February 1916

The Military Health Service

By Anna Grillini

The First World War was the first conflict in which deaths from wounds greatly exceeded those due to illness; this resulted in the creation of a health care system without precedents, based on a quick and efficient evacuation of the wounded thanks to the railways.

The challenges that the health services of all armies faced were mainly those that are now recognized as the main features of the Great War: poor hygiene, diseases brought on by exhaustion and immobility and the great mobilization of personnel and equipment. All these distinctive features required the organization of a health care system unprecedented in European military history. The Great War was the first conflict in which deaths from wounds greatly exceeded those from disease. Until that time, soldiers died from fatigue, food shortages, lack of hygiene, epidemics and venereal diseases; a clear demonstration of this trend is the American Civil War, during which the Union lost 96,000 men in battle and 183,000 due to illness.

This shift was due not to an improvement in the living conditions of the soldiers: immobility in the trenches exhausted both the body and the mind; during the winter lung diseases and rheumatism claimed victims while, in summer, death spread due to intestinal infections and venereal diseases. What changed was the efficiency of the organization of the health service and provision of medicine, along with the general improvement of living conditions during the nineteenth century. The progress of medical science corresponded to an advancement of war technology which became more lethal and less “personal”: the bayonet, the saber and the rifle were not the main weapons. Hence the main causes of death were no longer due to disease but to wounds.

Despite this change, disease was still a serious problem that, if ignored, threatened to put whole contingents out of action. Epidemic diseases represented a major threat to army fitness and the most common were cholera, typhoid, malaria, smallpox, meningitis, and, of course, venereal diseases. Within the first weeks of the war the army had engaged in massive prevention work through the application of strict hygiene rules and by increasing awareness among the population and soldiers.

The first serious epidemic was cholera, which affected the soldiers of the 40th Infantry Division of the X Corps from July 1915. In about a month, the disease spread among the troops of the frontline, behind the lines and among the civilian population. The crisis finished only at the beginning of 1916; by then over 16,500 people in the area had contracted the disease and 4,500 had died.

Venereal diseases were fought through close supervision of prostitutes: those infected or considered to be infected were immediately removed. As of mid-1916 soldiers were required to undergo health inspections and brothels controlled by medical officers were set up.

During the war there were several epidemics of typhus, smallpox and tuberculosis, and in spring 1918 the “Spanish flu” arrived, with a very high number of people infected (25,000) but few deaths. A second phase of the epidemic began in late July and continued throughout the autumn and winter with one Italian in seven contracting the disease and one in twelve, of those affected, dying.

The Italian war health service consisted in a huge system, also from a bureaucratic point of view, and an intricate hierarchy of military and civilian offices and sections. The Supreme Command was at the top of the hierarchy, followed by the General Superintendency, in charge of all facilities and supplies for the army in the war zone. At the beginning of the war the General Superintendency consisted of a general staff and five sections but over the months it enlarged, adding a general superintendent with a secretariat responsible for the chief and the deputy chief of staff; below the general superintendent were numerous offices and inspectorates - just the main ones included transport organization, the inspectorate for areas behind the front line and that of civil engineering, the medical inspector’s office, the Red Cross delegation, and many others.

The organization of the evacuation and hospitalization of the wounded was less complex from a bureaucratic point of view but definitely more complicated from a practical viewpoint and was organized into four zones:

Zone 1, army corps. This zone was part of the area of operations and was used for the care of those with minor wounds and illnesses requiring a hospital stay of no more than ten days, and for those in need of particularly urgent care.

Zone 2, superintendencies. The zone was located immediately outside the area of ​​operations, therefore still in the war zone, and was for hospital stays of no more than twenty days.

Zone 3, first evacuation or quarantine. This zone was still located within the war zone but as far as possible from the area of operations. The wounded and the sick in need of a hospital stay of no more than thirty days were taken to this zone.

Zone 4, second evacuation. The zone identified any part of the national territory not included in the war and was used for soldiers in need of care for more than thirty days who, however, were initially held in the first evacuation zone for prevention reasons.

