The Battle of Verdun and German Operational Art in 1916

This is the second 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

At first glance, Verdun does not seem an obvious place for the German army to launch an offensive in 1916. Indeed, when rumours of a German offensive at Verdun first reached French ears, they were dismissed as a crude attempt at deception. Forming the northern shoulder of France’s string of fortresses against Germany, Verdun was one of France’s most modern and therefore most powerful fortresses. Having long been a fortress, Verdun was constructed along modern lines in 1874 as part of Raymond Adolphe Séré de Rivières’ system of fortifications, with two lines of forts surrounding the inner Medieval citadel and city. Between 1900 and 1914, it was again modernised, with heavily armoured artillery and observation posts added to the forts, as well as additional armour. Moreover, infantry positions between the distributed forts were built up using reinforced concrete. Despite having most of its heavy artillery removed over the course of 1915, in early 1916, Verdun was a formidable defensive position.

The French position at Verdun did, however, appear to Erich von Falkenhayn, the German Chief of the General Staff, to have some significant weaknesses in 1916. First, the 5th Army’s advances in 1914 had left Verdun at the centre of a broad salient in the German line (much like Ypres in the north). Of course, this meant that the French position was flanked on two side by the Germans. The fortress was supplied by only one major railway, which was vulnerable to interdiction by German long-range artillery fire. Second, the fortress itself was bisected by the Meuse River. This made coordinating its defence more challenging. Finally, the heights on the eastern bank of the Meuse, the side on which German 5th Army stood, were significantly higher than those of the western bank. If these could be seized, the Germans would be in a good position from which to observe and call in artillery fire on the remaining French positions.

These geographical issues were significant for Falkenhayn. As we have seen, Falkenhayn’s plan for 1916 was for the French to be ‘exsanguinated.’ The experience of 1915, when powerful French attacks had been beaten off at high cost to the attackers and low cost to the defenders, convinced Falkenhayn that the best way in 1916 to ‘bleed white’ the French was to force them to attack strong German defensive positions. If the 5th Army could seize the eastern heights of the Meuse at Verdun, Falkenhayn believed they would be in such a formidable defensive position; any French counter-attacks would be repulsed easily and at great cost to the French. Indeed, in Falkenhayn’s plan for 1916, the ‘capture’ of the fortress of Verdun was irrelevant; what was important was to seize the commanding heights around the fortress, though this would entail the capture of some of Verdun’s distributed forts.

It is also important to note that Falkenhayn was sanguine about where the French counter-attacked in response to the German offensive at Verdun. Obviously, the position at Verdun, if it could be taken, offered considerable operational advantages, but Falkenhayn was not sure the French would launch their counter-offensive at Verdun. In a conference of the various chiefs of staff of the German armies on the Western Front on 11 February 1916, Falkenhayn outlined what he believed to be the most likely scenarios in response to the 5th Army’s offensive:

1) They [the French high command] believe Verdun to be so well defended that they leave it alone. Very good for us, therefore unlikely.
2) They send all available forces to the fortress…
3) French counter-offensive on another point [of the front]. Possibly same points as before, Artois, Champagne, Woevre, Upper Alsace. To be greeted with joy. [Falkenhayn] believes it sure that all such attacks would collapse with severe French casualties.
4) They attempt to hold Verdun with all available forces, while the English attempt an attack. Questionable whether it would succeed, especially as the English army is at the moment going through a great upheaval with the insertion of the Kitchener units, which are being mixed with the old units down to the battalion level.

Having recognised the challenges, if not the futility, of attempting a large-scale breakthrough on the Western Front, Falkenhayn sought a different operational approach in early 1916. The experiences of the war to date had demonstrated that limited attacks could be successful, despite the clear strength of the defensive. A limited attack by the German 5th Army could take the dominating terrain around the fortress of Verdun and put the Germans in a good position from which to inflict heavy casualties against any counter-attacking enemy. Even if the French, and perhaps their British allies, counter-attacked elsewhere on the Western Front, Falkenhayn was certain these attacks could be beaten off, as they had been in 1915, with low German casualties and high French and British. This would achieve his strategic aim of ‘bleeding white’ the French army. Successfully seizing and defending the eastern heights of the Meuse would be down to the tactics employed by the German 5th Army.

Image: An aerial view of Fort Douaumont, one of Verdun’s newest and most formidable distributed forts, in early 1916 before the battle began. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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