Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 226th installment in the series.
February 21, 1916: The Devil’s Anvil – Verdun
After a crucial week’s delay that allowed last-minute French reinforcements to assume positions behind hastily constructed defenses, on the morning of February 21 the German assault on Verdun – a titanic struggle fated to be the greatest battle in history to that point – opened with an equally record-setting artillery bombardment.
Starting gradually around 7 a.m. and reaching a crescendo around 3 p.m., over 1,400 carefully concealed guns of all sizes dumped high explosives, shrapnel, and gas on to a 10-kilometer stretch of the French frontline north of Verdun, saturating the enemy’s defenses with a mind-boggling million shells in the first day of battle alone. The bombardment would continue virtually uninterrupted for five days, consuming 2.5 million shells and converting the pristine snowy landscape into a nightmarish expanse of muddy craters, shattered trees, and leveled villages (below, footage of the bombardment, which appears to mix genuine footage with obvious reenactments).
Witnesses struggled to describe what they saw. Henry Bordeaux, a French novelist who interviewed a number of officers and soldiers about the beginning of the battle and was present for the later phases, wrote:
The observers on aeroplanes or balloons who saw the volcano burst into flame declared that they could not mark on their maps all the batteries that were in action… The commander of a company of light infantry who was wounded in the foot in Caures Wood, stated: “The intensity of the firing was such that when we came out into the open we no longer recognised the country which we had known for four months. There was scarcely a tree left standing. It was very difficult to walk about, because the ground was so broken up with the holes made by the shells… The communication trenches no longer existed.”
On the other side Karl von Wiegand recorded a German officer’s eyewitness account:
Hour after hour, day and night, the thunder of the big guns in what was perhaps the greatest artillery duel in the history of the world, rolled in from around Verdun like the ponderous roaring of gigantic waves continuously breaking on some rockbound shore. The roar of the battle was at times heard 200 kilometers or about 124 miles. Several stories high smoke, earth, and debris shot into the air where the biggest shells exploded. Each time it was as if an unusually gigantic wave had broken there on the cliff. It was impossible to conceive how human beings could live through that fire.
But as the Germans were about to discover, some French soldiers of the beleaguered 72nd and 51st Reserve Divisions did in fact manage to survive, thanks to well-sited dugouts but also sheer luck. The survivors lived through sheer terror, as death rained down around them on all sides. One French staff officer recalled the routine bravery of one soldier, a communications officer responsible for repairing the telephone line to the French artillery batteries (eventually most communications had to go by messengers, who predictably suffered a very high mortality rate):
Thousands of projectiles are flying in all directions, some whistling, others howling, others moaning low, and all uniting in one infernal roar. From time to time an aerial torpedo [trench mortar shell] passes, making a noise like a gigantic motor car. With a tremendous thud a giant shell bursts quite close to our observation post, breaking the telephone wire and interrupting all communication with our batteries. A man gets out at once for repairs, crawling along on his stomach through all this place of bursting mines and shells. It seems quite impossible that he should escape in the rain of shell, which exceeds anything imaginable; there has never been such a bombardment in war. Our man seems to be enveloped in explosions, and shelters himself from time to time in the shell craters which honeycomb the ground; finally he reaches a less stormy spot, mends his wires, and then, as it would be madness to try to return, settles down in a big crater and waits for the storm to pass.
As the German guns lifted their elevations to lay down a “boxing fire” that would prevent French reinforcements from coming up, at 4 p.m. advance patrols of German infantry emerged from their concrete bunkers and advanced in small groups in irregular formations, probing French defenses according to plan in preparation for a much larger attack scheduled for the following day (below, a German howitzer at Verdun).
Indeed the advance on February 21 was meant to be relatively modest – but one German commander, General von Zwehl of VII Reserve Corps, decided to take advantage of the greatly weakened French defenses with an immediate infantry attack, sending his main forces forward led by bands of elite stormtroopers wielding machine guns, light field guns, and the terrifying new weapon, flamethrowers.
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However the French artillery crews who had survived the poison gas and high explosives put a fierce resistance. The same French staff officer described the incredible sight as the Germans advanced en masse:
Beyond, in the valley, dark masses are moving over the snow-covered ground. It is the German infantry advancing in packed formation along the valley of the attack. They look like a big gray carpet being unrolled over the country. We telephone through to the batteries and the ball begins. The sight is hellish. In the distance, in the valley and upon the slopes, regiments spread out, and as they deploy fresh troops come pouring in. There is a whistle over our heads. It is our first shell. It falls right in the middle of the enemy infantry. We telephone through, telling our batteries of their hit, and a deluge of heavy shells is poured on the enemy. Their position becomes critical. Through glasses we can see men maddened, men covered with earth and blood, falling one upon the other. When the first wave of the assault is decimated, the ground is dotted with heaps of corpses, but the second wave is already pressing on.
