Friday, February 17, 2012

Decisive Battles: Verdun 1916

Verdun Dates: 21 FEB - 18 DEC 1916Forces Engaged: IIIe République Française

Infantry and Artillery - The first day at Verdun the defenses were manned by the Third Army, roughly 34 battalions in nine divisions in four corps (II, VII, XX, XXX), approximately 150,000-180,000 troops all arms. But the French Army under Pétain was rotated through the Verdun sector as a routine; reportedly up to 75% of the French units that served on the Western Front served at least some time in the Verdun Sector.We will see that the critical military factor at Verdun was artillery, and here the French were initially outgunned. Of the roughly 300 gun systems in action on 21 FEB the vast majority, as much as three-quarters, were 75mm light field artillery.By later February the French Second Army - about 90,000 troops all arms - was ordered into the Verdun defenses, in part to relieve the battered troops of the Third Army, in part to simply replace the entire regiments that had been swallowed up in the fighting.

On average the French GQG kept roughly 10-11 divisions, the equivalent of two armies, present in the Verdun area between 1916 and the final drive forward in 1918.

Fortifications - French defense of Verdun cannot be discussed without including the fortifications. Thirty of these steel-and-concrete emplacements surrounded the town of Verdun. These included 21 large fort complexes and as many as 23 smaller emplacements and posts ("ouvrages" and "postes").After the debacle of 1870 the Third Republic had decided to use fixed fortifications as a substitute for the field armies that had lost so badly. The Séré de Rivières system was designed to ring strategic cities on the eastern frontier with forts. These are described as
"...able to provide mutual support and could fire on one another to suppress attacks. In addition to the principal forts, smaller works were provided to support the infantry in the intervals between forts. Such works provided shelter to infantry during bombardment and may contain reserve artillery." (Wikipedia)
Most of the Verdun fortifications were constructed between 1880 and 1913, and were among the better constructed of the type.The failure of the Belgian forts at Liege and Namur in 1914 had badly shaken French confidence in their fort systems, despite the respectable performance of the Verdun forts under sporadic heavy artillery bombardment in 1914. By 1916 many of the forts - most notably Fort Douaumont to the northeast of Verdun - had been reduced to caretaker garrisons and many of their weapons removed. This decision was a critical factor in the engagement, as we will see.

Commanders - The French commander probably most associated with Verdun is Marshal Pétain himself. But several other well-known officers played roles there, including General Robert Nivelle, the architect of the Chemin des Dames offensives in 1917 that nearly broke the army he commanded, and as an insignificant captain, Charles de Gaulle, who was wounded and captured there early in 1916.

Kaiserlich Deutsches Reich - The main attack on 21 FEB was made by troops from the German 5. Armee.This formation included about 70 divisions in six corps, and the strength of the formation is usually quoted at between 800,000 and 1 million all arms. But the real power of the 5. Armee in February 1916 was in its artillery.

The German Feldartillerie arm had been perhaps the most technically and tactically advanced arm of any of the combatants on the Western Front in 1914. Germany had been the only Power to appreciate the increased killing strength of heavy artillery; although the German divisions still fielded mostly the 77mm Feldkanone (FK) 96 neuer Art or the recently upgraded 7.7 cm FK 16 the Deutsches Heer was the only formation to enter the war with truly heavy cannon, including the enormous 305mm B-Gerät and 420mm M-Gerät 14 howitzers. These guns had torn through the Belgian frontier forts (partially because of the truly crappy concrete work the Belgians had performed) and had been brought to Verdun to attack the French fortresses there.Of the some 800 systems that began firing at 0715hrs, 21 FEB 1916 more than half were 150mm and above, including twenty-six of the 305mm and 420mm monsters.

The architect of the offensive was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, GEN Falkenhayn, but the immediate commander of troops for 5. Armee was the German Emperor's son, Kronprinz Frederick William Victor Augustus Ernest Hohenzollern.

A Brief Note: This edition of "Decisive Battles" will be a little different than usual, principally because of the subject.

Verdun is and has been since the end of WW1 acknowledged as a significant event, albeit a disastrous one, in human history. Almost as many words have been expended on the subject as were shells expended in killing men at that dour town in the valley of the Meuse. There is little I can add to the military history of the struggle.

Instead I will try and briefly summarize the major events of the campaign and then discuss what I see as the major effects and lessons to be learned from the engagement. Hopefully we can use this post as a basis for a discussion of not so much the history of the combat but the larger implications it had, both for the combatants at the time and for those of us since.

The Campaign: Normally I use this space to put the engagement in the context of the larger strategic or geopolitical setting that it proceeded from. But Verdun cannot really be called a "battle"; it was itself an entire campaign which raged at its height from February to July 1916 and then continued in a more desultory form all the way until the final Armistice, with major Allied offensives in December 1916 and August 1917. As the map below shows, the positions the two sides occupied on 30 AUG 1918 were not materially different from the positions they held on 21 FEB 1916.Instead, in this space I'd like to talk about the whys; why did this dumpy little town in Lorraine come to be the charnel house for nearly one million human lives? How did this terrible grief find this utterly ordinary little town drowsing in the wooded hills of the Valley of the Meuse?Certainly it should have been nothing in the history of the place, although its location, in the corridor between the Ile-de-France and the German lands to the east meant that it had been fought over before and would be again. It was a Gaulish town, and then a Roman one, and had been both French and German before the 11th Century. In the 16th it became a French possession again, and was fortified against repossession, although Brunswick seized it briefly before the Cannonade of Valmy sent him scurrying back across the Rhine.

The principal reasons seem to have been topographic.

