When the German High Command committed to assaulting the French northeastern town of Verdun, it fully expected that those fortifications—including a ring of underground forts—would be no match for the far superior artillery assault launched against it on February 21, 1916. It never anticipated that the initial nine-hour bombardment would be only a small part of the nearly 40 million artillery shells exchanged in the battle; that a combined 976,000 casualties would occur before Germany halted the campaign in December; and that Verdun would be perhaps the most draining—and certainly the longest—military encounter of the First World War.
On the French side, the campaign gave rise to one of the great battle cries of all time: “They shall not pass!” It also brought to prominence General Henri Philippe Petain—acclaimed as the victor of a fight thought to be unwinnable, beloved by his men for his concern for their welfare—a reputation battered beyond all recognition a generation later by his surrender to--and collaboration with--the same German nation he had once fought so stoutly.
Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff, saw the battle as a chance to strike a knockout blow against France before Great Britain could re-join it in the spring for an offensive. “The string in France has reached breaking point,” he wrote Kaiser William II in support of his plan. “A mass break-through – 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.”
The German Fifth Army lost an early opportunity to seal the fate of Verdun when it was forced to postpone an attack on February 12 because of heavy snowfall. The French high command, which had not anticipated an assault on that point, rushed arms and troops with the bought time.
Even so, the French Second Army was dangerously exposed. While its foes were served by a dozen rail lines, 10 of which were broad gauge, the French only had one narrow gauge line and one road in which to transport men and supplies.
In many ways, the situation quickly worsened for the French. By the 25th, the Germans had reached Douaumont, the most formidable fort protecting Verdun, and could not believe their good fortune: Not only had most of its guns and 500 of its infantrymen been transferred the prior year, but the few gunners remaining in the fort were now inside listening to a lecture. The fort fell without a shot.
Complicating matters in short order was the constant German bombardment, which left only fragments of trenches. Soldiers were isolated, by themselves or in small groups. That meant they were often without food or stretcher-bearers.
If there was one good consequence of the horrifying loss of Douaumont, it was the appointment of Petain. Not only did he reorganize the front lines and transport systems, but he made a special point of meeting with his troops, carefully explaining what he was doing and what he needed them to do. Above all, to a situation that had borne all the signs of careening inexorably out of control, he brought a stability that, in time, transformed into one of the great defensive stands of history.
All of this was helped immensely by La Voie Sacree (“The Sacred Way”), the route along which 3,000 trucks a day braved a constant barrage to bring troops and supplies to the defense of Verdun.
With all of that, it was still a near-run thing, particularly after Falkenhayn widened the battle zone in the spring. Soldiers on both sides grasped for words to convey the horror of what they were experiencing. The German Expressionist painter Franz Marc wrote on March 3, 1916: “For days I have seen nothing but the most terrible things that can be painted from a human mind.” (He fell in battle the very next day.) A French veteran, Albert Joubaire, wrote simply: “Hell cannot be this dreadful.”
By early summer, Russian advances on the Eastern Front and the combined Anglo-French offensive at the Somme diverted resources from Falkenhayn. His failure to bring the battle to a successful conclusion led to his dismissal in August. The French spent the last months of the year retaking territory previously lost, and both sides—now onto deadlier ground elsewhere—had stopped fighting at Verdun by year-end.
Even so, the artillery bombardment left lasting scars on the land. Before the battle, Verdun had been a primarily agricultural community. But, as Stuart Thornton writes in this article for National Geographic, trees were smashed and the small villages in the vicinity of the fighting were destroyed by the munitions. After the war, the French government, despairing at the price of restoring the farmland, simply declared this the Zone Rouge, or Red Zone. A century after the battle, unexploded shells remain a danger in this area.