Falkenhayn knew that an attack on Verdun would result in French troops being drawn in from all over the Western Front. He planned to unleash attrition warfare on a scale that would “bleed France white.” To have his plan approved by the Kaiser, Falkenhayn proposed that the Kaiser’s eldest son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, should take command of the main attack.
Wilhelm initially planned to attack Verdun from both sides of the surrounding Meuse River, but this was vetoed by Falkenhayn as he feared heavy losses using that strategy. Instead, Falkenhayn ordered the attack to be confined to the eastern bank of the Meuse.
The attack on Verdun was set for February 12, 1916, but bad weather resulted in it being postponed for several days. In the meantime, Joffre received intelligence of the impending attack and immediately began deploying reinforcements to the French Second Army. Colonel Driant ordered his troops to begin work on improving the trench systems at Verdun in preparation for the battle.
The opening phase of Operation Gericht began at 7.15 a.m. on February 21, 1916, with the heaviest artillery concentration to date of the First World War. Over 1,600 German artillery pieces were estimated to have fired approximately 100,000 shells per hour along the eight-mile front. In a process known as counter-battery fire, shells and phosgene gas canisters were fired at French artillery positions, which rendered them ineffective.
The first German infantry attack began at 4.45 p.m., initially led by teams of scouts who surveyed the damage caused by the opening artillery barrage.
When the scouts returned with information regarding where French defenses remained unbreached, Wilhelm decided to withdraw his forward infantry and subsequently began targeting these positions with further artillery fire. The cessation of the artillery bombardment opened a window of opportunity for the French soldiers to reposition themselves so that they could effectively enfilade the advancing German troops across the Meuse.
At the end of the first day of the battle, the assault on Verdun had proved far less successful than Wilhelm had planned. Only the French front line trenches had been captured. The following day, Driant and his two battalions of men who were badly outnumbered, fought bravely to hold back the German advance.
When their ammunition ran out, they fought with their bayonets. Driant was killed by a shell but his heroism had “slowed the German assault and set the model for French service at Verdun.”
The entire French line was placed in jeopardy when Fort Douaumont, reputed to be one of the strongest forts in the world, fell into German hands on the fifth day of the battle. A small group of soldiers of the German 24th Brandenburg Infantry Regiment entered Douaumont by an unguarded passageway catching the garrison of 57 second-line territorials completely by surprise. The fort was surrendered without a single shot being fired.