The backbone of this military health organization was the rail network. The sick and wounded were sent away from the front aboard freight trains, passenger trains, third-class or hospital trains of the Italian Red Cross and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Transport of the wounded among the four health zones was organized by train, as was the transport of an increasing number of troops to the frontlines.


Ayant opposé les armées française et allemande sur la Meuse entre février et décembre 1916, la bataille de Verdun, fut la plus longue bataille de la Première Guerre mondiale. Bataille d'usure, sa portée symbolique a largement dépassé son importance stratégique et politique du moment pour devenir l'expression métonymique des horreurs de la guerre moderne.

La bataille de Verdun – première partie

By Helena Trnkova

1916, la seconde année du conflit retrouve les belligérants sur le front occidental retranchés dans leurs positions immobiles sur un front de mille kilomètres, étalé de la frontière suisse jusqu'à la mer. Malgré les projets de plus en plus ambitieux et les innovations techniques, aucun des deux camps n'est pourtant capable de porter un coup fatal à l'adversaire. Dix-huis mois après le début du conflit, le 21 février 1916, ce sont les Allemands qui prennent l'initiative en déclenchant une offensive sur la Meuse, en direction de Verdun. Malgré les doutes sur les véritables objectifs de cette opération et son importance stratégique pour le moins douteuse, Verdun devient, comme affirme Maurice Genevoix « la bataille symbole de toute la guerre 14-18 ». Pour des générations, le nom de Verdun évoque à lui seul tous les épouvantements de la guerre moderne. 

L'ordre d'attaquer les défenses françaises à Verdun vient du commandant en chef des armées allemandes, le général Erich von Falkenhayn. Pourtant, aujourd'hui encore, ses intentions semblent opaques et divisent les historiens. 

Depuis le début de l'année, le général Frédéric Herr, commandant de la Région fortifiée de Verdun, alerte son état-major sur la possibilité d'une attaque dans son secteur mais sans comprendre clairement les véritables objectifs de l'ennemi. En effet, en janvier 1916, plusieurs scénarios d'attaque allemande semblent plausibles. L'offensive peut être déclenchée tout aussi bien à Nancy, en Champagne, dans le Nord ou à n'importe quel autre point du front occidental. Mi-février, les signes précurseurs désignent Verdun. Pour le commandant en chef français, le général Joffre, il ne s'agit toutefois que d'une tentative de diversion pour détourner l'attention des Français du lieu principal d'une offensive allemande potentielle.

Du côté allemand, en effet, plusieurs projets différents coexistent. Suite aux échecs répétitifs de ses initiatives jusqu'aux dernières offensives à Ypres en automne 1915, Falkenhayn rencontre de plus en plus de détracteurs. Persuadé que la victoire doit être remportée sur le front occidental et conscient que le temps joue à sa défaveur, il saisit l'urgence de l'impératif stratégique d'agir, de remporter au plus vite un succès décisif pour tenter de fissurer l'Entente cordiale. C'est la seule possibilité pour les Allemands d'affaiblir la coalition qui les encercle. Depuis 1915, plusieurs endroits stratégiques émergent dans les considérations du chef de guerre allemand. C'est d'abord la Somme et les alentours d'Amiens, ensuite l'Alsace du sud et Belfort. Enfin, Verdun attire son attention. Ville provinciale sans un véritable intérêt stratégique et secteur jusqu'à là plutôt paisible, l'endroit semble propice pour obtenir un effet de surprise. La décision mûrit lentement, motivée par la volonté de forcer l'adversaire à reprendre une guerre de mouvement afin d'obtenir des conditions favorables en vue des négociations de paix potentielles. Les calculs allemands misent sur la volonté des Français de défendre ce secteur. En effet, pour les Français, Verdun peut présenter un enjeu symbolique. Un avant-poste romain Virodunum, érigé sur l'emplacement d'un ancien oppidum celtique, puis place fortifiée par Vauban peut être présenté comme un lieu d'affrontement contre l’envahisseur. Pourtant, d'autres lieux, stratégiquement plus importants,  comme Reims ou Nancy sont porteurs d'une dimension symbolique encore plus forte. En définitive, la conquête de Verdun n'a pas été une fin en soi mais plutôt une pièce dans un scénario d'opérations plus vaste mais inachevé. Aussi, le jour du lancement de l'offensive encore, les protagonistes comme les commentateurs des deux camps n'y voient-ils qu'un théâtre d'opération secondaire. C'est le déroulement concret des attaques allemandes et des contre-attaques françaises qui transforme progressivement l'opération en une bataille-légende.

