The Battle of Verdun and German Offensive Tactics in 1916

This is the third 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

Prior to the Verdun offensive in February 1916, the German army had not launched a major offensive on the Western Front since November 1914. It could, however, draw upon a range of experiences to develop new offensive tactics that would be employed over the course of the battle. These new tactics were crucial to the plans of both the German Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, and the unit carrying out the offensive at Verdun, the 5th Army under the command of the German Crown Prince Wilhelm with Constantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf as his chief of staff. If Falkenhayn’s goal for the offensive was the ‘exsanguination’ of the French army and people, the 5th Army’s objectives in early 1916 were more down to earth. Their attack order of 5 January 1916 set the eastern heights as their objective:

He who possesses the hills of the eastern bank and has captured the fortifications on these heights is also in possession of the fortress….Indeed, even if the forts on the western bank are not occupied at first, the fortress will have lost its value for France when the eastern bank has been taken by us.

Drawing on the experience of the war to date, the 5th Army believed seizing the French positions on the eastern bank in one quick manoeuvre was well within their ability. Since the rise of trench warfare, the German army had conducted a number of successful ‘attacks with limited objectives,’ not least the 1st Army attacks at Vailly and Soissons in late 1914 and early 1915. The experience of defending against French attacks in 1915 had also shown that a determined attacker could capture an enemy’s first and second defensive line under the right circumstances. The key to all of these actions was the effect of artillery, particularly heavy artillery. Thus, the use of heavy artillery would feature prominently in the 5th Army’s plans for its offensive at Verdun.

Of course, the Germans were not alone in recognising the importance of artillery; Entente forces had employed artillery in ever increasing numbers and volume throughout 1915 and their planned offensives of 1916 relied heavily on even more artillery. There was a fundamental difference, however, in how the Entente and the Germans employed artillery at this stage in the war. For several reasons, the Germans put more emphasis on the physiological effect of artillery and less on its destructive effect, than did the French or British armies at this stage in the war. In part, this was a consequence of the types of artillery each army had available in the war to date. The German army went to war in 1914 with very considerable numbers of modern heavy artillery, importantly, modern heavy howitzers and mortars. These heavy howitzers were capable of firing very heavy shells at high angles, which made them effective against entrenched enemies and against fortifications. Indeed, drawing on lessons from the Russo-Japanese War and the Balkan Wars, the pre-war German army had developed and deployed more high-angle of fire weapons than any other European army, including super-heavy howitzers capable of fire shells weighing 820 kilograms.

In 1914, the Germans used this heavy artillery to good effect to capture first Belgian and then French fortresses and fortifications. However, contrary to pre-war expectations, it was not the destruction wrought by heavy artillery that brought about the surrender of enemy fortifications, but rather its psychological impact. The fortresses of Liege, Namur, Antwerp, and Maubeuge all fell to much smaller forces, which generally attacked after short, concentrated bombardments by German heavy artillery. (Indeed, in the case of Liege, the infantry attacked before heavy artillery preparation.) With a couple spectacular exceptions, their defensive works had remained largely intact, but the morale of their garrisons collapsed under the weight of German heavy artillery fire, leading to their surrender.

The experience of field fortifications on the Western Front reinforced the growing belief amongst German artillerists that it was not the duration of artillery preparation and not the destruction caused by a bombardment that was important, but rather the intensity and weight of fire during a preparatory bombardment. This was expressed clearly as early as December 1914 by Ludwig Lauter, the General of Heavy Artillery in the German High Command, who wrote: ‘Days’ long careful fire causes high casualties among the enemy, but it is not enough to break his combat power before the moment of attack. A short one- or two-hour heavy bombardment, with its moral and physical effect, fulfils this goal much better.’

Thus, the 5th Army planned a short, but incredibly intensive, period of artillery preparation before the infantry attacked. They concentrated more than 1,400 guns and mortars for their offensive. In addition to the 550 field guns of the attacking divisions, which included light howitzers, the 5th Army deployed 654 heavy artillery pieces over 100mm, including 30 over 210mm. The 5th Army planned an eight-hour preparatory bombardment across a 14-kilometer long front, which would fire some 1.5 million rounds. (By way of contrast, the British 4th Army and French 6th Army planned for four days of artillery preparation across a 38-kilometer front for the Somme in June.) As one famous German attacker, Cordt von Brandis, later put it ‘the infantry expected to parade march into Verdun’ on the back of the intense German heavy artillery bombardment.

