Soldat du Droit 3
Image by Gordon T Lawson
View of "Soldat du Droit" at Douaumont by Alexandre Descatoire. In the background we see some of the many graves at Douaumont and the Ossuary.
Verdun saw possibly the bloodiest conflict of the Great War. The fighting there in 1916 would see huge numbers of French and German dead. General Petain wrote of the young troops returning from the battlefield:-
"In their unsteady look one sensed visions of horror, while their step and bearing revealed utter despondency. They were crushed by horrifying memories."
The battle was to commence on 21st February 1916 and rage until the end of 1916.
As 1915 drew to a close Erich von Falkenhayn, the German Chief of Staff, concluded that a major battle should be fought with the French Army and he thought that such a battle would win Germany the war. Britain, he then argued, would either seek a peace settlement or would also suffer defeat. At the same time he advocated unrestricted submarine warfare against merchant shipping believing this would help bring Britain to her knees. The Germans were prepared to gamble with the risk of such warfare bringing the United States of America into the conflict.
Falkenhayn cynically and deliberately chose Verdun as the venue for the clash of the two armies. Verdun had been the last fortress to fall during the Franco-Prussian War and Falkenhayn knew that it held a special place in the hearts of the French Nation. He also saw the value of the woods behind Verdun as a position easy to defend.
The plan was to subject Verdun to intense bombardment and then attack along what was only an 8 mile front. The Germans hoped this would suck in troops from other sections of the Front. Falkenhayn’s aim was to “bleed France white” in her defence of the ancient fortress town. Verdun in fact formed a French salient into German lines and thus meant that Falkenhayn could attack it from three sides at once.
The attack, by the German 5th Army under Crown Prince Wilhelm, started on the 21st February, 1916 preceded by a 21 hour bombardment. The French Leader Driant prepared for the onslaught by posting two battalions, led by himself, at the tip of the Verdun salient on the east bank of the Meuse River. He faced formidable opposition: one million German troops against 200,000 defenders.
The attack finally began at 07:15 on 21 February, 1916, Crown Prince Wilhelm opening the battle with 1,400 guns lined up along the eight mile front. A nearby railway ensured that it was easy to satisfy the voracious thirst of the German guns as 100,000 shells poured into Verdun every hour.
Wilhelm hoped that the artillery bombardment would decimate the French before his infantry began their attack but an early scouting mission showed this to have been somewhat optimistic. A good portion of the French Army remained intact. Wilhelm chose to renew the bombardment but by the end of the first day only the French front-line trenches were taken. Driant himself had however been killed during the battle and his two battalions nearly extinguished.
On the 24th February the German Army over-ran the French second line of trenches and were within 8 kilometres of Verdun itself although two outer forts, Fort Vaux and Fort Douaumont continued to hold out! On the 25th February Douaumont fell. Ironically French morale was galvanised. Douaumont must be retaken; a withdrawal from Verdun was no longer an option. Joffre took the bit between his teeth and issued an order that any commander who gave ground to the advancing Germans would face a court-martial and dismissed General Langle de Cary, who being responsible for the defence of Verdun had decided to evacuate the Woevre Plain and the east bank of the Meuse. Such negative thoughts and actions would not be tolerated!
Henri-Philippe Petain was promoted to take Langle de Cary’s place. Petain was a talented officer whose progress through the French Army had not been mercurial mainly due to his steadfast opposition to the prevailing policy of “attack at all costs.” Petain considered this a recipe for disaster. He was however known to be unflappable and when appointed to defend Verdun he was already commanding the 2nd Army. Petain made his famous pledge to Joffre: “Ils ne passeront pas!” “They shall not pass!” and telephoned to the commander of the Verdun front line instructing him to hold fast.
Petain understood that the defence of Verdun would result in many French casualties: the nature of the terrain made this inevitable. However he was determined to inflict maximum damage on the Germans whilst incurring such losses. He re-organised the French use of artillery and took action to ensure that an effective supply route to Verdun was maintained, designating a single artery road leading to a depot 50 miles to the west at Bar-le-Duc to be dedicated to the supply of the soldiers at the front. Troops were assigned to ensure that the road was kept clear and do any running repairs which might be necessary. This road became known as the ‘Voie Sacree’: the ‘Sacred Road’.
On 6 March the Germans began a fresh offensive making good initial progress until French counter-attacks pushed them back. For the remainder of March the Germans launched repeated attacks against the French reinforcements, which were being poured constantly into the fortress. Indeed of the 330 infantry regiments of the French army, 229 fought at Verdun at one phase of the battle or another. Falkenhayn then committed another corps of men to an attack up the left bank of the Meuse River, albeit with reluctance, this time towards a small ridge named Le Morte-Homme . A bloody battle ensued. Casualties were now escalating on both sides. The German Army as well as that of the French was being bled white.
April 9th saw the third major German offensive, this time launched on both sides of the salient. Again Petain’s defences held. The attacks and counter-attacks continuing until the end of May. The German Army edged ever closer to the remaining forts. During this period Petain received a promotion and was replaced at Verdun by the aggressive Robert Nivelle . On the 29th May Mort Homme Hill fell to the Germans and finally on 7th June Fort Vaux fell. Situated on the east bank of the Meuse River this fort had held out against constant bombardment since the start of the battle in February. The capture of Fort Vaux gave fresh impetus to the Germans and at the end of June and in the early days of July they almost broke through the French line, assisted now by the use of phosgene gas, a deadlier gas than those used earlier.
The Battle of the Somme, which had been scheduled for 1st August was brought forward by a month. It was hope that this would cause the Germans to divert troops from Verdun. It was however the need to withdraw fifteeen German divisions to the Eastern Front following a new Russian offensive that was to relieve immediate pressure on Verdun.
The German Government now turned on Falkenhayn for his lack of success at Verdun. He was transferred to the Transylvanian Front and replaced by Paul von Hindenburg. A new French Commander of the Verdun forts, Third Army’s General Charles Mangin , was also appointed, reporting to Nivelle. Mangin took the offensive and managed to retake Douaumont on 24th October followed by Fort Vaux on 2nd November and after a rest renewed his offensive, retaking ground lost since the start of the German attack. Between 15-18th December alone, when the battle ended, the French captured 11,000 prisoners and with them 115 heavy guns.
Hindenburg now saw no point in continuing Falkenhayn’s pointless attacks and the battle ended.
Both Armies had near mortal wounds and neither tactical nor strategic advantage was gained either by the Germans or the French.
This memorial is dedicated to the parliamentary Deputy Andre Thom.