Verdun Was WWI’s Slaughterhouse

Verdun had served the French well as a defensive outpost in the past, but in WWI it became synonymous with insensible tactics that claimed 250,000 lives.

There is no quick route by which one may approach Verdun. No superhighway passes through this sleepy town, nor do any of France’s fabled “Trains de Grande Vitesse” stop here. There is only the local line, and even that humbled creaking route terminates in Verdun. In the end, one can only come to this hallowed ground slowly, by a small four-car train or by narrow two-lane road. This is as it should be. Some 250,000 men died in these few square miles of turf, and one should not rush into a graveyard.

Although even less well-known to most Americans today than are the almost-forgotten exertions of the American Expeditionary Force during World War I in places like St. Mihiel and the Argonne Forest, Verdun actually represents the apogee of the slaughter of World War I on the Western Front. It was both the longest battle of the war, officially lasting from February 21, 1916 through December 11, 1916 and the most costly single battle of the war, with estimates ranging from 900,000-1,100,000 men shedding blood on this small patch of ground that is only about twice the size of the battlefield of Gettysburg. It was, by any definition of the word, an obscenity.

Perhaps even more significantly, the impact of Verdun upon the people of France and Germany is crucial to understanding what happened over the course of the rest of the 20th century. Without Verdun the American casualties of WWI might not have been as bad as they were and our troops might not have been rushed into the fight before they were ready. The British-led Battle of the Somme might not have occurred, at least not the way that it did. The Maginot Line of WWII may have never existed, and the French might not have chosen static defense versus mobile warfare, a choice that doomed them in WWII. Indeed, without Verdun, WWII might have played out far differently. It is the epicenter of nearly a century of events and “what-ifs.” All of this and more make it an important battle to study.

Which is why The Daily Beast is going to come back to this battle a few times throughout the next nine months or so, as we pass through the 100th anniversary of this holocaust known to the Germans as “The Meatgrinder” and to the French as “The Cauldron.”

Verdun was always more than just another small provincial town in northwestern France.

There is an old saying among strategists, “Amateurs talk tactics, professionals discuss logistics.” And before the advent of the steam locomotive and the internal combustion engine, one of the most reliable means of transporting logistics to an army was by sending via river. Verdun sits astride a traditional route of invasion into France, the Meuse River valley. For this reason, Verdun has been occupied and defended since the 3rd century BC. Indeed, the name itself literally means, “fortified place.”

In the 17th century, no less a man than the very master of military fortifications in the Enlightenment Age, the French king Louis XIV’s engineer Vauban, made it one of his centerpiece fortresses. And even in the debacle of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, it was within these walls that the French took refuge. Verdun gave the people of France some small measure of pride, as the garrison there withstood the sustained siege of the Prussians in that war and never formally surrendered until the whole of the French nation sued for peace. For the French, Verdun in 1916 was more than just a place on a map. It was a symbol of their resistance against the rising German tide, and that was before the battle even started. Indeed, this was a reality that was central to the vicious nature of the battle itself.

If, as German General Erich von Falkenhayn later contended in the post-war period, the German plan really was to choose a place where they might “bleed the French white,” they chose well. Not only did the French military, and the French people, have a strong emotional bond to the place, but by 1916 the town occupied the most obvious salient of the French lines. The exposed nature of the French line at that point derived from the fact that when the Germans initially attacked on a broad front across the Low Countries and into northwest France in 1914 Verdun served as a sort of a natural hinge.

Think about it this way: stand up and place your arms straight out to your sides. Now, your right arm is the Germans. Put your right palm so that it is facing forward. Your left arm is the French, so turn that palm to face back. Right now you more or less are the French/German border, and you are facing to the west.

