woody zimmermann 120The greatest battle in history commenced one hundred years ago, on February 21, 1916. Verdun – the ghastly World War I battle that once resonated like a gong of doom in the consciousness of every schoolboy, but now is familiar to only a few – had far-reaching effects that are barely recalled or understood today.

In the near term, the battle caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands (some claim as many as 700,000) French and German soldiers – plus twice that many wounded – in a death-struggle for ground around France’s ancient capital that philosophers called “The Soul of France.” After ten months of desperate fighting, the military situation was essentially as it had been before the attack began. Immense losses produced no measurable movement of the front.

In the longer term, the battle –

¨     Destroyed the French Army as an effective fighting force;

¨     Kept Russia in the war for another two years;

¨     Eventually brought the United States into the war;

¨     Set up the defeat of Germany;

¨     Led to Communist rule in Russia;

¨     Motivated the fatally flawed French post-war strategy of the Maginot Line;

¨     Shaped world politics down to the present day.


The Battle of Verdun was conceived in late 1915 by German General Staff Chief Erich von Falkenhayn as a strategy to remove France from the War. Falkenhayn was convinced that defeating Britain was the key to victory. He also believed that if France were defeated or rendered militarily ineffective, the defeat of Britain would follow. He fixed upon Verdun because he believed it represented ground so sacred to the French that they would throw in all their forces to defend it. The French Army would thus be “bled white” – as Falkenhayn put it to the Kaiser.

Verdun was France’s ancient capital. While historically symbolic, it was also the military key to the Champagne Plain (and thus to Paris itself). It was also the last stronghold overcome by Prussia in the war of 1870, in which France had suffered a humiliating defeat. Prussia’s triumph led to proclamation of the German Second Empire at Versailles in 1871, with the crowning of Wilhelm I as Kaiser. Thus, the defense of Verdun was invested with enormous significance for the French people.

In the 1880s France built a double ring of a dozen underground forts around Verdun to ensure its protection. But by 1915 they had lost confidence in fixed forts because German heavy artillery had so effectively destroyed the Belgian forts in 1914. By the time Falkenhayn’s plan to attack Verdun was completed, its forts had been mostly stripped of their guns and personnel for use elsewhere on the Western Front.

With great stealth the Germans planned a surprise attack on Verdun to begin on February 11, 1916. They would have achieved complete surprise, and probably have taken Verdun and its forts, had they been able to attack on schedule. But after German forces were in position, bad weather delayed the attack. The element of surprise was thus lost, enabling the French to transfer two divisions to defend the position.

The attack finally began on February 21 with a stupendous artillery bombardment from 1200 German guns, including the Krupp 420 mm mortars used against Belgium’s forts. In the greatest artillery fusillade in the history of warfare, some 2 million shells were fired on the first day of the battle. It was later determined that the bombardment barely touched the underground forts which had significant earth cover as well as heavy concrete and masonry construction.

Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria then hurled nine of his 26 divisions at Verdun, achieving some initial successes and capturing the key fort, Douaumont – previously thought impregnable – on February 25. This put Verdun within reach. But as Falkenhayn had predicted, the French resisted desperately. Suffering appalling losses, they bought time to improve their fortifications as the battle raged back and forth through the spring and into June. A continual stream of trucks re-supplied the French Army along the legendary “Voie Sacree” (Sacred Way) – a nondescript road which was the only open route into the French lines.

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German 420 mm mortar at Verdun, 1916

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Voie Sacree, Verdun, 1916

Verdun was the first battle of the Great War in which phosgene gas was used. The Germans, who introduced it, fired over 100,000 phosgene artillery shells, causing thousands of French casualties. (When inhaled, phosgene turns to hydrochloric acid, causing irreversible lung-damage.)

When the British Army launched the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916), the Germans had to divert some forces to that salient. Thereafter, Verdun damped down as the Germans shifted their strategic emphasis elsewhere. Later in the year, the French Army regained most of the ground they had lost at Verdun, including Fort Douaumont.

Although Falkenhayn was demoted from high command six months into the battle, historians generally agree that he achieved his war aim of mortally wounding the French Army at Verdun. After 1916, the British Army took the lead in fighting the Central Powers. They were joined by the Americans in the final push that won the war in 1918.

The melancholy history of French arms since the Great War is plain to see: defeat in 1940 after six weeks of ineffective combat against invading German forces; encirclement at Dien Bien Phu (Vietnam), 1954; reversal at Algiers, 1958. Today, France is a hollow power, lacking the will or ability to fight for itself or for anyone else.

My assertion that the German attack on Verdun kept Russia in the war for two additional years is based on the known tension within the German high command between the Falkenhayn and Hindenburg factions. Paul von Hindenburg was an already-retired general, aged 66, when he was recalled to service in 1914 to command the Eighth Army. The latter was positioned to deal with a possible Russian attack in East Prussia while the other seven German armies dealt a (hopefully decisive) lethal right hook against France via the Schlieffen Plan.

The Russians, however, mobilized and marched westward far more quickly than anticipated, reaching East Prussia with their First and Second Armies by late August 1914. General Hindenburg, ably assisted by General Ludendorff, exploited a gap between the two Russian armies to surround and destroy the Second Army, producing the first great victory of the war for Germany.

