Verdun Attack Delayed

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 224th installment in the series.  

February 12, 1916: Verdun Attack Delayed

By early February, 1916, the German Army had amassed one of the greatest concentrations of firepower in history north of Verdun in preparation for the Fifth Army’s impending assault on the fortified town, a key defensive position and symbol of French national pride, as part of chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn’s plan to “bleed France white” and end the war. 

Artillery would play a central role in the German battle plan – first by breaking up French fixed and improvised defenses to allow German infantry to advance and seize the strategic high ground above the town of Verdun, then by slaughtering French infantry sent to recapture the heights at all costs. 

This dominant role was reflected in the sheer number of artillery pieces of all sizes involved, redeployed from across the Western Front to the Verdun sector: the Fifth Army under German Crown Prince Wilhelm was equipped with over 1,400 guns, including 13 “Big Berthas,” the 420-millimeter monsters which had obliterated the forts at Liege in the opening days of the war; 17 equally fearsome 305-millimeter howitzers; and 542 heavy guns, in addition to hundreds of medium, light, and field artillery pieces, mortars, and trench mortars. The Germans also stockpiled over 2.5 million shells for the opening bombardment alone, and built ten new rail lines behind the lines to keep the guns supplied.    

Arrayed alongside this awesome collection of destructive power were 140,000 German infantry gathered for the initial attack (many more would serve over the course of the battle) including units representing the cutting edge of German innovation in battle tactics – the stormtroopers. These elite assault units consisted of small numbers of specially trained and equipped troops who carried with them all the different tools needed to infiltrate and overwhelm enemy defenses at key points in the battlefield, including light field guns for sudden pinpoint bombardments, barbed wire and machine guns that could be quickly brought forward to fortify and hold newly seized positions, and a terrifying new weapon, the flamethrower, to clear enemy troops from heavily-entrenched “last ditch” positions in dugouts and bunkers. 

Incredibly, in January and early February the German Fifth Army had managed to bring up all these guns and troops without arousing real suspicion amongst the French, by limiting major movements to nighttime and carefully concealing gun positions in woods, behind hills, and in ravines, with additional camouflage to foil French aerial reconnaissance. Meanwhile the infantry were hidden in scores of deep concrete dugouts built behind the frontline trenches, providing a final element of surprise. 

Even worse, the French, complacently believing Verdun to be impregnable, had been steadily hollowing out its defenses, stripping many of the forts around the city of their guns for use elsewhere on the Western Front, as well as neglecting to complete the fortifications by digging trenches and creating strongpoints connecting the forts. One French commander, General Chretien, recalled his feeling of shock on seeing the state of the defenses: 

The generals and corps commanders who had held the ground since September 1914 had ignored trench warfare and the defensive systems used by both sides. There was no continuous front; the strongpoints had no communication with each other; between them were vast areas of open ground blocked by a few strands of barbed wire and little else. 

The French remained unaware until virtually the last minute, despite a number of warnings. On January 15, 1916, a German deserter who crossed no-man’s-land warned his French captors that “something terrible” was about to happen, and as far back as the fall of 1915 Colonel Emile Driant, the commander of two battalions of chasseurs a pied north of Verdun, believed the Germans were planning an attack. Driant shared his fears with General Joseph Gallieni, now serving as Minister of War, pointing to the failure to complete fortifications and the lack of manpower (by early February there were just four divisions and two territorial brigades holding the line). 

However French commander in chief Joseph Joffre angrily dismissed these warnings, insisting that the main German attack in the spring would fall against the Russians on the Eastern Front. The Chamber of Deputies nonetheless dispatched a team to investigate the claims. Meanwhile French aerial reconnaissance continued to miss the German buildup due to bad weather and aggressive interference by German fighters

Disaster was impending: the German opening bombardment was scheduled to begin on the morning of February 12.  But on the evening of February 11, the French won a temporary, last-minute reprieve courtesy of Mother Nature, as a late-season blizzard descended on the region and continued for over a week, making the ground impassable and forcing the Germans to delay their offensive. 

The delay gave the French a crucial additional period to rush reinforcements to shore up the undermanned fortifications around Verdun, as the damning report from the investigators dispatched by the Chamber of Deputies finally spurred the French military to action. New divisions were arriving by rail beginning on the night of February 11 – not sufficient to yield victory against the overwhelming German forces, but enough to stave off complete defeat. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

Disney+ Users Are Already Facing Technical Problems

Pedro Pascal in The Mandalorian (2019).
Pedro Pascal in The Mandalorian (2019).
© 2019 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved

It seems that the highly anticipated Disney+ release did not go as smoothly as the company had hoped. Variety reports that the streaming service launched this morning, only to find its IT department being flooded with phone calls, tweets, and emails from angry users complaining of malfunctions.

