October 1916

The battle of Verdun. Conclusion.

By Helena Trnkova

The Battle of Verdun, fought between the French and German armies on the Meuse between February and December 1916, was the longest battle of the First World War. This battle of attrition, whose symbolic impact greatly exceeded its strategic and political importance at the time, became the metonymic expression of the horrors of modern warfare.

As the start of operations, the French found themselves in an unsuitable position for defence. Straddling the river and squeezed up against a promontory, the excessively narrow access lanes complicated the procurement of supplies.

 Initially, the French heavy artillery force was greatly inferior to that of their adversaries from the other side of the Rhine. On 24 February, the French were forced back onto their second line of defence, which formed a perimeter of ten kilometres around the town of Verdun. Having slowed down after their initial advance, the Germans nevertheless could not be held back. They captured Bois des Fosses, Bois des Chaumes and Bois des Caurières, surrounded Louvement and forced access to Fort Douaumont, which fell the following day. Although the advance was successful, a complete breakthrough was not accomplished. The Germans were forced to withdraw for fear of being cut off from the rest of the troops and surrounded.

After this initial setback, the French asserted their determination to defend Verdun at all cost. General Pétain, who took over command from General Castelnau, clearly defined his objective: “The mission of the Second Army is to bring the enemy’s efforts to a halt at all costs.” On 9 April, he launched his famous “Courage, on les aura!” [Be brave, we will get them!] to spur on the new troops he was dispatching to the front. The surprise effect fizzled out

  After failing to gain a rapid victory on the right bank of the Meuse, the Germans decided to attack from the left so they could seize some nearby hillocks, which would have enabled them to dominate the theatre of operations. In March and April, they attempted to conquer the flank of Mort-Homme, Côte 304, Bois des Corbeaux and Bois d'Avocourt. Incapable of inflicting a decisive blow, the Germans were now forced to defend the positions they had initially gained. The battle therefore created a never-ending oscillation between the roles of assailants and defenders. Planned as a means of getting the war moving again, the result was a battle of attrition that caused enormous losses.

At the end of June, with the first signs of the Allied offensive on the Somme, the Germans stepped up the pace and organised new offensives. They were just 5 kilometres from Verdun. But from July-August, the balance of power changed. The French, now better organised, launched a series of partial counter-offensives, which enabled them to regain most of the sites they had lost. In late October they recaptured Fort Douaumont, in early November Fort Vaux, and in mid-December Bois de Caures and the surrounding area. At the end of 1916, the line had basically stabilised on the same positions as before the launching of the German offensive in February. Although clashes continued in the sectors, this successful recapture by the French traditionally marked the end of the battle. From a military standpoint, neither of the warring parties succeeded in imposing its will on the other. In these conditions, the “glory” of the victory fell to the defenders

After several months of violent confrontations with a tonne of shells being fired per square metre, the panorama had changed completely. The landscape was bleak, devoid of vegetation. For the soldiers, this apocalyptic vision was indelibly inscribed in their memory and symbolised the grim reality of modern warfare. In fact, although from a strategic point of view the outcome was not crucial, Verdun quickly assumed a significance of legendary proportions. The Battle of Verdun became the symbol of the ability of the French to defend their homeland and endure sacrifice. The nature of this battle of attrition therefore played a key role in fabricating the legend and the count of the casualties became an issue of the utmost importance right from the first days of the confrontation.

To safeguard the morale of their troops and dishearten the enemy, the two sides never ceased to stress that they had inflicted greater losses and damage. Weakening the enemy was asserted as the overriding justification for the operation. In his memoires, which appeared shortly after the war, General Falkenhayn claimed that “Ausblutung” (bleeding to death) was indeed his original objective. Back in 1915, in his Mémoire de Noël intended for the Kaiser, he allegedly said that it was necessary: “to bleed the French troops white […], whether the objective was accomplished or not.” Although the actual existence of this document has never been proven, it has been widely repeated by the two sides. According to Falkenhayn, it provided a convenient excuse for the failure of the offensive, as for the French, the idea of Ausblutung was perfectly aligned with their propaganda efforts to demonstrate the brutality of the enemy. Disseminated during the inter-war period through folktales, this explanatory leitmotiv burgeoned throughout the 20th century. It was not challenged until detailed historic research was carried out the end of the first decade of the 2000s.

In the final analysis, Verdun relatively speaking was not the deadliest battle of the entire war. Indeed others were just as violent.

However, the fact that the French fought alone without their allies, the absence of any significant protest movements, fuelling the legend of national unity, the perseverance of the French soldiers and the length of time it lasted, creating through the rotation of troops the impression of an experience shared amongst the men, amongst whom the intellectuals unhesitatingly shared their respective experiences, are equally factors that led to the Battle of Verdun leaving a long-lasting impression in the collective memory and shaped its image. 

Verdun e la strategia d’attrito

di Alessandro Chebat

La Francia è quasi arrivata alla fine del suo sforzo bellico. Se riusciamo a far capire chiaramente al popolo francese che sul piano militare non ha più nulla da sperare, la situazione giungerà ad un punto di rottura, e all'Inghilterra salterà di mano la spada migliore

(Erich von Falkenhayn)

 

Per tutto il 1915 il baricentro della Grande Guerra era stato il fronte orientale, il quale aveva assorbito risorse e monopolizzato le principali operazioni. Dopo il fallimento dell’offensiva sui Dardanelli e i duri colpi subiti dalle armate zariste, il fulcro delle operazioni ritornò ad essere l’occidente. Nel Natale del 1915 il generale Erich von Falkenhayn presentò al Kaiser un piano d’operazioni che prevedeva un offensiva ad occidente. Secondo Falkenhayn la Francia non era più in grado di resistere allo sforzo bellico, mentre le iniziative militari di inglesi, russi e italiani avevano un valore strategico trascurabile nell’economia di guerra. Scopo delle operazioni era non tanto scardinare il fronte, quanto logorare a tal punto l’Armée da convincere il popolo francese dell’impossibilità di continuare la guerra. Nei piani di Falkenhayn una serie di avanzate limitate, compiute con un numero relativamente ristretto di uomini, avrebbe obbligato Joffre a reagire con contrattacchi entro il raggio d’azione delle artiglierie pesanti tedesche. L’azione dei grossi calibri avrebbe inflitto alle fanterie perdite tali da rendere insostenibile per la Francia la prosecuzione della guerra. D’altra parte la possibilità di un repentino crollo francese era tutt’altro che remota, in quanto le truppe di Joffre dal settembre del ’14 sostenevano da sole il grosso dello sforzo bellico contro i tedeschi, mentre le dure perdite subite fino a quel momento avevano notevolmente fiaccato il morale dei soldati.

La mattina del 21 febbraio iniziò il bombardamento tedesco su un fronte di 25 chilometri, sostenuto da tutti i grossi calibri disponibili, tra cui i cannoni di marina Krupp da 380 mm, e gli obici da 420: obbiettivo era la fortezza di Verdun. Nel pomeriggio le fanterie uscirono dalle trincee e si lanciarono all’attacco, iniziando ad erodere progressivamente le difese francesi. Nelle sue fasi iniziali l’offensiva tedesca colse risultati modesti. Tuttavia, dopo il bombardamento, il morale francese era talmente basso da far temere un collasso delle truppe. Due battaglioni di cacciatori al comando del colonnello Driant si ridussero a 200 uomini sui 2000 iniziali.

Il 25 febbraio un reggimento di fanti del Brandeburgo conquistò il forte di Douaumont. I francesi, ritenendo che la potenza dell’artiglieria tedesca le rendesse ormai superate, avevano iniziato il disarmo delle fortezze di Verdun, tanto che il Douaumont era difeso da una cinquantina di artiglieri e pochi mitraglieri. Quando i fanti brandeburghesi si approssimarono al forte, buona parte della piccola guarnigione era scesa nei rifugi per proteggersi dal bombardamento, tanto che più fonti riferiscono che l’importante fortificazione fu conquistata da un pugno di genieri che colsero i francesi nel sonno. A rendere ancor più semplice la conquista del forte giunse una serie di intoppi burocratici tra i comandi francesi: il generale Chrétien, comandante del settore destro di Verdun, già il 24 aveva ordinato la difesa ad oltranza dei forti, tuttavia una serie di ritardi fece sì che gli ordini venissero inoltrati solo alle 9,45 del giorno successivo.

Dopo l’iniziale sottovalutazione dell’attacco, il 25 Joffre decise di inviare a Verdun il suo vice, generale Édouard de Castelnau, il quale nominò il generale Philippe Pétain comandante del settore con l’ordine di tenere la sponda destra della Mosa ad ogni costo. Dopo lo schiaffo morale di Douaumont, Verdun non poteva cadere. La proposta del generale Langle de Cary di ritirarsi per riorganizzare le difese, pur essendo la soluzione più valida, fu ritenuta inaccettabile.

Sotto la guida del carismatico Petain e spinti da parole d’ordine quali Ils ne passeront pas, le truppe francesi si lanciarono in una serie di furiosi contrattacchi: Verdun era ormai il simbolo dell’onore e della volontà di resistenza francese (Honneur de la France). La battaglia fu alimentata da un continuo afflusso di soldati attraverso la Voie Sacrée, sulla quale transitarono fino a ventimila uomini al giorno, nonostante gli incessanti bombardamenti. Di fronte ad un’inattesa e accanita resistenza, l’offensiva tedesca iniziò a rallentare con perdite sempre più elevate. Alla fine di marzo le perdite complessive ammontavano già a oltre 81 mila tedeschi  e 89 mila francesi. Falkenhayn, posto di fronte alla scelta di sospendere l’attacco o allargarlo ad un settore più ampio, decise di insistere nella strategia di logoramento, mantenendo Verdun come obbiettivo e impiegandovi tutte le riserve disponibili. La pressione tedesca portò alla conquista, in maggio, delle alture del Mort-Homme, mentre il 7 giugno capitolava il forte di Vaux, che dopo la caduta del Douaumont era divenuto uno dei capisaldi delle difese francesi. I tedeschi sembravano ormai prossimi a prendere Verdun.

Tuttavia le forze francesi erano ormai ben decise a resistere, potendo ora contare su un consistente supporto d’artiglieria (pur ancora insufficiente), mentre le batterie tedesche erano logorate dall’intenso uso, che provocava scoppi accidentali e bombardamenti sempre più imprecisi. A rendere ancor più difficile il successo tedesco giungeva il continuo afflusso di truppe inglesi al fronte, che si apprestavano a scatenare il primo grande attacco sulla Somme. Sugli altri fronti gli iniziali successi austriaci in Trentino erano stati vanificati dai contrattacchi italiani, mentre il risveglio dell’esercito russo con Brusilov rischiava di rimettere in discussione le posizioni degli imperi centrali sul fronte orientale.

Le perdite elevate e il protrarsi della battaglia spinsero il Kaiser a sostituire von Falkenhayn con  von Hindenburg e Ludendorff: la pressioni tedesca su Verdun iniziò ad allentare. Petain, divenuto eroe nazionale, fu promosso al gruppo d’armate centrali e sostituito da Nivelle. Il 24 ottobre la svolta: truppe marocchine riconquistarono il forte di Douaumont, e nei giorni successivi le fanterie francesi avanzarono di altri tre chilometri, riconquistando in breve tempo tutto il terreno occupato in mesi di attacchi sanguinosi. In novembre fu riconquistato il forte di Vaux: l’offensiva tedesca era fallita, mentre la vittoria morale francese era stata netta. Con perdite che secondo alcune stime superano i 900 mila morti, feriti e dispersi, la battaglia di Verdun fu uno degli scontri più lunghi e sanguinosi del primo conflitto mondiale.  

 

Link

Divulgazione:

http://www.storiaxxisecolo.it/grandeguerra/gmbattag1.htm

http://www.sulleormedellastoria.it/IT/prima-guerra-mondiale/verdun.html

http://www.lagrandeguerra.net/ggvbattaglia.html

Approfondimento:

http://www.icsm.it/articoli/ri/grandeguerrafranciaparte4.html

http://www.wereldoorlog1418.nl/battleverdun/ (EN)

Musei:

http://www.lesfrancaisaverdun-1916.fr/histo-verdun-bilan.htm (FR)

http://www.memorialdeverdun.fr/index.php/accueil.html (FR)

http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/space-into-place/verdun-1916/ (EN)

Letture:

Basil H. Liddell Hart, La prima guerra mondiale (1914-1918), BUR, 2006

Martin Gilbert, La grande storia della prima guerra mondiale, Mondadori, 1998

Alistair Horne, Il prezzo della gloria. Verdun 1916. La più grande battaglia di annientamento, Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 2003

Ian Ousby, Verdun,  Milano, Rizzoli, 2002, 

Verdun and the strategy of attrition

By Alessandro Chebat

France has almost reached the end of its war effort. If we can make it clear to the French people that from a military viewpoint there is nothing to hope for, the situation will reach a breaking point, and England will lose its best sword

(Erich von Falkenhayn)

 

The Eastern front, which had absorbed resources and monopolized the main operations, had been the focus of the Great War throughout 1915. After the failure of the Dardanelles campaign and the blows suffered by the Tsarist armies, the centre of operations returned to the West. Over Christmas 1915, General Erich von Falkenhayn showed the Kaiser an operations plan which included an offensive to the west. In Falkenhayn’s opinion, France was no longer able to keep up the war effort, while the military initiatives of Britain, Russia and Italy had negligible strategic value in the economy of war. The purpose of the military operation was to wear down the Armée and hence convince the French people of the impossibility of continuing the war. According to Falkenhayn’s plans, a series of limited attacks, carried out with a relatively small number of men, would force Joffre to react with counterattacks within the range of German heavy artillery which would inflict such heavy losses on the infantry that France would be unable to continue the war. Moreover, the likelihood of a sudden collapse by France was anything but remote: Joffre’s troops had born the main brunt of the war effort against the Germans since September 1914, and the losses incurred so far had greatly weakened the morale of the soldiers.

The German bombardment began in the morning on 21st February, on a front of 25 kilometres, supported by all the heavy artillery available, including the 38 cm Krupp naval guns and the 42cm howitzers: the objective was the Verdun fortress. In the afternoon, the infantry came out of their trenches and launched their attack, gradually starting to wear away at the French defences. The German offensive gave mediocre results in its early stages. However, after the bombardment, French morale was so low as to lead to fears of a collapse of the troops. Of the 2000 men in the two Chasseurs battalions under the command of Colonel Driant only 200 survived.

On 25th February, a Brandenburg infantry regiment captured Fort Douaumont, defended by fifty artillerymen and a few gunners. In fact, the French, believing they could not resist the power of the modern German heavy artillery, had started to disarm the Verdun forts. When the Brandenburg infantry reached the fort, most of the small garrison had already gone to the lower levels of the fort to escape the shelling, and indeed many sources report that the important fort was captured by a handful of combat engineers who surprised the French in their sleep. A series of bureaucratic hitches between French commands made capturing the fort even easier: General Chrétien, commander of the right sector of Verdun on 24th February, had already ordered that the forts should be defended to the bitter end, but a series of delays meant that the orders were conveyed only at 9.45 a.m. the following day.

