Many Soldiers Terrorized, Flee Battlefield;

Kaiser Arrives to Praise German Troops.

Verdun on the Brink of Collapse.

Special to The Great War Project.

(22-25 February) By the third day of the German offensive at the French town of Verdun, German troops advance two miles.

They take 3,000 French soldiers prisoner, after the Germans use their ninety-six flame throwers, a terrifying weapon that causes every front line soldier to imagine burning to death.

ADN-ZB-Archiv I.Weltkrieg 1914-18 Westeuropäischer Kriegsschauplatz 1917 Einsatz von Flammenwerfern bei den deutschen Truppen. [Scherl Bilderdienst]

German troops use flamethrowers at Battle of Verdun, 1916.

On the same day, February 23rd French soldiers in a nearby village are the victims of a rumor that the village is now in German hands.

It is not.

But, according to historian Martin Gilbert, as soon as the rumor takes hold, “a heavy and accurate French bombardment was directed on to the village by artillery that had just reached Verdun.”

“For two hours the [French] defenders were pounded by their own side.

“Then as the bombardment ended, the Germans moved in to take advantage of it. The village was theirs.”

The French casualties are horrific, according to war historian John Keegan. He reports the actions of one officer in the field who signals to higher command, “the commanding officer and all company commanders have been killed. My battalion is reduced to approximately 180 men (from 600). I have neither ammunition nor food.

“What am I to do?”

The dead at Verdun, 1916.

The dead at Verdun, 1916.

Unexpectedly, the German Kaiser arrives outside Verdun, eager to be present when the town falls. He watches the battle through a periscope

The Kaiser encounters a French corporal who is taken prisoner. The corporal and others in his unit had been ordered to hold the village near Verdun “at all costs.”

“You will never enter Verdun,” the corporal tells the Kaiser.

By February 24th Gilbert reports, “the Germans advanced another mile and took a further 10,000 prisoners.”

That same day, many of the French defenders succumb to terror and flee their positions.

The situation looks desperate for the French. Reports Gilbert, “French troops were fleeing from the front line in panic, or shattered.”

“Some of those who fled did not get very far. A French officer tried in vain to halt them by his word of command. Then, as a French Staff officer later wrote, ‘a section of machine guns fired at the backs of the fleeing men, who fell like flies.’”

On February 25th a century ago, the Germans seize Fort Douaumont, an ancient fortress that has defended Verdun – and the road to Paris — for centuries.

“The French had failed to appreciate the speed of the German advance,” reports Gilbert, “and many of the guns that might have prolonged the defense were unmanned, or had been taken away for use elsewhere.”

“It was a disaster for France, triumph for Germany.”

French soldiers defending the fortress at Douaumont, Verdun, 1916.

French soldiers defending the fortress at Douaumont, Verdun, 1916.

The time has come for the Germans to abandon the old plans for the Verdun offensive. Given its early successes, the German command decides to forsake its earlier goal of mounting a siege at Verdun that is “bleeding the French army white.”

With the Kaiser present, the Germans decide “to take advantage of French weakness and chaos to advance to the city itself.”

The French too are tempted to leave behind their initial strategy to defend Verdun at all costs. Reports Gilbert, “The French too might have decided that night to give up Verdun altogether, abandon the salient, and fall back to a more easily defensible line.”

French cartoon depicting Kaiser Wilhelm and son at Verdun battlefield, 1916.

French cartoon depicting Kaiser Wilhelm and son at Verdun battlefield, 1916.

“But it was not to be. That midnight, command of the defense of Verdun was given to General [Philippe] Petain. He was determined not to allow the fortress to fall into German hands. “

“Retake immediately any piece of land taken by [the Germans], he insisted.”

And on the following day he issues a famous order: “They shall not pass.”

Nevertheless, the fortress at Douaumont falls on February 25th, taken, incredibly, by a single German sergeant. He is blown by a nearby artillery shell into a moat surrounding the fortress. Finding himself unharmed, he decides to explore the interior of the structure. He discovers it is occupied by just a handful of French troops and he bluffs them into surrender.

Observes Keegan, “the news of the fort’s capture spread panic among the troops at Verdun.”

Verdun is on the point of falling to the Germans.