In Final Stages of Preparation; Germans Seek Knockout Blow Against French Bastion.
French, British Eye Offensive at the Somme
Special to The Great War Project.
(7-10 February) Planning on both sides intensifies, as the Germans and the Allies each hope to mount massive offensives that can break the war’s devastating stalemate..
Writes historian Martin Gilbert, “Two plans, one German, one Anglo-French both aimed at securing victory on the Western Front, were being devised in mid-February.”
But the two plans are quite different.
“The Germans,” reports Gilbert, “were in the final stages of planning what they believed would be a successful war of attrition, centered upon a massive, sustained attack on the northern French fortress of Verdun.”
For the German command, Verdun offered the possibility of a gambit “to bring a quick and favorable end to the war,”...
…writes historian Alexander Watson.
“The place was well chosen,” Watson notes. The fortress at Verdun holds historical significance for the French, having been constructed during the French Revolution in the 1790’s. “It had been a bastion guaranteeing France against invasion.”
Verdun has already seen battle in this war. “Throughout 1915,” writes Gilbert, “the German frontline trenches had been only ten miles from the center of the town.”
“Now it was to be the German Army’s main objective for 1916.”
The German command, according to Watson, “selected Verdun not just because no French government could afford to abandon it. Operationally the area was well suited for his ‘bleeding to death battle.’”
Continues Martin Gilbert, “As the Germans made plans to attack at Verdun, the British and French were making preparations for a breakthrough that summer on the [River] Somme.”
“Confident of success, the British and French governments issued a declaration [in mid-February] stating that there could be..
…no peace with Germany until Belgian independence was restored…
and financial reparations paid for the damage done inside Belgium during the German occupation.”
The plans on each side may be secret, but neither side can mistake what is unfolding, once each begins to amass troops and artillery. It does not look like either side will be able to take much advantage of the element of surprise.
The French defending Verdun are especially vulnerable. They have been moving troops, away from Verdun, leaving mostly reserve forces.
At the same time, the German command is moving more units closer to Verdun. The Germans reinforce their troops with more than 540 heavy guns, according to war historian John Keegan, including “an enormous concentration of artillery” including the guns “that had devastated the Belgian forts eighteen months earlier.”
In addition the Germans deliver a stock of two-and-a-half million shells.
The whole of the French zone is to be hit with such force that, on the orders of the German command, “no line is to remain unbombarded, no possibilities of supply unmolested, nowhere should the enemy feel himself safe.”
In Keegan’s view, the German plan is “brutally simple.” German deployments will channel French forces into a narrow corridor where the French will be compelled to feed reinforcements “into a battle of attrition where the material circumstances so favored the Germans that defeat [of France] was inevitable.”
“If the French gave up the struggle,” concludes Keegan, “they would lose Verdun; if they persisted, they would lose their army.”
The German attack on Verdun, dubbed Operation Judgment, is scheduled to begin on this February 10th, precisely a century ago, but bad weather forces the Germans to postpone it.