Monday, May 30, 2016

100 Years From Verdun

Europe committed suicide one hundred years ago at Verdun. The World War I battle there from February, 1916 to December, 1916 consumed upwards of a million men in dead and wounded, one of the most costly battles in human history. Verdun had been a fortress city since Roman times and its defenses were renewed several times by the French. By 1914 the small city with its detached forts was encircled by a new ring of forts at five miles distance. But after the German's rapid invasion into northeastern France supported by murderous artillery barrages, French strategists lost confidence in fixed fortifications and stripped the forts of their guns for use in the field in 1915. The German offensive of 1914 had flowed around the forts so thereafter Verdun became a "quiet" sector.

That status changed when German general Erich von Falkenhayn told Kaiser Wilhelm that Germans must take the offensive again in 1916 because "Germany...could not hold out forever" against the combined French-British armies that had stalemated the German drive on Paris. His plan was to compel the French to "to throw in every man they have" at a vital point and "bleed [France] to death." The vital point in his mind was Verdun. Verdun was a salient after the German advance of 1914, exposed on three side in a loop of the Meuse, and only twelve miles from a major German railhead. German artillery--150 guns per mile--would pulverize the French in a constrained front of only eight miles, then German infantry would advance to occupy the devastated terrain. From the beginning "Operation Judgment" was planned to make Région Fortifiée de Verdun a French graveyard in a battle of attrition (Ermattungsstrategie).

Verdun held legendary status in the French military mind. Atilla the Hun failed to capture the town in the fifth century. The citadel, built by Vauban in the 17th century, and its double ring of fortifications was a symbol of French nationhood, indicative of France's ability to defend its hinterlands from external attack. General von Falkenhayn's assumption the French would defend Verdun at all cost was a shrewd estimation of his enemy's psychology. By the time of the battle, France had stationed 20.5 divisions in the forts with 548 heavy guns.

German advance and French recovery at Verdun
German soldiers made significant gains in the initial phases of the offensive,
L'reprise de Douaumont
capturing the largest fort in the outer ring, Fort Douaumont [map], and threatening to occupy the Meuse heights above the Meuse River bridges, that were vital to French logistic operations. The Germans used flamethrowers and chlorine gas during the fighting. Panic was spreading through the French army; depots of food were pillaged on news the river bridges had been prepared for demolition and retreat from Verdun was imminent. German forces eventually came within 2.5 miles of the citadel.

General Philippe Pétain was summoned to command Verdun's defense; he was known not to be deterred by heavy losses. The French army sacrificed itself for every meter of ground taken by the Germans just as the German command had hoped. French losses mounted because the French used a tactic of "active defense", counter-attacking whenever possible. The German losses were equally horrendous, and progress against an inspired enemy was too slow for the costly advance to be sustained. Attrition was working against the Germans who started the battle with fewer men. By May casualties in German front-line infantry regiments reached over 100%. France lost the crest of the Meuse ridge but desperately hung on to its slopes, rotating forty-two divisions through the Verdun meat grinder when their casualty rates reached 50%. The invading enemy achieved its furthest advance by the end of June. By then twenty million shells had been fired into the battle zone churning it into an unrecognizable, hellish wasteland of splintered forests, obliterated villages, human remains and twice overlapping shell holes.

Verdun was a failure for the German high command. German soldiers made the French pay dearly in blood, but the French army did not collapse because its losses were not disproportionate. French morale did suffer greatly; five infantry regiments experienced episodes of collective disobedience, and two French lieutenants were summarily shot on June 11th. At the end of June, over 200,000 had been killed or wounded on each side. After failing to take Fort Souville of the inner ring on July 11th, the German army lapsed onto the defensive. General von Falkenhayne was dismissed at the end of August. Germany was forced to withdraw artillery from Verdun to support its armies opposing the allied Somme offensive. Once again the Verdun sector became relatively quiet. In October, the French advanced to recover lost ground. Fort Douaumont was recaptured on October 24th. A wider offensive in December recaptured much of the terrain lost previously [map above]. By then the crux of Western Front had shifted; a new inferno was raging to the north at the Somme.

A French lieutenant at Verdun wrote before he was killed by a shell, "Humanity is mad, It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage...Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!" Humanity's only hope is that it learns from its "transgression of the limits of the human condition."