Episode 70: Verdun Pt. 8

1916 Episodes Verdun

Last week we looked at the arrival of Petain at Verdun on February the 25th. When he arrived the impetus of the original German attack was finally coming to an end, but of course the French commanders did not know that at the time. So this week we will ask the question that the German leaders were also beginning to look around and ask themselves "what next." After the offensive finally came to a halt on the east bank on the 28th of February Falkenhayn, the Crown Prince, and Knobelsdorf would meet to determine the answer to that question, an answer that would eventually become an attack on the West Bank. An attack on this bank to complement the efforts on the East Bank was initially purposefully ignored by Falkenhayn, against the advice of the Crown Prince and Knobelsdorf and the German soldiers had been paying for this decision since almost the very beginning of the attack. Now that the attack would have to be launched on the West Bank the Germans would not be facing a disorganized and unprepared French line but instead prepared and ready French units that were 100% knowledgeable about the attack. Before we get to this attack though lets take a step back to figure out why the German attack had come to a halt by the end of February.


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Sources

The First World War by John Keegan
A World Undone by G.J. Meyer
Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I by Alexander Watson
Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 by Alistair Horne
German Strategy and the Path to Verdun by Robert T. Foley
Verdun: The Lost History of the Most Important Battle of World War I by John Mosier
Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War by Paul Jankowski
Pyrrhic Victory by Robert Doughty
The long‐term effects of explosive munitions on the WWI battlefield surface of Verdun, France by Joseph P. Hupy
French, David. 1988. “The Meaning of Attrition, 1914-1916”. The English Historical Review 103 (407). Oxford University Press: 385–405. http://www.jstor.org/stable/571187.

Transcript

Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 70. With the beginning of another month I would like to thank all of our Patreon subscribers for their generous help and support. You are all awesome, and I hope you all feel awesome. I would also like to thank the 4 people who gave the show a review on iTunes last month, I'm not going to try and say all of the names because Apple IDs are generally unpronounceable but the two people from the USA, one from the UK, and one from the Netherlands, you know who you are and thank you. Last week we looked at the arrival of Petain at Verdun on February the 25th. When he arrived the impetus of the original German attack was finally coming to an end, but of course the French commanders did not know that at the time. So this week we will ask the question that the German leaders were also beginning to look around and ask themselves "what next." After the offensive finally came to a halt on the east bank on the 28th of February Falkenhayn, the Crown Prince, and Knobelsdorf would meet to determine the answer to that question, an answer that would eventually become an attack on the West Bank. An attack on this bank to complement the efforts on the East Bank was initially purposefully ignored by Falkenhayn, against the advice of the Crown Prince and Knobelsdorf and the German soldiers had been paying for this decision since almost the very beginning of the attack. Now that the attack would have to be launched on the West Bank the Germans would not be facing a disorganized and unprepared French line but instead prepared and ready French units that were 100% knowledgeable about the attack. Before we get to this attack though lets take a step back to figure out why the German attack had come to a halt by the end of February.

