This Week in History

Verdun 1916 (21 February)

At the end of 1915 both the Germans and the Allies were developing plans, for the following year, to break the deadlock that gripped them. The Allies' strategy was three-pronged: the French and British were to mount a summer offensive across the Somme whilst other forces put new pressure on the Central Powers on the Italian and Eastern Fronts. The Germans decided on a strategy of attrition directed specifically at France. General Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff, who believed this was their best if not only option, reasoned, 'If we succeed in opening the eyes of their people to the fact that in a military sense they have nothing more to hope for ... England's best sword would be knocked out of her hand. To achieve this object the uncertain method of a mass breakthrough, in any case beyond our means, is unnecessary. We can probably do enough for our purposes with limited resources. Within our reach 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 voluntary withdrawal - whether we reach our objective or not.'

Falkenhayn chose Verdun as his killing ground and Germany struck first. Verdun was a historic keystone in France's frontier defences against Germany. Dating from Roman times, it had changed hands on several occasions, falling to the Germans the last time in the Franco-Prussian War. When the attack began on 21 February 1916, the French were not well prepared but they were better prepared than they would have been had severe winter weather not caused the attack to be postponed from its original date of 12 February. Even so, after the first four days of fighting the French situation would have been desperate, but for some heroic resistance at key points, and the Germans' lack of reserves and over-cautious exploitation of their early gains.

On 26 February General Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, having quashed all suggestions of further retreat (the position was tactically as well as symbolically precious), put the defence of Verdun into the hands of General Henri Pétain, commander of the Second Army. Pétain is credited with the saying, 'Ils ne passeront pas' (They shall not pass) and was true to it. Months of barrage, attack and counterattack followed and the battle did not end until mid-December when the frontline was almost completely restored to where it had been on the day of Falkenhayn's opening assault. Casualties totalled more than 700,000 with only slightly more French than German. The bloody attrition planned by Falkenhayn had turned out to be mutual.

Further reading
Campaign 93: Verdun 1916 (extract below) is a full account of the ten months of fighting that turned the green agricultural landscape into 'a broad, brown band ... [a] sinister brown belt, a strip of murdered Nature'. Essential Histories 14: The First World War (2) The Western Front 1914-1916 (extract below) provides an overview and places this terrible battle in the larger context of the first half of the First World War in its western theatre. The opposing armies are portrayed in Men-at-Arms 286: The French Army 1914-18, Men-at-Arms 80: The German Army 1914-18 and Warrior 12: German Stormtrooper 1914-18. Elite 78: World War I Trench Warfare (1) 1914-16 presents the action as the culmination of 18 months evolution of tactics and combat techniques.

An Extract from Essential Histories 14: The First World War (2) The Western Front 1914-1916

Attack at Verdun

Almost encircled by ridges and hills on both banks of the Meuse, Verdun was also protected by rings of forts. The strongest, in theory, was Fort Douaumont, perched on a 1,200-foot height north-east of the city, on the right bank. However, the strength of the forts was illusory, many of their guns having been removed to provide extra firepower for the French autumn operations. A member of the Chamber of Deputies, Emile Driant, had infuriated Joffre by disclosing Verdun's weaknesses to fellow Deputies. By a remarkable twist of fate, Driant, in February 1916, was commanding two battalions of Chasseurs in the Bois des Caures - a feature at the epicentre of the German attack.

The battle opened at dawn on 21 February. A single 38cm naval gun, 20 miles from the city, fired the first round at a bridge spanning the Meuse. This shell, which missed its target, was the prelude to a nine-hour bombardment of unprecedented savagery. More than 80,000 shells fell in the Bois des Caures alone. With their rearward communications severed, the bewildered defenders were in no condition to repel a major assault. Fortunately for the French, the German planners had been too cautious, limiting infantry operations on the first day to strong fighting patrols which would employ infiltration tactics to seek out weak spots in the French line. Only the VII Reserve Corps commander, von Zwehl, disregarded these orders and showed what might have been achieved. He deployed storm troops just behind the fighting patrols and, in five hours, secured the Bois d'Haumont. In the Bois des Caures, however, Driant's shrewd use of strongpoints instead of continuous trench lines enabled the surviving Chasseurs to defend that position obstinately against the German XVIII Corps.

