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Battle of Verdun - 1916

February 21 – December 18, 1916

Verdun, France

Allied Powers: France
Central Powers: German Empire

In December 1915, German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, devised a plan to win a quick victory on the Western Front.
Besides launching a submarine war and cutting off all supplies approaching Britain by targeting merchant vessels, he also planned to lay siege to Verdun, France. Verdun was historically a French stronghold. With eighteen major and twelve minor forts around the city, the loss of Verdun would impact the morale of France and the country would fight tooth and nail to salvage the city, Falkenhayn argued. His intent to “bleed France white” was sanctioned by the Kaiser.

Crown Prince Wilhelm and the German Fifth Army led the attack on February 21, 1916. Verdun was bombarded for about two days before the launch of the attack. Having received prior information about the attack, French General Joseph Joffre assigned Lieutenant Colonel Emile Driant to lead the defense. Over 200,000 French soldiers guarded Verdun against a million German troops. Crown Prince Wilhelm targeted Verdun with over 1,400 guns and millions of shells. When he received information that the shelling and bombardment had not caused much damage, Wilhelm decided not to attack Verdun. He decided to continue with bombardment. Consequently, only the first line of trenches defending Verdun had been taken by the Germans.

The French troops, having lost Lieutenant Colonel Driant, defended Verdun bravely. By February 24, 1916, the German troops had reached within five miles of Verdun. Douaumont, one of the important forts surrounding Verdun, was taken over by French troops. Joffre then placed Verdun under the command of General Henri-Philippe Petain who became known for his declaration, "They shall not pass!" Petain organized the defenses of Verdun efficiently while taking care to dedicate troops for the safeguard of the supply route known as the “Sacred Road.”

Starting March 6, 1916, Wilhelm launched a number of offensives at Verdun but each was successfully repelled by the French troops. France deployed most of its army to fight at Verdun. Petain’s plan to inflict heavy damages to the German army was successful, but the French lost almost as many men as their enemies. In their third attack, starting April 9, 1918, the Germans made slow progress. The forts at Homme Hill and Fort Vaux were captured. At the same time Petain was replaced by General Robert Nivelle.

By June and July of 1916, the Germans came dangerously close to capturing Verdun. They then launched a gas attack with the much-feared phosgene gas. The BEF came to the rescue of the French army by launching the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, thus diverting the concentration of the German troops at Verdun. The Russian army also launched simultaneous offensives on the Eastern Front, making it necessary to move troops away from Verdun.

Back home in Germany, Falkenhayn came under heavy criticism due to a lack of breakthrough at Verdun. Paul von Hindenburg replaced Falkenhayn as Chief of German Staff. General Charles Mangin was appointed by the French to take charge of the forts at Verdun. His able leadership enabled the French troops to recover Douaumont and Fort Vaux. With the French recovering all lost ground and capturing 11,000 German soldiers, Hindenburg called off the battle on December 18, 1916. While the Germans estimated a loss of 434,000 soldiers, the French pinned their losses at 550,000. The Battle of Verdun was the longest battle of World War I and drained both sides by causing huge losses.

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