Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 227th installment in the series.
March 2-4, 1916: The Struggle for Douaumont
As March 1916 began one word was on the lips of people across Europe, on both sides of the battle lines: Verdun. The German onslaught against the fortress city was clearly the greatest offensive since the beginning of the war, fated to be one of the bloodiest battles in history. On March 2 Mildred Aldrich, an American woman living in a small village outside Paris, described the feeling in a letter to a friend:
We are living these days in the atmosphere of the great battle of Verdun. We talk Verdun all day, dream Verdun all night--in fact, the thought of that great attack in the east absorbs every other idea. Not in the days of the Marne, nor in the trying days of Ypres or the Aisne was the tension so terrible as it is now. No one believes that Verdun can be taken, but the anxiety is dreadful, and the idea of what the defence is costing is never absent from the minds even of those who are firmly convinced of what the end must be.
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On the other side Evelyn, Princess Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living Berlin, recorded German impressions in her diary on March 5, 1916, showing how propaganda could present the same events from diametrically opposed perspectives:
Verdun is the chief subject of interest at present, and in Germany it is now looked upon as likely to be one of the decisive victories of the war. They say it is only a matter of a few days before the whole fortress is taken, and that the terrific losses among the French fill even them with horror. Whereas on the other hand one reads in the English papers “that the Verdun attack has been a failure.”
In fact it was only beginning. As February drew to a close the fighting continued with shocking violence, as German infantry led by small units of elite “storm troopers” pressed forward in the face of determined French resistance, while thousands of artillery pieces fought a thundering duel overhead. On February 26 one German officer, fighting in the vicinity of the Caures Woods where two battalions of “chasseurs a pied” under Colonel Emile Driant made their last stand, painted a picture of terrible conditions, both manmade and natural, in his diary:
On the edge of the Caures Wald the first French positions. Here it was possible to see the wonders of war. Our artillery had caused craters 10m wide and 6m deep. The dead lay all around, including a young Leutnant with his whole group… It is a picture of sorrow that I will never forget. In the French 2nd line a machine gun had operated until the last moment. This murderous weapon had made the advance of our 87 (I.R.) [infantry regiment] very difficult. It was freezing in the tents tonight; I did not sleep a single minute.
The same day, a French soldier fighting near Fort Douaumont, a key stronghold lost to the Germans the day before, described the confusion prevailing amidst hellish scenes on the battlefield, as the German infantry pressed forward despite huge losses:
The guns are firing at 200 and 300 yards, and shrapnel is exploding with a crash, scything them down. Our men hold their ground; our machine guns keep to their work, and yet they advance… At a given moment the Boches are quite close to us. Despite the noise of the guns one can hear their oaths and their shouts as they strike… Everything is on fire – the wood near by, the village of Douaumont, Verdun, the front of Bezonvaux, and the back of Thiaumont. There is fire everywhere. The acrid smell of carbonic acid and blood catches at our throats, but the battle goes on.
By the end of February the French Second and Tenth Armies had arrived to reinforce the exhausted defenders, and the German offensive seemed to be losing its initial momentum, as the attackers now faced the difficulty of moving the huge heavy artillery pieces (some – the 420-millimeter “Big Berthas” – weighing 47 tons) forward over primitive roads turned to expanses of mud by the melting snow.
Aided by the turn in the weather, the new French commander at Verdun, General Philippe Petain, managed to stabilize the front temporarily, while organizing the non-stop convoy of 3,500 trucks, which in the next week alone would deliver 190,000 troops and 25,000 tons of supplies along the last open road connecting Verdun to the outside world, later known as the “Voie Sacree” or “Sacred Way” (below). By June 1916 the number of vehicles making the endless round trip between Verdun and Bar-le-Duc to the south would rise to 12,000, tended by an army of mechanics and road engineers.
But the commander of the German Fifth Army, the German Crown Prince Wilhelm, was determined to prevail. Thus in many places German troops ended up desperately hanging on to hard-won positions even when they were exposed to French artillery fire (especially from hills on the western bank of the Meuse, still in French hands), resulting in almost as many casualties among the attackers as the defenders.
This marked the emergence of a fatal dynamic that would ultimately undermine chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn’s plan for a battle of attrition, which had envisioned German troops making a series of incremental, conservative gains and then holding strong defensive positions against French counterattacks. Unfortunately, Falkenhayn apparently never conveyed this nuance to Crown Prince Wilhelm, who believed he was simply responsible for capturing Verdun, whatever the price.
The price was steep both in terms of casualties and morale. Another German officer described seemingly interminable French shelling near the village of Vacherauville (not to be confused with the fort of the same name, on the opposite bank of the River Meuse) on the night of February 28-29, 1916:
Had a night like never before. As I had left my coat behind when I had gone out on patrol, and my batman had not come forward with me, I had to spend the night in the trench with just a blanket. I had to squat the whole night, could not go out as we were under constant artillery fire. So, along with the uncomfortable position and the freezing cold, we had to accept the fact that each of the incoming shells could have our name on it. The mud was flung into our trench and faces; the trench itself was not deep enough as it had been hastily dug. How long this night was for us it is easy to imagine. Thank God for the dawn and keeping us alive during the night.
However the situation hardly improved during the day on February 29, according to the same account, which illustrates how gruesome events became part of everyday life on the battlefield:
Unfortunately we suffered losses today, a number of brave soldiers wounded and to our great dismay our Battalion Commander was critically wounded, losing both legs and having shell splinters in his throat and head. Unfortunately there was no Doctor or stretcher bearers available. A man with First Aid knowledge announced that it was no use bandaging the wounds. Hauptmann Raffloer was fully conscious and requested that he simply be carried to the rear. He was carried through the ravine and over the dangerous height in a Shelter half. We are totally cut off, by day we can not move at all, and by night just at the risk of our lives. A few hours later the Hauptmann was dead. A dapper and brave soldier.
In the first four days of March the fiercest fighting was concentrated on the village of Douaumont, which lay at the foot of the recently captured fort of the same name (below, Fort Douaumont at the end of the war) and now became the site of a bitter contest that literally wiped the little settlement off the face of the earth, with nothing left to mark it but a stretch of pulverized stone (top, the outskirts of Douaumont in 1917).
The struggle for Douaumont village saw the Germans mount three furious assaults over the course of a week, only to find themselves targeted by last-ditch French machine gun crews, carefully concealed in the ruins of the village and prepared to fight until they were wiped out. As the village traded hands again and again, German machine guns firing from Fort Douaumont were joined by the massive “Big Berthas,” which attempted to deal with the French suicide squads in the village by simply removing whatever remained of the village, one earthshaking blow at a time.
Meanwhile fresh French troops hurried into Douaumont village under cover of night, under Petain’s new deployment system, which rotated units through the Verdun slaughterhouse for a few weeks at a time, in an attempt to spread the losses out as much as possible (by contrast, Falkenhayn held back reserves from the German Fifth Army, forcing German divisions to remain in the front line much longer, suffering higher proportional casualty rates as a result).
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But the overwhelming German advantage in artillery firepower left little doubt what the final outcome would be. On March 4 units from the German 5th and 25th Divisions completed the bloody mopping up of the last remaining French defenders – capturing one wounded young officer, Captain Charles de Gaulle, who would spend the next 32 months in a German prisoner of war camp, then later gain fame during the Second World War as the leader of the Free French Forces.
Elsewhere at Verdun German troops were finding ways to minimize their exposure to French artillery fire, which was also making it increasingly difficult to bring up supplies. At the same time, both sides were carrying out patrols to test the weakness of their foes’ improvised defenses. On March 4 the same anonymous German officer described the situation near Vacherauville in his diary:
Last night heavy artillery fire… Unfortunately the Company got nothing [to eat]. The company prolonged the battalion trench, tonight as much of it as possible will be manned. A screen was set up to hide our rear area from the Frenchmen. Had shooting bays dug in the trench walls, the men standing in them would be better protected from the artillery and passage through the trench would be easier. A French patrol had managed to slip between our Schützenschleier (Forward posts) and the trench. When challenged, a Frenchman answered in broken German. An Unteroffizier called out to them in French, they should surrender or we fire. They did not respond and disappeared in the night.
