The Battle of Verdun During World War I

The Battle of Verdun During World War I

Larry Holzwarth - November 26, 2019

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
When Americans arrived at the Verdun area a year after the battle this is the landscape which greeted them. Library of Congress

7. The landscape became nearly lunar in appearance as the battle raged on

Several small villages within the RFV were still occupied by civilians when the battle began, and both sides attempted to remove them from those in their control. Several forested areas marked with romantic French names of Bois – the Bois de Malancourt, Bois d’Avocort, and Bois de Corbeaux, for example – were blasted by the artillery of both sides when occupied by infantry. Several changed hands multiple times, and the troops within them endured shelling which reduced the trees to shattered sticks, devoid of color and shelter. Huge shell holes dotted the landscape, and soldiers attempted to shelter in them.

Many found them filled with water, and some drowned rather than escape to face the shelling. As the battle drew on, the use of gas shells was resorted to by both sides, adding clouds of poisonous gas to the already hideous landscape. By early April the German infantry was forced to either completely abandon the assault and retreat, or move deeper into the RFV in order to escape the continuous French shelling. After being informed by Falkenhayn that German men and materiel to support the continued attack were limited, commanders at the scene unanimously agreed to continue to attack, in order to find and establish defensive positions.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
The village of Haucourt was one of several villages obliterated by artillery fire during the battle. Wikimedia

8. The bulk of the casualties inflicted on both sides was from the massive artillery barrages

Falkenhayn believed throughout the early weeks of the battle that the Germans were inflicting casualties on the French at a ratio of 5:2. In fact the casualties were, up to the point that the Germans turned over to the defensive, about equal. German morale, especially among the infantry, plummeted. The French adopted a system of rotating divisions in and out of combat. As the battle went on, French troops rotated out of combat temporarily exhibited more and more of what was then known as shell shock. A later age would identify it as combat fatigue, and later still gained the name of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

French desertions began to increase, with troops hoping to escape the carnage to neutral Spain, or in some cases simply surrender to the enemy as prisoners of war. Petain ordered deserters shot if captured. When May began, he was promoted to command Army Group Center, and General Robert Nivelle assumed command of the French 2nd Army and the defenses at Verdun. By then German attacks had been reduced to small, localized actions, mostly to either improve defensive positions or as counterattacks against French gains. Nivelle decided to move the French into an offensive posture, and retake Fort Douaumont.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
The French planned to destroy Douaumont before fighting to retake it from the Germans. Wikimedia

9. The French recaptured Douaumont only to surrender it back to the Germans

Throughout the month of May the intense artillery duel between the two armies continued unabated, and the German infantry, exposed for the most part, suffered the worst of the pounding. A French attack against the defenses erected by the Germans around Douaumont was launched in the third week of May, and after intense fighting French troops entered the shattered fort on the night of May 22, though they did not fully secure the facility. Sporadic fighting within Douaumont continued throughout the night. In the morning the French 34th division was sent to reinforce the troops within the fort and fully secure it, prepared to defend it from the Germans.

The French reinforcements were pushed back by German artillery and small arms fire, and failed to reach the fort. German troops managed to surround Douaumont and the French forces inside the fort, which the French had intended to abandon and destroy just three months earlier, were forced to surrender to the Germans. The French lost over 5,600 men attempting to retake the fort, including 1,000 lost to the Germans as prisoners of war. The Germans lost about 4,500 men defending it from the French attack, adding another 10,000 casualties to Verdun’s brutal cost to the armies of both sides.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
Fort Douaumont following the battle in 1916. Wikimedia

10. The poison gas silenced French artillery in June prior to an assault

French gas masks early in the battle were effective against the gases fired via German artillery shells, allowing the French artillery to continue firing. On June 22, 1916, the Germans used diphosgene gas, firing over 116,000 shells containing the gas known as Green Cross against the French artillery. Green Cross shells were so named because of the markings put on the shells to identify them to the German gunners. The gas acted as a pulmonary agent, and the bombardment largely silenced the French artillery. The attack was followed by an infantry assault the following day, which created a bulge in the French defenses.

