The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 215th installment in the series.
December 20, 1915: Invitation to the Devil – Verdun
It was one of the ghastly ironies of the First World War that, as the Allies were planning a huge offensive to end the war at the Somme, the Germans were preparing a similar offensive at Verdun – so that, unbeknownst to either side, two of the greatest battles in history were about to unfold at roughly the same time (Verdun lasted from February 21-December 18, 1916, the Somme from July 1-November 18, 1916), effectively canceling each other out.
In fact Verdun and the Somme were like wars unto themselves, consisting of multiple engagements, each a major battle in its own right, with a human toll exceeding many previous conflicts. Although some estimates vary, Verdun resulted in around a million casualties on both sides, including 305,000 killed, while the Somme resulted in over 1.3 million casualties, including 310,000 killed. Their combined total is comparable with the death toll of the entire U.S. Civil War, which left around 620,000 dead; historically they are exceeded only by the Battle of Stalingrad in the Second World War, which resulted in approximately two million casualties and about 730,000 dead.
The “Christmas Memorandum”
Verdun represented a major shift in strategy for the Germany Army, which had previously adhered to its traditional approach calling for a war of maneuver aiming for decisive victory through encirclement, as in the failed Schlieffen Plan. The Germans had scored some spectacular successes with this approach early in the war, most notably at Tannenberg – but now the sheer extent of the battlefield, with interlocking fronts stretching hundreds of miles, made it almost impossible to outflank the enemy without running the risk of being outflanked in turn. Furthermore, so much preparatory bombardment was required to achieve a breakthrough that the enemy would figure out where the attack was coming and quickly reinforce the intended target, or simply withdraw to safer positions at the cost of sacrificing a bit more territory.
By the same token Germany could not afford to remain on the defensive in the long term, because of the Allies’ advantage in sheer numbers. While the Central Powers had already managed an impressive expansion in manpower from 163 divisions in August 1914 to 310 divisions in December 1915, over the same period the Allies had increased their total from 247 divisions to 440, widening their lead from 84 divisions to 130 divisions. France had reached her maximum strength, but looking ahead Russia and Britain could still draw on a huge pool of untapped manpower, although it would take time to train and equip new units. Germany also faced growing shortages of food and material, and the situation was even worse for her ramshackle allies. In short, she had to win the war soon.
This was the context in which German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn (below) wrote his “Christmas Memorandum,” a sweeping strategic appraisal of the war and recommendation for future action presented to Kaiser Wilhelm II as 1915 drew to a close (actually December 20, despite the name). In it Falkenhayn, long a favorite of the Kaiser, proposed shifting from a strategy based on breakthrough, maneuver and encirclement to one of simple attrition; in short, he proposed to “bleed France white.”
Falkenhayn began his memorandum with a high-level overview of the war so far, returning to the oft-stated axiom that Germany’s real enemy was not France or Russia but scheming, duplicitous Britain. Like many Germans, Falkenhayn was convinced that Britain had orchestrated the war out of jealousy and fear of Germany’s industrial prowess, and was now bankrolling, blackmailing, and generally manipulating the Allies into continuing the war against their own interests. Falkenhayn also noted that Britain was prepared to make major sacrifices in pursuit of its hegemonic aims:
It is true that we have succeeded in shaking England severely – the best proof of that is her imminent adoption of universal military service. But this is also a proof of the sacrifices England is prepared to make to attain her end – the permanent elimination of what seems to her the most dangerous rival. The history of the English wars against the Netherlands, Spain, France and Napoleon is being repeated. Germany can expect no mercy from this enemy, as long as he still retains the slightest hope of achieving his object.
As in these previous wars, Falkenhayn believed the British, safe on their islands, were hoping to simply wait out their enemy, pushing the Central Powers towards collapse with a blockade and economic warfare, while leaving the bulk of the fighting to her pawns on the continent:
England, a country in which men are accustomed to weigh up the chances dispassionately, can scarcely hope to overthrow us by purely military means. She is obviously staking everything on a war of exhaustion. We have not been able to shatter her belief that it will bring Germany to her knees, and that belief gives the enemy the strength to fight on and keep on whipping their team together. What we have to do is to dispel that illusion… We must show England patently that her venture has no prospects.