French artillery located on the western bank of the Meuse was now inflicting unacceptable casualties on the flank of the German Fifth Army, helping bring German casualties to over 25,000 by the end of February. Meeting with Falkenhayn, Crown Prince Wilhelm and his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, demanded a new offensive to clear the French from the western bank of the Meuse, in order to permit the main German offensive to go forward. Falkenhayn, mindful of Germany’s manpower limitations, nevertheless reluctantly agreed; the attack on the western bank, vastly expanding the scope of the battle, was scheduled for March 6, 1916.
Germans Resume Unrestricted U-boat Wafare
At the end of February 1916 the German navy resumed the U-boat campaign against merchant shipping in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, in a fresh attempt to bring Britain to its knees by cutting it off from outside supplies, especially munitions manufactured in the United States. However this once again risked an open breach with the world’s largest neutral power, something Germany could scarcely afford.
The first unrestricted U-boat campaign had lasted from February to September 1915, when Kaiser Wilhelm II canceled it in the face of intense diplomatic pressure from the U.S., following the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915. However the flood of American-made supplies to Britain and France only grew, increasingly paid for with loans from American banks.
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In her diary Evelyn, Princess Blucher, recorded growing anxiety and anger among the Germans over this (unofficial) U.S. support for the Allies: “‘If America keeps on,’ the Germans say (some of them, of course), ‘we’re done for. America is actually keeping things going. If America will stop providing the Allies with munitions, we can still win.’”
Under pressure from Falkenhayn and Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the champion of the German navy, in February 1916 the Kaiser consented to the resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare, allowing German submarines to sink armed merchantmen in the war zone around the British Isles without warning.
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Predictably, the announcement was greeted with consternation in the U.S., where President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of State Robert Lansing insisted on the right of Americans to travel on merchant ships, even if the vessels were carrying defensive weapons and therefore technically warships.
Far from bowing to American demands to withdraw the order, on March 4 the Kaiser secretly expanded the targeting criteria to include any merchant ships in the war zone, and any armed merchant ships outside the war zone. However, he still insisted that enemy passenger ships not be targeted, precipitating a final falling-out with Tirpitz, who objected that it was too difficult for U-boat commanders to distinguish the different kinds of ships, adding that passenger ships could in any event also carry weapons. On March 12, 1916 Tirpitz submitted his resignation yet again – and this time it was accepted.
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Meanwhile ordinary soldiers and merchant sailors boarding ship for Britain or France put their faith in their captains and the Royal Navy, which deployed scores of destroyers to scour the sea lanes, and was now developing a new weapon, the depth charge, to strike at German submarines below the surface. On December 3, 1915 A Canadian lieutenant, Clifford Almon Wells, described the precautionary measures taken aboard the transport Lapland as it crossed the Atlantic:
To-day we are fairly in the danger zone. Our company’s machine gun is mounted aft, while other guns are mounted forward. The decks are lined with men armed rifles… To-night every man must sleep on deck by the life-boat or raft to which he has been assigned. All portholes are darkened at night and every precaution is taken to render the ship invisible.
Of course submarines were just one threat posed by the crossing, which also exposed them to the fury of the elements. Another Canadian, Billy Gray, recalled sailing through a North Atlantic storm in a letter home:
It started in Wednesday night and blew a regular gale head on, for thirty-six hours. There is no use in my trying to describe it for I can’t. Suffice it to say she was a real storm. My clothes are not dry yet, being soaked through and through. Everyone was seasick, and if I could describe the indescribable horror of men crowded together as they were in those days, I know you wouldn’t believe me. Oh! it was horrible. Sick by hundreds lying around anywhere gasping for air. Some slept on the decks in a drenched condition, spray sweeping over them… The stench below was something to remember… One man of the crew was killed, washed off the ladder leading to the crow’s nest into the forward winches. Broken neck. He was buried this a.m.
But as elsewhere, horror could alternate with beauty in strange and unexpected ways. A few days later the changeable sea presented a very different scene to Gray:
Just at present we are cleaving our way into a road of silver, for the moon is shining directly over our bows, and it is a wonderful sight apparently moving up a shimmering carpet… A carpet of silver and grey lace, like one of those red and black ones from the sidewalk to a church door at weddings, dancing ahead and only the lap, lap, lap of the waters as one stands on the fo’castle.