27/1/1916 Verdun: Falkenhayn lights the fuse

It is the birthday of the Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Perhaps it is not just coincidence that German chief of staff Erich von Falkenhayn today issues the formal orders for the great offensive against Verdun he is planning. The attack will begin in just over two weeks time, on the 12th of February. Nine divisions will attack towards Verdun on the eastern bank of the Meuse river, supported by a vast weight of artillery.

The local commander of the offensive is Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, the Kaiser’s son and heir, ably assisted by career army officer General Schmidt von Knobelsdorf. In the planning stages of the offensive they have clashed with Falkenhayn, because they think the attack should proceed on both banks of the Meuse. But Falkenhayn insists that he does not have enough troops available for so broad an offensive. He must keep men back to cover the counter-attacks elsewhere on the line that he is sure will follow once the attack on Verdun begins.

Preparations for the offensive continue in the utmost secrecy. To avoid Allied reconnaissance aircraft spotting anything unusual the Germans have concentrated their fighter planes in the Verdun sector. Their artillery pieces are camouflaged to hide them from prying eyes. Underground shelters close to the front are being dug for the German troops; these stollen will be used to conceal and shelter troops who might otherwise be noticed waiting for the attack in forward trenches.

The secrecy cannot be total. The Allies are beginning to suspect that something might be up, but the Germans are cleverly engaging in diversionary activities along the line to keep the British and French off balance. Haig and Joffre increasingly realise that the Germans are planning to attack somewhere, but they are still not certain that Verdun is the target.

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