At Verdun the French situation is desperate. The Germans have overrun the French frontlines and are advancing across open country. They have just captured Fort Douaumont, the strongest of the fortifications defending Verdun itself. In just four days of fighting, French forces in Verdun have suffered 60% casualties. The French high command are unsure whether the town can be held and are considering a withdrawal across the Meuse river. The bridges at Verdun have already been mined and civilians ordered to evacuate the town.
Joffre is the supreme French commander. Much of his mystique rests on his apparent unflappability. If he were to personally visit Verdun to assess the situation it would suggest a level of worry on his part that could cause a general collapse in morale. So he stays at his headquarters in Chantilly. Instead his chief of staff, General Édouard de Castelnau, goes to assess the situation, with full powers to decide on whether Verdun should be held or abandoned.
At the local headquarters in Verdun, Castelnau finds a situation of near pandemonium. General Frédéric-Georges Herr, the local commander, is overwhelmed by the scale of the German assault and is in a state of nervous collapse. There appears to be no coherent direction of the French defence.
Yet Castelnau decides that Verdun can be held. His presence re-energises the French. He decides also that the unfortunate Herr will have to be replaced. The nearby reserve Second Army has already been earmarked to reinforce Verdun. Castelnau decides that its commander, General Philippe Pétain, will come with it to take over the town’s defence. Pétain arrives late in the evening, having been extracted from a seedy Parisian hotel where a lady friend had been entertaining the 60 year old general.
If Germany’s Falkenhayn knew of Castelnau’s decision he would perhaps allow himself a smile of quiet satisfaction. The French have accepted his challenge and are sending more men to Verdun to be killed by his guns. He will have his chance to bleed France white.
Joseph Joffre (Wikipedia)
Edouard de Castelnau (Chemins de Mémoire)
Erich von Falkenhayn (Encyclopedia Britannica Kids)
Philippe Pétain (Les Français à Verdun)