After the initial underestimation of the attack, on 25th February Joffre decided to send General Édouard de Castelnau to Verdun. He appointed General Philippe Pétain sector commander, with orders to keep the right bank of the Meuse at all costs. After the insult of Douaumont, Verdun could not be allowed to fall. The proposal of General Langle de Cary to retreat to reorganize the defence, although the best solution, was deemed unacceptable.

Under the leadership of the charismatic Petain, and driven by rallying cries such Ils ne passeront pas, French troops launched into a series of furious counterattacks. Verdun had now become a symbol of the honour and the will of French resistance. The battle was fuelled by a constant flow of soldiers through the Voie Sacrée, with up to twenty thousand soldiers transiting per day, despite the shelling. Faced with this unexpected resistance, the German offensive began to slow down, with losses increasing more and more. At the end of March total losses already amounted to more than 81,000 Germans and 89,000 French. Falkenhayn, faced with the choice of suspending the attack or extending it, decided to insist in a strategy of attrition, keeping Verdun as the objective and using all available reserves in the battle. German pressure led to the conquest, in May, of the heights of the Mort-Homme, while Fort Vaux, a cornerstone of French defence, was captured on 7th June. The Germans seemed about to capture Verdun.

However, the French forces were now determined to resist, and were now able to count on substantial (though still insufficient) artillery support, while the German batteries were worn out by intense use, leading to accidental explosions and inaccurate shelling. The continuous influx of British troops, who were preparing to launch the first major attack on the Somme, made German success even more difficult. On other fronts, initial Austrian successes in Trentino had been thwarted by Italian counterattacks, while the revival of the Russian army with Brusilov meant that the positions of the Central Powers on the Eastern Front had to be reconsidered.

The high losses and the prolongation of the battle led the Kaiser to replace von Falkenhayn with von Hindenburg and Ludendorff: the German pressure on Verdun began to loosen. Petain, who had became a national hero, was promoted to Army Chief of Staff and replaced by Nivelle. The turning point arrived on 24th October: Moroccan troops recaptured Douaumont Fort, and in the following days the French infantry advanced three more kilometres, quickly regaining all the land occupied in months of bloody attacks. Vaux Fort was recaptured in November: the German offensive had failed, while the French moral victory was clear. With losses that according to some estimates exceed 900,000 dead, wounded and missing, the battle of Verdun was one of the bloodiest of the First World War.

Links

Background:

http://www.storiaxxisecolo.it/grandeguerra/gmbattag1.htm

http://www.sulleormedellastoria.it/IT/prima-guerra-mondiale/verdun.html

http://www.lagrandeguerra.net/ggvbattaglia.html

Further information:

http://www.icsm.it/articoli/ri/grandeguerrafranciaparte4.html

http://www.wereldoorlog1418.nl/battleverdun/ (EN)

Museums:

http://www.lesfrancaisaverdun-1916.fr/histo-verdun-bilan.htm (FR)

http://www.memorialdeverdun.fr/index.php/accueil.html (FR)

http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/space-into-place/verdun-1916/ (EN)

Readings:

Alistair Horne, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, New YorK, St. Martin's Press, 1962

B.H. Liddell Hart, History of the First World War, Cassell, 1970
Martin Gilbert,The First World War: A Complete History.  Henry Holt and Company, 2004

Ian Ousby, The Road to Verdun: France, Nationalism and the First World War Verdun,, London; Vintage Publishing 

La Strategia di von Falkenhayn

In un documento stilato nei giorni di Natale del 1915 il maresciallo von Falkenhayn, comandante supremo dell’esercito tedesco, delinea la strategia per i prossimi mesi. Sicuro di una imminente fine della resistenza francese, egli deciderà sulla base di queste riflessioni di lanciare l’attacco contro la fortezza di Verdun.

La Francia è arrivata sull’orlo del cedimento sia in ambito militare che economico – ciò soprattutto a causa della perdurante mancanza degli importanti giacimenti carboniferi nella Francia nord-orientale. L’esercito russo non è stato ancora del tutto sconfitto, ma la sua capacità offensiva è stata così drasticamente ridotta, che le sarà certo difficile potersi riprendere ai livelli dell’inizio della guerra. L’esercito serbo può essere dato per sconfitto definitivamente. L’Italia si è resa senza dubbio conto di non poter esaudire in tempo breve le sue mire di rapina, e sarebbe perciò lieta – credo – di poter liquidare in tempi brevi questa avventura bellica.

… Rimane perciò solo la Francia. Dietro la parte francese del fronte occidentale vi sono a distanza ravvicinata degli obiettivi per difendere i quali la dirigenza francese è disposta a mettere in campo fino all’ultimo uomo. Se lo farà, le forze della Francia si dissangueranno, dato che non hanno altra scelta, sia che noi raggiungiamo questi obiettivi sia che non li raggiungiamo. Se invece non lo farà e se questi obiettivi cadranno nelle nostre mani, l’effetto morale di questo risultato in Francia sarà terrificante. Potremo guardare con fiducia alle eventuali manovre di alleggerimento che sono prevedibili, anzi possiamo essere fiduciosi sul fatto che avremo a disposizione forze sufficienti per contrastare i modo adeguato i loro attacchi con dei contrattacchi. L’esercito tedesco si trova infatti nelle condizioni di poter liberamente decidere se condurre l’offensiva in modo rapido o più lento, se interromperla temporaneamente o se consolidarla, a seconda degli obiettivi che ci siamo prefissati.

Gli obiettivi di cui stiamo parlando sono Belfort e Verdun.

Per entrambi vale quanto scritto sopra. Tuttavia, Verdun merita la priorità.

Bibliografia:

Deutsche Quellen zur Geschichte des Ersten Weltkrieges, a cura di Wolfdieter Bihl, Darmstadt, 1991, p. 174s.

Von Falkenhayn’s Strategy

In a document drawn up during Christmas 1915 Field Marshal von Falkenhayn, Chief of Germany’s Army Staff, outlined the strategy for the following months. Convinced that an end to the French resistance was imminent, it was on the basis of these reflections that he was to decide to launch the attack against the fortress of Verdun.

France is on the verge of crumbling both in military and economic terms – this is primarily due to the continuing loss of important coal deposits in North East France. The Russian army has not yet been completely defeated, but its capacity for mounting offensives has been so drastically reduced that it will certainly be difficult for it to recover the capacity it had at the onset of the war. The Serbian Army may be considered definitively defeated. Italy has undoubtedly realised that it won’t be able to achieve its thieving designs within a short time, and would therefore be glad – I believe –to get this war adventure over and done with quickly.

… So there remains only France. There are a number of objectives within a short distance behind the French part of the western front that the French leadership is prepared to defend to the last man. If they do, French forces will be bled to death, given that they have no other choice, whether we take these objectives or not. If they don’t and these objectives fall into our hands, the effect on the French morale will be tremendous. We shall be able to confidently face any possible lightening manoeuvres, which are predictable; indeed we can be confident we shall have sufficient forces available to adequately counter-attack their offensives. The German army in fact finds itself in a position to be able to freely decide whether to mount a rapid or slow offensive, whether to interrupt it temporarily or consolidate it, depending on the objectives we have set ourselves.

The objectives we are talking about are Belfort and Verdun.

The foregoing applies to both. Verdun however deserves priority.

Bibliography:

Deutsche Quellen zur Geschichte des Ersten Weltkrieges, a cura di Wolfdieter Bihl, Darmstadt, 1991, p. 174s.

 

Testimony

Verdun: a French testimony

Georges Caubet, born in Toulouse and a schoolteacher since 1908, was called up on 4 August 1914 to serve as sergeant of the 67th division of the French army. His diaries preserve the memories of the most significant moments of his military... Read all

Biographies

Philippe Pétain

Philippe Pétain is one of the most important but also controversial figures in contemporary French history. His remarkable longevity took him though several pivotal moments in history. Rather an onlooker of events in the first part of his life, he... Read all