The advancing German infantry surged towards the Bois des Caures, a small forest now ripped apart by shelling, where two lone battalions of “chasseurs a pied” led by Colonel Emile Driant (who’d previously warned the government about the pitiable state of the defenses at Verdun) held a half a mile of front in the face of an overwhelming attack by the German 21st Division. His force of 1,300 men already reduced by half by artillery fire, Driant immediately realized there was no way they could defeat the onrushing hordes, but they could delay them (below, a German attack at Verdun).
With rear communications severed and fighting without artillery support, Driant’s chasseurs a pied began a heroic last stand in the shattered woods, holding off the German infantry for over a day with machine guns, rifles, grenades, and eventually hand-to-hand combat. On February 22 the two much-diminished battalions faced an expanded attack by all three German corps, numbering six divisions, following another hurricane of artillery fire. A German officer described the advance on February 22 in his diary:
The whole area has been churned up by our artillery and has French barbed wire running through it. Death seemed close at hand when the French artillery fired their barrages. Shelter in a shell hole or other cover was desperately sought. More than a few comrades died out here… As soon as we started cutting the barbed wire French machine gun bullets whizzed overhead. As we advanced artillery fell in the tree line as well. I reached the objective with just one man, (Reservist Becker). One man had been shot in the head and lay on his face.
Towards the end the French frontline dissolved, leaving small bands of French infantry fighting to hold isolated strongpoints surrounded by the rising German tide. Calm to the last, in the afternoon Driant conducted a fighting withdrawal as one stronghold after another fell to the Germans, and finally instructed his surviving troops to break out of the German encirclements and retreat south towards the village of Beaumont. Driant himself was killed by an enemy bullet when he stopped to tend to a wounded soldier in a shell hole. He died having succeeded in holding off the German Fifth Army’s advance for a day, a crucial delay during which reinforcements finally began arriving. He was the first of many heroic martyrs on both sides at Verdun.
On February 23 the German attack ground on, with waves of infantry from six German divisions advancing behind unrelenting artillery bombardments, slowly forcing the French 72nd and 51st Reserve Divisions out of Brabant and the forest of Herbebois, back towards the villages of Beaumont and Samogneux. With both French divisions nearing their breaking point, on the evening of the 23rd the French 37th Division, consisting of Algerian and Moroccan colonial troops, was hurled into the fight while the 72nd Reserve fought tooth and nail to hold Samogneux.
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Tragically, miscommunication led the French overall commander at Verdun, General Herr, to believe Samogneux had already fallen to the enemy, and friendly fire from French guns wiped out scores of their own troops – an all-too-common occurrence in the First World War. The misdirected French bombardment cleared the way for the Germans to occupy Samogneux, while the ragged remnants of the 72nd Reserve Division were withdrawn from the frontline. Together with the 51st Reserve Division, it had lost an astonishing 16,224 men out of an original strength of 26,523 in just three days.
The first German breakthrough at Verdun came on February 24, as the attackers penetrated to the hastily prepared, poorly constructed French second defensive line, already softened by the preceding days’ bombardments, and captured it in a matter of hours. The North African 37th Division, unused to the cold weather and shocked by the incredible intensity of the shelling like their European counterparts, broke and fled south towards safety, while the 51st Reserve Division fell back towards Fort Douaumont – the first objective of the German attack, now thrusting towards the heights of the Meuse above Verdun.
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A quarter mile on a side, the roughly pentagon-shaped Fort Douaumont was covered by a concrete slab eight feet thick underneath thirty feet of soil, and surrounded by 24-foot-deep dry moats and fields of barbed wire 30 yards wide. Its approaches were guarded by machine guns, while artillery pieces in retractable iron turrets menaced attackers in the valleys below and neighboring hills. Thus Fort Douaumont was viewed as impregnable with good reason, and would have been – except for an incredible mistake by the French.
