At 7.00am on 21st February 1916 German artillery began a barrage that signalled the beginning of the most protracted, and one of the bloodiest, encounters of World War I, namely the battle of Verdun.
The aim of the Germans was to “bleed the French to death” by pummelling their defensive positions north of the historic city of Verdun. On each day of the battle a massive bombardment, from more than a thousand artillery pieces, was followed by an infantry advance to which the French were forced to respond.
This went on for day after day until the French defences began to give way. On 25th February they lost control of Fort Douaumont, which had been thought to be impregnable, after which the French supply lines came under severe threat.
The tide began to turn when Major-General Philippe Petain was put in charge of defending Verdun. He reorganised the supply route, as well as the French artillery, and rotated his troops so that nobody spent too long in the front line. This latter move had a massive impact on morale.
By the 23rd of June German resources were beginning to ebb as French counter-attacks took effect. Fort Douaumont was retaken on 24th October and by December the battle had fizzled out into the stalemate of continuous trench warfare.
The Battle of Verdun lasted for ten months and caused some 700,000 casualties (killed, missing and wounded). Nobody won, although some reputations were enhanced and others diminished. An early casualty of the battle, in that he was taken prisoner, was a young infantry captain named Charles de Gaulle. He spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp and was therefore saved for much more important roles later in the century. Petain, the hero of Verdun, was to take a much less heroic part in World War II when he led “Vichy France” as a puppet state of the Nazis.
© John Welford