In the winter of 1916 Verdun seems to have presented what GEN Falkenhayn saw as an opportunity to win the war. No surprise there - every commander, Allied and Central Powers, saw his latest notion as the route to winning the war - but the reasons lay in what any real estate agent would have known; location, location, location.

First, let's get one thing out of the way.

The original tale of Verdun is that the entire fucking disaster was a plan.

Seriously. No shit. An actual plan.

The story was that GEN Falkenhayn realized after the failure of the attacks of 1914 and the increasingly obvious defensive power of the machinegun and the high explosive shell that a stalemate had developed. He is supposed to have written a memo to the German Emperor in December 1915 in which he is supposed to have said:
"A mass breakthrough — which in any case is beyond our means — is unnecessary. Within our reach there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death"
This is the basis of the story of Verdun as pointless death machine; the so-called "Christmas memo".

The wonderful thing about it is that the story fits so well with our popular image of World War I as pointless slaughter, a bottomless well of blood spilled for nothing. The notion of the commander of the German Army developing a plan that called for nothing but killing, piling a mountain of corpses on hills of corpses, just seems too right, too perfect a symbol of the Himalaya of stupid that is the Great War.

There seems to be only one teensy little problem with this story.

It seems to be a complete fabrication.

It appears to be Falkenhayn trying to find a lie that will fly.

Because the only source for this "memo" is Falkenhayn himself. No physical copy has ever been found, the only text for it is quoted in Falkenhayn's memoir, neither Emperor Wilhelm or the troop commander Crown Prince Wilhelm ever mentioned it or spoke of pure slaughter as the objective of Fall Gericht, the February attacks. There is no discussion of attrition as a strategy in any of the OHL (Oberste Heeresleitung, the German Imperial Army HQ)war diaries, or any of the order books or staff diaries for 5. Armee or any of its subordinate units.

No, when you look at the Western Front Verdun sticks out like that literal sore thumb - look at it:The Verdun defensive ring had held in the autumn of 1914 when the surrounding portions of the Meuse valley had fallen, leaving the town and fortifications as the largest salient in the Allied lines. The town was now isolated, with enemies on three sides and friends on only one. The only ways in and out were a single road and a single-track rail line. The Verdun sector had seen some fighting in 1914 but had been pretty quiet for a year; the defenses there had been reduced, many of the forts stripped of defenders and defenses.And losing Verdun would knock a troublesome hole in the French defense lines. Although the town is a good 150 miles east-northeast of Paris, once clear of the Meuse and the hilly terrain around the river valley a bold attacker might think of crossing the upper Marne around the Langres plateau. From there there is no significant geographic obstacle between the invader and Paris. Major rail routes led west from the region towards the heart of the Parisian plain.

In all, a promising place for a shattering blow to the Frenchmen. At least, that's my guess as to what GEN Falkenhayn really thought.

And this was also an opportunity to test or refine techniques to kill people.

Portable flamethrowers, special units trained in infiltration ("stormtroop") tactics, aeroplanes...and, of course, the massed artillery. All of this would descend on the defenders of Verdun like a hammer, smashing the defenses and breaking both the defensive lines and the heart of the French Army.It had worked at Sedan, after all, hadn't it?

[(Update 2/19): There seems to be some controversy about exactly what Falkenhayn intended. One of the commentors over at MilPub - whose military instincts I generally trust and is very familiar with the scholarship surrounding this question - said:
"Falkenhayn had a lot of enemies within OHL... There were relatively few higher officers he thought he could trust, so he kept his actual plans and strategy very close. There was also the need for secrecy since surprise was absolutely necessary for the success of Falkenhayn's plan which he hoped would bring the war to a negotiated end in 1916."
His conclusion is that although there may not have been an actual written "attrition plan" in December 1915 that the idea of using Verdun as a mangle to grind the French Army is likely to have formed a great part of Falkenhayn's thinking.

Upon consideration, I'm still not sure I buy this.

Assuming that Falkenhayn's intent - regardless of what ended up going down on the written orders - was largely attrition then the actual conduct of the battles for Verdun makes him look like the least competent combat commander on either side in 1916. The analogy would be as if Sir Alex Ferguson wanted Manchester United to play for a scoreless draw and then sat on his hands as everyone except the keeper de Gea ran around the attacking half of the pitch.

The sensible way to attrit the French would have been a series of attacks that would have been meticulously planned to quickly seize some place that the French would have to regain, have a hasty defense laid into the plan to include interlocking machinegun positions and preplotted artillery fires on all the avenues of approach, and then just sit back and kill the damn Frogs as they came on in waves. Wash, rinse, repeat.

There seems to be nothing in the Fall Gericht plan for this, anywhere, in any of the phases of the 1916 attacks.

And even if there were no written plans for a battle of attrition, once the battle began Falkenhayn did nothing as 5. Armee wasted thousands of men a day in repeated futile attacks over open ground at La Mort Homme, Hill 304, Fort Souville, and elsewhere. He does not ever seem to have communicated to any of his subordinates that his "commander's intent" was to use Verdun as a mill to grind down the French Army and to stop with the fucking attacking already, hunh?

So it seems to me that this leaves only two choices; that Falkenhayn really DID intend to fight the battle of attrition he claims to have wanted and was supremely incompetent in fighting it, or that he simply made the conventional error of many other WW1 commanders and thought he had found the combination of tactics and sector to achieve a conventional breakthrough attack and, when that failed, threw up the smokescreen of the battle of attrition.

The truth really depends on the man, and I don't have a good enough sense of Falkenhayn to guess whether he'd prefer to be assumed to be the guy who came up with a unique working plan but was too incompetent to implement it, or the guy who was just another WW1 general who hadn't figured out that his tactical and logistical implement was incapable of executing the same-old-same-old plan that everybody else couldn't make work, either.