Now, pivot your whole body about 25-degrees to the left. This is the beginning of the war as the German Schlieffen Plan (“Big Hook, east-to-west”), and the countervailing French Plan XVII (“Big Hook, west-to-east”) kicked off. Now stop pivoting your body and bring your right arm forward until it is right in front of you. You are doing this because the French offensive stalled (your left arm), but the German one did not, it almost made it to Paris. And you, as the pivot point? You are Verdun.

In 1914 there was good reason why both sides made that city the end of their lines of attack. Verdun was at the time probably one of the most highly fortified places in Europe. For this reason the Germans did not want to attack it (and slow their advance) and the French wanted to use it to anchor the end of their own line so they could not be attacked from the side.

What had happened was that following the embarrassment of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the French resolved not to allow the same thing to happen to their nation again. Fortifying and then updating their fortifications all along the German-French border, they sought strength from modern military engineering. Throughout the late 19th century they created strongpoints, at great cost to the nation. The most significant of those was Verdun. By the opening years of the 20th century, about the time the French Army began its doctrinal fascination with “L’Arme Blanche” (the “White Arm,” an allegory for the bayonet and the concept of morale and offensive maneuver as the be-all-and-end-all), Verdun was ringed with a whole series of sunken concrete fortifications. Forts with names like Douamont and Vaux—all armed with disappearing cannon and armored machine gun turrets—ringed the city and occupied all of the surrounding high ground. The Germans, wisely, avoided the place.

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The result was that following the solidification of the front lines by the winter of 1914, Verdun stuck out like a sore thumb. The next year passed uneventfully and, in one of the greatest examples ever of “good initiative, poor timing,” the French more or less disarmed these forts. They desperately needed the guns, both the cannon and the machine guns, on other parts of what was now a single front line that went from Switzerland to the North Sea. Production just could not keep up with demand, so since Verdun was a quiet section of the front, in late 1915 they took most of the weapons out of the forts and left only small caretaker units in the forts themselves.

On February 21, 1916 the French learned just how bad an idea that had been.

The Germans opened with a 1,200-gun artillery and mortar barrage that lasted for some ten hours. This 1,000,000-round initial barrage was followed by an infantry assault as three full German corps smashed into the thinly held lines around Verdun. Most of this was directed at the western side of the Meuse River, where the greater proportion of the French forts were located. Even with this storm of steel, the outnumbered and numbed French infantry on the front lines managed to put up resistance that surprised the Germans in its intensity. One unit in particular, two battalions of about 600 men each under the command of a French Colonel named Emile Driant, held out for the better part of two days at the leading edge, blunting the German attack. But it came at a stiff price. Inside of 48 hours, this unit went from some 1,200 men to a little more than 100. All the rest were killed, wounded, or captured. Driant, a member of the French government who had helped draft the legislation for the Croix de Guerre before he was recalled to duty at the beginning of the war, fell himself on the second day.

Still, the forts held and the Germans were in danger of outrunning their artillery support. Even at this early stage there should have been some inkling of awareness on the part of the Germans that this was not going to be easy. But the Kaiser’s army was nothing if not determined.

What followed was nine months of teeter-totter slaughter. Entire towns were wiped off the map. Villages such as Fleury, taken and retaken some 16 times over the summer of 1916, had barely one brick standing upon another. Fort Douamont, the keystone of the French circle of forts though it was only a few acres in size, was taken almost by accident in the first couple of days of the assault and then would soak up the blood of tens of thousands of men as the French tried to retake it. On just one hill, Les Eparges, some 10,000 men died and probably 40-50,000 fell wounded from the French side alone. The land of Verdun soaked up literally millions of gallons of blood. Aside from the still-live munitions which restrict the visitor, lethally, to the “beaten path,” this alone is reason to stay the course if you ever go to visit.

Indeed, if and when you do arrive in Verdun, speak softly. When you walk the path through ruined Fleury, speak in whispers, if at all. And when you visit the Ossuary, where the bones of some 130,000 “unknowns” rest forever, speak not at all.

NEXT TIME: The Sacred Road

Robert Bateman may be reached at [email protected].