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Terrible Cost: Why the Battle of Verdun Was a Major Blunder

Key point: The entire fight was yet another attempt to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Although many died, the plan did not work and later Imperial Germany would sue for peace.

Operation Gericht—German for “judgment” or “tribunal”—was the brainchild of Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of the German general staff as the year 1915 was coming to a close. Descended from a long line of Prussian military men, he was a cold, rational, distant man. A personal favorite of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Falkenhayn was faced with a problem: The war against France, Belgium, and Britain was not going as planned by Prussian strategists. Originally, according to the intricately developed Schlieffen Plan, the German armies were to have sliced through Belgium and into northern France, sweeping the French army and its British allies before it in an irresistible strike at Paris. But the Belgians had fought valiantly, France’s Russian ally had invaded the eastern German Empire, and the French had smashed into the exposed flank of the German army on the River Marne, halting its drive. Both sides had dug in, and the war of movement—and German dreams of a lightning victory—vanished into the sullen horror of trench warfare.

This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.

Faced with this stalemate, Falkenhayn sat down in December 1915 to write a long memorandum to the Kaiser. The key to winning the war, argued the chief of staff, lay in the West; Russia, disorganized and unstable, could be dealt with later. France was the crux, and knocking France out of the war would bring the British to the peace table.

“Within our reach,” Falkenhayn’s memo read, “behind the French sector of the Western Front there are objectives for the retention of which the French General staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death—as there can be no question of a voluntary withdrawal—whether we reach our goal or not.” Verdun was the site picked for this grim hemorrhaging operation, code-named Operation Judgment.

Falkenhayn’s Bold Plan

The choice of Verdun was a natural for Falkenhayn’s battle of attrition, for here were located probably the strongest fortified systems in the world. More than mere forts, the formidable defenses symbolized the French army, French honor, and independence—indeed, France itself. Falkenhayn was right in arguing that a German victory here would be intolerable to the French, a moral and psychological blow at the country’s heart. In defending it, Falkenhayn believed, they would sacrifice their army and then have to sue for peace.

As for the forts themselves, the German army felt certain that they would be easily pulverized by heavy artillery—the huge Krupp-made 420mm “Big Berthas” that had leveled the “indestructible” Belgian forts of Liège and Namur at the beginning of the war. Taking the Verdun forts, Falkenhayn reasoned, would present no great problem. What he could not foresee, however, was how determinedly the French would fight to defend them.

A sophisticated court insider, Falkenhayn carefully designed his plan to appeal to the Kaiser’s enormous vanity: The official orders for the attack were released on January 27—His Majesty’s birthday—and the Kaiser’s son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, would lead the V Army in the attack.

A major flaw in Operation Judgment, however, was its lack of goals. The target of what was to be the greatest German military operation up to that time was not to break through the Allied lines; it was not even to capture the great forts themselves. At the most, taking Verdun would protect important German railway lines 20 kilometers away, but even this could not justify the intensity of the assault. Falkenhayn himself was vague on just what his forces were supposed to accomplish other than destroying the French army by attrition and then, perhaps, seeing what opportunities presented themselves afterward. His thinking was so broadly strategic that he utterly disregarded the details. To this day, military historians are puzzled by what Falkenhayn’s real objectives were.

Not having seen Falkenhayn’s memo to the Kaiser, the Crown Prince and his chief of staff, General Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, set about devising a real plan of attack centered on the capture of the Verdun forts. This was to be a two-pronged pincer movement across the western and eastern banks of the Meuse, designed to overrun the forts and, it was hoped, develop into a breakthrough of the lines and a rolling up of the enemy’s forces.

Secretive, indecisive, and loath to take risks, Falkenhayn vetoed this plan of action. Capturing the forts, perversely, did not fit his idea of a drawn-out “bleeding-white” operation. The actual fall of the forts would make the process shorter, and thereby—in Falkenhayn’s cold logic—inefficient. Significantly, Falkenhayn never explained his idea to the young and inexperienced Crown Prince, possibly because he calculated that few would willingly fight in such a macabre battle.

In the end, Falkenhayn limited the Crown Prince and Schmidt von Knobelsdorf’s plan to an attack only on the Meuse’s eastern bank, and thereby weakened the German army’s striking arm. With shrewd calculation, Falkenhayn promised further reserves as the battle progressed, although these were to be kept under his strict control. Thus, the Crown Prince’s V Army believed its target was the forts, while Falkenhayn kept to his original idea.

France Unintentionally Aided the German Effort by Weakening Their Forts

Verdun consisted of a network of more than 20 large and small sunken fortresses, with Fort Douaumont, built on a hill 1,200 feet high, forming the anchor of the defense. Located on the River Meuse, the line of forts formed part of a large salient bulging into the German lines, which meant that the Germans could fire on French positions from three sides. It would have been sound strategy for the French to abandon the forts and thereby shorten their lines. Politically, however, such a move would have been inconceivable. French public opinion would have never supported voluntarily surrendering Verdun, the emblem of French military might and national honor.

Despite the symbolic importance of Verdun, the French had done much to aid German battle plans by weakening the forts. Having observed the relatively easy fall of the Belgium fortresses, the rotund and somnolent French commander-in-chief, General Joseph Joffre, had grandly declared forts to be useless. Subsequently, the fortresses of Vaux, Douaumont, and others were stripped of men and weapons that were then sent to more active fronts. Only one thin line of trenches was dug to defend the forts, now manned by skeleton crews and used as depots for housing men and materiel. No political fool, Joffre did not inform the French public about his decision to castrate these symbols of France’s pride and power.

Meanwhile, the Germans were pushing ahead with characteristic thoroughness. As in nearly all Great War battles, the attackers amassed an impressive lineup of artillery: more than 542 heavy guns, 17 305mm howitzers, 13 “Big Berthas”—which were capable of hurling a 1-ton shell for several miles—plus mortars and medium and light guns. The Germans concentrated 150 guns to each mile on an 8-mile front. A total of 140,000 men dispersed among 72 divisions faced an ill-prepared, paltry French defense of only 270 guns and 34 divisions. Also, German aircraft were sent aloft to prevent enemy observation planes from photographing the army’s preparations, a job helped by foggy, rainy weather.

Falkenhayn’s plan of attack was novel: a short, sharp bombardment on a narrow front to kill the defenders and wipe out their trenches, followed by the German infantry—not dashing themselves in suicidal waves against the enemy, but advancing in small groups and using the contours of the ground, tactics that would later be perfected by the stormtroopers of the great German offenses of 1918. The infantry’s main role would be to “mop up” the defenders, although it was widely believed that there would be nothing left to mop up after the storm of shells ceased.

The Largest Attack History Had Ever Known

Zero hour was set for February 12, 1916. The night before, German officers and enlisted men readied their weapons and stared with sullen tension at their target across the fields of barbed wire. The great killing machine of the German army was poised to unleash itself in the largest attack history had ever known.

But nothing happened. That night, a powerful snow blizzard slammed into the area with a torrent of whipping winds, freezing rains, and sub-zero temperatures that did not let up for nearly a week, thus postponing the attack.

While German soldiers crouched in their bunkers and trenches and artillery gun sighters peered helplessly into the swirling white soup, the French, alerted at last that something was indeed up, began to rush in reinforcements. Even slow-moving General Joffre arrived on the scene. This storm saved Verdun, and perhaps France as well.

When visibility improved on the 21st, the message was passed down from V Army headquarters: Attack. Operation Judgment was launched when a giant 15-inch Krupp naval gun 20 miles away belched a huge shell that arched through the sky and exploded inside the town of Verdun. This was the start of nine hours of hell.

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