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The Road to Verdun

World War I's Most Momentous Battle and the Folly of Nationalism

The Road to Verdun by Ian Ousby
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On February 21, 1916, the Germans launched a surprise offensive at Verdun, an important fortress in northeastern France, sparking a brutal and protracted conflict that would claim more than 700,000 victims. The carnage had little impact on the course of the war, and Verdun ultimately came to symbolize the absurdity and horror of trench warfare.

Ian Ousby offers a radical reevaluation of this cataclysmic battle, arguing that the French bear tremendous responsibility for the senseless slaughter. He shows how the battle’s roots lay in the Franco-Prussian war and how its legacy helped lay the groundwork for World War II. Merging intellectual substance with superb battle writing, The Road to Verdun is a moving and incisive account of one of the most important battles of the twentieth century.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; December 2009
ISBN 9781400075836
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: The Road to Verdun
Author: Ian Ousby
1 The Bois des Caures

To foresee “the war of tomorrow” was not difficult: it was bound to come. To predict this attack on Verdun . . . was more daring. We’re about to have it. Lieutenant Colonel Émile Driant, letter to a friend, 20 February 1916 Surprise and speed, assets that military commanders have always been schooled to prize above virtually all others, were rarely at their disposal in the First World War. The Germans still hoped to enjoy them at Verdun, but first they had to put their faith in the lessons of mass warfare as they had learned them since 1914. Elaborate preparation, it seemed, was the key to victory. Falkenhayn might have hesitated to provide resources on a scale that met the large promises of his memo to the Kaiser or the specific needs that the Crown Prince discerned, yet what he authorized in the compromises hammered out immediately after Christmas 1915 was still a massive concentration of force. Indeed, it was the most massive yet gathered in a war that had already proved a deadlock of concentrated force.

The salient where this force gathered in the New Year described a 60-kilometer curve around Verdun. Prominent hills marked the tips of either wing: Cote 304, in French hands, and the Butte de Montfaucon, in German hands, on the left bank of the river, and Les Éparges, which the Germans had vainly tried to take early in 1915, on the right bank. Louis Madelin—a native of Lorraine and scholar of Napoleonic history as well as one of several staff officers who set out to chronicle Verdun—compared the landscape to an intermittently rocky coastline facing the sea. This, indeed, is exactly what it had been at some remote point in geological history. The effect is most clearly marked in the eastern and southern sectors, from the village of Ornes down to Les Éparges, where the Hauts de Meuse overlook the Woëvre. Here the French and Germans confronted each other on the plain, but the bulk of the French defense lay in the commanding hills behind them. For their part, the German positions still enjoyed the advantages for which the attackers of a salient naturally look. All were well served by supply-lines for bringing in extra troops and equipment, and many lay in deep forest offering cover to new deployments.

“Build no more fortresses, build railways”: the elder Moltke’s dictum had been a guiding principle of the German army since the days of the Franco-Prussian War. That war had given the Germans control of the long-distance lines leading to Metz, a major railway center, and their advances in 1914 had given them command of those serving Charleville-Mézières, Longwy and Briey. All came within 100 kilometers of Verdun. In the New Year of 1916 the Germans set about extending them down to the towns, villages and woodland fringing the salient. Here they added a further network of narrow-gauge tracks penetrating the forests; at some points these came within half a kilometer of the front lines. With the belief in railways went a belief in artillery, particularly the heavy artillery unmuzzled in the advance through Belgium which had begun the war. The most notorious of the German siege weapons was the Krupp 420mm howitzer, the Dicke Berta (or Big Bertha) that had flattened the forts of Liège.* Over seven meters long, it was transported to * Nonmilitary readers may appreciate being reminded that artillery weapons are formally designated by the caliber of the shells they fire: thus the Big Bertha fired a shell with a diameter of 420mm, or about 161/2 inches, and a 77 fired a shell with a diameter of 77mm, or about 3 inches.

the battlefield in sections and took almost a day to assemble for firing; its shells were nearly as tall as a man and many times as heavy. Almost as powerful were the Krupp 380mm naval gun—the Germans, like their enemies, were turning their naval weaponry for use on land as the war at sea proved less important than expected—and the Austrian-made Skoda 305mm howitzer, or Schlanke Emma (Slim Emma).

