Episode 71: Verdun Pt. 9

1916 Episodes Verdun

Last week the Germans failed in their attacks on the West Bank at Verdun in March 1916. April would mark the beginning of what I am calling The Long Grind by which I mean a series of attacks and counter attacks against the same targets for the next several months. This would begin with an attack by the Germans on both banks of the river in April although we will not spend the entire episode on the attack. The last half of this episode will look at what it was like for the troops at the front while they were fighting at Verdun, this life settled into something of a routine after the turmoil of the first months of the attack. There was a reason that their experiences at Verdun were burned into the memories of the soldiers who served there. Part of this horror would come in tandem with the rise in temperatures that started in the Spring and would move into the Summer. One thing that you might notice for the rest of the Verdun episodes is that we will begin skipping ahead in time far more for the next 5 episodes as we will rapidly move through until Verdun's conclusion, so be prepared for that.

The History of the Great war is also available on Stitcher


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.


Last week the Germans failed in their attacks on the West Bank at Verdun in March 1916. April would mark the beginning of what I am calling The Long Grind by which I mean a series of attacks and counter attacks against the same targets for the next several months. This would begin with an attack by the Germans on both banks of the river in April although we will not spend the entire episode on the attack. The last half of this episode will look at what it was like for the troops at the front while they were fighting at Verdun, this life settled into something of a routine after the turmoil of the first months of the attack. There was a reason that their experiences at Verdun were burned into the memories of the soldiers who served there. Part of this horror would come in tandem with the rise in temperatures that started in the Spring and would move into the Summer. One thing that you might notice for the rest of the Verdun episodes is that we will begin skipping ahead in time far more for the next 5 episodes as we will rapidly move through until Verdun's conclusion, so be prepared for that.

By the beginning of April the French had suffered somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 casualties during the course of the action at Verdun. Critically though, the Germans thought they had suffered 200,000 which is obviously a very different number and this caused the Germans to continue to believe that they were winning the trades of men during the battles. At the end of March the 5th Army asked for more troops, using the 200,000 number and their belief that the French must be close to exhaustion as the justification of the request. The goal with these new troops was something that had not been done up to this point, instead of a small limited attack on one bank with support from the other bank like they had done in March this would be an all out attack along the entire front. The full 20 miles of the front would be in action simultaneously to try and just completely overwhelm the French defenders. On the east bank the goal was to reach a line from Ouvrage de Thiaumont-Fleury-Fort Souville-Fort de Tavannes on the West bank the goal was, of course, Le Mort Homme. Falkenhayn would agree to send the 5th army the troops they requested, but these troops came with a message "The assumption that we are in the position to relieve the worn-out units with fresh, high-quality units at any time and that we are able to provide a continuous replacement of material and munitions is false." He was clear that this was not something that could continue indefinitely. The attack would begin on April the 9th, and surprisingly it would last for only 4 days.

On the West Bank on April the 9th there would be 5 German divisions attacking into just 3 French divisions and both Cote 304 and Mort Homme would be attacked simultaneously. Along the entire front the bombardments would utilize 7 trainloads of ammunitions which overall meant that it was the largest bombardment since February 21st. When the attack began, as the script for attacks goes, the Germans made some initial progress moving forward all the way to the initial crest of the ridge. Unfortunately when the German troops arrived at this crest, which they thought was as high as they needed to go, it soon became apparent that there was another summit 100 feet higher that was still in French hands. Over the entire course of the battle these two summits would bounce back and forth between German and French control as both sides would launch counter attack after counter attack in attempt to push the other side off. Every time one side was able to take it their troops were generally so exhausted that they were almost instantly pushed back. One French officer of the 146th Regiment would spend the entire battle, all four days, on Mort Homme. He would somehow survive all of the action there and when he moved back behind the front he would take the time to write and reflect on his experience "I have returned from the toughest trial I have ever seen -- four days and four nights -- ninety six hours -- the last two days soaked in icy mud -- under terrible bombardment, without any shelter other than the narrowness of the trench, which even seemed to be too wide; not a hole, not a dugout, nothing, nothing. The Boche did not attack, naturally, it would have been too stupid. It was much more convenient to carry a fine firing exercise on our backs…result: I arrived there with 175 men, I returned with 34, several half mad." A French Chaplain who was also near the front during the fighting would write “One must have lived through these hours in order to get an idea of it. It seems as though we are living under a steam hammer…You receive something like a blow in the hollow of the stomach. But what a blow!…Each explosion knocks us to the ground. After a few hours one becomes somewhat dumbfounded." While this action was happening on the West Bank on the East Bank the attacks went forward as well. Here the French resistance was much greater than what was found on Mort Homme and the Germans accomplished pretty much nothing in all of their attacks. After the first 4 days of the attack the Germans were not ready to stop and prepared to continue on the 13th of April, but this something happened, it began to rain. It would rain and rain for the next 12 days. At first the fighting continued even with the rain, mostly as an artillery duel while the infantry slowly continued to inch forward in the mud. But it soon got to the point where it just could not be continued. Everything just got bogged down in the mud, ammunition could not get to the guns, food could not get to the front, men just could not go forward. Eventually all operations had to be suspended until the weather got better. With all of the rain during the next two weeks it would be May before the action would get started again.

