Of course I knew that Verdun was a bloodbath, fought out largely between the French and German armies. But until I heard David Hargreaves talk about the battle at a recent Browser lecture, I hadn’t realised how much of a bloodbath it was, or, by extension, how it shaped the disastrous post-war settlement.
Between February 1916, when the Germans first attacked, and December, when the French regained most of the land lost, 300,000 troops died, split fairly evenly between the two sides. The heavy death toll was the plan when Falkenhayn first formulated the campaign, but he anticipated that the French would suffer casualties in far greater numbers than the Germans. Verdun was chosen because it has a strategically important network of forts, and was also an important transport hub. Falkenhayn believed that the French couldn’t afford to defend it, and also that they couldn’t afford not to defend it. A zugswang, in other words.
As happened elsewhere during World War I, the attacking side made gains before being stalled. As also happened elsewhere, the pre-battle artillery bombardment turned the ground into mud that impeded the infantry attack.
Fracturing the nerves
The French commander, Joffre, disregarded the initial attack because he thought it was a diversion from another impeding attack (as did Hitler the D-Day landings in Normandy). The constant artillery bombardment fractured the nerves of the defending French troops. The German assault stretched the French forces thin until the British were able to relieve the French 10th Army elsewhere and free them to go to Verdun.
Understanding Verdun also gives a different perspective to the Battle of the Somme, in the summer of 1916. Yes, it was planned before the start of the battle of Verdun, but by the time it came, even despite the terrible level of casualties, it was needed, desperately, to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun and prevent the French army breaking under the strain.
Petain, whose reputation suffered somewhat in the Second World War, comes out of the Verdun story well. Unlike most generals of the time, he would go to visit the troops returning from the front. He realised, looking at them, that even battle hardened troops couldn’t take much of the constant bombardment, and devised the noria system of rapid rotation, so that troops were in the front line for only 8-10 days before being relieved.
Some of the accounts by soldiers shared by Hargreaves were desperate: a Jesuit hoping that he would die by a bullet rather than a shell, so that his body would not be blown to bits and scattered.
Shocking the system
Britain’s casualties in World War I were high–The Wasteland, for example, like Elgar’s Cello Concerto, is one long howl of grief– but they were not on the same scale as the French. The French army had indeed been “bled white” at Verdun, but only at the cost of bleeding the Germans white as well. Falkenhayn, the German architect of Verdun, was dismissed sometime before the battle ended.
And although the noria system was effective in maintaining French front-line morale, it also meant that far greater numbers of troops experienced the shock of the battle. David Hargreaves suggested to me afterwards that it transmitted the shock right through French society, which in turn helps to understand France’s intransigent position at the peace talks in 1919.
History’s fingers reach down the years. You can see the shadow of Verdun cast long across the 1930s and the 1940s, and even to the creation of the post-war Common Market.