Earlier this month Allied military leaders met at Chantilly to work out a common strategy for the coming year. They agreed simultaneous offensives next summer in the hope of overwhelming Germany and Austria-Hungary.
But what of their enemies? Germany and Austria-Hungary are now developing their own plans for next year but due to a breakdown in communication between Falkenhayn & Conrad, the two countries’ army commanders, they are preparing strategies in isolation. Conrad is planning a counter-offensive against the Italians, which he hopes will knock them out of the war.
Falkenhayn is planning an assault on the French. He has outlined his thinking in a memorandum to the Kaiser. He sees Britain as Germany’s main enemy in the war; indeed, he sees the war as resulting from a plot by the British to destroy Germany. The war will only end when the British realise that they cannot defeat Germany. But how to make them realise this?
British naval superiority means that Britain itself cannot be directly attacked. Falkenhayn also argues against attacking British forces on the Western Front, as the terrain in the positions they defend is unsuitable (he may be remembering his unsuccessful assaults on the British at the Battle of Ypres). As far as Falkenhayn is concerned, the way to defeat Britain is to knock her allies out of the war; they are the tools of Britain’s anti-German policy.
Falkenhayn considers an attack on the Italians to be a waste of time, as they are too marginal to the Allied war effort. Russia is vulnerable but the lesson of this year is that she always has space to retreat into and can always find more men to replace those lost in battles. In any case, he predicts that Russia’s internal problems could soon force her out of the war without further German military action.
That leaves France, described by Falkenhayn as “England’s best sword”. He proposes an offensive against France that will knock her out of the war, not by the kind of Napoleonic war of manoeuvre attempted in 1914 but by inflicting unsustainable casualties. He proposes to attack a prestige target that the French will throw in every man to defend; superior German artillery can then be brought to bear so that, in Falkenhayn’s words, “the forces of France will bleed to death”. With the French defeated, the British will hopefully realise that they cannot defeat Germany and agree to peace.
Falkenhayn proposes the fortified town of Verdun as the target for his offensive. The Kaiser agrees. The local commander of the offensive will the Kaiser’s son, the Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, guided by his chief of staff, General Schmidt von Knobelsdorf (unlike the Crown Prince, Knobelsdorf is a professional soldier).
Erich von Falkenhayn (Wikipedia)
map (Mental Floss)
Note: I particularly recommend the Mental Floss article Invitation to the Devil – Verdun by Erik Sass as a further guide to the analysis by Falkenhayn that led to his targeting of Verdun in his offensive.