When the offensive was just 6 days old on February 27th the Germans were already encountering problems. The French 20th Corps and all the other reinforcements that were coming into the line were holding the German advance and the Germans were now fighting for every step forward. In total the Germans had advanced about halfway to the city but it started to feel like no matter what they did they could not move it much further. This was crazy because just 2 days before on the 25th it seemed like the Germans were on the brink of victory. All of this culminated on the 27th when for the first time the Germans were unable to move the front line forward. The German high command would record that "The enemy has brought the offensive on the Meuse Heights temporarily to a halt" and in Verdun The Longest Battle Paul Jankowski would say of this period that "Equilibrium was setting in, made of local attacks and counterattacks, house-to-house fighting, and incessant shellfire that stopped German infantry in their tracks or confined them to shelters hastily excavated in the frozen ground." The Germans were not close to giving up, but it was time to start reconsidering the situation. They had inflicted huge casualties, but with the positions that the French still held it was all for naught. Other than maybe the troops around Douaumont all of the German troops were in positions that were inferior to the ones that the French still occupied in front of them, so continuing forward was the only option. This was easier said than done though. One of the plethora of problems was the artillery, before the battle the Germans had given a lot of thought to the artillery and what to do with the guns as the battle moved forward. The physical difficulty of moving the guns over the broken ground of the battlefield was much greater than they anticipated. The biggest problem was not the largest of the German guns, they were often stationary and far behind the lines or the light field guns that were often easily moved. The problem was instead the real workhorses of the German artillery and of the attack at Verdun, the heavy howitzers. They were hard to move over the battlefield in the best circumstances, which were present in the early days of the battle when the ground was frozen. On the 28th the temperatures began to rise and moving the guns over the mud was herculean. Last episode we talked about how this rise in temperatures posed such a problem for the French trying to move supplies up the Sacred Way and their solution was to get thousands of men to shovel gravel and other material onto the road to try and created a driving surface, this was hard work but it did keep traffic flowing. The Germans could not really do this for their guns as they were far more spread out than a single road and could not be consolidated out of fear of the French artillery. The guns did still get moved forward when required though, it was just an extremely slow process that would put huge swaths of the German gunline out of action for hours or days as they were moved forward. The problems extended beyond just moving the guns though, moving ammunition to the front was causing just as much of a headache as the supply lines were forced to extend over the battlefield. The entire goal was to keep the guns as close to the front as possible so that their fire could be made as devastating as possible, this increased accuracy but came at a cost. By having the guns closer to the front they were more vulnerable to the growing number of french guns. This increased not just casualties at the guns, but also the attrition rate on the guns themselves and the teams of horses that were supposed to move them around the battlefield. Thousands of these horses were killed on some days, and the supply of new horses was not infinite. While all of these problems were reducing the effectiveness of the German artillery the French artillery just kept getting stronger, more guns were brought in and more ammunition was making its way to the front. The Germans could have stopped this flow of supplies. There were many German guns at Verdun that could have brought a continuous rain of fire down on the Sacred Way and closed it to the line of trucks and trains that were keeping the French resistance going, but they did not. Then there was the other problem for the Germans, the fact that Petain was putting most of the newly arriving artillery on the West Bank, the side that the Germans were not attacking on. General Von Zwehl began to pressure the Crown Prince and Knobelsdorf to launch an attack against these French guns because they could also be positioned to bring almost every single German position on the East bank under fire. They were positioned along a ridge called Le Mort Homme, which means The Dead Man. Few times that I am aware of have geographical names been more appropriate than that of Le Mort Homme when you consider what will happen over the spring and summer of 1916 on the ridge.

Because of all of the problems that the Germans were having Falkenhayn, Knobelsdorf, and the Crown Prince would meet to discuss the West Bank. Just a bit of a refresher on the West Bank before we move forward. When planning for the attack Falkenhayn had insisted that the attack not be launched on the West Bank because he did not think that Germans had enough men to make it work. This went against all German military thinking at the time, every thought exercise from before the war had said that both banks had to be attacked at Verdun if there was any hope of success. However, Falkenhayn believed that the Germans could neutralize the French artillery on that West Bank with German artillery. When the offensive got started it quickly became apparent that this was not the case and the German guns had no hope of fully silencing the French guns on the West Bank. On just the third day of the attack, the 24th, the 5th army asked for more troops so that they could launch an attack on the West bank, but Falkenhayn refused. At this point the offensive was still going well and Falkenhayn believed that soon the Germans would capture the heights overlooking the city on the East bank and then they could transfer some troops to the other side of the river to launch attacks there. This would have been the ideal scenario but it was clear by the 27th that it was not going to happen, and even Falkenhayn realized it. So a serious discussion had to happen both at Falkenhayn's headquarters and at the 5th army headquarters, Falkenhayn would describe what was discussed at headquarters in his memoirs "the question that had to be considered by the GHQ was whether to intimate that the continuance of the operation on the Meuse would be abandoned, and a new enterprise started on another front" The conference to decide the issue would take place on the last day of February at the 5th Army HQ. There was a lot of discussion at the meeting between the parties involved. The Crown Prince took some time to describe just how problematic the French positions on the West Bank were and then both the Crown Prince and Knobelsdorf laid out three conditions on which they believed the attack should be continued. The first condition was that the attack must now take place on both the East and West bank of the river. Second, they must be given more troops, enough to give attacks on both banks a high likelihood of success. Third, the campaign should be halted the instant that "we ourselves were losing more heavily and becoming exhausted more rapidly than the enemy." If Falkenhayn did not agree to all of these conditions the Crown Prince and Knobelsdorf said that the attack must be halted. Faced with no other option Falkenhayn agreed to the conditions, more troops were brought in and given to the Fifth Army, an entire Corps from the German reserves. Preparations for the attack on the West bank would begin on March 6th with an accompanying attack on the East Bank at the same time. The offensive at Verdun, which Falkenhayn had initially wanted to be a limited attack had just doubled in size. G. J. Meyers in A World Undone would say of this decision "And so the Germans, having in the space of a week thrown away two opportunities to capture Verdun, cast aside the chance to get out cheaply." The path to Verdun was a long one, and now just a week in the Germans were already changing up their plan. The reasons and decisions along the way that resulted in Verdun becoming such a disaster for the Germans were long, but this moment, this one choice to double down, was the root of it all. This was the last real moment where the Germans could have just stopped and called it a day. They would have had to retreated back a bit on the East Bank to get troops in sustainable positions, but they had occupied Douaumont at the very least and that was something to brag about. However, they of course did not do this, and they would now go all in at Verdun, the Germans, much like the French when Castelnau had ordered the troops to hold every foot of ground, had just opted into a victory or death situation.