Targeting the British Expeditionary Force itself was not feasible because the weather and ground conditions in Flanders prohibited an attack before the spring – and anyway, even if they succeeded in driving the British from the continent temporarily, “our ultimate aim will not yet have been secured because England may be trusted not to give up even then,” as the impending adoption of conscription indicated. Rather, Germany should focus on crushing Britain’s allies and thereby depriving her of her pawns:
Her real weapons here are the French, Russian, and Italian Armies. If we put these armies out of the war England is left to face us alone, and it is difficult to believe in such circumstances her lust for our destruction would not fail here. It is true there would be no certainty that she would give up, but there is a strong probability. More than that can seldom be asked in war.
Falkenhayn then considered the various members of the alliance in turn, eliminating them one by one as possible targets for different reasons. He began with Italy: although Austria-Hungary wanted to give priority to crushing the “treacherous” Italians, Italy was not a suitable target simply because the Italian Army mattered so little from a strategic perspective, and Italy was in any event unlikely to alienate Britain, which controlled the Mediterranean and supplied almost all her coal – “Even Italy’s desertion of the Entente, which is scarcely thinkable, will make no serious impression on England. The military achievements of Italy are so small, and she is, in any case, so firmly in England’s grip, that it would be very remarkable if we let ourselves be deceived on that score.”
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Next Falkenhayn ruled out Russia, citing both the major obstacles to a decisive victory – including its sheer size and challenging terrain and weather – as well as the growing likelihood that the Tsarist regime would collapse under the weight of its own incompetence and neglect:
According to all reports, the domestic difficulties of the giant Empire are multiplying rapidly. Even if we cannot perhaps expect a revolution in the grand style, we are entitled to believe that Russia’s internal troubles will compel her to give in within a relatively short period… Moreover unless we are again prepared to put a strain on the troops which is altogether out of proportion – and this is prohibited by the state of our reserves – an offensive with a view to a decision in the East is out of the question for us until April, owing to the weather and the state of the ground… An advance on Moscow takes us nowhere. We have not the forces available for any of these undertakings. For all these reasons Russia, as an object of our offensive, must be considered as excluded. There remains only France.
“The Forces of France Will Bleed to Death”
France was the logical target for a number of reasons. As a partner in both the Entente Cordiale with Britain and her own defensive alliance with Russia, she was the lynchpin of the Allied coalition, so if she dropped out Russia and Britain might turn on each other. The French economy had already been weakened by the German occupation of the coalfields in the country’s industrial northeast, and a large majority of the German Army was already deployed on the Western Front within easy striking distance.
Most of all, France had suffered huge losses in the first year and a half of fighting: by the end of December 1915 the Republic counted around two million total casualties, including roughly one million wounded, 300,000 taken prisoner, and 730,000 dead. Although not all casualties were permanently incapacitated (in fact most wounded went back to the front eventually) together these losses represented about 5% of the French prewar population, and a much larger proportion of the male population of fighting age. The conscript classes of 1916 and 1917, soon to be liable for conscription, would provide another 270,000 troops, hardly enough to make good these losses. In other words, France was running out of men.
Thus Falkenhayn predicted: “… the strain on France has almost reached the breaking-point – though it is certainly borne with the most remarkable devotion. If we succeeded in opening the eyes of her people to the fact that in a military sense they have nothing more to hope for, that breaking-point would be reached and England’s best sword knocked out of her hand.”
At the same time, the stalemate on the Western Front showed that the same basic constraints applied there as elsewhere, ruling out the traditional Prussian war of maneuver for the reasons already noted above:
Attempts at a mass break-through, even with an extreme accumulation of men and material, cannot be regarded as holding out prospects of success against a well armed enemy, whose moral is sound and who is not seriously inferior in numbers. The defender has usually succeeded in closing the gaps. This is easy enough for him if he decides to withdraw voluntarily, and it is hardly possible to stop him doing so.
But Falkenhayn imagined a cunning exception to this rule. If the Germans threatened a place of such strategic importance and symbolic value that the French couldn’t possibly give it up, the latter would be forced to continue counter-attacking to remove the threat, regardless of the cost:
Within our reach behind the French sector of the Western front there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death – as there can be no question of a voluntary withdrawal – whether we reach our goal or not. If they do not do so, and we reach our objectives, the moral effect on France will be enormous.
In essence, Falkenhayn envisioned a strategy that would flip the usual battlefield dynamic, allowing the Germans to enjoy the tactical advantage of defenders even while “attacking,” and forcing the French to attack while “defending.” All the Germans had to do was come dangerously close to a key French objective, then dig into strong defensive positions and blast the counter-attacking French forces out of existence with their artillery.
Only a few places on the Western Front qualified as targets valuable enough to justify such a desperate defense by the French, and one stood out above all: Verdun.
Full of historic meaning as the site of the Treaty of Verdun in 843 CE, which divided Charlemagne’s empire into three parts, creating the kingdom of France, the town was much more than just a national symbol: its strategic location astride the Meuse River and near the line of hills known as the “côtes de Meuse” or “heights of the Meuse” allowed it to dominate the eastern approaches to France from the Saar and Moselle region of Germany, serving as a stronghold against invasion since pre-Roman times.
Freepages, Click to enlarge
Following France’s defeat by Prussia in 1870-1, resulting in the loss of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, the government of the new Third Republic began building a line of new fortifications behind the newly shrunken frontier, including massive fortress complexes around the towns of Belfort, Epinal, Toul, and Verdun. The intention was that these fortified towns would channel a future German invasion into several broad pathways, including the Trouée de Stenay and Trouée de Charmes, where the enemy armies could be more easily repulsed by French forces – which is more or less what happened at the Battle of the Trouée de Charmes and the Battle of Grand Couronné in August-September 1914.
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As the Western Front settled into trench warfare following the German defeat the Battle of the Marne, Verdun served as the keystone of the French defenses along the Western Front – an apparently impenetrable obstacle whose ring of 20 large and 40 small forts formed a mini-salient jutting deep into the larger German line in northern France. In addition to keeping the entire German Fifth Army tied up, Verdun threatened the key east-west railroad which the Germans relied on to supply their armies in France, just twelve miles to the north behind the German front line.
For all these reasons Falkenhayn guessed – correctly, as it turned out – that the French would fight to the end to defend Verdun from falling to the Germans. And he knew the perfect place for his unusual strategy of an inverse assault by the German Fifth Army. In “Operation Gericht” (“gericht” means “judgment” but also “place of execution”) a massive artillery bombardment would clear the way for infantry to seize the heights of the Meuse northeast of the town, from which artillery could then threaten the citadel of Verdun itself as well as the remaining forts to the west of the town. Threatened with the loss of this key symbolic and strategic position, the French would commit wave after wave of troops in an attempt to dislodge the Germans from the hills – only to be slaughtered by the German artillery en masse.
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As it happened, Verdun was an even better choice than Falkenhayn could know: from August to October 1915 the French, complacent in their belief that Verdun could not be conquered, stripped the fortresses of over 50 batteries of artillery, leaving some of them virtually defenseless. They had also neglected to build heavily fortified lines of trenches and defensive positions between the forts, leaving the whole complex vulnerable to infiltration and siege.
Invitation to the Devil
But Falkenhayn was playing with fire. Indeed, Operation Gericht was an invitation to the devil, because it held the potential to unlock forces beyond the control of either side.
For one thing, Falkenhayn apparently kept his true intentions secret even from his own commanders, letting them believe he really wanted to capture Verdun. The coldly rational chief of the general staff failed to realize that if Verdun held symbolic importance for the French public as a national bastion, it could acquire similar symbolic importance to the Germans as a glittering goal – and failure to capture it would be such a blow to German prestige and morale that his whole carefully measured plan to let the German artillery do the heavy work might unravel, leaving the infantry slugging it out in an inferno.
Second, Falkenhayn anticipated that the Allies would mount their own offensive somewhere else on the Western Front in order to relieve German pressure on the French at Verdun – but he had no idea of the magnitude of the offensive being planned at the Somme (which would gain new urgency after Verdun began).
Third, Falkenhayn’s obsessive secrecy would also lead to disaster with Germany’s allies. Enraged by his German colleague’s failure to consult him about Verdun, Austro-Hungarian chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf felt free to arrange an offensive of his own, moving Habsburg troops from the Russian front to Italy for a so-called “Strafexpedition” or “Punishment Expedition” in May 1916. This in turn weakened the Central Powers on the Eastern Front, setting the stage for a massive push by the Russians – their most successful campaign of the war, masterminded by the brilliant general Alexei Brusilov.
British Evacuate Suvla Bay, ANZAC
In addition to agreeing on a (sort of) coordinated strategy for 1916, at the Second Inter-Allied conference in Chantilly from December 6-8, 1915, the Allies also decided to throw in the towel on the failed Gallipoli campaign and begin withdrawing from the peninsula. Some of the troops freed up by the withdrawal would head to Egypt and Mesopotamia (where thousands of troops under Major General Charles Townshend were now under siege by the Turks at Kut), while others would be shifted to reinforce the Allied presence at Salonika. The first troops to go would be the British, Australians, and New Zealanders at Suvla Bay and ANZAC.
Although the evacuation hopefully spelled the end of incredible misery for the troops, there was one last hurdle to surmount, as it was actually incredibly dangerous to attempt to withdraw units from the trenches, march them miles overland, and then embark them on waiting boats and rafts to be taken aboard ships (above). If the Turks and their German “advisors” caught wind of what was happening, they would rush the undefended trenches, rain shells on the helpless columns of retreating troops, and drive them into the sea.
Thus preparations went forward in complete secrecy, with multiple diversionary operations to mislead the Turks and their German officers. There was also a great deal of subterfuge during the evacuation of Suvla Bay and the ANZAC positions, which proceeded every night from December 10-20, 1915, including tricks to make the Turks think the trenches were still inhabited. Frank Parker, an Australian soldier, recalled:
They still had rifle fire, and there was no one there to fire ‘em. It was done by water – an engineering feat, it was. They had the triggers of the rifles tied with string or wire or something attached to a rock on the top which was attached by string to a tin below. Water was dripped into this tin and when it was full it pulled the rock down, which pulled the trigger and fired the shot – it was most remarkable.
According to Owen William Steele, a Canadian officer from Newfoundland, the departing troops also left plenty of unpleasant surprises for the Turks, in the form of elaborate booby traps. Steele wrote in his diary on December 20, 1915:
… when they begin to move forward they will have all kinds of plots to contend with, for the R.E. [Royal Engineers] have various kinds of wires laid, such as “trip-wires” and those which will explode when one walks on them, by a falling box etc. Then in many “Dug-outs” wires have been laid attached to a table-leg which will be exploded by a movement of the table, etc.
After dishing out a brutal lesson in the power of the elements the month before, Mother Nature was merciful and the weather aided the final evacuation of Suvla Bay and ANZAC on December 20, 1915. Adil Shahin, a Turkish officer, remembered:
There was a heavy fog, so we had no idea. They had made use of the fog and all the gun noises had stopped. It was early morning and we sent out a scout. He found the trenches deserted… So all of us went all the way down to the shore, looked in the trenches and saw, too, they were deserted. They’d gone!... Well, what could we do? We left one regiment there, and the rest went back.
After the evacuation was complete, timed explosives destroyed the remaining stores which couldn’t be evacuated safely (above, supplies burning at Suvla Bay). Incredibly the Allies managed to evacuate 105,000 men and 300 heavy guns from the positions at Suvla Bay and ANZAC without major losses to enemy fire. The evacuation of the final 35,000 men at Gallipoli, holding the position at the Cape Helles on the tip of the peninsula, would be completed in early January 1916.