They positioned this heavy weaponry well to the north of the battlefield, behind the crests of hills offering both concealment and points of observation. Its job was to pound the forts and city of Verdun from long range. Closer to the front line were 210s and 150s, whose shells the French called marmites, or stewpots, and flat-trajectory 130s and 77s, whose shells the British called whizzbangs and the French miaulants or miaules, from the noise they made in flight. They were supported by a whole range of field and trench mortars—Minenwerfer to the Germans, crapouillots to the French—which could fire gas and incendiary shells as well as explosives. Their job was to tackle the French field artillery, strip cover from the forests, knock out local strongholds of resistance, flatten trenches, kill infantrymen, mangle them, choke them, demoralize them and stun them into submission.

In all, the Germans moved about 1,200 artillery pieces up to Verdun, over half of them heavy caliber, and equipped them with two and a half million shells, enough for six days of bombardment in a battle they still hoped would quickly prove decisive. Men were deployed on the grand scale as well. By the early weeks of February, the Crown Prince had at his disposal a total of some 17 divisions, or perhaps 300,000 men. They included élite units such as General von Lochow’s 3rd Corps, which had forced the British back from Mons and was in 1916 fresh from success against the Serbs. Rather than digging the jumping-off trenches which so easily betrayed the imminence of an attack to the enemy, these and the other infantry units destined for the front line were concealed in Stollen, underground barracks specially dug deep in the woods. The largest could hold more than 1,000 men, and some lay less than a kilometer away from the French front they would soon be attacking.

Formidable though it was, this array of firepower and fighting men did not leave the Crown Prince and his staff a free hand in fixing their plan of battle. Falkenhayn had insisted on keeping divisions in reserve for imagined counterattacks from the British sector of the Western Front. In doing so he had deprived his army at Verdun of the weight needed to launch, on so wide a front, the battle of the wings that would have been required by military wisdom about how to attack salients. While opening his artillery bombardment on all the sectors between Montfaucon and Les Éparges, the Crown Prince needed still to focus the real thrust of his assault on one part of the French line. Inevitably he chose the northern tip of the salient, a 12-kilometer sector stretching from the right bank of the river almost to the village of Ornes. Here he concentrated the bulk of his artillery and the strongest of his front-line forces: about 850 guns and well over 100,000 men. It was here, after all, that a puncture in the French lines promised the speediest way to the forts in the hills and to the city of Verdun itself. And it was here, in the Bois de Consenvoye and the Forêt de Spincourt, rather than in the more open country of the Woëvre, that the dense trees and the winter mists clinging about them gave the best chance of concealment and surprise.

It was also here that the French were at their most vulnerable. In fact, they were more vulnerable than the Crown Prince had any means of realizing and, moreover, weak throughout the entire salient. Perhaps the most curious feature of the buildup to the battle was the poor intelligence that the enemies possessed of each other’s capabilities and intentions. The Germans, as the scale of their preparation testified, simply took it for granted that Verdun was strongly defended. The French, who had spent several decades pointing with pride to Verdun as a showcase of defensive fortification, became aware only at the last minute of the peril to which its present state now exposed it. Yet how on earth could Verdun have been allowed to grow weak? The reasons lay in policy rather than simple accident, and they cast a good deal of light on both the theory of warfare as it had come to be understood and the politics of warfare as it had come to be practiced by 1916.

The strategic importance of its position had made Verdun a fortress and garrison for many centuries, but the decision to fortify the surrounding hills was of much more recent date. It arose from the disasters of the Franco-Prussian War, which had brought the German border closer to Paris and left Metz, traditionally France’s main bulwark on her Eastern Marches, in the hands of her newly powerful rival. In the early 1870s General Sér de Rivières proposed that the new line of defense should run from Verdun to Toul, Épinal and eventually Belfort. Ironically, the forts were built by Italian laborers who came, as frontaliers, across the new border from the provinces to the east. Across that border, military activities seemed to justify the need to fortify Verdun in particular. Elsewhere less interested in forts than railways, the Germans chose to complete the system round Metz already begun by the French shortly before 1870, naming each of its new bulwarks after victorious commanders in the war.* Following decades saw the Verdun forts periodically elaborated in obedience to crises in Franco-German relations and to advances in technology. As Minister of War in the 1880s and 1890s, the former engineer Charles de Freycinet took a particular interest in bringing Verdun up to date with the changes that had produced artillery shells better capable of shatter- ing stone and reinforced concrete better capable of withstanding them. Thus did France turn la plaie béante, the gaping wound of her eastern frontier, into the “great fortress” that so impressed Schlieffen.