As I mentioned earlier the main objective of the attack on the West bank was Le Mort Homme which was a set of two hills that were so close together that they formed a ridge and was absolutely perfect as an artillery observation point and had a great view of all the areas on both sides of the river. There was French light artillery guns at the top and then of course a plethora of spotters for the heavier artillery behind the lines. With the situation in 1914 you did not really need to base guns on top of hills like in the Napoleonic Wars, just one man an a telephone line to the rear was more than enough. The ridge was a somewhat distant objective from the German front lines, with it being around 2 miles in the distance. This was a problem for the Germans, as we have discussed before the best situation for attackers in 1916 was for their jumping off points to be as close to their objectives as possible. Two miles is a long way to go. The biggest problem was simple that the French would be ready for the attack this time, it would be barely a surprise at all. The plan was simple, much like the attacks on the other bank during the first few days. There would be lots and lots of German artillery dropping on the French over a relatively short period of time and then the German infantry would push forward quickly. Unfortunately, unlike the earlier assaults, it would not go well.

At 8AM on March the 6th the artillery fire began on the West Bank, with the typical German intensity. It lasted for almost 4 hours before the infantry began their attack. The artillery had focused on Le Mort Homme instead of the French front line because the Germans knew that in this area the real problem would be the French positions on the ridge. When the attack started this seemed like the right move because the assault troops quickly overran the French front line. German troops also crossed the river at Brabant to meet the German troops as they moved forward. The French 67th Division, which was in the French front lines at the time, found itself having to retreat rapidly, and in some areas the units broke completely and fled back in panic. By the evening the Germans were reaching one of their primary objectives on the road to Mort Homme, the Bois des Corbeaux. This wooded area was to the north of the ridge, but it controlled the approaches to it and was essential if they wanted to continue the advance. Throughout the night and into the next day the Germans pushed through the woods, capturing all of it by late in the afternoon on the 7th. The hope was that this wood would allow the man attack against the ridge, which was by this point starting to bog down, to continue. By nightfall on the second day of the attack everything seemed to be going well, but then on the morning of the 8th a French counter attack hit the German troops hard in the Bois des Corbeaux and they found themselves slowly being pushed back. By 7:30AM almost all of the Bois des Corbeaux was back in French hands and the Germans were left wondering what had just happened. The French had not been caught by surprise this time, they had time to bring reinforcements over to the West Bank before the attack and when the Germans did attack on the 6th there were already 4 divisions moving into the lines with another in reserve. These 60,000 troops, with more ready to come in behind if required, were ready to launch their counter attack just 48 hours after the attack started. They were also backed up by the French artillery, with Petain having his guns focus on the German artillery on the West Bank during the attack. All of this meant that when the Germans attacked the French were reading and their ability to counter attack, displayed in spades in the Bois des Corbeaux put a quick stop to the German advance. The Germans had been planning on renewing their attack on the Mort Homme later on the 8th but they had to call this attack off and instead they focused on holding what they had already captured. But the next day, on the 9th, they were ready to move forward again. This time though the French were completely prepared and when the Germans attacked they ran into a solid wall of French fire and resistance resulting in almost no gains being made. On the East Bank the attack that was supposed to be launched in sync with that on the West had to be delayed due to the difficulty of getting shells to the guns at the front, and even when it did finally go forward the results were less than stellar. The one important gain on the East Bank was near Fort Vaux, where the Germans were able to advance right up to the Fort. On the West bank the advance on the West Bank had hit a serious roadblock when was a problem because the positions that they now occupied were actually worse than what they had started in. They were more exposed to the French fire and under constant observation from Mort Homme and the surrounding French positions. This meant that the German leaders had only two choices retreat now and admit defeat or continue on with the attack regardless of consequences.

