The Battle of Verdun: Causes and Circumstances

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Topic: Politics & Government
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Introduction

The battle of Verdun was scheduled to start on 12 February 1916, but it was delayed following the bad weather that characterized the battlefield (Foley 2005, 145). The battle eventually commenced nine days later on 21 February when German soldiers invaded Verdun and launched attacks against their French counterparts guarding the forts (McNab 2013, 57). Germany believed that it used huge resources on the western front without equivalent gains in terms of winning the battle. Consequently, there had to be a change in strategy in a bid to maximize the gains accruing from the huge resources deployed in the fight. The battle was one of the bloodiest encounters during the First World War and it was characterized by the loss of lives and mass destruction of properties (Doyle 2014, 123).

The battle ended in December 1916 when the German troops retreated and left Verdun following a resounding defeat by their opponents (Ousby 2009, 134). Germany’s primary objective was to conquer Verdun, which was a city that hosted the historical monuments for France, and thus prompt the French administration to send troops to the area. The city hosted about 60 forts, which were deemed as historical sentiments for the French. The forts had been renovated few decades before the attack (Tunstall 2008, 35). Germany sought to take advantage of the war on the western front, which had seen French soldiers warding the city deployed to the battlefield. The deployment coupled with the French soldiers’ weak weaponry instilled confidence among the German troops that they would eventually win the battle (King 2008, 123).

The causes and circumstances that led to the battle

The primary objective of Germany was to divert the attention of the French army, which had focused mostly on the western front, by attempting to capture Verdun (Foley 2005, 152). Germany believed that by capturing the city, French soldiers would be deployed in large numbers to counter the seizure, thus affording the opportunity to kill them in order to weaken the French army (Tunstall 2008, 38). From the German soldiers’ point of view, weakening the French army would result in ultimate success for Germany since Britain, which was the key ally of France, would be compelled to enter a peace agreement with Germany to end the war McNab 2013, 89).

Britain and France were the strongest forces in the war and conquering French soldiers would make Britain the sole strong power in the war and it would eventually give in on grounds of fear of defeat by Germany (Griffith 2008, 123). Other allies of the war including Italy and Russia were considered harmless by the Germans. Therefore, according to Germany, the greatest enemy in the war was Britain. Therefore, Germany adopted an attrition strategy that would see French soldiers killed in large numbers as they mobilized to defend the city from the impending seizure. In his words, the Germany’s army commander claimed that France would be compelled to bring in all its strong men to the war in an attempt to repel the conquering attempts of its historical forts (Doyle 2014, 137).

This way, Germany would inflict a huge number of French casualties, thus rendering France the ultimate losers in the battle. Britain was the only threat among the allies, and according to the Germany’s commander, the British troops could not be overpowered through direct combat. British had well-trained soldiers and they were in possession of modern weapons that could see Germany defeated in a direct warfare engagement. The easiest way to win the war was to weaken the French soldiers, who contributed significantly to the British supremacy in the war. Other allies, viz. Italy and Russia, did not count in the war according to the Germany’s point of view as they had a weak army that would not contribute to the battle significantly.

Strategies and tactics used

The initial phase of the battle

The war was supposed to start on 12 February 1916, but it was postponed to 21 February the same year following bad weather conditions in the city that could not allow Germany’s penetrations to launch attacks. However, the newly slated date saw the German army invade the city, which was not well guarded, since France concentrated mainly on the western front and it had deported its soldiers from the historical city to the western front.

Even though France had intelligence about the attack, the report had not been executed, and thus there were no enough soldiers in the city to oppose the invasion (Foley 2005, 137). On 21 February, the German soldiers launched attacks on the city just as slated and managed to conquer Bois d’Haumont village, which was near the city before penetrating the French lines (McNab 2013, 63). Motivated by the great achievement in the first day of the attack, the German troops went ahead to capture other villages and by the end of their third day in the battle, they had conquered four more villages, viz. “Brabant-sur-Meuse, Wavrille, and Samogneux against the backdrop of French retaliatory attacks” (Ousby 2009, 129). The initial attacks by the Germans were successful and almost unopposed. Therefore, by the 24th of the same month, Beaumont and the Bois des Caurières villages had been captured by the invading troops (King 2008, 146).

The second phase of the battle

The second phase of the attacks was launched against the backdrop of the reports that the British were organizing an attack on Somme (Doyle 2014, 141). The focus of the German troops shifted from the primary one of conquering the city to that of disorganizing the British attacks (Tunstall 2008, 51). The German troops attacked the city fiercely in a bid to deter the planned attack, and in the process, more casualties were recorded. In response to the fierce attacks, the French general staff launched retaliatory attacks on the German troops in preparation for the allied attacks that were to be executed soon. On March 4, the German troops managed to capture the Douaumont village, set it ablaze, and placed unexploded bombs, thus rendering the village inhabitable (Foley 2005, 122). By this time, both parties in the war had suffered huge numbers of casualties due to the savage nature of the attacks.