This success elevated Hindenburg’s and Ludendorff’s stock in the German high command. They subsequently argued that Russia was fatally weak and could be put out of the war by a determined German effort in the east, while France and England could be merely held in the west. Falkenhayn had argued for the opposite strategy. He prevailed, and Verdun was the result. As the Verdun strategy flagged, Falkenhayn was replaced by Hindenburg and Ludendorff. But the opportunity to force Russia’s early withdrawal from the war had passed.

Had the Hindenburg-Ludendorff strategy been adopted in 1916, it might have succeeded. Russia might actually have sued for peace without undergoing revolution (although many historians disagree). But by attacking Verdun, Germany took pressure off Russia, allowing her to stay in the war through 1917. The Tsar abdicated in March 1917, but Russia’s new Kerensky government was still fighting Germany.

By late 1917 the German high command finally saw the removal of Russia from the war as a critical need, but they could no longer wait for German arms to accomplish it. Instead, they made a deal with the Devil. The Germans shipped Vladimir Lenin – previously exiled by the Czar – from Switzerland to Russia in a sealed railway car, having secured from him a promise to take Russia out of the war as soon as he seized power.

Lenin honored this agreement, as it was entirely in his interest to do so. The 1918 Treaty of Brest Litovsk ceded over 300,000 square miles of Russian territory to Germany, including much of the Ukraine, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland. It freed German forces to deal the West a mighty blow that almost succeeded in winning the war.

By the spring of 1918, however, America had been in the war for a year, having joined the Entente because Germany had resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917. Two million fresh American troops in the field, by late 1918, was the final straw. Germany’s last-ditch 1918 offensive failed, and she sued for peace in November.

Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and lived out the rest of his life in Holland, dying in 1940 at age 81. In the final reckoning, the Verdun Strategy essentially led to the defeat of Germany. The Soviet Union’s emergence from the ashes of World War I as a great power had a profound influence on the 20th century.

Deeply impressed by the indestructibility of the Verdun forts, French War Minister André Maginot – a veteran of Verdun – convinced France to build a line of forts along the German border during the 1930s. It was believed that the forts would give France time to mobilize and deploy her forces in the event of a German attack. But the interconnected system of sophisticated fortifications did not anticipate mobile armored units, which were unknown at the time of Verdun. In June 1940, German Panzer columns quickly bypassed the Maginot Line and sped across France to encircle French and British forces in Belgium.

Other actors in the drama of Verdun:

¨     Field Marshall von Falkenhayn was relieved of supreme command in August 1916 after the failure of his Verdun strategy. After defeating the Rumanians, but later suffering defeat by the British in Palestine, he retired in 1918. He died in 1922 at the age of 81.

¨     Field Marsall von Hindenburg’s military career had begun in 1866. He assumed Supreme Command of German Forces after Falkenhayn was relieved. He was twice elected President of Germany during the Weimar Republic, and appointed Adolph Hitler Chancellor in 1933. He died in 1934 at age 86.

¨     General Ludendorff participated in Hitler’s Munich Beer Hall Revolt of November 1923, but was not prosecuted for those activities. He died in 1937 at age 72.

¨     Field Marshall Petain won fame at Verdun. By war’s end he was promoted to Field Marshall. He headed the Vichy government after France’s defeat in 1940. After WWII he was convicted of treason for his collaboration with the German occupiers. He died in 1951 at the age of 95.

¨     Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria (not related to Kaiser Wilhelm) lost his throne due to post-war unrest. He lived quietly in retirement until his death in 1955 at age 86.

This brief treatment scarcely conveys the horror that was Verdun. Americans today – peaceably working, studying, and playing in their clean, orderly communities – cannot comprehend the deafening, horrific, gas-filled wasteland of a field of slaughter barely ten miles square that chewed up the lives of three-quarters of a million men. Over one ton of high explosives fell on every square yard of the Verdun battlefield. Nine entire villages were destroyed and rendered permanently uninhabitable.

Most of that land is now off-limits to ordinary pedestrians or motorists, despite a decades-long effort to clear it of unexploded munitions. When my wife and I visited the battlefield in 1987, our guide noted that someone is killed or injured nearly every year by explosion of an old shell or grenade. Just days earlier a picnicking family had found a live grenade half-buried beneath their picnic table on the edge of the battle area. Buried, unexploded artillery shells filled with poison gas are a particular concern. Officials know many still remain undiscovered.

The Verdun Battlefield is dotted with forty-three military cemeteries, each containing the graves of 10,000-15,000 German or French soldiers. The central monument at Verdun is the great, solemn Ossuary – the House of Bones – with its high tower (reminiscent of an artillery shell) and its long, polished gallery in which visitors naturally lower their voices to a whisper. Vaults beneath the floor, at each end of the gallery, contain the bones of unknown soldiers found across the battlefield since 1916. The great stacks of bones and heaps of skulls can be viewed through windows outside the memorial. The remains of 130,000 unknown soldiers of Verdun lie in these vaults. It is an appalling sight that stays with you for life.

Bravery. Futility. Death. Verdun…

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The Ossuary at Verdun (dedicated 1929)