Many customers took to social media to vent their frustration that they either couldn’t login into their account or couldn’t watch certain content.

The service did offer an explanation for all the technical issues via Twitter, posting, “The consumer demand for Disney+ has exceeded our high expectations. We are working to quickly resolve the current user issue. We appreciate your patience.”

Too bad a little Disney magic couldn’t help them with these tech glitches.

[h/t Variety]

8 Surprising Facts About James Stewart

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For a good portion of the 20th century, actor James Maitland “Jimmy” Stewart (1908-1997) was one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men. Stewart, who was often called upon to embody characters who exhibited a strong moral center, won acclaim for films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Vertigo (1958), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In all, he made more than 80 movies. Take a look at some things you might not know about Stewart’s personal and professional lives.

1. Jimmy Stewart had a degree in architecture.

Acting was not James Stewart’s only area of expertise. Growing up in Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his father owned a hardware store, Stewart had an artistic bent with an interest in music and earned his way into his father’s alma mater, Princeton University. There, he received a degree in architecture in 1932. But pursuing that career seemed tenuous, as the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Instead, Stewart decided to follow his interest in acting, joining a theater group in Falmouth, Massachusetts after graduating and rooming with fellow aspiring actor Henry Fonda. After a brief turn on Broadway, he landed a contract with MGM for motion picture work. His film debut, as a cub reporter in The Murder Man, was released in 1935.

2. Jimmy Stewart gorged himself on food so he could serve the country in World War II.

Colonel James Stewart leaves Southampton on board the Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth, bound for home in 1945.
Express/Getty Images

Stewart was already established in Hollywood when the United States began preparing to enter World War II. After the draft was introduced in 1940, Stewart received notice that he was number 310 out of a pool of 900,000 annual citizens selected for service. The problem? Stewart was six foot, three inches and a trim 138 pounds—five pounds under the minimum weight for enlistment. So he went home, ate everything he could, and came back to weigh in again. It worked, and Stewart joined the Army Air Corps, later known as the Air Force.

3. Jimmy Stewart demanded to see combat in the war.

Thanks to his interest in aviation, Stewart was already a pilot when he went to war; he received additional flight training but wound up being sidelined for two years stateside even though he kept insisting he be sent overseas to fight. (He filmed a recruitment short film, Winning Your Wings, in 1942, which was screened in theaters in the hopes it could drive enlistment.) Finally, in November 1943, he was dispatched to England, where he participated in more than 20 combat missions over Germany. His accomplishments earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf clusters, among other honors, making him the most decorated actor to participate in the conflict. After the war ended, he returned to a welcome reception in his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his father had decorated the courthouse to recognize his son’s service. His next major film role was It’s a Wonderful Life.

4. Jimmy Stewart kept his Oscar in a very unusual place.

After winning an Academy Award for The Philadelphia Story in 1940, Stewart heard from his father, Alex Stewart. “I hear you won some kind of award,” he told his son. “What was it, a plaque or something?” The elder Stewart suggested he bring it back home to display in the hardware store. The actor did as suggested, and the Oscar remained there for 25 years.

5. Jimmy Stewart starred in two television shows.

Actor James Stewart is pictured in uniform
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After a long career in film through the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Stewart turned to television. In 1971, he played a college anthropology professor in The Jimmy Stewart Show. The series failed to find an audience, however, so was short-lived. He tried again with Hawkins in 1973, playing a defense lawyer, but that show was also canceled. (Stewart also performed in commercials, including spots for Firestone tires and Campbell’s Soup.)

6. Jimmy Stewart hated one version of It’s a Wonderful Life.

While Stewart had just as much affection for It’s a Wonderful Life as audiences, one alternate version of the film annoyed him. In 1987, he sent a letter to Congress protesting the practice of colorizing It's a Wonderful Life and other films on the premise that it violated what directors like Frank Capra had intended. He described the tinted version as “a bath of Easter egg dye.” Putting a character named Violet in violet-colored costumes, he wrote, was “the kind of obvious visual pun that Frank Capra never would have considered.” Stewart later lobbied against the practice in person.

7. Jimmy Stewart published a book of poetry.

In 1989, Stewart authored Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, a slim volume collecting several of the actor’s verses. Stewart also included anecdotes about how each one was composed. His best known might be “Beau,” about his late dog, which Stewart read to Johnny Carson during a Tonight Show appearance in 1981. By the end, both Stewart and Carson were teary-eyed.

8. Jimmy Stewart has a statue in his hometown.

For Stewart’s 75th birthday in 1983, his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania honored him with a 9-foot-tall bronze statue. Unfortunately, the statue wasn’t totally ready in time for Stewart’s visit, so they presented him with the fiberglass version instead. The bronze statue currently stands in front of the county courthouse, while the fiberglass version was moved into the nearby Jimmy Stewart Museum.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER