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On February 21, 1916, the battle of Verdun starts with a deluge of fire which crushed the French lines for hours. It is the beginning of a German offensive which aims to "bleed dry" the French army. The defense of this part of the front was quickly entrusted to General Pétain, who organized the supply to the front by creating the "sacred way", a widened and maintained road for the uninterrupted passage of two lines of trucks. The German advance will be blocked by the tenacity of the French fighters, at the cost of a dizzying number of dead and wounded.
Why the Battle of Verdun?
Since the Battle of the Marne, the war of movement has turned into a war of positions: the fighters bury themselves in trenches, fight in horrible conditions, folded up in the mud in the middle of the rats, surrounded by corpses that it is not always possible to evacuate, and above all, survive in fear ... It is on theVerdun salient that General Erich von Falkenhayn intends, as he will write later, "will bleed the French army white" by the fire of thousands of cannons, that is to say exhaust it both morally and physically before come to the end of it completely. He is supported in this objective by the Kronprinz, eldest son of William II, also determined to destroy the French army and who qualifies Verdun as "the heart of France" symbolic.
The Germans know the importance of this site located on the Meuse, in Lorraine, whose fortifications make it both a strategic issue and a question of national honor for the French. The defense of Verdun has indeed a very old military history: fortifications already existed in the fourteenth century, before an underground citadel was built under Louis XIII, consolidated under Louis XIV with Vauban, then further reinforced at the end of the nineteenth century. Twice, the city was besieged and taken by the Prussians, in 1792 and in 1870. Verdun is indeed difficult to defend because the Meuse cuts the battlefield in two, while the front presents a salient, therefore two parts to defend instead of just one. The Germans also know that it is difficult for the French to come to the aid of the troops based in Verdun, because of the absence of a railway line worthy of the name.
In addition, the forts are devoid of personnel and sufficient weapons, since Joffre is convinced of the almost impregnable character of the fortifications of Verdun and does not even imagine an offensive there. Moreover, in August 1915, the military authorities decided to move around forty heavy batteries and around ten field batteries to other sectors considered more sensitive. Also, when the Battle of Verdun broke out, the French were particularly surprised, expecting a battle in Champagne.
A meticulously prepared offensive
Decided in December 1915, the battle of Verdun, which the German high command wants decisive, was carefully prepared. Concrete tunnels were built as close as possible to the French positions, deep shelters were dug, able to accommodate 72 assault battalions, and the German troops were reinforced, increasing to eight divisions. The German army is placed on a front of a dozen kilometers and 221 artillery batteries are installed. Despite the secrecy surrounding these preparations, the French intelligence services are informed of an attack scheduled for February 11. But the military authorities give little credit to this surprising information, even if some reinforcements are sent there, in case ... For weather reasons, the attack is postponed for a few days.
On February 21, at 7:30 a.m., the German artillery took action. It holds over 1.2 million guns, including 13 formidable 420mm Krupps. The three French divisions present on this front of only fifteen kilometers are assaulted by a deluge of bombs. Von Falkenhayn thus hopes to annihilate the enemy infantry as much as possible, which has only 65 artillery batteries and 270 cannons to respond. At the end of the afternoon, after nine hours of bombardment, the German artillery gives way to the infantry: the German infantrymen launch out against the French positions, and, for the first time, the formidable weapon that is the flamethrower is used.
In a few days, while two million shells were dumped on French positions in the first 48 hours, the French front was sunk up to ten kilometers. However, while their artillery fire was fierce, the Germans were surprised to see the French soldiers, even isolated and without command, persist in defending their positions. Although the French deplore the loss of 20,000 men and that Fort Douaumont fell on February 25, Joffre gave the order to resist at all costs, affirming with determination: “They will not pass! ". He entrusted the command of the defense of Verdun to General Philippe Pétain, at the head of the 2nd Army and assisted by Generals Nivelle and Mangin.
Pétain organizes the defense of Verdun
In place from February 26, Pétain intends to plug the breach made by the enemy and organize a link with the rear: 6,000 trucks take the only road leading from Bar-le-Duc to Verdun, the "sacred way" , thus making it possible within 24 hours to deliver reinforcements and supplies with food and ammunition. On their return, they repatriate the many wounded. From now on, 90,000 men and 50,000 tonnes of material are transported each week. In addition, to limit losses in each of the divisions and allow the hairy to rest in the vicinity of Bar-le-Duc, Pétain sets up a rotation of units, which will bring two-thirds of the French army to participate. in the battles of Verdun.
From February to April, the strength of the French armies increased from 230,000 to 584,000 men, while the artillery approached 2,000 pieces, a quarter of which consisted of heavy weapons. However, the Germans continued to be formidable: on February 27, the fort of Douaumont, which was guarded by only about sixty soldiers, was taken. On March 6, the Germans attacked on the left bank of the Meuse, taking the wood of Cumières on March 7, the crest of Mort-Homme on March 14, and hill 304 on May 24.
At the beginning of spring, the German assault on the eastern and western fronts managed to be repelled, just as the breach made by the enemy was filled at the end of March. Although the armies of the Kronprinz were defeated on April 9, the Germans managed to recover quickly and General Mangin failed to reconquer Douaumont from May 22 to 24. Despite the importance of the losses suffered in "the hell of Verdun", the war of attrition continues. On June 7, Fort Vaux was taken by the Germans, who launched a new assault at the end of June at Thiaumont, Fleury and around Froi-deterre. The terrible phosgene bombs appear for the first time and the Germans manage to advance 3 kilometers, which threatens the French positions on the right bank of the Meuse. But the situation on the Somme, further north, gradually shifted the balance of power: on July 1, the Franco-British forces launched a vast offensive there which forced the Germans to reduce their troops in Verdun in order to hold their positions in the Somme.
The battle of Verdun, a butcher's shop and a trauma
In Verdun, the Kronprinz attempted a new assault on Fort Souville on July 11, but the response of the French artillery and the counter-attacks carried out saved the situation in extremis. In view of the difficulties encountered by the German forces, General von Falkenhayn was relieved of his functions on August 29, 1916, which were entrusted to Marshal Hindenburg, once again assisted by General Ludendorff.
On October 24, General Robert Nivelle, who succeeded General Pétain at the head of the 2nd Army (Pétain was given command of the Army Group of the Center), launched a counter-offensive on Verdun. This made it possible to reverse the situation definitively by regaining the ground lost unceasingly since February: the fort of Douaumont was retaken in a few hours, then that of Vaux on November 2, finally causing the Germans to retreat. The front stabilizes along a Champneuville-Bezonvaux line, on the right bank of the Meuse.
On December 18, 1916, the Battle of Verdun was won by the French.
Battle of Verdun: results (summary)
After ten months of massacres and 37 million shells fired, this victory has an immense psychological impact. The total losses are frightening: they amount to around 162,000 dead or missing on the French side, and around 145,000 dead on the German side, as well as a total of 400,000 wounded French and German. Verdun is the deadliest of the battles of the First World War, after that of the Somme.
- The Battle of Verdun by Claude Carlier. Economica, 1997.
- Verdun - the greatest battle in history told by the survivors of Jacques-Henri Lefebvre. 2008.
- The Verdun Memorial.
- Wars And Great Battles /Vol.3: The Battle Of Verdun (1916). Documentary, DVD, 2009.