Sadly, it didn't really matter for the poor bastard landser and poilu, did it? Either way, they paid the price, and that price was far above the gain.]


Anyway, the original date for the attack was to have been 12 FEB, but bad weather and supply problems pushed the date back, first to 16 FEB, and then another five days. But when darkness fell on 20 FEB 1916, the 5. Armee was ready and the orders went down to the troops waiting in their sodden assembly areas; the attack would start in the morning.The Sources: The usual plethora of published materials is available to the researcher, and befitting its status Verdun has had more than the usual number of chroniclers.

Among the more accessible to the English-speaking reader is Alistair Horne's 1962 work, "The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916". A good work for the general interest reader Horne writes well and covers the essentials of the fight. I note that he cites Falkenhayn's "Christmas Memo" story without demur, so his account is not without its shortcomings. For those with more advanced language skills Holger Afflerbach's 1994 "Falkenhayn, Politisches Denken und Handeln im Kaiserreich" is a well-regarded study of the geopolitical and strategic thinking behind the planner of the battle, and Alain Denizot's 1996 work "Verdun, 1914–1918" provides an incredibly detailed look at the battle including details such as French troop movements and shell consumption by type by month (!). Only for the true historian.

On-line, the Wiki entry is fairly well researched and appears complete. The Verdun page at First World War.com contains a good summary of the Verdun campaign as well as numerous links to primary sources. The "Western Front Association" has a nice page on Verdun that gives a good deal of detail on the engagement itself.

Among the more entertaining on-line sources is this one, in French, showing plans, pictures, and details of the Verdun fortifications.It's worth a peek just for the map on the main page alone, which gives you an idea of what a hell of a tangle of defenses the French constructed around the place. Surely the attackers must have felt like Hell was empty because all the devils were there...

The Engagement: For the sake of both brevity and clarity, let's just go over the outlines of the fighting, which has been thoroughly covered elsewhere. We'll leave the details to the experts.

21 FEB - 29 FEB - Attack on the East Bank The Crown Prince kicked off his attack with three corps attacking south along the east bank of the Meuse. On the right his smallest and weakest element, VII Reserve-Korps, tackled the French 72nd Division near the villages of Brabant and Haumont. In the center and left two entire German armeekorps, the III and XVIII, went in against the French 51st Division holding the line between Beaumont and Ornes. The weather was still miserable, cold and wet, and the shellfire quickly churned the ground into a sea of mud.

The first week didn't go as well as planned for the German attack. Part of this bad weather, part of it was poor tactics; at this stage in the war the German battalion and company commanders were still hesitant to let their troops get too close to the artillery fire, which was not well directed to begin with. The Crown Prince has also been faulted for depending too much on the artillery; on the 21st he held his assault troops back in favor of further artillery prep of the first-line objectives. Experience would show that beyond a certain point the effect of the barrage slowed the attackers by the creation of rough going and the obliteration of landmarks more than it degraded the defenders.

But another part was the tough resistance of the French defenders, many of them refusing to give up poor positions and abandon untenable situations.

The sacrifice of the 56th and 59th Chasseurs a' Pied in the Bois des Caures - the picture to the left is their commander, LTC Driant, one of the early heroes of the battle, looking pretty much like he must have been; a cocky little bastard that you could kill but not frighten - holding the bulk of XVIII Armeekorps for the full day on 22 FEB is the best known, but all over the east bank French units, badly placed, poorly dug-in, and ill-supported by their artillery, held the German advance up and caused terrible casualties.

These little defeats were insanely costly. But they helped slow the German attack, cost the attackers time they didn't have, and helped the defenders believe that they could succeed in the face of the firestorm of artillery and the swarm of attacking infantry.

But the weight of numbers and artillery told.

Day by day the 5. Armee advanced;on 24 FEB the second line of trenches was taken and the bulk of the French 72nd Division destroyed.

The 37th (African) Division, sent forward in penny-packets to fill the gaps left by the destruction of the 72nd, was shot apart.

On 25 FEB the shocking loss of Fort Douaumont; the commander of the Verdun sector, GEN Langle de Cary suggested surrender or withdrawal and Marshal Foch sacked him and replaced him with Pétain, who issued his famous "they shall not pass" command and, more critically...

...organized a working main supply route (MSR) along the so-called "Sacred Way" (a hagiographic term coined after the battle - at the time the poilus called it simple "La Route", The Road) and the adjacent narrow-gauge railway.

The importance of this unbroken supply chain can't be overemphasized; Verdun has been described as a "victory of French trucks over German railroads" and the truth isn't far off. Without the immense effort to keep the road and rail supply open (at one point roughly 600-700 troops in 13 pioneer battalions were busy keeping The Road maintained and working) the French must have folded; the "Gericht" plan was, in part, based on the expectation that this would happen.

The German gains were slow, slower than required to break the French defenses, and the French artillery was taking a blood price from the attackers that made the ground gains a costly mess.

By 25-26 FEB 5. Armee was beginning to run into the other recurrent problem facing WW1 attackers; the infantry had begun to outrun their supporting artillery.

This was a tactical problem that remained unsolved until the advent of close-air support, mechanized engineer units, and self-propelled artillery.

In order to shoot the infantry onto and past their objectives artillery had to tear hell out of the defenses. But the destruction was so great that the artillery - which needed level ground to displace to forward firing positions - couldn't advance until pioneer battalions using hand tools could painfully and slowly construct roads through the mess. Even riding leather personnel carriers the infantry could attack faster than the artillery and its ammunition trains could advance behind them.

Here's a heavy British piece being "prolongued" - dragged by its crew a short distance - that gives you an idea. Most WW1 cannons had narrow wood-and-steel-rims or the sort of wide block wheels you see below that did very poorly in bad ground, and the combination of man- and horse-muscle power provides very little force to overcome the combination of immense inertia and adhesive mud.After H-Hour Verdun rapidly became a gunner's nightmare for the German artillery.

