One of the costliest battles of World War One, Verdun exemplified the 'war of attrition' pursued by both sides and which cost so many lives.
By the winter of 1915-16, German General Erich von Falkenhayn was convinced that the war could only be won in the west. He decided on a massive attack on a French position 'for the retention of which the French Command would be compelled to throw in every man they have'. Once the French army had bled to death, Britain would be fighting alone on the Western Front and could be brought down by Germany's submarine blockade.
Falkenhayn targeted the town of Verdun and its surrounding forts. They threatened German lines of communication and lay within a French salient (a bulge in the line), restricting their defenders. Verdun was a Gallic fortress before Roman times and later a key asset in wars against Prussia, and Falkenhayn knew that the French would throw as many men as necessary into its defence. He realised that this would enable him to inflict the maximum possible casualties.
He massed artillery to the north and east of Verdun to pre-empt the infantry advance with intensive artillery bombardment. Although French intelligence had warned of his plans, these warnings were ignored by the French Command. Consequently, Verdun was utterly unprepared for the initial bombardment on the morning of 21 February 1916. German infantry attacks followed that afternoon and met little resistance for the first four days.
On 25 February the Germans occupied Fort Douaumont. French reinforcements arrived and, under the leadership of General Pétain, they managed to slow the German advance with a series of counter-attacks. Over March and April the hills and ridges north of Verdun exchanged hands, always under heavy bombardment. Meanwhile, Pétain organised repeated counter-attacks to slow the German advance. He also ensured that the Bar-le-Duc road into Verdun - the only one to survive German shelling - remained open. It became known as La Voie Sacrée ('the Sacred Way') because it continued to carry vital supplies and reinforcements into the Verdun front despite constant artillery attack.
German gains continued in June, but slowly. They attacked the heights along the Meuse and took Fort Vaux on 7 June. On 23 June they almost reached the Belleville heights, the last stronghold before Verdun itself. Pétain was preparing to evacuate the east bank of the Meuse when the Allies' offensive on the Somme River was launched on 1 July, partly to relieve the French. The Germans could no longer afford to commit new troops to Verdun and, at a cost of some 400,000 French casualties and a similar number of Germans, the attack was called off. Germany had failed to bleed France to death and from October to the end of the year, French offensives regained the forts and territory they had lost earlier. Falkenhayn was replaced by Hindenburg as Chief of General Staff and Pétain became a hero, eventually replacing General Nivelle as French commander-in-chief.
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