Avec un retard par rapport au projet initial dû aux intempéries hivernales, la Ve armée armée allemande, placée sous le commandement du prince Wilhelm, héritier du trône, déclenche le 21 février 1916 l'opération Gericht. À 7 heures du matin, l'artillerie allemande ouvre le feu. Les cascades de munitions criblent les positions françaises à Verdun et dans les environs. Les batteries font feu toutes les quinze secondes, créant un effet sonore spécifique qui rappelle un roulement de tambour, le fameux Trommelfeuer. Le premier jour de la bataille de Verdun un million d'obus est tiré. Malgré l'effet de surprise, l'avancée allemande rencontre rapidement une résistance française d'intensité inattendue. La défense se consolide les jours suivants malgré son coût exacerbé : la 72e division française perd en quelques jours plus de la moitié de ses hommes. Un équilibre des forces s'installe alors entre les attaquants et les défenseurs. L'offensive cède la place à une bataille de positions localisée dont la ligne ne bouge pratiquement pas pendant dix mois suivants. Seule une écrasante supériorité en hommes et en matériel aurait permis de remporter une victoire décisive. Or, les deux camps disposent des forces comparables. Dans ces conditions, la bataille se prolonge des mois durant.

Link

Le Mémorial de Verdun : http://memorial-verdun.fr/

Bibliographie  

Jankowski, Paul, Verdun : le 21 février 1916, Paris, Gallimard, coll. Les journées qui ont fait la France, 2013.

Le Naour, Jean-Yves, 1916 : l'enfer, Paris, Perrin, 2014.

Servent, Pierre, Azéma, Jean-Pierre , Le mythe Pétain : Verdun où les tranchées de la mémoire, Paris, CNRS éditions, 2014.

Miquel, Pierre, Mourir à Verdun, Paris, Tallendier, 2011.

Brown, Malcolm, Verdun 1916, Paris, Perrin, 2009.

Canini, Gérard (dir.), Mémoire de la Grande Guerre. Témoins et témoignages, Nancy, Presse universitaire de Nancy, 1989.

Mornet, Daniel, (Barcelinni, Serge), Tranchées de Verdun. Témoins et témoignages, Nancy, Presse universitaire de Nancy, 1990.

Filmographie 

Verdun, visions d'histoire, Léon Poirier, Compagnie universelle cinématographique, 1928. 


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.

The Battle of Verdun – Part One

By Helena Trnkova

1916, the second year of the conflict, saw the warring factions entrenched in a stalemate along the thousand-mile-long western front, which extended from the border with Switzerland as far as the sea. Despite increasingly ambitious projects and technical innovations, neither side was capable of striking the fatal blow. Eighteen months into the conflict, on 21 February 1916, the Germans took the initiative and launched an offensive on the Meuse, in the direction of Verdun. Despite uncertainties about the real objectives of this operation and its strategic importance, which was dubious to say the least, Verdun became, as Maurice Genevoix stated “the battle-symbol of the entire 1914-1918 war”. For generations, the name Verdun alone has conjured up all the horrors of modern warfare. 

The command to attack the French defences at Verdun was given by the Chief of the General Staff of the German Army, General Erich von Falkenhayn. Nevertheless, even today, his intentions still appear vague and divide historians. 