It was following the attack on June 23 that the French commander, General Nivelle, issued the famous order to his troops, “they shall not pass”. What he actually said was, “Vous ne les laisserez pas passer, mes camarades” (You will not let them pass, my comrades). The French recaptured most of the bulge in the ensuing days, as the Germans had exhausted their supply of Green Cross shells. They also had no way of supply the men occupying the bulge, who quickly ran out of water. The village of Fleury, in the area of the bulge, was passed back and forth between the Germans and the French no less than sixteen times before the end of August.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
French General Petain recognized the need for air support early in the battle. Wikimedia

11. The French and German air forces took part in the battle

While in command at Verdun General Petain recognized the necessity of achieving control of the air over the battlefield. Both the French and German aviation squadrons cut their teeth, so to speak, in the skies over and around the Verdun battlefield. The techniques for attacking barrage balloons and observation aircraft were developed at Verdun, and air-to-air combat emerged. The men of the air war faced a different set of horrors, since they soared far above the mud, the shattered landscape, the massed artillery fire, and the screams of the wounded. For them, it was, in the early days of the air war, marked by the chivalric behavior of an earlier time.

Although casualties among the men of both side’s air services were high, the pilots and aerial gunners lived lives very different from those at the front. They were based behind the battle lines, away from the artillery bombardments and infantry assaults. They, for the most part, lived fast when not in the air, carousing and gambling when not flying. The short missions they flew, limited by the amount of gasoline and ammunition their aircraft could carry, were punctuated often by the luxurious lives they enjoyed on the ground. They also frequently communicated with their counterparts on the other side, dropping messages over aerodromes, informing them of the fate of their comrades in arms.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
The British launch of the Battle of the Somme changed the situation of the Germans at Verdun. Wikimedia

12. The British launched the Battle of the Somme, which eased pressure on the French at Verdun

By the beginning of June, French forces at the RFV around Verdun had suffered approximately 185,000 casualties, with the Germans enduring about 200,000. The German offensive had bogged down, their frontline troops were exhausted. On July 1, 1916 the British Army launched the Battle of the Somme, which had been intended to be a major assault by the French when it was originally proposed in late 1915. The Verdun battle had diverted much of the French Army to that campaign, and the Somme became a British led, rather than British-supported attack. French units did take part, though other divisions were diverted to Verdun to support the counterattacks there.

When the Battle of the Somme began the Germans were forced to withdraw some of their heavy artillery to support the units under assault. Local German commanders made the decision to attack and consolidate their positions in the RFV before the artillery was lost to them. A French fort, Souville, was targeted for seizure by the Germans in mid-July. The position would offer the Germans a strong fortification on high ground and an opportunity for the infantry to establish entrenched positions with wide fields of fire. On July 9, a preparatory bombardment using gas shells attempted to silence the French artillery, as it had in earlier attacks.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
German attempts to take Fort Souville did little but lengthen the casualty lists for both sides. Wikimedia

13. The battle for Fort Souville continued into August

The French had been equipped with more effective gas masks, and when the infantry attacked in three divisions the artillery pounded them. Supported by machine gunners from the fort, the French decimated the attacking Germans and they retreated with heavy casualties. That night, the Germans at Verdun were ordered by Falkenhayn to adopt a defensive posture. In August another German attack gained about 900 yards of French soil in the direction of Souville, at heavy loss of life. Ensuing counterattacks by the French for the rest of the month gained little.

Crown Prince Wilhelm held overall command of the German forces at Verdun, and he recognized by August that the chances of taking any more French ground with his existing forces were remote. Once the majority of his heavy artillery was transferred to the fighting on the Somme he realized that the exposed infantry was at the mercy of the French artillery. French attacks around Fleury continued throughout August, steadily pushing the Germans back. On August 18, Fleury was once again retaken by the French, and it was obvious that the Germans’ ability to resist was weakening. In Berlin, changes to the German High Command were made.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
French General Robert Georges Nivelle, who with Petain disrupted the plans of the German commanders. Wikimedia

14. Falkenhayn was relieved over the failure of his strategy at Verdun

Erich von Falkenhayn believed that the attack at Verdun would destroy the French Army through attrition, with the French committing division after division until there were none left to continue the fighting. He was thwarted by the rotation system implemented by Petain. Likening it to a noria, a type of waterwheel, Petain ordered divisions to remain fighting until they were reduced to 50% or less of their original strength. They were then rotated out for refitting and receiving new recruits while another division took their place. In this manner, nearly 75% of the entire French Army saw action during the 303 days of the Battle of Verdun.

