18/12/1916 Verdun finally grinds to a halt

The Battle of Verdun has raged since the Germans launched their first assaults in February. Now the French have pushed the Germans back, recovering much of their lost ground. The battlefield is increasingly in the grip of winter. After 302 days the struggle splutters to a halt.

The battle is a defeat for the Germans. They have not managed to break French morale by seizing Verdun. Nor have they succeeded in Falkenhayn’s goal of bleeding France to death by inflicting an unsustainable level of casualties. True, French casualties are enormous, estimated at 377,231 in total, of whom some 162,440 were killed. But the French wells of manpower have not run dry and they have always been able to find more men to feed the guns at Verdun. And the Germans have suffered almost as many losses as the French, taking some 337,000 casualties, of whom around 143,000 were killed.

The Germans have much greater reserves of manpower than the French, so they can better afford these losses. However the Germans have also lost great numbers of men at the Somme and are heavily engaged against Russia and in the Balkans. Attritional warfare is a dangerous game for them. Small wonder then that Hindenburg and Ludendorff are determined not to repeat Verdun.

The French also do not want a repeat of the battle. Nivelle, their new Western Front commander, made his name at Verdun, where he commanded the counter-attacks that recovered the ground lost to the Germans. He is planning to replicate these successes in a major offensive in the spring, one he hopes will smash through the German lines and bring the war to an end.

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Mountain of bones (Mental Floss)

Verdun: the World’s Blood Pump (Wikipedia; medal originally from British Museum exhibition “The other side of the medal: how Germany saw the First World War”)

map (Les Françcais à Verdun)

15/12/1916 Further French gains at Verdun

At Verdun the French fightback continues. After recovering Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux, the French are now pushing the Germans back towards the positions they occupied at the start of the battle in February. Today they recapture the villages of Louvemont and Bezonvaux, both lost in the battle’s early days. The villages little more than rubble now and the French have lost many men in their recapture, but they have now pushed the frontline 3 kilometres beyond Fort Douaumont. They can rest assured now that Verdun is safe from any return to the offensive by the Germans.

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Explosion (Les Français à Verdun)

Bezonvaux (Les Français à Verdun)

10/12/1916 Verdun: this way to the slaughterhouse

The Somme has come to an end but the Battle of Verdun continues. The Germans are on the back foot now, with the French working to recover the ground lost since the battle’s start in February. But the fighting is not plain sailing for the French, who are suffering mounting casualties. This is taking its toll on the morale of the men.

There are some worrying incidents. On the road into Verdun, a sign is posted saying “Chemin de l’Abattoir“: this way to the slaughterhouse. While visiting Verdun, President Poincaré has stones thrown at his car. And an entire division of troops, moving up for the final push, takes to bleating like sheep on their way to be butchered.

And yet the French troops keep on fighting. At home the wider French public is unaware that the soldiers’ morale is fraying. Fed on a continuous account of positions recaptured from the enemy, they are aware only of the army’s heroic efforts at Verdun, under the glorious leadership of Nivelle, the local commander.

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The road to Verdun (1914-1918 la 1ere guerre mondiale, l’effroyable hécatombe)

2/11/1916 Verdun: France recovers Fort Vaux

The French continue to recover lost ground at Verdun. The tricolour flies once more over Fort Douaumont, and now Fort Vaux too is recovered. Fort Vaux was the scene of a desperate siege in June, surrendering four days after the defenders ran out of water. Its recovery now is anticlimactic, with advancing French troops finding that the Germans have abandoned it.

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French troops on the superstructure of Fort Vaux (Les Français à Verdun)

map (Les Français à Verdun)

24/10/1916 Verdun: Fort Douaumont recaptured

The Verdun battlefield is wreathed in fog as day breaks. Despite the poor visibility the French now at last launch their great counter-offensive. After the battering they have received from French artillery, the Germans are in no state to resist. They crumple in the face of the French onslaught.

The French hope to recapture Fort Douaumont, lost in February in a debacle that haunts the gallic psyche. The German garrison have abandoned the fort after the terrible artillery bombardment it received, leaving behind two men who were forgotten in the evacuation. Since then a small group of signalmen have re-established themselves in the fort. Knowing that the fort will soon be under attack, they send desperate requests for reinforcements, but confusion reigns among the Germans. Despite the great symbolic value of the fortress, no reinforcements are forthcoming.

The fog makes it difficult for the French to coordinate their advance. At one point it seems as though the Moroccan troops earmarked for the assault have got lost in the murk. But then the fog lifts and the Moroccans find themselves almost on top of the fort. They attack and force their way into the ruined fort. The Germans put up some resistance (more than the French did when the Germans took the fort) but are overwhelmed after a couple of hours of savage combat. A German counter-attack fails to push back the French. Fort Douaumont is once more in their hands.

French gains today are considerable. All told, despite the shell-marked ground and the stickiness of the mud of early winter, they manage to advance some three kilometres, recapturing ground the Germans took over four months to seize. But of course, the cost in lives lost on both sides is ruinous.

23/10/1916 Verdun: Fort Douaumont abandoned

At Verdun the French are preparing to launch an attack on Fort Douaumont. They have been shelling the fort and surrounding German trenches for the last few days, but today they open up with a new weapon, a gun that can fire monstrous 400 millimetre shells. The fort has been so battered by French artillery that it is no longer the impregnable fastness it once was. Now the 400 mm shells rip into the fort itself, wreaking havoc among the defenders. They retreat to the lower levels, but when a shell penetrates into the depths, setting off a fire near to a shell store, their commander decides that discretion is the better part of valour. A few men stay behind to battle the flames but when they run out of water they too leave the fort.

So the great Fort Douaumont now lies empty and undefended. Or almost undefended. In the rushed evacuation, two sentries in an isolated gallery far from where the shells were landing were forgotten. They remain at their post, defending the fort on their own.

22/10/1916 Verdun: the French try a cunning ruse

The battle of Verdun continues, but now the French are pushing back the Germans, trying to recover ground lost since the start of the battle in February. Their hope now is to recapture Fort Douaumont, the great fortress that fell to the Germans without a shot being fired in its defence. French artillery has been battering the fortress, and also the German trenches near it.

Today the shelling stops. From the French trenches the Germans hear the sound of cheers and men getting ready to attack. Believing the attack to be imminent, German guns open fire on the French lines, hoping to disrupt the attacking forces. But the French have tricked them. They are not attacking today. The lull was merely a ruse designed to fool the Germans into revealing the location of their guns. Now French spotters have fixed the location of the German artillery pieces. They call down a rain of shells on the enemy guns.