Of course they would continue the attack. Even though the locations on the West bank are less known than on the East bank where places like Douaumont and Vaux dominate histories of Verdun, Le Mort Homme and Cote 304 saw some of the most savage fighting of the entire 10 month struggle. There would be a very specific pattern that would take hold on the West bank as well. First, the Germans would attack and make some initial progress. Then the attack would slowly grind to a halt thanks to French resistance and artillery. Then the French would counter attack and push the Germans back off of most of their gains, but usually not all. And so the slow tide of German advancement would continue, day after day, at crushing cost. On the 14th 6 whole divisions attacked straight against Mort Homme, on the 20th there was another attack. Through all of this there were almost always smaller attacks every sing day, bridging the gaps between the larger efforts. One problem that the Germans were facing on the West Bank was the fact that every time they would capture a French position, even it was seemingly extremely important, there was always another one behind it that was just as critical to continued success. This resulted in the Germans never feeling like they were making any progress, or that they could stop. With the continued failures of reaching the main prize, Mort Homme, the Germans decided that they would have to capture another hill first, Cote 304. This would hopefully be accomplished by the 11th Bavarian division who would take several days to prepare for the attack. When they went forward the Bavarians made some easy initial progress. Most of this was thanks to some information that they had gathered from French deserters, specifically information about routes through the French wire that the troops were able to take advantage of. This allowed the Germans to easily reach the French positions in the Bois d'Avocourt on the way to Cote 304 and to capture several thousand Frenchmen within the woods. However they found that when they tried to continue forward they were immediately under the fire of masses of French heavy mortars, which had been placed specifically to deny the Germans this route onto Cote 304. They also ran into French machine guns, also setup for the same purpose. Several times they tried to advance but each time they ran into a solid wall of steel that made it impossible to continue forward. By the end of march the Germans had lost 20,000 men on the West Bank. The initial attacks had been a failure and the Germans would again have to re-evaluate the situation in April. But there was also another fact of the fighting to consider, the state of the German troops involved in the fighting. The biggest problem was the way that the Germans utilized divisions at the front. Instead of rotating divisions in and out of the fighting like the French the Germans kept the same divisions in the same areas over lengthy time periods, several months usually, even during attacks. To keep their numbers up replacements were constantly pumped into the units so that over time the percentage of long time veterans got smaller and smaller, especially at Verdun. This resulted in more casualties and overall less effective attacks. German Medical officers were already beginning to write report after report, concerned about the physical state of the troops at Verdun, especially those who had been there awhile, and the situation would certainly not improve if the fighting continued. This also meant that the number of German troops who experienced Verdun was smaller than on the French side. Regardless of all of these problems the Germans would keep on attacking day after day. G. J. Meyer again here "The dynamics of the situation were drawing the Germans into a nearly obsessive willingness to attack and attack again regardless of cost, and to attack not only with guns but with troops. Blindness, loss of perspective, had become a more serious affliction on the German side than on the French." The Germans were falling headlong into their own trap. Even though by the end of March the fighting had been going on for over a month, it was still not close to ending, it really was not even the beginning of the end. At best you could say that the failures of the opening efforts on the West Bank represented just the end of the beginning, and the next stage of the battle would be even more deadly than anything that had come before.