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This week in history: WWI's longest battle begins

On Feb. 21, 1916 — 99 years ago this week — one of the greatest battles of World War I commenced when the German army attacked the French fortress town of Verdun. The battle lasted until December and led to nearly a million total casualties.

By late 1915, the German High Command was feeling the frustration of its inability to reach a decision in the war. Germany's best chance at winning the war had been lost in September 1914 when the German army failed to take Paris. Since then, Germany had been bogged down everywhere it faced the enemy. After a series of bloody and inconclusive 1915 battles against the French and English in northern France and Belgium, and equally stagnant engagements against the Russian army in the east, Germany appeared no closer to victory.

Along the Western Front, which stretched from the English Channel to the Swiss border, there sat a series of trenches, heavily fortified and backed up by heavy artillery. The fundamental problem of the war was that military technology had outpaced battlefield tactics. The machine gun had made conventional infantry charges futile and suicidal affairs. Increasingly accurate rifles proved just as deadly. Barbed wire ensured that infantry must move slow when approaching defenders, making them easy targets.

In war, one side often succeeds in pushing the enemy back by turning his flank, attacking him head on even while hitting him from the side. The trench system made this impossible in any kind of local battle. Poison gas was soon used to break the stalemate, but its unpredictable nature and quick adoption by both sides meant that it did little but terrorize the troops at the front. It became clear that the flank on the Western Front was not going to be turned. How then would a head-on assault succeed against such seemingly impregnable military fortifications?

Germany's highest ranking military officer, Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, soon devised a strategy he believed would force France out of the war for good. In the book, “The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916,” historian Alistair Horne quotes a December 1915 letter from Falkenhayn to Kaiser Wilhelm II:

“Within our reach behind the French sector of the Western front 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 — as there can be no question of a voluntary withdrawal — whether we reach our goal or not.”

Falkenhayn's plan was as chilling as it was logical: there were some places in France that the French army could not abandon at any cost, and therefore must throw every man they could spare into their defense. Since the German army had more men than the French army, if the Germans kept pouring men into the fight, more German soldiers than French soldiers would be left standing. It is the very definition of attrition warfare.

Situated in a small valley surrounded by hills, the French city of Verdun sat along the River Meuse. A prime, strategic location barring invasion into the French heartland, Verdun had been home to various fortifications for over a century, but in the wake of France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the French had constructed a series of 12 modern forts in the hills surrounding the city. Knowing that the French would never abandon the city, Falkenhayn chose Verdun for his envisioned apocalyptic battle.

Verdun fell within the sector of the German Fifth Army, which happened to be commanded by Crown Prince Wilhelm, the Kaiser's son. The Fifth Army was soon assigned a new chief of staff, Gen. Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, who theoretically acted as the crown prince's second in command, but who in reality would be in charge of much of the operational planning and tactical command during the attack. The preparations for the battle proved to be a massive undertaking. Horne wrote:

“For one corps alone (about 30,000 men), the quartermaster's list included 6,000 wire-cutters, 17,000 spades, 125,000 hand grenades, a million sandbags, 265,000 kilograms of barbed wire, etc., etc. Entire villages behind the front were evacuated to make room for the 140,000 men assembling for the attack. The few remaining French inhabitants watched in helpless horror at the endless lines of men and material, at the great guns bringing death toward their own people.”

The French Army chief of staff, Gen. Joseph Joffre, believed as many did that the fortifications of Verdun were impregnable, and therefore was content to leave a modest garrison to hold them. French intelligence was likewise largely complacent about the sector, and dense forests made the German preparations largely invisible to the French. Though the Germans had brought up nearly 900 heavy artillery pieces by mid February, with more on the way, French spotter planes had only identified about 70 heavy gun positions. The German army had expertly concealed itself.

Still, the rumors did persist that the Germans were up to something in the Verdun sector. One of the more fantastical notions was that the Germans were digging a tunnel under the city that would allow German troops to attack the fortifications from behind. German deserters began to appear in the French lines, a sure sign that the enemy was preparing an attack.

Finally, in the early morning hours of Feb. 21, the Germans began their attack. In the book, “Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War,” historian Paul Jankowski wrote:

“Twelve hundred German guns had begun firing in unison on French positions in and around Verdun minutes after seven o'clock that morning, preceded by isolated volleys during the night. At four a.m. a stray giant, a 380 mm shell weighing nearly 1,700 pounds, had pierced the darkness, knocked some stone off the cathedral and fallen into the presbytery. … As the morning wore on the shelling intensified, and German observers watched from observation platforms as the French earthworks and command posts began to vanish from view ….”

Around 5 p.m. that afternoon, the artillery sighted further back from the front lines, and German troops began to advance in small groups toward the French trenches across the 2,500 feet of No Man's Land. Many small battles broke out as dazed, disoriented French soldiers attempted to put up a fight with whatever weapons they had at hand, and just as often surrendered to the advancing enemy. The terror of the day, after the relentless bombardment, had been the German flamethrowers, igniting trenches and French soldiers without mercy.

And yet the French generally managed to stand firm. The German troops had been told that nothing could survive the bombardment, and were disappointed to find so much resistance in their avenues of advance. Despite the months of preparation and the mountains of artillery shells, the French soldiers at the front that day may have been demoralized, but they were far from defeated.

Though the French would take tremendous casualties in the next few days, (the French 30th Corps lost roughly 60 percent of its strength by Feb. 24, and the 72nd Division was all but destroyed), they proved nevertheless determined to hold Verdun. Only two of Verdun's 12 fortresses ultimately fell to the Germans: Fort Douaumont was captured on Feb. 25 when its small garrison was surprised by German infiltrators, and Fort Vaux fell in June when it ran out of water. That same month, in a statement of defiance not unlike Gen. Douglas MacArthur's “I shall return,” French Gen. Robert Nivelle famously stated, “Ils ne passeront pas!” (“They shall not pass!”).

In a feat of logistical improvisation usually reserved for American armies, the French managed to construct new supply lines and keep Verdun in the fight. As each side poured more and more troops into the fight the carnage only increased, making the 11 months of Verdun one of the bloodiest battles of world history. By the time the battle ended in December, the fighting had produced more than 400,000 German casualties and over 500,000 French casualties. More than 40 million artillery shells had been used by both sides — remarkable considering that before the battle, France was only producing 400,000 shells a month.

The failure of Falkenhayn's strategy led to his dismissal in the summer of 1916 and his replacement by Paul von Hindenburg, the victor of Tannenberg and later the president of Germany who appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor. The battle accomplished little for the Germans in terms of strategic gain or political capital. The French had proved far more determined and far more willing to take losses than the Germans had appreciated. Still, the carnage of Verdun left its stamp forever on the French nation.

The war lasted for another two years.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com