Falkenhayn was also brought down as Chief of Staff for his failure to consider the Eastern Front, which both von Hindenburg, his successor, and Erich Ludendorff believed should have been the focus of the German war effort. Once the Verdun operation was revealed to have been a strategic failure, and the British and French assault on the Somme was underway, Falkenhayn was dismissed from his position as Chief of Staff. A major offensive by the Russians on the Eastern Front added to his woes, and Romania declared war on Germany and Austro-Hungary. Meanwhile the meatgrinder at Verdun ground on, with the French moving to regain lost territory.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
A painting of the Verdun battlefield titled Le Ravin de la Mort – The Ravine of the Dead. Wikimedia

15. The French army reorganized at Verdun in September

By the end of September, 22 divisions occupied the French positions at Verdun, seven of them replacements which arrived at the RFV that month. With fresh troops at their disposal and the number of German guns facing them reduced by transfer to the Somme, General Nivelle prepared to launch an offensive, rather than resorting to piecemeal attacks by local commanders. The French prepared to assault the German defensive positions and retake the fortress at Douaumont, though it was by then little more than a shattered wreck. The Germans had also taken Fort Vaux earlier in the battle, and the French were determined to retake it as well.

Before moving the infantry forward, the French launched a bombardment from their artillery which lasted six days. Though some of the German artillery had been withdrawn, the French targeted more than 800 pieces of artillery which remained on the right bank of the Meuse River capable of hitting the French infantry as it advanced. Naval guns which were mounted on railway cars and fired a sixteen-inch shell, weighing over a ton, hit the remnants of Fort Douaumont, at least 20 times during the bombardment. The Germans responded in kind, though their heaviest weapons were by then in action against the British along the Somme.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
French artillery was used to break up German infantry units, counterfire their artillery, and deliver poison gas. Wikimedia

16. The French artillery was collection of several weapons

The primary weapon of the French artillery against infantry was the 75 mm field cannon, which used shrapnel shells triggered by a timed fuse to attack enemy troops. It was also the primary means by which the French delivered poison gas shells to their enemies’ formations. The French 75, as it became known to their English-speaking allies, was one of the most famous weapons of the war. The French manufactured about 12,000 of the gun during the course of the war, and when the American Expeditionary Force arrived in France it received about 2,000 of the weapons. Several calibers of howitzers and heavy mortars supplemented the French artillery.

As useful as the French 75 was, it was ineffective against entrenched and fortified positions. The French developed modified Naval guns over 1914-15, with barrels bored out to 155mm, known as St. Chamonds for the company accomplishing the modifications. The heavier guns had longer ranges as well, and played a large role in engaging German artillery throughout the battle. These guns were supported by 14 and 16-inch railway guns, which threw shells 25,000 yards and more, which roared overhead with the sound of a train. Essentially, they allowed for heavy naval bombardment of targets too far inland for ships to reach, though they were operated by troops of the French Army.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
The threat of gas attacks was ever-present on World War I battlefields, including Verdun. Wikimedia

17. Both sides used poison gas extensively during the battle

It was the French who first introduced the use of poison gas during World War I, through the use of grenades in battle in 1914. Officially the French denied their use, but not their existence. In 1915 at the battle of Ypres, the Germans used chlorine gas for the first time, and the “civilized” world, including France, howled in outrage. Soon the British and French were responding with gas attacks of their own. Chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gases were the most often used by the combatants, and their use continued throughout the war. Gas shells were used extensively at Verdun when the weather permitted.

The initial assault in February was delayed nine days because, in part, high winds restricted the efficiency of gas shells in the preliminary bombardment. When the attack did begin the French responded with diphosgene shells, and both sides used gas bombardments throughout the battle, though only on one occasion did gas significantly affect the outcome of an engagement. For the most part gas attacks at Verdun killed or significantly injured those caught unawares, but by that stage of the war, all troops were equipped with and trained in the use of their gas masks. Horses at the front to pull artillery and ammunition wagons were also equipped with masks.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
A painting depicting an heroic French retaking of Douaumont is somewhat misleading. Wikimedia

18. The first French offensive began in October, 1916

On October 20, three French infantry divisions moved forward behind an artillery tactic known as a creeping barrage, designed to keep German artillery and infantry sheltered as they advanced. They moved forward at the rate of about fifty yards every two minutes. The fighting raged for several days before French colonial troops, supported by French marines, captured Douaumont on October 24 after the Germans had largely abandoned the fortification. Fort Vaux remained in German hands and under bombardment from the French heavy guns for another week, until they abandoned it on November 2.

