After reassessing Germany’s strategic position at the end of 1915, General Erich von Falkenhayn set about targeting the French Army, whom he believed were at the “limits of endurance,” at a place so critical to France that Joseph Joffre, commander in chief of the French armies on the Western Front, would have no choice other than to fight to the last man to regain that position. This “bite and hold” tactic, Falkenhayn believed, would allow the Germans to take advantage of their more tactically powerful defensive position, “bleeding France white” as they counter-attacked, and in the process, knocking “England’s best sword” out of the war.
By December 1915, Falkenhayn had concluded that on the Eastern Front, Russia was on the verge of revolution and withdrawal from the war, and therefore felt that victory could be achieved instead on the Western Front, by defeating France. France’s defeat, Falkenhayn believed would result in Britain seeking peace terms, or alternatively being so weakened that it could be defeated outright. On Christmas Day in 1915, Falkenhayn wrote a letter to Kaiser Wilhelm II recommending a dual strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare against merchant ships delivering supplies to Britain, and offensive war against France on the Western Front.
Falkenhayn chose Verdun, a place of considerable historical significance for the French, located in a small area of Lorraine kept by France after 1870. At Verdun in 843, Charlemagne divided his empire into three parts, two of which formed modern-day France and Germany, while the third developed into the middle battleground, which included Alsace and Lorraine. The name Verdun itself, translated from a pre-Roman Gallic dialect, meant “powerful fortress.” Verdun had heroically withstood German sieges in both 1792 and 1870 before eventually falling. It had been the easternmost French position during the Battle of the Marne, but the removal of heavy artillery pieces and men during 1915 had left Verdun severely weakened.
By the beginning of 1916 Verdun was guarded only by a single thin trench line to the north and east of the main fortifications. There were not enough men remaining to occupy the thick woods immediately opposite their position, which allowed the German army to move and reinforce undetected. General Herr, who was commander of the Fortified Region of Verdun, concerned with its vulnerable position, contacted Joffre’s staff for artillery reinforcements. The response was the further withdrawal of two artillery batteries. Joffre insisted that Verdun would not be the point of attack, believing that the Germans were unaware that Verdun had been disarmed.
Another who predicted disastrous consequences for France should the Germans attack at Verdun was Lieutenant Colonel Emile Driant, a battalion commander in the woods outside Verdun and who was also a member of the French Chamber of Deputies. Driant wrote to his colleagues criticizing Joffre “for not establishing a solid second line of defense” and informed them that “France lacked the strength to defeat a determined German assault on the sacred national shrine.”