Phase 3

The battle escalated when the German troops invaded the banks of river Meuse, thus prompting the French soldiers to launch heavy retaliatory attacks to deter the siege. However, the German troops emerged as victors, and on March 8, they managed to capture defensive works surrounding Hardaumont (Doyle 2014, 128). This win was a great blow to the French army as it weakened the ability to launch attacks against the invaders as the German troops advanced to seize the village of Vaux. The Germans launched tempestuous attacks, and by April 9, they had managed to put the left bank of the Meuse under their control. This phase took place on the banks of river Meuse when Germany invaded and launched attacks from both the right and the left banks simultaneously (McNab 2013, 156).

At this point, Germany had determined to seize the Bois Bourrus village, which was an important fort for the French undercover activities. This attack was launched on March 6 and it continued until May when the Germans managed to conquer the French army and seize the fort. The capturing of the fort involved shedding of blood since the German troops faced fierce opposition from their French counterparts who were now highly organized. The left bank was now at the hands of the German troops, which was a great blow to the French soldiers, since both the left and right banks acted as the battle frontline for the French.

Phase 4

Following the successful conquest of the left bank, German troops were motivated to instigate more attacks. Therefore, on March 8, they launched an attack on the right bank with the main target being the fort of Vaux (Griffith 2008, 128). However, the fort was well manned and heavy weapons had been supplied to the French soldiers ready for a retaliatory attack if Germans attempted to attack. Due to the advance preparedness by the French army, the German troops were repelled, and on 19 March, they gave up their agenda of acquiring the fort and retreated to the left bank. Germany received a major blow following an explosion at Fort Douaumont that claimed the lives of about 700 soldiers from its troops (Ousby 2009, 132).

This move prompted Germany to delay the attacks on the right bank and instead shifted its focus to securing the left bank. Soon after, the French soldiers launched an attack with the aim of reacquiring Fort Douaumont, but the German soldiers overpowered with mass casualties. Days after, the Germans attacked the Fort of Vaux and managed to drive away French soldiers guarding the fort despite the determination to retain control over the fort.

Phase 5 – The Last German Offensive

This phase was the last stage of German attacks and it took place between the 22 of June and December 13 (McNab 2013, 121). The German troops launched fierce attacks on 22 June with an objective of seizing both Fleury village and at the same time facilitating their intrusion to the Verdun City (Tunstall 2008, 39). This time, the Germans invoked phosgene gas for the first time in the attacks, even though they never achieved the intended goal of intruding Verdun following the presence of heavily armed French troops in Fort Souville. However, Germany launched a new attack aimed at conquering the Fleury village and fort Souville after the first attempt backfired. Just like the French were in a position to counter the attack the first time Germany attempted to acquire the port, this time, things were not different as the attacks were equally repelled (King 2008, 129).

Conversely, the German troops managed to seize the village of Fleury, thus forcing the French soldiers to free the village and more casualties from both sides were recorded. On 1 July, Austria requested for help from Germany against Russia in the ongoing battle at Somme (Doyle 2014, 117). Given that Austria was an ally of Germany, some of the troops at Verdun had to be deployed to the eastern front to counter the Russian advancement towards Austria. This move reduced the number of soldiers in the Verdun battle not to mention that weapons were also reduced. The shortage in soldiers coupled with the shortfall in armories weakened the German troops and further advancement to Verdun was halted. However, on August 1, Germany launched severe attacks aimed at repelling counterattacks by the French troops who sought to reacquire Fleury and the Thiaumont fortification (Griffith 2008, 123).

The battle achieved limited success due to the shortage of soldiers and ammunition that befell the German troops. The battle continued up to 6 September when it temporary ceased due to shortages of ammunition for both parties. During this battle, each side recorded equal number of casualties, since it involved attacks and counterattacks from both sides.

The end of the war

On 21 October, the French troops launched attacks on the right bank of river Meuse in an effort to retake the region, which had been seized by the German soldiers. This move was countered heavily by the Germans, but due to the weakened state of the troops, the French soldiers managed to reacquire Fort Douaumont just three days after. Motivated by the victory, the French army went on to recapture Fort Vaux and this move that saw the German troops surrender and concede defeat on December 19 (Foley 2005, 145).