The following month the French launched the final assault of the Battle of Verdun, on German defensive positions which had been improved and fortified throughout the battle. Once again, a lengthy barrage of artillery fire pounded the German positions, and they responded with the just over 500 guns remaining in their hands. The attack was launched by the infantry on December 15, and by December 17 the French had regained the territory lost to the Germans in February. The 155 mm gun of Fort Douaumont was repaired, and supported the final French assault. The morning of December 18 found the Battle of Verdun over.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
The destruction in and around Verdun sur Meuse was endured for a year, with little gained by either army. Wikimedia

19. Nothing was gained by either side in the nearly year-long battle

The Battle of Verdun raged for 303 days, and ended with the two sides where they had been when it started. Neither side gained any territorial advantage. The French had defended the historically important position, despite having planned to detonate both forts Douaumont and Vaux before the battle began. Both went through the battle with detonation charges installed, but not fully wired, while the battle raged around and within them. The Germans had intended to cripple the French Army through attrition, instead, they suffered nearly as many casualties within their own army, and it was a blow to German morale.

The battle had been one of the first in history to rely on the support of fighter aircraft, and Petain had early on in the fighting demanded air support. When the battle began German aircraft dominated the skies over the battlefield, but the French overcame them by having their flyers operate in squadrons, known as Escadrilles, and forever changed air war tactics. The Germans were forced to operate in squadrons as well. Both sides developed improved anti-aircraft fire and tactics over the course of the battle, and both sides’ pilots developed the techniques of shooting down their opponent’s observation balloons.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
The bleak landscape surrounding Verdun evidenced the scope of the bombardments from both sides. Bundesarchiv

20. The destruction at Verdun was nearly total

During the period between late February and late December, 1916, the German and French armies facing each other at Verdun fired approximately 10,000,000 shells at each other from their mortars and guns. The total weight of the artillery battle alone was over 1.3 million tons. In the relatively small area of the RFV, where the fighting had occurred, desolation followed the battle. The artillery barrage over ten months literally changed the lay of the land. Where forested areas had stood before the battle, there was treeless expanse. The grassy hills which stood on both banks of the Meuse, and in which the French artillery had been entrenched, were devoid of vegetation.

It should be no surprise that of the combined casualties of over 800,000 (to use an average of several estimates) more than 70% were the result of the artillery bombardments. That total does not include the number of men who were victims of shell shock, many of whom never recovered their mental health following the war. A French officer who arrived with 175 men in his unit reported 34 survivors following an artillery barrage, “several half mad”. Hills which had been gently sloped and rounded at the top were altered to resemble barren volcanoes.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
Volunteers of the American Squadron in the spring of 1916. Wikimedia

21. The French assigned an American volunteer air squadron to serve at Verdun

The unit which changed its name in December, 1916, to Lafayette Escadrille served in the French Aviation Command during the battle of Verdun. During the period of the battle, it was known as the Escadrille Americaine, or American Squadron. It flew in French airplanes, and it was commanded by a French officer. Its members were American volunteers and former members of the French Foreign Legion. Its existence caused an official diplomatic protest by the Germans to Washington, since the United States was officially neutral, hence the change of name following the battle of Verdun.

The squadron had its first casualty of the war over Verdun, when American pilot Victor Chapman, flying a Nieuport, was shot down and killed near Douaumont. He was not the last. The American Squadron was part of the French aviation command and remained under French control until it was disbanded in early 1918 and its pilots absorbed into the American Expeditionary Force, which developed its own air wing of observation and fighter planes, again using French airplanes. The American Squadron served at Verdun from the spring of 1916 until September, being involved with most of the heaviest fighting, before the French assigned it to another section of the front.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
Artillery barrages, including gas barrages, continued after the Battle of Verdun ended in December. Bundesarchiv

22. The Battle of Verdun ended, but the shelling around Verdun went on

Beginning in early 1917 the German batteries which remained in the area, in the positions they had occupied a year earlier, shelled the French positions, and the French responded in kind. The Germans maintained nearly four hundred batteries, and the bombardments were once again supported with observation aircraft, both airplanes and balloons. Aerial bombing expanded over the lines of both sides, adding to the joys of life in the trenches. In the summer of 1917, the Germans added mustard gas shells to their arsenal. Mustard gas is heavier than air, poisoned the soil when it settled into the ground as a liquid, and remained active for weeks.

Mustard gas was not usually lethal, unless the victim was exposed to a large dose, and it caused both internal bleeding and external through lesions and blisters. It also caused blindness and painfully dry eyes. Those exposed to fatal levels of the gas, or its oils in the ground, often took several agonizing weeks to die, and there was little the medical professionals of the day could do to help them. Allied forces began using mustard gas in autumn 1917, and for the rest of the war the Allies launched more gas attacks than the Germans, aided by the prevailing winds of western Europe, which typically blow from west to east.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
The remains of Fort Douaumont and the shell-scarred area around it in December, 1916. Wikimedia

23. Over 100,000 men were listed as missing from both sides

During the period of fighting known as the Battle of Verdun (February – December 1916) more than 100,000 men were officially listed as missing in action. Nearly all of them were actually killed in the fighting and their bodies were never found. The artillery bombardments were so devastating that as it reshaped the soil it buried the dead and the living wounded, collapsed the walls of trenches, and the roofs of buildings. Other times it disinterred the bodies which had been hastily buried, or had been swept under the soil during preceding bombardments. In 1932 an ossuary containing the skeletal remains of at least 130,000 unknown dead from either side was dedicated.