By the start of the April offensives the Germans had suffered 85,000 casualties, compared to 100,000 for the French. By the time the April attacks were over the German number was up to over 120,000. This was just a gigantic jump and it was even worse when you consider that the French total casualties went up to just 133,000. While this was not a great situation there was one good thing to come out of the April attacks, Le Mort Homme was finally in German hands. It was a task that they had started back in March but it was done, now there were new obstacles in front of them. First of all Cote 304 was still untaken and then there were more French positions behind Le Mort Homme. The question of whether it was wise to continue the attacks was getting asked more and more often among the German commanders at this point. They were just overall concerned that continuing was not the right move, as there was some evidence that casualties were now roughly equal. The problem was that if the Germans did not keep attacking they would have to retreat, they were just too exposed in their current positions. One of the most vocal commanders was on the East Bank, General von Mudra. He began expressing his doubts in April and would say "The attacking infantry is exposed to continuous fire form heavy and field artillery, at times coming from the flanks, at times from their rear. The rearward communications, the rest positions, and even the reserves are similarly exposed to enemy fire of all calibers." There was of course disagreement about precisely what the plan should be, who should attack with what strength and where maybe tactical withdraws should happen. The only thing everybody could agree on was that they could not remain where they were. Falkenhayn agreed with the decision that the Germans could not stop, but he thought that the attacks should continue. Knobelsford continued to agree with Falkenhayn in this regard, to the point where he would replace General Von Mudra, whose mood continued towards pessimism as time wore on. Here was another moment where the Germans could have called off the attacks at Verdun but again they did not. It was all based on the belief that the French had to be suffering worse than the Germans, which was now not necessarily true, it was pretty close to even. I know that I have really been harping on this fact the last few episodes, and it was not just a German problem in 1916, you will hear me discuss it on the other side when we get to the Somme. There was one person on the German side that was starting to waver in his belief in the attack and that person was the commander of the Fifth Army, the Crown Prince. On April the 21st he Crown Prince would write "I was now convinced, after the stubborn to-and-fro contest for ever foot of ground which had continued throughout the whole of April, that although we had more than once changed methods of attack, a decisive success at Verdun could only be asssured at the price of heavy sacrifices, out of all proportion to the desired gains. I naturally came to this conclusion only with the greatest reluctance; it was no easy matter for me, the responsible commander, to abandon my dreams of hope and victory" In his memoirs he would write that around this time it began to see that “Verdun was the mill on the Meuse that ground to powder the hearts as well as the bodies of our soldiers." You may be wondering why he did not have more power as the Crown Prince and as an army commander. As I mentioned several episodes ago the Crown Prince was not a military man by occupation, instead he was only put at the head of an army in 1914 because he was a Crown Prince. He was given Knobelsdorf as his Chief of Staff with the expressed instruction from the Kaiser that he should do whatever Knobelsdorf said, at Verdun that meant that he would publicly support the continuation of the attacks at Verdun, even if he no longer believed in them.