By the time war came some 19 forts and as many more ouvrages, or smaller fortified positions, protected Verdun. Clustered most thickly on the right bank, they were disposed in concentric rings marking successive lines of a defense whose center, or last ditch, lay in the city itself. Here the Citadelle originally designed by the Marquis de Vauban in the seventeenth century had been made into an * Subsequently, in 1893–1913, the Germans fortified Thionville (which they called Diedenhofen), another city on the western edge of their newly acquired territory. Their arrangements thus mirrored French provisions at Verdun and Toul, guarding the Moselle and its gorges, and behind it the Rhine, against approach across the lowlands of the Moselle.

underground labyrinth, set beneath several meters of stone, where 2,000 men could be garrisoned. Of the forts the most formidable were Douaumont, and its slightly smaller twin, Vaux. Set on a plateau where the Hauts de Meuse rise to their highest point at almost 400 meters, Douaumont dominated the terrain of the future battlefield—as, indeed, it dominated the military architecture of its day.

The aerial reconnaissance photographs that would make its image familiar to most of the world in 1916 emphasized the sullen, determined simplicity of a design which had served fortification since the days of Louis XIV’s military architect, the Marquis de Vauban. The view from above revealed an outline in the shape of a polygon, or star, with its apex pointing north and its entrance in the center of the inwardly recessed southern wall. Zones of barbed wire, a line of metal spikes and a dry moat that could be covered by enfilading fire from the corners of the polygon defended the approaches. The flat surface of the roof, made of reinforced concrete below a heavy layer of soil, was broken by revolving turrets housing machine-gun posts, a big 155mm gun and several 75mm guns, two of them sharing a so-called Casemate de Bourges. They could all be retracted under the protection of huge metal domes, leaving little or nothing to be seen from the air of the fort’s real strength. This lay belowground, where the gloomy, echoing maze of galleries and rooms, still lit only by kerosene lamps in 1916, could house a working garrison of about 1,000 soldiers.

S’ensevelir sous les ruines du fort plutôt que de le rendre, proclaimed the motto inscribed in the underground corridors of Douaumont and the other Verdun forts: “Rather be buried beneath the ruins of the fort than surrender.” After mobilization in 1914 there were in fact about 500 men in Douaumont to contemplate the prospect of sacrificing themselves in this fashion. Yet the French high command soon judged that the opening stages of the war had made their position irrelevant and outmoded. The ease with which the Germans had taken the Belgian forts of Liège and Namur and the French fort of Manonviller had seemed to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of any fort against the new generation of artillery, so the men and weaponry lodged in Douaumont would be more safely and usefully deployed in the field.

This lesson overlooked the fact that the business of subduing Liège had at the time seemed to the Germans an agonizing hitch in their advance, as well as the fact that the Verdun forts had withstood the assault of autumn 1914 without suffering serious damage. Yet Joffre and his staff soon converted it into dogma because it suited their assumptions, and Joffre, in particular, was never a man to question his assumptions. The whole bias of his thinking, like that of virtually all his contemporaries, inclined to offensive and not defensive strategy. “Whatever the circumstance,” said the first sentence of Plan XVII, Joffre’s counterpart to the Schlieffen Plan, “it is the Commander-in-Chief’s intention to advance with all forces united to attack the German armies.” So little time did he have for the very concept of defense, indeed, that he insisted on describing his last-ditch defense at the Marne as an attack. This curious blurring of distinctions, moreover, answered not just to the temper of military thinking but to the whole temper of the nation.

From the Hardcover edition.