties would slowly rise month over month from February to June before dropping off at that point. Both sides seemed to drop off after June when the fighting began to spread out in time and other fronts started to rob both armies of the reinforcements that had previously flowed in. One fact that Paul Jankowski points out in Verdun The Longest Battle is that unlike many other battles during the war where the attackers suffered far higher casualty rates than the defenders at Verdun there was not much correlation. One possible reason for this was that the concentration of artillery and the role that it played in the attacks made the difference far less, and at times swung it the other way. Unfortunately for the Germans Verdun would be just one of the very costly battles of 1916, just one piece of a very hard year.

You cannot talk about Verdun without talking about Falkenhayn and the German motives for the attack. If their goal was to cause a huge number of French casualties, they had succeeded, there was just one problem, the number of German casualties that were caused as a result. What had started as a limited offensive had turned into the primary point of effort for the German army throughout the spring of 1916. When you look at the straight up numbers, as I mentioned before, they caused more French casualties than they suffered. If you look at a map you can see that while their gains were greatly reduced from their July high point they still held onto more ground than they had started the battle with. By the classical definition of victory the Germans won. But at the time, in the years after the war, and now the fact that Verdun was an abject failure for the German army cannot be escaped and it is difficult to even debate. After the massive casualties from the battle the German army would never be the same again. Every one of those men was more precious than their French counter parts because the German army had far greater obligations to fulfill in the war, and soon they would not be able to replace all of the casualties. Those casualties were just heightened in cost when the actions of 1916 got started on other front, The Somme and the Brusilov attacks in the east both showcased a German army that was stretched to the breaking point by the number of men that had been sacrificed at Verdun. While it is true that neither of those battles was a great strategic loss for the Germans, that was due more to the inability of the allies to carry forward an attack. No matter what the goal of Verdun was for Falkenhayn and the other German leaders, there is one fact that cannot be denied, it was a great waste of the prime of the German army. And these men would be sorely missed in the next two years of the war.

For the French Verdun would go down as a victory, after all of the failures of 1915 they finally had a victory. Sure it had cost them more men, but technically they had held the line at Verdun and then they had recaptured most of the ground on the battlefield. There were many ramifications of the fighting. One of the more positive ones was that Verdun saw the rise to prominence of a few important players in French history. The most important of which was Petain, who had made a name for himself earlier in the war but would forever be linked with the fighting at Verdun. His ability to rally the French soldiers and to give them the opportunity to hold the line against the German onslaught would mean that he was brought into play at a later date in a later war, when it was hoped that he would be able to do the same. Another player was General Nivelle, who came in later as the tide was turning but would also be an important leader in the next year of the war. His mindset of constantly attacking, even more fanatical than Joffre’s was going to have horrible consequences. Throughout both the defending and attacking phase of Verdun there were long lasting scars put upon the French army that would not soon heal. Near the end of the battle there was known to be some subtle protests by the French soldiers on their way to the line, as a way of showing their discontent at the state of the war. The poilu had been taxed about as far as they could be. They would never fully refuse to move into the line to guard against further German attacks, but their desire to continue fruitless attacks was wearing then, a fact that would become extremely apparent after the spring offensives of 1917, which would finally push them over the edge and into full mutiny.

On both sides the battle of Verdun would hold a special place in society for very different reasons, although there would be commonalities on both sides. Paul Jankowski “In both France and Germany the myth of martyrdom, of human ramparts here and a materially superior foe there, enjoyed an almost preternatural longevity.” On the German side the analysts after the war would point to the mistake of Verdun, they would point to the heroes that were the common soldiers that were thrown into the meatgrinder by their incompetent German leaders. It was the Generals and their commanders that were at fault, not the men at the front. This type of anger would be directed by political parties after the war, through a lens of a society that had just lost the greatest total war in the history of the world. Eventually even the Nazi party would get into the game, although later than others, trying to show that the heroism of the common soldier on the battlefields of the first world war was just portraying the National Socialistic ideas but it was cool. There would be no shortage of study of Verdun by the German military theorists of the 30s and 40s and they would draw on it and other actions to create their tactics for the next war. One thing that you see in a few soldiers letters and then in evaluations after the second world war was a drawing of connections between Verdun and Stalingrad. Both of them were horrific battles of attrition with the German army trying to push through a determined foe who was defending a very important geographical and political location, and most importantly both of them ended in German defeat. While there are many differences between the two it does make for a rather convenient point of discussion when trying to criticize the actions of the German army during both wars. On the French side Verdun was of course extremely important, thanks in part to the number of French soldiers who fought there. There were also some interesting lessons that sort of got embedded in the French military DNA from the defense. It showed that a determined defense, with proper preparations, could withstand a seemingly insurmountable attack. This was the linchpin of all of the analysis after the war, and it led in some ways to the creation of the Maginot line. I have read some pretty interesting analysis where people try to draw even more conclusions between the action at Verdun and later French military adventures. This is based on the idea that the French soldier was almost fatalistic in their ability to go to the front line and protect the hill no matter what the cost, no matter what happens, because that is what French soldiers did, that is what the soldiers did at Verdun. So if you think that Verdun affected the French army in that way it is easy to start drawing connections to other actions, with the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam being the most popular one. I am not an expert on that battle, but with its protracted siege where the French had opportunities to withdraw and did not I can see how, on the surface at least, connections could be made. For the French soldiers both before and after the battle the fighting at Verdun was a badge of honor. The rotation system put in place by Petain meant that so many men would fight there, and they would come together after the war for many years in remembrance of the men who did not survive, and later they would build monuments to the fallen.

The monuments around Verdun were not the only lasting physical legacy of Verdun. Many battlefields from the first world war still show the scars of the actions of a century ago, but Verdun may be one of the worst. After the war the areas around around Verdun that had seen the heaviest of the fighting were simply abandoned for several years. Much of what had been farmland was never reused. Over the years these barren landscapes, full of shell holes, slowly started to fill with vegetation. At first it was mostly just a thick set of shrubbery, even where there were wooded areas before the war. It would take until the 1920s before French veteran’s groups began to push the French government to do something with the battlefields, and the groups were quite powerful after the war. There was a serious effort in many areas to try and clean up the battlefield, remove some of the debris, and properly bury any found remains. This was done for large portions of the battlefield, but some areas were thought to be unsalvagable and were labeled as Zone Rouge, or Zone Red, and they were considered too damaged to do anything with. Some of these Zone Rouge areas are still present today. Because of all of these factors it would remain one of the most unaltered battlefields of the war, and today you can still see areas that seemed touched only by the slow decay of time.

There is a case that can be made that Verdun was the most important battle of the entire war and I hope over the last 5 hours of this podcast I have been able to convey some of that importance. The struggles of the men of all sides as they fought on the banks of the Meuse throughout 1916 was not greatly different than what was experienced on other battlefields and on other fronts but it was at a level of intensity seldom seen, and difficult to understand. If you wish to read more about Verdun I highly recommend The Price of Glory by Alistair Horne or Verdun: The Longest Battle by Paul Jankowski. Their work has been fundamental in improving both my understanding of the events and for providing information for these episodes. So here we are, here at the end of our 3 month journey through the fighting of Verdun, thank you for listening and I hope you will join me next episode as we take our story off of the battlefields of the Western Front and once again onto the high seas as the greatest battleship clash in history is about to occur on the foggy waters of the north sea.