Earlier in the year, General Frédéric Herr, Commander of the Fortified Region of Verdun, had alerted his staff about the likelihood of an attack in his sector though the enemy’s true objectives had not been clearly understood. As a matter of fact, in January 1916, several attack scenarios had seemed plausible. The offensive might just as well have been launched at Nancy, in the Champagne area, in the North or at any other point along the western front. In mid-February, the early warning signs indicated Verdun. According to the Commander-in-Chief of the French forces, General Joffre, this was however only a tactic to divert the attention of the French away from the main site of a potential German offensive.

The Germans, as a matter of fact, did have several different projects on the table. After his initiatives had repeatedly failed, including his latest offensives at Ypres in the autumn of 1915, Falkenhayn encountered increasing criticism. Convinced that victory had to come on the western front and aware that time was against him, he realised that it was strategically imperative to act urgently, to score a decisive victory as soon as possible in an attempt to crack the Entente Cordiale. It was the only possibility the Germans had to weaken the coalition encircling them. From 1915, several strategic locations emerged in the considerations of the head of the German war operations, first and foremost, the Somme and area around Amiens, then southern Alsace and Belfort. In the end, his attention was drawn to Verdun. This provincial town of no real strategic importance whose sector had remained fairly peaceful up till then, seemed a good place in which to achieve a surprise effect. The decision matured slowly, driven on by the hope of forcing the adversary to resume a war of movement in order to achieve favourable conditions in view of potential peace talks. The German calculations were based on the determination of the French to defend this sector. Indeed for the French Verdun was to be considered a symbolic site. As Virodunum, a Roman outpost built on the site of an ancient Celtic oppidum and subsequently fortified by Vauban, Verdun was considered a possible venue for a confrontation with the invader, though other, strategically more important sites, such as Reims or Nancy had an even stronger symbolic value. Ultimately, capturing Verdun was seen not an end in itself but rather as part of a much vaster scenario of operations that was never completed. Even on the day the offensive was launched, both the protagonists and commentators on the two sides still only considered it a secondary theatre of operations. It was the way in which the German attacks and French counter attacks actually progressed that gradually transformed the operation into a legendary battle.

After a delay compared to the initial plan due to harsh winter weather, on 21 February 1916, the German Fifth Army placed under the command of Prince Wilhelm, heir to the throne, launched Unternehmen Gericht (Operation Judgement). At 7 am the German artillery opened fire. Ammunition rained down, riddling the French positions at Verdun and the surrounding areas. The batteries fired every fifteen seconds, creating a distinctive rumbling sound reminiscent of rolling drums, the infamous Trommelfeuer (drum fire). On the first day of the Battle of Verdun a million shells were fired. Despite the surprise effect, the German advance soon met with unexpectedly strong French resistance. Defence was tightened up over the following days despite the exacerbating cost:  the French 72nd division lost over half its men in just a few days. A balance of forces then set in between the attackers and defenders. The offensive gave way to a localised war of position and the front line barely shifted over the following ten months. Only an overwhelming superiority of manpower and materials would have brought about a decisive victory. The two sides however had comparable forces at their disposal. In these conditions, the battle was drawn out over months.

Link

Le Mémorial de Verdun : http://memorial-verdun.fr/

Bibliography 

Jankowski, Paul, Verdun : le 21 février 1916, Paris, Gallimard, coll. Les journées qui ont fait la France, 2013.

Le Naour, Jean-Yves, 1916 : l'enfer, Paris, Perrin, 2014.

Servent, Pierre, Azéma, Jean-Pierre , Le mythe Pétain : Verdun où les tranchées de la mémoire, Paris, CNRS éditions, 2014.

Miquel, Pierre, Mourir à Verdun, Paris, Tallendier, 2011.

Brown, Malcolm, Verdun 1916, Paris, Perrin, 2009.

Canini, Gérard (dir.), Mémoire de la Grande Guerre. Témoins et témoignages, Nancy, Presse universitaire de Nancy, 1989.

Mornet, Daniel, (Barcelinni, Serge), Tranchées de Verdun. Témoins et témoignages, Nancy, Presse universitaire de Nancy, 1990.

Films

Verdun, visions d'histoire, Léon Poirier, Compagnie universelle cinématographique, 1928.