The Battle of Verdun and German Strategy in 1916

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.

by Dr ROBERT T. FOLEY

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.

5 thoughts on “The Battle of Verdun and German Strategy in 1916

  1. According to Paul Jankowski, there is some doubt that Falkenhayn ever really wanted a battle of attrition. He may have fallen back on that reasoning when his actual goal — to force a premature Allied offensive — failed to come about.

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    1. Thank you for your comments, Geoffrey. Jankowski repeated the argument made first by Foerster in 1937 and later by Krumeich in 1996. I don’t agree with this interpretation. I think there is ample evidence for Falkenhayn’s desire to ‘bleed white’ the French in 1916, even if there was no formal ‘Christmas memorandum’ in 1915. I also think one has to use the Interwar evidence very carefully. First, most participants worked hard to distance themselves from the application of attrition because the ‘hell of Verdun’ was such an emotive subject in Interwar Germany. Schmidt von Knobelsdorf was the worst offender of this — much of his Interwar correspondence on the battle is directly contradicted by his own reports from 1916. Second, Falkenhayn’s strategy was a highly contentious one, as it challenged the German army’s accepted views of battle. While Foerster was by no means Falkenhayn’s worst enemy, the Reichsarchiv, for which he worked, was headed by a succession of directors who had intrigued against Falkenhayn during the war. Marcus Pöhlmann’s work on the Reichsarchiv is very useful for this, and the bias in the Reichsarchiv was noted by many correspondents in the Interwar period. Indeed, Falkenhayn’s family refused to assist the Reichsarchiv after his death because of the break down in relations. So, the Interwar ‘evidence’ against Falkenhayn must be viewed through this lens.

      Further, I don’t think one can understand Falkenhayn’s approach at Verdun by looking at the battle in isolation. As I have tried to show here, and believe I have shown in my book, German Strategy and the Path to Verdun (Cambridge, 2005), it has to be placed into the strategic and operational context of Falkenhayn’s experience of the war to date. Falkenhayn’s approach at Verdun was not, as Michael Geyer would have us believe, ‘the complete disjuncture between strategy, battle design, and tactics.’ Rather, it was a fusion of all these levels, and the course of the battle can only be understood by exploring Falkenhayn’s (and the 5th Army’s) strategy, operations, and tactics. These were dictated, in large part, by the experiences of 1914 and 1915.

      One of the challenges for interpreting the battle is that its nature changed. I think it is clear that both Falkenhayn and, to a lesser extent, the 5th Army expected initially the attrition of the French to come primarily from their counter-attacks once the 5th Army had taken the eastern heights. When the 5th Army failed to do this, the mantra became that the French were suffering a much higher casualty rate than the Germans, even though the 5th Army continued to attack. So about April, it became ‘clear’ to the 5th Army and Falkenhayn that this was how attrition had to occur. Indeed, this is what the 5th Army argued in a memorandum advocating the continuation of the offensive. Also from this period, the language of ‘attrition’ became more prominent in 5th Army and OHL reports, etc. I think this has thrown subsequent historians into concluding that the goal of attrition dates from this period, not earlier.

      Falkenhayn clearly did hope for a British relief offensive, which he hoped would be beaten back with high British casualties. We was also open to the idea of a French offensive elsewhere on the Western Front, aside from Verdun. The plans for defense against these, and possible resumption of mobile warfare, were quite advanced. In large part because these were updates of 1915 plans that had been disrupted by the need to assist Austria-Hungary.

      I think I need another post on the changing nature of the fighting at Verdun after the failure to take the eastern Meuse heights! I hope this goes some way to answering your question about Jankowski’s argument.

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