As the Germans lost their fire support the French defenders, falling back on Verdun itself, gained theirs. It was an increasingly ugly situation, and the Crown Prince and his staff came up with a plan to solve it.29 FEB - 22 MAY - Attack on the West Bank One of the nasty problems that 5. Armee had faced in February was artillery fire enfilading their right flank from the high ground southwest of the Meuse, the crests of the hills named the Dead Man ("La Mort Homme") and Hill 304 (Côte 304).

The German solution was to seize the ground and use possession to lever the defenders out of Verdun. Beginning on 6 MAR and continuing through March and April the German VI and parts of VII Reserve-Korps hammered away at the French defenses.The fighting here was largely over open ground, and the artillery fire scourged both attackers and defenders. In about a month of fighting both sides lost something like 80,000 casualties each - almost 3,000 lives a day. Again the weight of numbers and the better artillery told. By late May 5. Armee held the crests of both La Mort Homme and Hill 304(...which after the war should have been renamed "Hill 300", since artillery drumfire had excavated 4 meters - 12 fucking feet - of soil and rock off the top)

But, here again, the attackers were "bled white" as well as the defenders. Entire battalions were ruined, and the mire of mud, blood, and broken bits of human debris ground the attack to a stop.And on 22 MAY the French counterattacked.

22 MAY - 12 JUL - Attack in the South - The French counterattack, designed by the local commanders GEN Nivelle and GEN Mangin, was designed the shove an assault force through a narrow attack lane and shot onto the objective - Fort Douaumont - by the heaviest artillery concentration the defenders had assembled to that point.

It succeeded, in a sense that for about half the day of 24 MAY a small group of poilus managed to get on top of the fortifications and wander about.

But it was a pointless "success", in that they couldn't breach the casernes below and were eventually picked apart by artillery and small arms. The attack gained nothing.Mangin was castigated for the failure, and Pétain decided that the "prestige" of controlling the battered wasteland that was Douaumont wasn't worth the price.

In the same month 5. Armee had shifted its main effort to the east, south of the Douaumont sector, and on 1 JUN attacked, and on 7 JUN seized, Fort Vaux.This really was an achievement for the attackers.

Where as Douaumont had been something of a gag - a bunch of Brandenburgers wandering into a nearly deserted fortress and tying up the gaggle of clueless gits parked inside - Vaux had a full complement of defenders and was held as well as a 19th Century fortress could be.

But the combination of heavy artillery and infantry close assault proved, as it would in the future, that fixed fortifications were a chimera. Without a maneuver force outside to relive the pressure the attackers simply took one strongpoint after another.

And the fortress had another problem; it had no internal water source.

After a nasty five-day fight the defenders surrendered rather than die of dehydration.The rest of the month of June the attackers pressed forward.By 21 JUN units from III and VI Armeekorps took l'ouvrage de Thiaumont, opening the way to the last fortification east of Verdun - Fort Souville. This second-line fort had been hammered by heavy artillery; only the underground tunnels were left.

The fort really was key terrain; it commanded the high ground above the Meuse and the area along the east bank. Seize it and the German artillery could smash the city of Verdun, the MSR, and the bridges supplying the French forces on the east bank. Hold it, and the defenders could continue to break up attacks and counter German artillery fire and break up infantry attacks.Over three days, beginning on 10 JUL 5. Armee tried to smash through the Souville sector. This included a huge diphosgene gas attack - phosgene is perhaps the nastiest of the WW1 gas shells - while dropping more than 300,000 shells on the remains of the fort.

The actual assault on 11 JUN was a mess. The assault force of Bavarian line infantry and elite mountain troops had to approach in a narrow lane which had been a preplanned target of French artillery. The German artillery prep lifted too soon, and the Souville defenders were able to beat the attack force to their parapets, and machinegun fire further ripped the German troops apart.

Less than a company of German attackers managed to get to the superstructure of the fort the following day.The Wiki entry reads:
"From that position, they could actually see the roofs of the city of Verdun and the spire of its cathedral. But being decimated by hand grenades and by a 75 mm artillery barrage, they had to retreat to their starting lines or chose to surrender. Thus, Fort Souville, on 12 July 1916 in the morning, became the high mark of the unsuccessful German offensive against Verdun. Today, the deeply scarred superstructure of Fort Souville is only partially visible because of large water-filled shell craters and very dense vegetation. It is one of the most horrifying and most hazardous sites of the old Verdun battlefield."
And it was not only that; the failure atop Souville in July marked the end of the German assault on Verdun. The German forces never mounted a serious threat to the French defenses after that.

12 JUL - 31 DEC - French Counterattacks On 1 JUL the BEF had opened the massive assault in the Somme sector - the infamous "First Day on the Somme" that ruined the Kitchener battalions and butchered a generation of young Englishmen, and on 4 JUN the Russian Southwestern Front had smashed into the Austro-Hungarian forces in Galicia and broke them.The Imperial High Command responded by withdrawing units from Verdun to shore up the Austro-Hungarians in the East and the Somme sector in the West.

Fall Gericht was finished.

On 19 AUG GEN Falkenhayn was relieved.

Over the next two years the French forces centered around Verdun held their lines. An offensive in October and December 1916 won back much of the territory 5. Armee had seized that year, including Forts Douaumont (which was retaken in October) and Vaux (in November).1917 and 1918 The Verdun sector remained just another part of the Western Front for another two years. Something on the order of 900,000 men from the French and German ground and air forces were damaged in some way there; over 600,000 never left the place.

