On the same day, Joffre sent his second-in-command, Edouard Noël de Castelnau to Verdun to assess the situation. Castelnau decided to replace General Herr with a more defensive-minded general, Henri-Philippe Pétain. Pétain had begun the war as a front-line infantry colonel and had gained a reputation among ordinary soldiers of being a General who used sound reasoning and one who cared for his soldier’s wellbeing. It proved to be a masterstroke for the French Army.
Reacting to the dire need for supplies at Verdun, Pétain made use of a narrow road, just six meters wide, which after the war would become known as ‘La Voie Sacree‘ (the ‘Sacred Way’). It enabled 3,500 trucks, driving with dimmed headlights only a few meters apart, to transport in much-needed supplies. It was also used to withdraw the wounded or units being relieved from the front. At its peak, this vital supply line brought in 90,000 men as well as 50,000 tons of supplies each week.
Pétain also introduced the Noria system at Verdun, where divisions were rotated in and out of the front lines every 15 days or when they had lost one-third of their personnel. Pétain’s Noria system combined with the duration of the battle itself made Verdun “an exceptionally generalized experience throughout the French army.” Of the eighty-five divisions of the French army, seventy served at Verdun at some point in the battle. Forty-three divisions were committed once, twenty-three twice, and seven three times or more.
Although Petain knew that defending Verdun would likely result in large numbers of casualties for the French, he intended to maximize the casualties on the German side. He personally took command of the French artillery and reorganized its use in battle so that it became a more effective defensive weapon.
German attacks and French counterattacks continued over the following months which resulted in huge losses on both sides, with very little to show for it. In May 1916, Petain was promoted and replaced at Verdun by the more offensively minded Robert Nivelle. Although Petain was credited with the famous statement “Ils ne passeront pas!” (They shall not pass!), it was, in fact, Nivelle who said it. Nivelle was undoubtedly aided by German troops being withdrawn from Verdun when the Battle of the Somme began on July 1, and by the withdrawal of further troops to the Eastern Front to halt a Russian offensive.
Due to the heavy losses and lack of ground gained by the Germans, Falkenhayn was relieved of his post and sent to the Transylvanian Front to command the German Ninth Army. He was replaced at Verdun by Paul von Hindenburg, who later went on to become German President. On the French side, General Charles Mangin was appointed to assist Nivelle. Mangin successfully recaptured Fort Douaumont on October 24, and then Fort Vaux on November 2. Further ground was retaken before Hindenburg realized the futility of continuing the battle any longer. On December 18, 1916, he decided to fully withdraw German troops from Verdun.
While Falkenhayn’s attempt to bleed France white did result in large casualties on the French side, it similarly resulted in huge losses for the German Army. Total casualties neared three-quarters of a million following the ten-month battle, which was the longest of the First World War. Differing figures have been approximated by historians, but the most common figures estimate approximately 378,000 French and 337,000 German casualties.
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