15/7/1916 Verdun: the French push back

At Verdun the last German offensive has failed. The French have held Fort Souville and the town of Verdun remains out of German reach. Germany has no more reserves to send to renew the offensive at Verdun, as every available man is needed to face the Allied offensives at the Somme and in Galicia.

German positions at Verdun are now dangerously advanced. It would make sense to retreat to ones more readily defensible. However German commanders fear that doing so would betray the men who have died to capture them.

The end of German attempts to seize Verdun does not mean the end of the battle. Artillery continues to blast each side’s men into oblivion. French counter-attacks intensify as they attempt to recover lost ground and push the Germans back from Verdun, in case they should attempt to renew their offensive. However these assaults are costly, to Pétain’s mind needlessly so. He orders his subordinates to halt their counter-attacks until he is ready to strike a great blow against the enemy.

The Germans have taken some 250,000 casualties since the start of the battle, to 275,000 for the French.

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French troops (Les Français à Verdun)

23/6/1916 Verdun: “Ils ne passeront pas!”

Brutal fighting continues at Verdun, with the Germans pressing the French hard. They hope that this final onslaught will carry them all the way to Verdun itself, shattering French morale. The Germans are using a new secret weapon: phosgene gas, code-named “Green Cross”, against which French gas masks are not fully effective.

By late afternoon the Germans have secured the village of Fleury. The fortified position at Thiaumont is also in their hands. They are now only two and a half miles from Verdun. There are more reports of desertions on the French side, an indication that French resolve is beginning to break.

Pétain attempts to project calmness to his subordinates, but he telephones Joffre’s headquarters, to warn that the army is on the brink of collapse. He calls again for the British offensive on the Somme to be brought forward. Joffre likes people to think that nothing worries him, but he fears the consequences of German victory at Verdun. He diverts another four divisions from the Somme to stop the Germans, making the forthcoming offensive there an almost entirely British affair.

Nivelle is the local French commander at Verdun. As the day closes, he attempts to rally the French with an order of the day making the usual threats of harsh measures against anyone who fails to do their duty. He ends with an exhortation to hold the line and halt the Germans: “Ils ne passeront pas!”

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German assault troops at Verdun (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

French reinforcements (Les Français à Verdun)

23 June map (Les Français à Verdun)

11/6/1916 “Verdun is menaced and Verdun must not fall”

At Verdun the Germans are continuing to press forward. They have reached the village of Thiaumont and are threatening to overrun the last French defences before the town itself. The Germans have also deployed the fighter ace Oswald Boelcke and a large number of aircraft to the battle, in an effort to regain control of the skies.

Pétain commands the sector of which Verdun is part, though direct control over the battle is now exercised by Nivelle, his subordinate. At the start of the battle Pétain was ambivalent as to whether it was essential to hold Verdun. Now though he sees its retention as vital. He writes to Joffre, who has been denying reinforcements to Verdun in favour of the planned Anglo-French Somme offensive. “The capture of the city would constitute for the Germans an inestimable success which would greatly raise their morale and correspondingly lower our own,” he writes. If the blood spent to hold Verdun turns out to have been spent in vain then the French face the prospect of a general collapse in fighting spirit.

Pétain is also irked that the French are fighting and dying while the British appear to be sitting on their hands. He urges Joffre to have the British attack on the Somme brought forward.

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Philippe Pétain (Les Français à Verdun)

19/4/1916 Joffre kicks Pétain upstairs

At Verdun the French are managing to withstand the German onslaught. The local commander there, Philippe Pétain, has become a national hero thanks to his steady leadership. But he is less popular with General Joffre, the commander in chief of the French army. Joffre sees Pétain as too cautious and too focussed on the defensive. Now that the Verdun crisis appears to be over, Joffre wants a commander there who will start taking the fight to the Germans. Joffre is also fed up of having to keep feeding men into the Verdun battle; he wants as many men free as he can for the summer’s Anglo-French offensive along the Somme.

Pétain is too popular to sack, so Joffre hits on a novel solution to his problem. Today Pétain is informed that he is being promoted to command the army group that includes the Verdun sector. The new commander of the French at Verdun is his subordinate, General Robert Nivelle, a man whose commitment to the offensive makes him far more appealing to Joffre. Pétain is despondent, fearing that Nivelle’s promotion will mean needless death for the men he has been commanding. But he can do nothing to prevent his replacement by Nivelle. The handover is to be completed by the 1st of May.

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Joffre, Nivelle, Pétain (Grande Guerre : territoriaux bretons et normands du 87 DIT) (I think the picture of Pétain is post-war)

10/4/1916 Verdun: Joffre pays a visit

Yesterday at Verdun the Germans attacked on both banks of the Meuse but the French line held. In his order of the day, Pétain notes that the German assault yesterday was broken but warns that they may attack again today. He calls on his men to repeat yesterday’s successes and ends with words echoing Joan of Arc: “Courage, on les aura!” [“We’ll have them!”]

In fact the French receive a stroke of luck today as the weather breaks, with rain falling down on the battlefield. It makes life miserable for soldiers in their flooded trenches and shell holes but it also makes it increasingly difficult for the Germans to renew the assault.

Meanwhile Pétain is receiving a possibly unwelcome visitor: Joffre, the French commander in chief. Joffre has been pressing Pétain to launch a counter-attack in force against the Germans. He visits the sector on the east bank where Nivelle has been staging local counter-attacks. These have incurred great casualties but Joffre is impressed with Nivelle’s fighting spirit. Joffre now encourages Pétain to supply Nivelle with more troops. Pétain demurs; he does not share the general French officer corps’ fondness for bloody counter-attacks.

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On les aura! (Grande Guerre : territoriaux bretons et normands du 87 DIT)

5/4/1916 Verdun: Joffre yearns for the French to strike back

Fighting at Verdun continues. On the west bank of the Meuse the Germans make some minor gains. On the east however they suffer a reverse. French forces stage a counter-attack, recapturing a wood that had recently fallen to the enemy. The fight is of no great consequence in and of itself, but it pleases Joffre, France’s commander in chief. He has been frustrated by the primarily defensive posture of Pétain, the Verdun commander. Now he looks favourably on Robert Nivelle, the corps commander whose men staged the counter-attack; this is a man far more to Joffre’s liking.

Both sides are suffering horrendous casualties at Verdun but both Joffre and Germany’s Falkenhayn are convinced that the other is having the worse time of it. Each has fixated on the idea that the other has taken around 200,000 casualties (the actual figures at this stage are roughly 89,000 French and 82,000 German). For Falkenhayn this fantasy is comforting, as it suggest the French are on the brink of collapse. For Joffre, though, it is frustrating. If the Germans shattering themselves on the French anvil, why is Pétain not exploiting this opportunity with determined counter-attacks?

4/3/1916 Verdun: German forces finally secure Douaumont village

At Verdun the Germans are preparing to attack on the west bank of the Meuse. In the meantime, fighting continues on east bank. German forces have been struggling to wrest control of Douaumont village from the French. The nearby Fort Douaumont fell without a shot being fired but the struggle over the village has become an attritional bloodbath, with each side sending ever more men to fight over its ruins. Now at last the Germans manage to secure what is left of Douaumont. The French prepare a counter-attack to recapture it, but Pétain forbids it, fearing to squander more lives over an ultimately insignificant point on a map.

A lull in ground operations ensues, but each side continues to wreak havoc on the other with their artillery.

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Douaumont village (Artois1418)