In the confusion of the first days of the battle, most of the fort’s garrison of 500 men had been moved north to join the fight against the German attackers there, leaving only the small gun crews to man the artillery pieces. The French were planning to withdraw the guns and their crews and demolish the fort if it couldn’t be manned – but this order was countermanded at the last moment by General Herr, who ordered the fort held at all costs. Unfortunately for the French, somewhere along the line this order got lost in the chaos, and the new garrison never occupied the fort.
In short, the linchpin of French defenses north of Verdun was basically empty when the Germans reached it. Werner Beumelburg, a soldier with the 15th Bavarian Infantry Regiment, recalled the first approach to the daunting fortress on February 25, when German troops from Brandenburg were astonished to discover they faced almost no resistance (but serious danger from their own artillery fire):
The German 210-millimetre shells were exploding on the fort with formidable crashes. The Brandenburgers, massed against the fort’s limits, kept on sending of their flares to have the artillery fire lengthened. Unfortunately, the battlefield was shrouded by the thick smoke of shell explosions, so that our artillery observers were unable to see anything. The terrific bombardment went on unabated. Seeing his men’s predicament, Captain Haupt, who had just reached the barbed-wire entanglements, shouted: “We’ll take the fort by assault!” In such perilous circumstances, his words sounded like a bad joke. Already, however, some men were busy cutting the wire with shears, and soon had opened a few gaps… Not a shot came from the fort, all was deathly quiet. What was going on inside? Had the fort been evacuated or were the French prevented by our artillery from firing on us?
Puzzled by the apparent total absence of French defenders, the small band of enterprising Brandenburgers cautiously pressed forward as shells from their own guns burst around them:
A single heavy shell – and of those which kept falling on the fort – would have blown us all to bits… We tried to enter the fort through the counterscarp’s pillboxes, but they were closed. All we could do was to crawl out of the ditch and over the slope of the escarp, without paying too much attention to our heavy artillery fire. With some difficulty we reached the top of the fort. A fusilier stood up next to the main turret, and waved toward the rear the liaison flag with our artillery. It was of no avail. The bombardment continued unabated. From the village of Douaumont, the French had seen our grey silhouettes on the fort and presently opened a violent machine-gun fire. Our losses were increasing. It was really frustrating not to be able to have our artillery fire lengthened.
With their own guns presenting a bigger threat than the enemy’s, the German troops found an open steel hatch in the moat and simply walked into the fort, followed by a comedic encounter with one of the few remaining garrison troops:
Groups of assailants then began, without liaison, to enter the fort from different sides. They met inside, where, unbelievably, all was still. Suddenly a Frenchman carrying a flashlight and whistling a song came along. He was quite unaware of our presence and was practically riveted to the ground when he suddenly saw us. We made him a prisoner and used him as our guide.
Ultimately a small number of German troops managed to surprise the French defenders, who were caught unawares inside the fort away from their weapons, never suspecting that the Germans would be reckless enough to come anywhere near the fort:
As we advanced toward the center of the fort, French voices began to be heard. We shouted to the enemy to surrender, as the fort was in our hands, but there was no answer. We had no idea of the number of defenders, and there was hardly a dozen of us at the time. Petroleum lamps lit the corridors. Above us, the explosions of our shells thundered with a dull rumble. We began searching the fort’s rooms, one after the other. Sappers cut the electric wiring, to prevent the French from blowing up the fort once they realized it was in our hands. The prisoners kept coming, and before long numbered over a hundred… By nightfall the fort was firmly in the hands of our Brandenburgers, who in the meantime had been reinforced by other groups.
The loss of Fort Douaumont was the crowning French defeat of the early days of the Battle of Verdun, contributing to commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre’s decision to remove General Herr and replace him with a somewhat dour, taciturn but brilliant commander – Philippe Petain, who would long be celebrated as the savior of Verdun (but later disgraced himself as the leader of the Vichy regime which collaborated with the Nazis in the Second World War).
Petain, arriving at the moment of crisis, organized the first truck conveys to supply Verdun along the only road connecting it to the outside world, “The Route,” later called the “Voie Sacree” or “Sacred Way.” Meanwhile Joffre was redeploying French divisions from all over the Western Front to Verdun, helped by the British Expeditionary Force taking over the stretch of front previously held by the French. In fact two whole armies, the French Second and Tenth, were now en route to Verdun.
As these moves indicate, in the months to come the struggle at Verdun would unfold on a truly awesome scale. Already by February 26, when Petain assumed command at Verdun, France had lost an appalling 26,000 men on the devil’s anvil. And the battle was only beginning.