A French offensive in August 1917 regained La Mort Homme and Hill 304, but there the tactical movements ceased until the last months of 1918. The mountains of the dead had been heaped up for...nothing.

The Outcome: Marginal French tactical victory, although strategically the result was a stalemate for both of the powers.

The Impact: The immediate impact was, ironically, the desuetude of the French Army, the result that Falkenhayn later claimed to have been seeking, but too late and too diffuse to do Germany any good.

GEN Nivelle, the final arbiter of the French defense of Verdun, as commander-in-chief of the Army concluded like Falkenhayn that he had a key to victory. Like Falkenhayn, he concluded that this would be a combination of new tactics (the "creeping barrage") combined with a new sector for their application, the Chemin des Dames. Like Falkenhayn, he was mistaken and his troops suffered for it as the 5. Armee had at Verdun. The so-called Second Battle of the Aisne was a disaster that resulted in over 100,000 casualties in the space of several days of April, 1917.

And in May, worse; mutiny.

The French 2nd Infantry Division was the first combat refusal; on 3 MAY 1917 the soldiers would not leave their trenches to attack. The mutinies spread rapidly and widely. Within several months a total of 49 of 113 infantry divisions were in an uproar, including nine combat ineffective, fifteen disrupted, and 25 with lesser but still serious occurrences of mutiny when ordered into the lines or, if in line, to attack.

The mutinies were suppressed, but Nivelle was done, broken; he was replaced by Pétain, the man he had replaced at Verdun.

And something had broken in the French Army, as well.

Pétain took a hard look at the situation and concluded that discretion was the better part of strategy. The Americans were coming, and time was on France's side. The French Army waited in its trenches for the great offensives of 1918. France had bled enough.The longer term effects of this great heap of death are harder to assess.

Militarily, the story of the first half 20th Century should really be about the German Army learning the right lessons from its tactical mistakes and the French the wrong ones from its success and suffering.

The failure of the artillery support at Verdun in February 1916 prompted the creation of the close-support aircraft of the Luftwaffe of September 1939 and May 1940. The political story should probably be the German governments failing to learn the lessons of their geopolitical mistakes; the demands of a two-front war that continually shortstopped tactical victories in the First World War were mirrored by the disastrous choice to turn East in 1941 in the Second.

The French thought that the tough fortress-fighting of Verdun could be duplicated as a way of saving the next generation of Frenchmen from the calvary of the Western Front. The Maginot delusion, and the fear of the war that the great fortress was designed to deter, held the French Army in thrall like a cobra with a rat until the rejuvenated Heer struck again in 1940 to redeem its failures in 1914.

But while the military lessons of Verdun and the other tactical schooling the Heer received in 1916 contributed to the successes of 1939 and 1940, the larger political lessons - the disadvantage of fighting economically stronger foes, the problems with leaving a damaged enemy combat-capable - that went unlearned contributed to the defeats of 1945. The German politicians and the generals who advised them didn't seem to learn that tactical, and even grand tactical, success is nothing but dust and ashes without political consequences to close the deal.

But the truly harrowing result of Verdun went deeper into France than mere tactics or politics. I think we all understand that the blood-mill of the Meuse had an effect on the politics and the people of France; I think it takes a bit of understanding of history to really comprehend how deep and lasting that effect was.Until 1918 the French were the Huns of Western Europe. Seriously, for all the ink spilled giving the Germans a hard time, their reputation for bloodthirstiness really only goes back to just before the beginning of the 20th Century. France had been the spawning ground of killers since the days of Charles Martel.

The French armies fought in more wars, took more ground, killed, looted, raped, and burned their way across Europe from medieval times up until the middle of the 19th Century. Until then if you were looking for a good place to get killed, for a jolly little war to fight in, there was probably a Frenchman involved in it, too. Frenchmen were the Beasts of Europe for hundreds of years. Until Verdun.Verdun, and other places like it, but because of the sheer grim uselessness of it Verdun was what Frenchmen and women thought of when they thought of the hideous killing ground that their northeastern frontiers had been for four long years.

Up until then the notion of war had had something of adventure, of attraction, of glory and honor and excitement to it.After Verdun it was all hell.France, and the French Army, lost something in the mire of the Meuse valley that year that it has never regained or wanted to regain; some lingering idiot love of fighting, some puerile illusion about "honor" and "glory" was killed there along with half a million sons, brothers, fathers, and lovers. The France that emerged still remembers the sickening miasma that lingered above the ossuaries of Verdun, and still has little wish to add to the heaps of bones still growing, by less than a random rib or flake of skull now, but still, even now in the wooded hills and quiet valleys above the old cathedral town of Verdun.Touchline Tattles: There really ARE no lighthearted stories about Verdun; the grim aura of hopeless death still hangs over it like a Gothic shroud. Instead, let me tell you the story of the village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont.In August 1914 the village was just another little farming town in the wooded hills east of Verdun. The census of 1913 had recorded 422 inhabitants: Three innkeepers, a baker-confectioner, M. Simon, who was carpenter, cartwright AND cabinetmaker, a shoemaker, three seamstresses, a builder, a tinsmith, five masons, a blacksmith, a baker, M. Tardivat the "inspector of works", a tobacconist (who may also have been the baker, the grocer, and one of the innkeepers or the brother of one of them), and six farmers who owned the land they farmed. And, of course, their wives, daughters, sons, and the various landless laborers who worked for them.The village lived like the others around it; from farming and vinticulture, and timbering from the wooded hills where the lean gray wolves still watched from the shadows under the trees as they had in Merovingian times.

The fighting of 1792, 1814, and 1870 had passed Fleury by; all that touched it were the sons who returned with tales of battles far away...or never returned at all and were mourned in the old stone church.

Even the battles of 1914 were fought to the north and east, and the families continued to sow and harvest with, perhaps, no more than a nervous glance to where the night-horizon was lit with gunfire.All of that ended on 21 FEB 1916.

It was snowing that morning. The horizon lit with gunfire as the order came from the military district to evacuate. The villagers piled what belongings they could into carts and wagons and walked or rode southwest as the sky between the louring cloud and the frosted hills burned behind them.

They never saw their homes again.

The site of the village - since by mid-summer all that remained were rubbled heaps where the houses and shops had been - changed hands 16 times altogether. The "powder magazine" (La Poudrière, described as "...an advanced artillery munitions dump to more quickly supply the field and fortress batteries between Douaumont, Thiaumont, Froideterre and Fleury-devant-Douaumont as well as some secondary munitions dumps...") located near the village was fought over again and again.The village site was finally retaken on 18 AUG, when after ten days of hard fighting Moroccan infantry went in singing the Marseillaise and held.As you can see, the ruins of the little town have almost disappeared in the succeeding 100 years; only the shellholes remain. The debris of warfare, particularly the massive amounts of unexploded ordnance including phosgene and chlorine gas shells, had made the entire area next to uninhabitable and certainly unfarmable.

It was included in what was called the Zone Rouge, the “Red Zone”, that portion of northeastern France too badly battered in war for human habitation.After initial attempts to clear away the mess the Third Republic made the decision to let the Red Zone return to wilderness. Tree plantations were established, and the area let slowly regress into forest and meadow. The grass grew long in the cratered fields, the young poplars and maples formed doghair copses that welcomed back foxes and coneys.Fleury, and eight other small villages around Verdun, were designated casualties of war – “villages that died for France” – and were honored by a representative in the Chamber of Deputies in Paris that served the memory of a place that no longer existed save for as scattered stones in a tormented woodlot. It is managed by a municipal council of three members appointed by the prefect of the Meuse department.

Much of the rest of the old Western Front has recovered from the wounds inflicted in the Great War. Even areas within the old Red Zone have slowly been reclaimed, becoming farms and homes, towns and even parts of cities as the old frontline towns of St. Quentin, Soissons, and Loos slowly grow with the new 21st Century.

The old days still take their toll, however; the occasional buried round - the "iron harvest" - is encountered by a disk harrow with unpleasant results, or, less violently, is seen placed carefully alongside the road verge to await the arrival of the Département du Déminage disposal teams.The old border is a peaceful sort of place where the business of human life seems never to have paused. The old wars seem hard to imagine as lorries full of German machine parts roar west to Brest or French artisan cheese north to Brussels.But Fleury-devant-Douaumont has never been rebuilt. The village is tenanted only by the past, the only dweller the silent sleekness of the marten, the only passersby the ghosting wings of the thrushes, the rustling passage of the hedgehog recalling the lumbering walk of M. Body the grocer and the owl-eyes the hooded glance of Mlle. Alpert the seamstress, gone these hundred years never to return.

23 comments:

Ael said...

Awful, just awful.

It is amazing how much the human spirit can endure, but it too, has its limits.

And to think, some people still want to start wars.

Don Francisco said...

A really good post chief, a lot of great points to comment on. Us Brits can be paroquial in thinking the first day of the Somme was somehow uniquely awful - it was nothing compared to Verdun.

I didn't realise the source of Falkenhyn's strategy lay only in a memo, produced by him after the event. I suppose when you think about it - the Germans bleeding the French dry by taking an objective the French would have to retake - doesn't make sense as a strategy, and I can't believe I hadn't thought of it that way before (I studied it at uni about 13 years ago). It's based on the insight that the offence was ruinousuly expensive; but of course to persuade the French to fling themselves at the German guns, they had to take Verdun first, which sounds suspiciously like taking the offensive.

Between Verdun and the 1918 offensives the Germans truly did go on the defensive, building and retreating to the Hindenburg line whilst the allies flung themselves at it in a series of unsuccessful offensives - no Verdun required to prompt them.

And your insight about Verdun being the end of the French military adventure. You do know how to pack those insights in, don't you? I think I'll have to save my thoughts on that for later.

Podunk Paul said...

My father, a private in the 2nd (Indian Head) Division, remembered an incident that occurred on the move to the front in 1918. Far worse would happen, but that incident tells something about the attitudes of the period.

The troop train, consisting of 40 & 8 boxcars, was delayed for several hours at a small French village. Some of the men bought wine. A drunken fight broke out and a soldier was killed, his head striking the edge of the concrete loading platform. The company commander was sent for. The perpetrators agreed among themselves to blame my father, who had remained on the train, for the death. When the captain arrived, he listened to both sides of the story, shrugged, and said, “It makes no difference. In two weeks you’ll all be dead.”

FDChief said...

Ael: I think that we Yanks have a hard time understanding why the EU folks, most of them, are so dead-set against all these wars and rumors of wars...because we lack the Fleurys and the Verduns - we just don't "get" the visceral impact of having entire towns just "disappear" and an entire generation shrink because of war.

What will also be interesting to watch is the next 50 years, as the last lingering memories of the Great War go. I wonder - will France and Germany raise a more belligerent generation when the people who recall the destruction have gone?

FDChief said...

DF: I think the Somme had it's own dreadful qualities, though, that Verdun lacks. Verdun is just dour, dark, grim horror, a tale told by an idiot. Verdun is Victor Hugo; grand, doomed, terrible, the abyss that looks back at you.

The Somme is like some sort of horrible inverted children's tale, though; the Kitchener Army, the terrible "Pals Battalions" where whole communities were wiped out in minutes...the Somme is Lemony Snicket; the fairy tale that ends not with the happy ending but with Hansel and Gretel screaming in the oven.

I think all the Powers' military leaderships were stymied by the defensive gridlock after 1916; only real fatheads like Nivelle insisted in hammering on that ironbound door, and after the mutinies that ended, too. The Entente won because, among other reasons, they waited until they had the Yanks and the tanks to close the deal.

The German Army command never did get it. Yes, they knocked the Russians out. Yes, they remained on the defensive in the West until the Kaiserschlacht in 1918, but IMO that was a strategic mistake on the order of the Schlieffen Plan.

Ludendorff really was a fathead, not just for his failure to understand the logistical impossibility of the Spring Offensives but because he was one of the main obstacles to a negotiated peace. The guy was the worst of both worlds; couldn't win the fight but wouldn't stop fighting, either.

FDChief said...

Paul: My great-uncle was a troop with the Rainbow Division in 1918, battalion runner, killed in the Argonne. I never learned much about him, let alone anything as grim as that little story.

On the other hand, my uncle Mac served in Italy in 1944 and had some tales equally hopeless; I get the feeling that the regular grunts in both wars pretty much understood early on that your "getting it" was an issue of when, not if. In fact, one of the things that seems to have been a huge factor in rendering guys combat-ineffective was that assuming they survived long enough about 99.5% of the survivors just stopped giving a shit. They were walking dead men and knew it; all they wanted was for the misery to stop, and if it stopped forever, well, whatever...

I suspect that was probably the heart of the French Army mutinies. What could the GQG do to them, anyway? Kill them? They were dead men walking; death was a mercy compared to the living hell that was the trenches.

Podunk Paul said...

Y’know, Chief, the passivity of WWI vets was striking. None of those men, friends of my father, members of the local VFW, had anything to say about the politics, the incomprehensible stupidity of the war. Some had internalized their experiences as tough guys, and were they ever tough. But criticism was a province of the intellectuals. Same sort of attitude about the Depression. Working people, as least as I remember them, did not entertain thoughts of Communism or raid food warehouses. They just kept their heads down and endured.

Don Francisco said...

Chief,

I have to agree the German leadership never did get it. Knocking the Russians wasn't something they in any way anticipated. Trying to acheive anything other than the military solution never seems to have occurred to them - the introduction to thw war of the US could have been completely avoided. The Ludendorff offensives were equally pointless; the threat of the million or so men being brought over from the Russian front to the Western front was surely far more effective than actually trying to use them in an offensive.

Not that I think the entente got it either, really. It's often commented that the British made their most effective decision on day one by declaring a blockade of the German ports. This can be taken as a backhanded compliment, in that almost every decison they made after wasn't, which puts them in some good company.

FDChief said...

Paul: I think up to a point that was true. One thing that always amazed me about WW1 in the U.S. is the degree to which it went down the memory hole. I mean, when you look at the supposed reasons the U.S. entered and what emerged from Versailles in 1919 the U.S. got absolutely zip. Bupkis, zero, squat. The entire U.S. effort was utterly wasted (largely due to Wilson, IMO one of the worst U.S. presidents outside of Buchanan and Bush 43). I've always been amazed that more of the WW1 vets weren't furious about that.

But if you look at the Twenties and Thirties there was a hell of a lot of unrest; the Bonus Marchers, the IWW, tons of strikes and labor actions...and I think one of the huge reasons there wasn't MORE - that there were no real communist or fascist movements here is because that cunning aristo FDR co-opted the radicals with his New Deal reforms. That brought enough working class people "inside the tent pissing out" - the folks you're talking about just buckling down under the strain - that it cut the legs out from under the radicals.

One thing I think our current ruling class is hugely underestimating is the degree to which the U.S. is vulnerable to social disintegration. Just because we've never had a 1789 or a 1917 makes the oligarchs think we can't. But I think that if things continue as they have the West is in for a pretty nasty little 21st Century.

FDChief said...

DF: Yep. WW1 has always struck me as one of those murder-suicide pacts where both parties just end up on the floor leaking brain matter. Pretty amazing how so many smart guys managed to fuck things up so thoroughly. If it wasn't for the degree that they THEN fucked up the "peace" process you'd have to wonder if there wasn't something deliberate going on.

And the REALLY terrifying thing is the degree to which everyone then went on and proceeded to continue fucking up; the Hitler regime repeating many of the same mistakes as the Imperials, the French 3rd Republic just being an utter clusterfuck, the Chamberlain government completely misjudging the Nazis (the "battle" for March is going to be the reoccupation of the Rhineland, IMO one of the lineal descendents of Verdun)...and even after WW2, with the British Tories and the Fourth Republic utterly refusing to see that the Age of Colonialism was over, the failure of Yalta...when you think about it, it's pretty amazing that we've done as well as we have, given how many of the "leaders" we've chosen weren't fit to run a raffle.

Leon said...

Another good analysis Chief.

My knowledge of Verdun is mostly from "Aftermath: The Remnants of War", one part talked about the Ossuary which holds the bones of 130,000 unidentified bodies. That blew my mind, I always knew the staggering death toll in this war but that many bones lying in one building is simply frightening. The book also talks about the de-miners and how they blow up several tons of recovered shells a year.

I'd recommend giving it a look as it looks at Verdun, Stalingrad, Vietnam and the 1st Gulf War (pub 1998).

FDChief said...

Leon: I was fascinated by the story of the Département du Déminage, the EOD guys who are STILL cleaning up northeastern France. Hell of an ugly job - they've lost something like several hundred guys since 1945. Jesus.

How does that go - "Only the dead have seen an end to war"?

Lisa said...

Chief,

You convey the pointless, horrid butchery of this terrible slog, well. It is hard to contemplate.

Paul, that is a shocking story from your father. And I agree with Chief that Wilson was simply a monumental failure.

Thank you for sharing the village no longer there. Of course, this sorrow exists so many places -- so many Jewish shtetls in Russia, once thriving, have been liquidated of their inhabitants and exist no more. If there are ghosts, they inhabit these zones, and they cannot be happy.

FDChief said...

The thing about these ghost villages that made them uber-creepy to me, Lisa, was their setting in the "Red Zone" that has kept them frozen in time. The vanished communities of the Pale, or places like Lidice and the ghetto in Warsaw were largely built over and their vanished peoples replaced by their neighbors. These Verdun villages, though...it's like time stopped for them in 1918 and has never started again. Brrrr. I get chills just thinking about it. Like I said in the post - researching this one I got a tiny little hint of what a Frenchman or woman must feel when they think of the War and, by inference, all wars.

Leon said...

If you find ghost-villages creepy, take a look at Pripyat: http://pripyat.com/en/gallery/city-pripyat.html

An entire city, emptied by the Chernobyl disaster. Creepy squared. I believe the radiation levels have dropped enough that you can take a tour through parts of the exclusion zone in relative safety.

For those who can't fly to the Ukraine, there's also a series of video games (PC) that revolve around the city and the exclusion zones that do a good job of scaring the bejebus outa you.

Big Daddy said...

I just got here, but thanks for the great precis of this legendary hellhole. The deminage story is very interesting and sad since so many of them have been killed. It's odd how the two world wars leave people repeating things, I found an article from the 1980s about Royal Engineers digging up and defusing a German bomb in a scene straight out of Danger UXB 40 years before.
Back to Verdun, the weakening of France is the unifying them of Alistair Horne's trilogy, of which The Price of Glory was the middle book. The opening chapters of "To Lose A Battle, France 1940" talk a lot about the effects of the First World War and especially Verdun, Nivelle, and the mutinies on French society and military thinking. Horne's thesis is that France was in a steady decline from 1870, culminating in the collapse of 1940 and possibly Vietnam and Algeria post war.
I would add one other item to the story of the lost villages, at the end of Horne's book, he mentions that the soil of Le Morte Homme (what a sadly prescient place name) had so much explosive residue and poison gas in it that trees planted postwar died immediately and even now there is grass but no trees on the hill.

Lisa said...

Maybe it is only in the experience or the study of apres-war that we truly meet our own gossamer mortality. And aside from the sites so poisoned that only grass grows, most of us (present company excepted) subscribe to Sandburg's The Grass and don't even ask, "What happened here?"

FDChief said...

BD: I was thinking of the Horne 1940 book when I wrote this; to my mind there is no doubt that the disasters of 1870 and 1916 took a lot of the starch out of France. I think the thing that Horne emphasizes about 1940, though, is the degree to which the poisonous hatred between the oligarchs and elites who led the nation into defeat in 1870 and death in 1914 and the socialists who did most of the dying and emerged as the rulers in the Thirties and Forties played a big part in the dysfunction of French politics.

The Army, though...that was Verdun.

Lisa: I wonder if someone will do a photoessay on the abandoned U.S. bases in Iraq someday and speculate about the foolish hubris and grand illusion that they represent.

Leon: You've just given me the subject of my next post. Thank you!

basilbeast said...

"our ruling class"

From TPM this AM

Maybe 18 months ago this stuff was the stuff of three or four members of Congress and World Net Daily. Now Mitt Romney just said that Iran may get nuclear material and give it to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah will bring it to Mexico.

Nuclear Hezbollah will climb over the fence and then blow up a nuclear warhead of a dirty bomb in Cleveland.

This is a presidential debate.


bb

Lisa said...

Yes, Chief, someone will do that photo essay. We can see it unfolding in real time, no? I wonder if the people felt the same things we do during the times you wrote of?

FDChief said...

Lisa: They did. Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, says in his memoirs: "We were standing at a window of my room in the Foreign Office. It was getting dusk, and the lamps were being lit in the space below on which we were looking. My friend recalls that I remarked on this with the words: "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

So I think so, perhaps even more so, because most Europeans were intensely caught up in the first World War; many of them wanted it, almost all of them had some sense of the immense weight of it.

Sadly, I think that we in the U.S. are only dimly aware of what is being done in our name, and have no sense of the weight of grievance and hatred we're helping pile up in the Middle East...

Lisa said...

Yes, I have read that quote by Grey. You're right -- they would have had a greater sense of the gravity, as so many more were directly involved.

We are so remote from the action, and only know what the news givers tell, and are only as informed as far as we wish to go, and how many have the time for more than a quick gloss, if that?

Dane900 said...

If you're looking for another source on Verdun, my favourite is Ian Ousby's The Road To Verdun, which analyses the battle as a cultural event parallel to the military. Ousby takes the view that battles "enact a myth of themselves" in realtime, and understanding the military event is pointless without understanding the cultural.

Anyway, Ousby's solution to the problem of Falkenhayn is that he probably really did want to bleed the French, but Kronprinz Wilhelm couldn't possibly give orders like that to his soldiers - who'd follow them? So, he was forced to turn Falkenhayn's vague orders into the only thing that made sense on the battlefield - taking the city of Verdun, and quickly. Interesting solution I think.

Ousby characterises Falkenhayn as a master politician rather than a master soldier (case in point: giving the Verdun job to the Kaiser's son), and he also seems rather indecisive. Crown Prince Ruprecht of Bavaria recorded in his diary that Falkenhayn, "Was not clear what he really wanted and… was waiting for a stroke of good fortune which would bring about a favourable solution. He wanted a decision in the spring, while declaring a breakthrough impossible, but how else should the change from the war of position to the war of movement be enforced?"

Only just found your blog, but I've bookmarked it. Keep up the good work.