THROW A MILLION MEN INTO THE BATTLE.
An Immense Artillery Barrage; Huge Attack from the Air.
Special to The Great War Project
(20-21 February) On this day a century ago, the Germans mount a great offensive at Verdun.
A million German soldiers seek to take the old fortress at this northern French city on the road to Paris. The German command seeks to draw every soldier the French have, and they have half a million troops deployed at Verdun.
One historian describes the fight for Verdun as “the greatest battle of attrition in history.”
“It began,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “with a nine-hour German artillery bombardment, by 850 heavy guns along an eight-mile front.”
“The first shot, fired by a Krupp 15-inch naval gun from almost twenty miles away, hit the cathedral.”
The nine-hour bombardment is “unprecedented in warfare,” according to Gilbert.
It begins “with the largest and longest artillery bombardment yet seen,” writes historian Adam Hochschild.
In historian Norman Stone’s account “On February 21st 1220 guns, half of them heavy or high-trajectory, fired off two million shells in eight hours on an eight-mile front.”
The Germans then attack with 140,000 infantry advancing toward the French defenses. “The pounding of the shells had wreaked havoc with the front-line trenches and dugouts, burying many men under an inescapable weight of earth,” reports Gilbert.
Gilbert notes one frontline French soldier who that night writes of the Battle of Verdun, “We shall hold against the Boche [the Germans] although their bombardment is infernal.” Of his 1300-man unit, “more than half were dead or wounded,” reports Gilbert.
“Of every five men,” one corporal remarked, “two have been buried alive under their shelter, two are wounded to some extent or other, and the fifth is waiting.”
On the first day, the Germans also use gas shells, according to Gilbert. In retaliation the French launch gas attacks as well, with deadly phosgene.
The Germans also make extensive use of air power. They deploy 168 aircraft, reports Gilbert, in order to “maintain constant artillery-reconnaissance patrols” over the Verdun fortress.
The Germans also throw a surprise weapon into the Verdun fight: flame-throwers, nearly a hundred of them.
It is all targeted on the huge ancient fortress at Verdun.
“The symbol of the battle,” writes historian Norman Stone, “was a great fort, Douaumont, which the French had had the sense to abandon — its concrete was extremely thick but of course it made an obvious target for the heaviest of guns.”
Actually, after the outbreak of the war in 1914, Verdun had become “a quiet sector.”
“Its garrison had been whittled down,” writes war historian John Keegan.
The German strategy “is brutally simple,” reports Keegan. It seeks to whittle down the French presence even further.
“The French,” reports Keegan, “forced to fight in a crucial but narrowly constricted corner of the Western Front, would be compelled to feed reinforcements into a battle of attrition where the material circumstances so favored the Germans that defeat was inevitable.”
“If the French gave up the struggle, they would lose Verdun; if they persisted, they would lose their army.”