The 5th Army command was a bit more realistic. They still expected a tough fight, despite the anticipated psychological effects of the heavy artillery, and they admonished their attacking units to maintain momentum until the eastern heights were taken. They also had a more realistic view than Falkenhayn of the threat to the offensive posed by French artillery operating from the western bank of the Meuse. As the 5th Army’s units drove towards the heights on the eastern bank, their flanks would be exposed to French artillery on the western bank. Falkenhayn expect that German artillery could suppress this threat, but the 5th Army wasn’t sure and pushed for an offensive on both banks from the start.

In the end, Falkenhayn’s desire to limit the offensive won out, and the operation was confined initially to the eastern bank of the Meuse. Once these commanding heights, Falkenhayn expected the 5th Army to make use of its artillery to defeat any French counter-attack and to inflict unacceptably high casualties on the French army. Indeed, if the French did counter-attack at Verdun, the success of Falkenhayn’s entire strategy rested on the 5th Army’s ability to take and hold the dominating heights. Without accomplishing this goal, the battle risked degenerating into one of mutual attrition, something the German army itself could ill-afford.

Image: The 15cm Heavy Field Howitzers like those in this image were the backbone of the German artillery battle at Verdun. At the battle’s height, almost 500 of these were deployed, and they fired nearly 4 million rounds over the course of the battle. Bundesarchiv Bild 183-S36048.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

4 comments

  1. Bob, thanks for three fascinating articles about a battle that I know little about. However, I do question how subtle, sophisticated or realistic the German plan was. At the operational level, it seemed to rest on inflicting disproportionate losses on the French by seizing the (still-fortified) east bank at Verdun after a concentrated artillery bombardment, and then inflicting further casualties on the French obligingly counter-attacking, either from the west bank or elsewhere. Having seen the apparent strength of the defence following the battles of 1915, I am surprised that in 1916 the Germans still opted for an offensive rather than a defensive plan to cause attrition. I am also surprised that they chose to execute it at Verdun, one of the strongest parts of the French defensive line (can the attack really be called limited when made against such well-prepared defences?), and that they maintained it for so long, when it must have been clear from their own heavy losses that it was not working. At the strategic level, the German strategy seemed to involve a war of attrition against two western nations jointly larger than Germany and also able to draw on substantial imperial manpower reserves from abroad, to say nothing of the Russians in the east: was this strategy ever realistic? Did the Germans over-estimate the extent to which the French had already been written down and / or how much additional attrition that they could inflict without suffering unduly themselves?

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    1. Owain, thank you very much for the comment, and I am sorry for the delay in responding. I didn’t mean to give the impression that I believed the German plans were likely to result in the success for which they hoped. My intention with the posts was to unpick German thinking, or more particularly, Falkenhayn’s rationale for the Verdun offensive, which existed at three distinct but interrelated levels. Undoubtedly, though, he overestimated the ability of the German army to inflict casualties on the French. In part, this was a result of overestimating the casualties suffered by the French and British in 1915. His plan to inflict these casualties was not, though, initially offensive. He relied on the French launching a counter-offensive to bring about their attrition. This in itself was neither unrealistic nor unique — both the French and the British hoped for similar action in their offensive plans. What made it unique was the effect he hoped it would have. German intelligence assessed the French to be running out of manpower, and both Falkenhayn and German intelligence assumed this was a French critical vulnerability, both operationally and strategically. Further, I don’t think the seizure of the right bank at Verdun was an unrealistic tactical goal. Okay, the British and French had not managed much territorial gain at this stage in the war, but they lacked both the tactics and the technology of the German army in 1915/1916. The Germans had taken every fortress they had faced, with one exception, up to the battle of Verdun. At the start of the offensive, Verdun was not particularly strongly held. The goals of the attacking corps were only 6-8 kilometers from the front lines, and the 5th Army should have been able to take these objectives. Once the 5th Army failed to achieve these objectives quickly, though, the battle degenerated into a mutual slogging match. Falkenhayn had not wanted this, but both he and the 5th Army tried to make the best of this. Even in this phase, however, Falkenhayn overestimated French casualties. Herein lies another post though! Everyone in the Central Powers underestimated the ability of the Russians to rebuild after their mauling in 1915. The so-called Brusilov offensive came as a real shock to both the Germans and the Austrians, but it had fairly limited direct impact on the Western Front. Only a few divisions were diverted from the Western Front to the Eastern, and the Verdun offensive continued. The Austrians, though, were forced to give up their offensive in Italy and move considerable resources back east.

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