This is the first of three posts covering German planning for Operation Gericht, their offensive at Verdun. This month marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of this battle, which would last, including French counter-offensives, until the end of 1916. Although it is not as well remembered in Britain today, the ‘hell of Verdun’ left an enduring mark on not only on the millions of Frenchmen and Germans who fought there, but also on their societies. Indeed, for France and Germany today, the battle of Verdun is as synonymous with the First World War as the battle of the Somme is for Britain. This series explores the German strategic, operational, and tactical planning for the battle.
On 21 February 1916, the German 5th Army launch what was to become the longest battle of the war at the French fortress of Verdun. Between February and December 1916, the German 5th Army and the French 2nd Army were locked in a struggle, often over the loss or gain of a few meters of terrain. During the course of the battle, some three-quarters of the French divisions and one third of German divisions cycled through the ‘hell of Verdun,’ as it was known by the participants on both sides. The battle was also the first real battle of material waged by the German army: The 5th Army had at its disposal hitherto unheard of numbers of artillery pieces, mortars, and even flamethrowers, as well as the munitions needed for a drawn-out battle. By the end of the year, close to 400,000 Frenchmen and 340,000 Germans had been made casualties in what was the war’s first deliberate battle of attrition.
Although historians have long debated the German goals for the battle, recently available archival evidence shows that from its inception, the German Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, conceived of this battle as a means of ‘bleeding white’ the French army. While this goal may seem to play into a currently dominate myth of senseless slaughter and unimaginative generalship in the First World War, in fact, Falkenhayn’s strategic goals from the battle were subtle, and his approach represents perhaps one of the most sophisticated strategies of the entire war.
First, Falkenhayn’s strategy at Verdun was built on certain assumptions about the French nation and its people. In common with many of his contemporaries, including those in the Intelligence Section of the German High Command, Falkenhayn saw the French republican political system as being fundamentally weak. For an aristocratic Prussian officer, any political system that was built upon and reflective of the will of the people could not possibly stand up to considerable pressure. Moreover, German intelligence had long seen French manpower as being a strategic weakness. Unlike Imperial Germany after unification in 1871, the size of the population of Third Republic France stagnated. While the German population increased by some 25 million between 1871 and 1914, the French population only grew by several million. As a consequence, in the years before 1914, France struggled to match the size of the German army. In order to have an army roughly the size of the German army, France needed to conscript nearly 85 percent of its eligible manpower; Germany conscripted less than 50 percent of eligible young men.
The large-scale national debate over the extension of conscription from two to three years in France in 1913 demonstrated to German soldiers that the French army was an instrument beholden to republican politics. German observers sneered at what they saw as the comforts that were required to be lavished on French conscripts in order for the Assembly Nationale to pass the bill. The debates reinforced the German idea that the French army was a brittle instrument, lacking manpower reserves and lacking the stamina for a costly war.
By 1915, the French army had suffered incredibly high casualties in the mobile campaign of 1914 and in several failed large-scale offensives of 1915, most notably in September and October. Near the end of 1915, German intelligence calculated that the French army was nearly 500,000 smaller than it had been in August 1914 and was reaching the limits of its manpower. In late summer 1915, German intelligence had written a damning indictment of the French army, which drew upon these assumptions:
France’s victims in this war are so many that the government can bear the responsibility for them neither before the people of France nor someday before history. Soon [the French government] will be faced with the question of whether, despite all outside help, the ending of resistance is a more fitting path for the future of the nation than the continuation of this hopeless war.
Falkenhayn’s goal in 1916 was to pressure the French government into this decision for a separate peace. The means to do this would be to put even greater pressure on what had long been seen by German observers as its biggest strategic vulnerability and weakness — the future of France, its manpower. Thus, the ‘exsanguination’ or attrition of the French army was a fundamental goal of Falkenhayn’s strategy for 1916. Despite later efforts to distance themselves from knowledge of Falkenhayn’s goals, both the 5th Army’s commander, Crown Prince Wilhelm, and his chief of staff, Constantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, each wrote of Falkenhayn using the term ‘Verblutung,’ or ‘exsanguination,’ in planning for the offensive, as did Kaiser Wilhelm II’s adjutant Hans von Plessen. Falkenhayn hoped that high casualties amongst France’s citizen army would spur French elected officials to bring the war to an end for fear of the political and social consequences of not doing so. The challenge, of course, was how to bring about massive attrition of the French army without destroying the German army in the process. After all, the failed French offensives of 1915 had demonstrated how costly attacking could be on the Western Front. Far from dissuading Falkenhayn, however, these failed offensives, along with other experiences of the war to date, offered Falkenhayn new operational and tactical ideas that he hoped would proved decisive for Germany in 1916.
Image: The results of ‘attrition.’ The French cemetery at the Ossuary of Douaumont, Verdun. Photo by Paul Arps. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.