21 February – 15 December 1916

It is difficult to imagine a more horrific battle than that waged for control of a small fortified region to the east of the French town of Verdun during the height of the First World War.

Unlike all the battles of earlier ages, this one lasted for almost a year and involved millions of soldiers from both the French and German sides. Yet it was clearly a ‘battle’, with the Germans pushing forward for months against stiff French resistance, then French troops pushing the other way for months until the Germans abandoned the field. To fight in conditions where the death rate was staggeringly high, the ground a mess of rotting bodies, shell fragments and eviscerated countryside, where the supply of food and water was irregular, was to fight with a raw, primal courage dredged from the depths of the human spirit. ‘Hell,’ wrote one French soldier, ‘cannot be this dreadful.’

French troops fighting somewhere near Verdun during the long siege in 1916 use rocks to batter German soldiers in their trenches. The savage hand-to-hand fighting placed a severe strain on the troops of both sides. Almost 300,000 men died at Verdun.

The French did not expect this battle. Verdun was surrounded by a network of eighteen defensive forts, but the French high command did not regard it as a critical part of the Western Front and the forts were undermanned and short of heavy artillery. The German army chief-of-staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn, decided to use the Verdun area for a major assault.

His aim was to impose such a crippling attrition of French troops that it might push France out of the war. It was the only major German offensive between 1915 and 1918 and its strategic objectives were risky, since the French army had to respond to the challenge while German armies had no particular territorial goal to aim for.

‘Operation Gericht’ was planned to open in February 1916 and a rapid victory was expected. Concealing its movement as far as possible, the 140,000 men and 1,400 artillery pieces of the German 5th Army were brought into place. The artillery included giant 420-milimetre (16-inch) siege guns.

Storm troopers carrying flamethrowers and clusters of grenades were to follow the bombardment, which was designed to punch holes in the French line and create panic among the defenders.

The German assault was opposed by the French 2nd Army, which had just two divisions in this sector of the front compared with nine German. Warnings from local French commanders were ignored and only at the last minute did the French commander-in-chief, General Joseph Joffre, allow a limited number of additional troops and guns to strengthen the front. ‘Gericht’ was supposed to open on 12 February but a fierce blizzard forced postponement until the early morning of 21 February, when the huge siege guns began to fire shells over distances of 30 kilometres (20 miles), dropping so far behind the French front that soldiers in the forward forts and trenches did not realize the offensive had started. At 7 a.m. began the fiercest artillery barrage of the war so far. It churned the countryside into mud and waste, buried hundreds of French soldiers alive and left the survivors dazed and disorientated.

German infantry stormed forward when the barrage ceased but to their surprise found French soldiers still able to man the surviving artillery and machine guns. In the first two days the German front moved forward up to 3 kilometres (2 miles) but soon met stiffening resistance as French reinforcements were rushed to the scene. Although Fort Douaumont, the most easterly of the major defences, was taken on 25 February without a shot fired, the French line did not collapse, though the army suffered 26,000 casualties in the first few days.

The weakness of Falkenhayn’s plan was evident not just in the fanatical defence of the line in front of Verdun by the still disorganized and battered French army but in the fact that attrition was a two-way affair. By the end of February the German 5th Army had suffered 25,000 casualties and the further it moved forward, the harder it was to move up supplies by lorry or horse-drawn cart across a landscape of mud and craters.

On 28 February General Philippe Pétain was made commander of the French army at Verdun. He immediately set out to establish a complex line of defensive fire using machine guns and the famous French 75-milimetre (4-inch) artillery.

He saw that supply was critical, as indeed it was, and organized a remarkable single-track supply line between Bar-Le-Duc and Verdun that came to be known as the ‘Voie Sacrée’, the sacred way. This track, together with a single rail track, moved thousands of tons of supplies daily into the maelstrom of battle. The German offensive slowed down and the two sides battled in the mud, driven on by a mixture of desperation and fear as the constant thudding of shells and the staccato rattle of machine-gun fire signalled the death and mutilation of tens of thousands every week.

How the two armies continued to fight under such conditions is hard to explain, but neither side would give way. They were men, as Henri Barbusse, the writer and front-line soldier put it, ‘carrying their own graves’. Battling in the mud it was difficult to tell friend from foe as uniform colours and insignia were swallowed up in the wet earth. Both sides fought surrounded by the decaying corpses of comrades and the enemy, while rats gorged themselves on the dead. In some encounters, soldiers ran forward over piles of swollen, decomposing bodies, their feet bursting the bloated flesh as they stumbled on.

The battles were not entirely suicidal, but survival was simply a matter of luck. Troops were pulled back out of the line after a few weeks to rest, but more were sent in to feed the terrible machinery of death. By the end of the battle three-quarters of all French soldiers had served some time at Verdun.

In early May, the German army renewed the offensive with no very clear purpose except to impose continuing losses on the army in front of it. In early June, the 600 defenders of Fort Vaux, many of them wounded, were subjected to a horrific bombardment but held firm. Under the command of Major Sylvain Raynal, the garrison retreated to the cellars where it was attacked by flamethrower and toxic smoke. Efforts to relieve the defenders were beaten back and in the early morning of 8 June, crippled by thirst and unable to escape, the defenders surrendered. They had suffered around 100 casualties, the German attackers 2,740. This imbalance of losses says much about the futility of Falkenhayn’s enterprise.

Though the German 5th Army pushed forward against fierce counter-attacks through June, the opening of a major offensive on the Eastern Front on 4 June (the Russians’ Brusilov offensive) and the launch of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July by a combined Anglo–French force compelled the German high command to move reserves to stem these new threats.

The Verdun offensive came to a halt and in August Falkenhayn was forced to resign. On 19 October it was the turn of the German side to experience devastating artillery fire as the French, determined to avenge the early months of battle, smashed German resistance in turn, using the new tactic of the creeping artillery barrage, with infantry following just behind. When the infantry assault began on 24 October the French recaptured in a day much of the ground it had taken the Germans months to occupy. Fort Douaumont was retaken that day, Fort Vaux on 2 November. By 15 December the battle came to a bitter conclusion, with almost all the territory captured by the Germans once again in French hands.

The cost of the battle was colossal. The French lost 156,000 dead and 195,000 wounded. The German side suffered attrition almost as severe, with 142,000 dead or missing and 187,000 other casualties. Like the later Battle of Stalingrad, Verdun has gone down in history as a monument to the courage, endurance and determination of men who were placed in circumstances of almost indescribable horror. ‘All these deaths at once crush the soul,’ wrote Barbusse in his novel Under Fire. ‘But we have a vague idea of the grandeur of these dead. They outdistanced life, and there is something superhuman and perfect in what they did.’