Factors that favored Germany

At first Germany was successful in conquering Verdun until the French soldiers strategized and mobilized enough weapons to fight back the attacks. Germany had two main advantages that favored its initial undertakings, viz. supremacy of arsenals and the attrition strategy adopted (King 2008, 134). In addition, Germany launched the attacks in secrecy and although France received intelligence regarding the planned attack, the timeframe would not allow good planning for counterattacks. Soldiers and weaponry had been transferred from Verdun to the western front, which was the centre of the battle

Why the battle lasted too long

Firstly, Germany adopted the attrition strategy that involved attacking the French army silently from hidden places in a bid to ensure that they did not lose their own soldiers in the battle (Griffith 2008, 123). Therefore, the German soldiers did not engage the French troops in one-on-one battle, but took cover and accomplished attacks. At first, it was more of a guerilla war since the strategy, as drafted by Falkenhayn, was meant to launch attacks on French soldiers while at the same time taking cover to avoid casualties (McNab 2013, 57).

The attrition strategy also gave the French soldiers time to mobilize its soldiers and weaponry, thus facilitating counterattacks. Germany faced heavy resistance from the French troops, which had already mobilized enough resources for the battle. The attrition strategy adopted by the German forces at the start of the war coupled with the organized counterattacks by French troops delayed efforts by Germany to conquer the city within the expected timelines.

Significance of the battle in the advancement of agenda

The Germany’s loss in the battle led to the removal of Gen Falkenhayn from the position of the army’s head (Foley 2005, 123). The general was determined to fight to the last minute until the defeat of the French soldiers.

In addition, he wanted to ensure that the French army suffered more casualties than its Germany counterpart. However, other scholars have argued that the Somme warfare contributed greatly to the Germany’s loss, since many soldiers had to be deployed to fight Russia following the request for support by Austria (Tunstall 2008, 35). This school of thought seems to suggest that Germany would have succeeded in its quest to weaken French. Consequently, France would be compelled to sign a peace agreement with Germany, if Russia did not start the Somme war. This point is justifiable from the fact that German troops had advanced so well before the Somme attacks commenced.

Although France suffered more casualties as compared to its opponent, both parties suffered almost equal losses since Germany did not achieve its agenda of crippling the French army (King 2008, 156). The Germany’s agenda in the war was to make sure that the French army suffered as many casualties as possible in order to make Britain, which was the major threat, quit the war on grounds of fear of defeat. However, Germany did not succeed in its agenda as it was finally defeated and it suffered an equal number of casualties as France. The war was one of the bloodiest and long lasting encounters in the period of the World War 1. It involved mass killings of soldiers from both parties. The battle cost Germany approximately 350,000 casualties while France recorded about 400, 000 casualties. Unfortunately, Germany did not accomplish its primary goal of crippling the French troops by causing massive casualties (Doyle 2014, 127).

Conclusion

The battle of Verdun refers to a fierce warfare between Germany and France as the former fought hard to capture the city of Verdun in order to attract the attention of the French soldiers before killing them in mass numbers. It involved a change in strategy that saw Germany withdraw its forces from the western front and mobilize its forces to conquer the Verdun City. The strategy was in response to the complexity of the battle on the western front where Germany concluded that it spent many resources without equivalent gains.

General Erich von Falkenhayn believed that the only way the war could be won is through shift of focus from the western front to Verdun in a bid to prompt retaliatory attacks from the French soldiers who would then be killed in huge numbers by German troops taking cover in the forts. However, the Germany’s attack was met with great resistance from the French soldiers, who were determined to deter the invasion that would see the historical monuments conquered by the foreigners. Each of the two warring parties recorded many casualties and Germany did not achieve its intended agenda in the war.

Reference List

Doyle, Peter. 2014. 5 Minute History: First World War Leaders and Commanders. Charleston: The History Press. Web.

Foley, Robert. 2005. German strategy and the path to Verdun: Erich von Falkenhayn and the development of attrition, 1870-1916. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Web.

Griffith, Paddy. 2008. The Great War on the Western Front: A Short History. South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword. Web.

King, Jonathan. 2008. The Western Front Diaries: The ANZACs’ Own Story, Battle by Battle. New York: Simon & Schuster. Web.

McNab, Chris. 2013. Battle Story Verdun 1916. Charleston: The History Press. Web.

Ousby, Ian. 2009. The Road to Verdun: World War I’s Most Momentous Battle and the Folly of Nationalism. New York: Anchor. Web.

Tunstall, Graydon. 2008. “Austria‐Hungary and the Brusilov Offensive of 1916.” Historian 70, no. 1 : 30-53. Web.