The battle area continued to deliver up skeletal remains of the soldiers who died in the battle for decades following the end of the First World War. One of the unknown victims of the battle was chosen for interment in 1920 in France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris. Bones continued to be found during excavations for various reasons into the 21st century, and when found, they were typically placed in the ossuary, which was erected at Douaumont, near a cemetery where many of the dead were buried in the aftermath of the battle.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
Another image of the destruction surrounding Verdun in 1916. Wikimedia

24. The French reforested some of the battlefield after the war

During the 1930s, as France recovered from what was then known as the Great War, parts of the battlefield were reforested, an effort which revealed many of the bodies which were either buried at Douaumont, or the bones discovered placed in the ossuary. Several small villages which were completely obliterated during the fighting were never rebuilt. The efforts at reforesting portions of the battlefield were largely successful in some areas, but the majority of the area remains as it did when the battle ended, though overgrown with vegetation. The existence of massive shell holes can still be seen, covered with green.

It is estimated that the battlefield still contains the remains of approximately 100,000 of the men who died during the battle. Total casualties during the fighting are still contested by historians, due to the manner casualty lists were prepared by the military commands of both armies. German lists did not include what was considered by the reporting officer to be lightly wounded, since such categorization was not defined in field manuals, and other lists specifically excluded those considered to have been slightly wounded.

The Battle of Verdun During World War I
French survivors of the battle fought alongside Americans in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive later in the war. Wikimedia

25. Like all of World War I, Verdun was a special kind of horror

The battlefields of World War I were in many ways foreseen during the siege of Petersburg and Richmond in the American Civil War; two entrenched armies possessing firepower so devastating that assaulting the other was foolhardy. During the First World War, the rain of death from the sky was constant, either from artillery shells of up to then unheard-of size, bullets and bombs from aircraft, poison gas wafting on the wind, and many others. Disease was common, as were accidents as the industrial age went to war. Men lived, literally, in the ground, which was often cold, wet, mud.

During the height of the fighting at Verdun, in the spring of 1916, when German attacks were still pressing forward a French Lieutenant confided his thoughts to his diary. Alfred Joubaire wrote in his diary on May 23, 1916, “Yes, humanity has gone mad. We must be mad to do what we are doing. What massacres! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to express my feelings. Hell cannot be so terrible. Mankind has gone mad!” It was his last entry. The 21-year-old French lieutenant was killed during German shelling, one more victim of the Battle of Verdun.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Paths of Glory: The French Army 1914 – 1918”. Anthony Clayton. 2003

“General Headquarters, 1914-1916 and its critical decisions”. Erich von Falkenhayn. 1919

“What Was the Battle of Verdun”. Alan Wakefield, Imperial War Museum. February 6, 2018. Online

“The Battle of Verdun”. Raoul Blanchard, The Atlantic. June, 1917. Online

“A Brief Look at the Battle of Verdun”. Memorial de Verdun, Champ de Bataille. Online

“The Battle of Verdun, 1916”. Michael Duffy, A Multimedia History of World War One. August 22, 2009

“France commemorates centenary of WW1 Battle of Verdun”. BBC News. February 21, 2016. Online

“The Price of Glory: Verdun, 1916”. Alistair Horne. 1962

“The Myth of the Great War”. John Mosier. 2001

“Battle of Verdun”. Article, Henri Bidou, Encyclopedia Britannica. Online

“Removal of WWI Battle of Verdun from French curriculum sparks outcry”. David Cazan, The Telegraph. March 24, 2019. Online

“Verdun: Hell and Patriotism” The Irish Times. May 18, 2016. Online

“Battle of Verdun Passes Hundred-Day Mark”. Henry Wood, United Press International (UPI). May 31, 1916. Online

“A Tour of the Eerie Villages France Never Rebuilt After WWI”. Mark Byrnes, Bloomberg. March 21, 2014. Online

“French Victory at Verdun”. Henry Wood, UPI. December 18, 1916. Online

“The Battle of Verdun”. Alan Axelrod. 2016