On 22 February von Zwehl was again the pace-setter, bursting through a regiment of Territorials on the French 72nd Division's left at the Bois de Consenvoye and then seizing Haumont to tear open a gap in the French first line and expose the left flank of the Bois des Caures. During the late afternoon the heroic Driant was killed whilst endeavouring to withdraw his shattered battalions to Beaumont. Much of the French front line had crumbled but despite terrible casualties the defenders were inflicting increasing losses on the Germans, especially among their key storm troops. The next day the Germans came up against an intermediate line that had only recently been created on De Castelnau's orders and so was not marked on German maps. The dogged defence of Herbebois by the French 51st Division was overcome that evening but overall German gains were disappointing on 23 February. The 37th African Division began to reach the battlefield to shore up the depleted units of the French XXX Corps and, ominously for the Germans, powerful French artillery was massing on the left bank of the Meuse.

In the short term these developments were of scant comfort to the French. Before dawn on 24 February Samogneux was in German hands. The French 51st and 72nd Divisions were close to collapse. Beaumont then fell and in barely three hours the French second position broke apart. Algerian Zouaves and Moroccan Tirailleurs of the 37th Division, committed piecemeal to the battle and with no protection from the bitter cold or the fury of the German guns, could not stabilise the situation. Indeed, the 3rd Zouaves - facing the Brandenburgers of the German III Corps - melted away, so uncovering Fort Douaumont, a pivotal point in the defences. As darkness descended, the leading elements of Balfourier's French XX Corps arrived to relieve the battered XXX Corps but there was no guarantee that these fresh troops could repair the disintegrating front.

On 25 February the 24th Brandenburg Regiment entered the gap left by the 3rd Zouaves. Some detachments pushed beyond the stipulated objectives as far as Fort Douaumont. Here, partly because of a French staff and command muddle, the garrison numbered less than 60. Emboldened by the curious inactivity of the fort, a few pioneers, under a sergeant named Kunze, pressed through the outer defences to the dry moat. Still undetected, they climbed through a gun embrasure in to one of the fort's galleries. Though German 42cm shells had not inflicted critical damage on the fort, the shock waves and fumes they produced had driven the defenders to shelter in the bowels of the fort. Kunze was followed in by three more small groups of Brandenburgers and the dejected garrison surrendered by 4.30 pm.

The capture of such a prize at minimal cost sparked national rejoicing in Germany. The attackers appeared to have a clear route into Verdun and the commander of the French Central Army Group, De Langle de Cary, had already advocated withdrawal to the heights to the east and south-east. However, the combative De Castelnau, at French General Headquarters, opposed this policy. Having ensured that Pétain's Second Army would be brought out of reserve to hold the left bank of the Meuse, he travelled to Verdun on 25 February and scotched all thoughts of retirement. He also called for Pétain's area of responsibility to embrace the right bank of the Meuse, which was to be defended at all costs. To some extent these measures were playing into Falkenhayn's hands, yet, as De Castelnau knew, French doctrine and national sentiment made it inconceivable to abandon Verdun.

Like Plumer at Ypres in 1915, the pragmatic Pétain's preference would probably have been controlled withdrawal. However, as an unambitious officer who shunned intrigue and ostentation, Pétain was ideally suited to the role in which he was now cast. Again like Plumer, he understood modern firepower and was trusted by his troops. His very presence at Verdun lifted morale and he inspired renewed confidence in the Verdun forts as the backbone of a 'Line of Resistance'. French artillery was concentrated to give the Germans a taste of attrition. Above all, Pétain grasped the importance of logistics. As rail links to Verdun were cut by German long-range artillery, he took pains to ensure that supplies were maintained along the single viable route south - a road which became known as the Voie Sacrée (Sacred Way). By June vehicles were moving up and down this lifeline at the rate of one every 14 seconds.


An American volunteer pilot described what he saw from the air that summer:

'Every sign of humanity has been swept away. The woods and roads have vanished like chalk wiped from a blackboard; of the villages nothing remains but gray smears where stone walls have tumbled together. The great forts of Douaumant and Vaux are outlined faintly, like the tracings of a finger in wet sand. Of the trenches only broken, half-obliterated links are visible.'


