In writing about the Battle of Verdun I am largely following the standard view of what the battle was about. This sees it as an attritional struggle, an attempt by Germany’s Falkenhayn to inflict such casualties on the French that they would have to give up the war and sue for peace. There are two direct pieces of evidence for this being Falkenhayn’s intention. One is the “Christmas memorandum“, a document outlining his thinking, sent by Falkenhayn to the Kaiser in December 1915; this predicted that if the French were to defend against his offensive then “the forces of France will bleed to death”. The other is Falkenhayn’s own memoirs.
Many historians have however challenged this view of Verdun as a planned attritional conflict. They point out that Falkenhayn’s memoirs were written after the fact, an attempt to retrospectively explain and justify his actions. That still leaves the Christmas memorandum, but it too has its problems. Many believe that it is a forgery, written by Falkenhayn after the end of the war.
If Falkenhayn’s memorandum and memoirs are not necessarily a guide to his thinking in 1916 then his motives are a bit more mysterious. Falkenhayn seems to have kept his own counsel, declining to reveal his intentions to any of his fellow officers. One is left having to discern his intentions from his actions, but these are open to a number of interpretations.
Some believe that Falkenhayn’s intention at Verdun was to capture the town after a titanic struggle that would shake French morale and cause a collapse of their armies. Or that the Verdun offensive was intended as a breakthrough battle that would tear open the French line. But these are just suppositions.
I am sticking with the idea that Falkenhayn intended Verdun as an attritional struggle where he hoped to bleed France white. It seems as good an explanation as any. At the time this kind of strategy would have been anathema to German officers, who were wedded to the idea of a decisive battle being short and based on manoeuvre and envelopment of the enemy. The idea that a battle could be a long meat-grinder in which one side would win by being able to kill more of the enemy over the battle’s length would be a shocking one; if this was Falkenhayn’s plan it is not surprising that he kept it to himself.
But ultimately we will never know for certain what Falkenhayn’s plan at Verdun was, if he even had one.
image source (The Great War Blog)