An Extract from Campaign 93: Verdun 1916

The Chasseurs' stand and Colonel Driant's death

The 56th and 59th battalions started that day with 1,300 officers and men. Caporal Maurice Brassard, one of the handful of survivors from the 56th, said that of every five riflemen, 'two are buried alive in their shattered dug-outs, two are wounded and the fifth waits'. Some 40 artillery batteries and 50 trench mortars fired an estimated 80,000 rounds at the wood - an area of only 1,300 x 800 metres. Trees were shredded and uprooted. Trenches and dug-outs collapsed. How many of the defenders survived this storm of steel will never be known, but when the bombardment ceased at 4.00pm, handfuls of riflemen emerged from their shelters to do battle. They were red-eyed, deafened and many were injured. Most machine guns were smashed, some men had only grenades and bayonets. The guns continued to pound the area behind the wood when, in the dying light of the afternoon, German flamethrower squads led small assault columns in among the shattered stumps of the Bois des Caures. The Chasseurs were attacked by elements of the 42nd Brigade of the German 21st Division, spearheaded by five pioneer detachments and flamethrower teams.

In places there was no resistance. In others, such as
abris (bunker) 17, a machine gun stuttered to life and the Germans were pinned down. Sergent Léger and five Chasseurs kept the gun in action until they ran out of ammunition; Léger managed to exhaust his store of 40 hand-grenades too before he was wounded and passed out. Nearby, Sergent Legrand and six Chasseurs found they had only two working rifles with them, but they fought to the death. Only one, Caporal Hutin, was wounded and captured. (Sadly he was deported and executed in 1944 for his activities in the resistance.)

During the first days of the battle, even when hopelessly outnumbered, the French launched frequent counterattacks. Many collapsed in bloody ruin, shot to pieces on the start-line by German artillery, but others achieved results out of proportion to the number of men involved. The Germans found it difficult to retain control of their units in the tangled wreckage of the Bois des Caures. There seems to have been a certain complacency among others - at 8.00pm Lieutenant Robin led a spirited counterattack in the midst of a snow-shower and literally caught the Germans napping in strongpoint 'S7'.

By midnight the
Chasseurs held a good part of their original positions, but there were precious few men left on their feet. Driant visited each post during the night. Robin asked what he was supposed to do with 80 men against a German brigade?

It takes nothing away from Driant and his
Chasseurs to observe that the Germans pulled their punches on 21 February. The bulk of the German infantry remained in their stollen while the pioneers led company-sized assault groups into the French positions. The Germans did not follow the barrage with an immediate, all-out infantry assault.

Driant's luck ran out that afternoon. Strongpoints were overwhelmed one by one. Dwindling groups of survivors conducted a fighting retreat. Driant burned his papers before evacuating his command post. He split the survivors into three groups before stopping off at the regimental aid post, defended by Lieutenant Simon and Sergent-Major Savart, who held off a large number of Germans with deadly accurate rifle fire. But as they picked their way back through the shattered tree stumps, Driant paused to give a field dressing to
Chasseur Papin. Pionnier Sergent Jules Hacquin leapt into a shell hole just ahead when he heard the colonel cry out, 'Oh Là! Mon Dieu.' Hacquin went back with another NCO but Driant was already dead, his eyes half-closed.

Like Leonidas, at the cost of his life and his command, Driant won time for his comrades to prepare an effective defence. Driant is deservedly a hero, yet it is worth noting that several other regiments resisted with the same dogged determination. The Germans made little progress the next day either.

The Franco Prussian War (26 February)

The events of the Franco-Prussian War fell into three main phases. Beginning in July 1870, it opened with a short campaign lasting until September, in which the major battles took place, after which it was largely considered to be over. The war continued until January 1871 because both sides could not agree peace terms. Finally, with peace declared and the war officially over, there was an attempted revolution and civil war in Paris known as the Commune. This was suppressed by the French in May, just as the Treaty of Frankfurt formally ending the war came into force.

Further reading
Essential Histories 51: The Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871 (extract below) places the hostilities and the warring nations in their historical context and describes the great battles, the sieges of Metz and Paris, and the establishment and obliteration of the Paris Commune. It also includes portraits of a soldier and a civilian caught up in the conflict and reviews its immediate and subsequent impact on politics and society. Men-at-Arms 233: French Army 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War (1) (extract below) and Men-at-Arms 237: French Army 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War (2) are studies of the uniforms, equipment and organisation of the losing side, and also document the inadequate reforms that were put in place to counter the Prussian threat. Volumes on the Prussian army will be published in 2004. Campaign 21: Gravelotte-St-Privat 1870 (extract below) is a detailed account of the bloody turning point in the invasion of France. With better generalship and organisation, their strong defensive positions and the superior firepower of their Chassepot rifles, the French could have won this battle. But when the Prussians finally abandoned frontal infantry attacks and fully exploited the superiority of their Krupp artillery, this ceased to be a possibility. German casualties of more than 20,000, twice the number sustained by the French, and the manner in which they were sustained were a foretaste of the butchery of the First World War, that far greater conflict easily traced back to the events of 1870-1871.

An Extract from Essential Histories 51: The Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871

The Context of the War


The Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 was the largest and most important war fought in Europe between the age of Napoleon and the First World War. Since it ended in the establishment of a new German Empire, contemporaries often called it the ‘Franco-German War’, although neither name fits it perfectly. In 1870–71, ‘Prussian’ forces included those from an alliance of other German states, but Prussia and its interests dominated, just as in the Second World War German armies often included forces from other Axis members. The creation and continued existence of this new united Germany set the agenda for European international politics and war for the next century. The war also marked the end of the French Second Empire under Napoleon III, and with it the end of France’s dominant position in Europe. This was something that was never recovered, although in the longer term the war also established France as the most important and enduring republic on the continent. In a wider sense, both sides were conscious of a rivalry for dominance in western Europe between the French and German peoples that went back for centuries, chiefly for control of the lands that lie on either side of the Rhine and its tributaries from the North Sea to the Alps.

Despite its apparently ancient origins, the Franco-Prussian War also marked the beginning of the creation of modern Europe in every sense. It featured a mixture of aristocratic and conservative behaviour based on old ideas of personal rule and the Concert of Europe, together with the new realities of power politics and national bureaucracies. It was the first experience of what the Prussians called Millionenkrieg, ‘the war of the millions’, but both sides argued the formalities of international law, and treated the frontiers of neutral countries as if the laws that protected them were unbreakable barriers. Both King Wilhelm I of Prussia and Emperor Napoleon III of France made critical distinctions between their behaviour in the private sphere and as public heads of state. In its conduct also, the war mixed the weapons, tactics and methods of an earlier era with new military science and new political attitudes. Personalities decided this war, but so did armaments factories, public opinion, military staffwork and mass revolution.


An Extract from Men-at-Arms 233: French Army 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War (1)

Command in the French Army of the Franco-Prussian War

Some blamed the ‘Algerian experience’ for France’s defeat, claiming that her generals had forgotten how to fight a European war after 40 years of pursuing the wily tribesmen of North Africa. This is hardly true. Three-quarters of the generals active in 1870 had seen action in either the Crimea or in Italy, and over a third had served in both campaigns, including MacMahon, Bazaine and Canrobert. It is certainly true that many of the lessons learned there were less than fully relevant by 1870: unlike their German opponents the French had no experience of a war fought with breech-loading weapons, although they were aware of the theoretical changes in tactics that they had wrought. Nevertheless, they were well accustomed to commanding large bodies of men in the field, and to the difficulties inherent in moving and supplying them.

Where the French commanders were deficient was in the area of training and outlook. The lack of a comprehensive training programme for high-ranking officers tended to throw them back on their own experience. Not unnaturally this led them to believe that the methods employed so successfully in earlier campaigns were perfectly adequate and in no need of profound revision. The pervading anti-intellectual bias in the army – exemplified, in French minds at least, by contempt for what they saw as bespectacled Prussian ‘book’ generals – led to a degree of smugness which inhibited innovation and critical appraisal.

The Emperor himself was sufficiently concerned about practical training to create a huge camp at Châlons for the purpose of holding regular large-scale manoeuvres. In the event it proved to be of little use to the generals, although it was certainly valuable for regimental officers. The manoeuvres themselves were usually scripted in advance (the side representing the French invariably emerging the winner), which required little in the way of planning or initiative from the commanders involved – one year the battle of Austerlitz was re-enacted! On another occasion a group of visiting Prussian observers noted that similar exercises were ‘a superb military spectacle that had nothing to do with war’. The idea was that each year two sets of two to three divisions would train for two months at a time. Unfortunately only some 30 generals a year could make use of the facilities – scarcely one-eighth of the total.

The shortcomings of their practical education might have been ameliorated had they been willing to subject themselves to a course of theoretical study. This was particularly true at a time when technological developments were revolutionising strategy and tactics. Despite the plethora of material available, both from past masters and contemporary writers, there is little evidence that a lively intellectual debate flourished among the higher echelons of the army. That is not to say that there were no perceptive and thoughtful soldiers around. The able Gen. Trochu published a work entitled
l’Armée Française en 1867, which highlighted many of the weaknesses inherent in the French military structure. The book was a best-seller, but earned its author considerable criticism and Imperial displeasure.

Another important factor was the constant interference of the Emperor. His assumption of supreme command relegated them to the status of supporting actors whose will to command (such as it was) ebbed away whilst he held centre stage. This often had dire consequences both on strategic decision-making and on battlefield tactics. Time and again the Germans presented the French with the opportunity for victory, only to be spared the consequences of their folly by their unenterprising opponents, who held back their all too eager men for lack of a formal order. The contrast with the adventurous (though not always intelligent) assertiveness of often quite junior German generals is stark. Excessive centralisation and a tradition of absolute obedience to superiors must also bear some of the responsibility for the lack of initiative shown by many French generals. One brigade commander at Gravelotte, who witnessed the rout of the Prussians in the Mance ravine, declined to exploit the situation, noting: ‘I did not think I should pursue them having been ordered to remain on the defensive.’ Earlier in the campaign Gen. Bonnemains was instructed to move his division; instead of immediately complying he asked headquarters whether this included his artillery and provost, which were not specifically mentioned in the order…

A further excuse often seized upon by post-war critics was the age of many senior commanders. While the average age was certainly higher than it had been in the Crimea or in Italy, it was still lower than that of their German opposite numbers. Corps commanders in
l’Armée du Rhin for example, averaged some 59 years of age, two years younger than their German equivalents; whilst Moltke was 70 and Steinmetz, commander of 1st Army, was 73. In reality the issue was one of health rather than age: prolonged service in unhealthy climates had taken its toll of the young sabreurs of earlier days. Many were incapable of prolonged physical effort, including the Emperor, who suffered agonies during the campaign. Such a situation could hardly be expected to facilitate cool, reasoned thought and decisive actions.

Valid though these observations may be, they should not be overstated. Most commanders, even those in doubtful health, led from the front and suffered a high proportion of casualties: between 4 August and 2 September 16 generals were killed and a further 45 wounded. The problem was rather one of attitude. Against an opponent as aggressive and enterprising as the Germans, and under the unaccustomed gloom of early defeats, many felt themselves to be out of their depth. Gen. Bourbaki, the youngest of the French corps commanders, complained on the night of Mars-la-Tour: ‘We are too old for a war like this.’ It is scarcely surprising that they were defeated.


An Extract from Campaign 21: Gravelotte-St-Privat 1870

Action in the Mance ravine at the Battle of Gravelotte-St Privat

At just before 2.30pm Steinmetz ordered VIII Corps forward across the ravine. While Goeben’s assault with elements of 15th Division had been bloodily halted, for Steinmetz it had simply fuelled his belief in this course of action. The objective of VIII Corps’ assault was the farm of St-Hubert which would provide a foothold on the Rozérieulles plateau. It would also provide cover from Chassepot fire so that his artillery could move up to the edge of the ravine. Of Goeben’s Corps, the whole of 15th Division and 31 Brigade of 16th Division moved forward frontally to assault the farm.

The farm buildings sat just below the top of the ridge and commanded the steep eastern slope of the ravine. Above and to each side of the farm were the main trench lines of II and III Corps and the farm would have to be taken before any assault on these could be contemplated. The farm itself was held by a single battalion of the 80th Regiment of Aymard’s Division.

The three German brigades moved forward across the bottom of the ravine, 15th Division passing to either side of the causeway carrying the Gravelotte to St-Hubert road across the ravine, with 31 Brigade in support. As they crossed the stream a hail of bullets and shells smashed into their ranks. As they moved up the lower slopes, the thick undergrowth, trees and quarries broke up the company columns of 29 and 30 Brigades. Despite this, they managed to move up the slope to occupy the gravel-pits directly below the heights of the Point du Jour and St-Hubert, with 31 Brigade moving in behind. But from here they could move no further as the rifles and guns of Frossard’s Corps swept the area and their shattered ranks sought what cover they could in the pits and trees.

In this exposed and tenuous position, a localized French counter-attack would have swept all three brigades away, yet neither Frossard nor Leboeuf stirred. Instead, all their guns’ attention being drawn to the eastern slope, Steinmetz was able to bring forward his 150 guns from around Gravelotte to the western edge of the ravine by 3pm. Within a few minutes the farm of St-Hubert was a blazing ruin and the garrison was slaughtered. By 3.30 the survivors of the 80th had to retire to the main trench line just above the farm, and elements of three German units, 8th Jäger and 60th and 67th Infantry Regiments dashed forward to seize the ruins. The guns then began pounding the trenches and guns of Frossard’s Corps thereby discouraging any thought of a counter-attack to retake the German toe-hold in the ruined farm.