While these conversations were happening on the German side there were also changes on the French side in March and April. First was a change at the top with Joseph Gallieni, the hero of the Marne and current War Minister, would die on March 27th after being ill for several months. In 1921 he would be posthumously Marshal of France for his contributions in the war. He would be replaced by General Roquest who was brought into the office on March 16th. Joffre was consulted before he was appointed to make sure that they could work together and Joffre approved of Roques. Almost instantly Roquest was put under pressure to curtail Joffre's power and to investigate his conduct of the war. Just a week after he was appointed as War Minister he requested that Joffre remove Generals Dubail and Langle de Cary from their commands, the two men were chosen to take the blame for all of the French failures of the last year of the war. Joffre would at first resist this request, just on general principal of not wanting the government to have any power in military affairs, but he would eventually bow to the pressure and relieve the two Generals. While the government was not thrilled with the conduct of many of the French generals Joffre had one general who was constantly causing him consternation, Petain. After the successful defense of the April attack Petain would begin to use the phrase that would show up on French propaganda and recruitment posters for the rest of the war, "Courage! On les aura" which means Courage! We'll get them. This was not what was causing problems for Joffre but instead Petain's rotation system that he insisted on using. It was a godsend for the men at the front but it was causing problems for Joffre and his wish to continue with the attacks at other areas of the front. He was also strongly pushing Petain to launch a huge counter attack against the Germans and he believed that Petain already had enough troops to execute this attack, even though Petain insisted that he only have enough to barely man the lines. On April 1st Joffre would write to Petain that the counter attack “This is the only way you can impose your will on the enemy, maintain the high morale of your troops, and close with success the final part of the operation that the enemy began at Verdun.” A week later he would again urge Petain to attack by telling him to launch “a vigorous and powerful offensive to be executed with only the briefest delay." Petain would almost completely ignore all of these suggestions from Joffre. This did not make Joffre even remotely happy, but he was in a bind because he could not remove Petain. Petain was already seen as a national hero and he had been attached to the action at Verdun in the public opinion. Dismissing him or moving him to another part of the front would be extremely unpopular and might have some drastic ramifications. The dismissal of General Langle de Cary gave Joffre an opportunity though. Since Joffre could not remove Petain he took the one action that would achieve his goals and nobody could possibly complain about, he would promote Petain to the commander of the Third Army Group, previously commanded by Langle de Cary. Petain would no longer have direct command over the action at Verdun and instead be given command over the entire area over the front around Verdun. In his place Joffre placed General Robert Nivelle, who had rapidly risen through the ranks of French command over the course of 1915 and had arrived at Verdun in April. Nivelle was an artillery commander by trade and he was also very well spoken, including a mastery of English, which meant that he was very well connected in Paris. The best part about Nivelle, in Joffre's mind, was that he wanted to attack even more often than Joffre did and when he arrived at Verdun he quickly made his mark. He would continually order the French under his command to attack, and attack under any circumstances. He would also make changes to the rotation system that Joffre hated so much, and now French troops would spend far longer at Verdun. We will discuss Nivelle's changes in more depth next week, but his primary role in April was to move Petain out of the picture. Petain would not be completely denied his influence though, and he would propose that if the French were going to attack their objectives should be limited. This would be the hallmark of Petain's suggestions and methods for the rest of the war, and Nivelle would have absolutely none of it.

That is where we will leave the situation at Verdun for this week, and I think the best way forward is to spend the rest of the episode talking about what it was like to actually be a soldier at Verdun. This is a topic I have spread over several of the next episodes but today we will talk about what it was like to approach Verdun for reinforcements on their way to the front and then discuss a bit about what is was like to live in the front line. Over the coming episodes we will also touch on topics such as food and medicine. Life at Verdun and the hell of it all began well before the troops even arrived at the front lines. Many soldiers say that the worst part was the foreboding sense of doom as they marched up to the front. The first sound that the troops would have heard were the guns, constantly firing off in the distance, you could hear them for miles and miles behind the front. The next thing that would have been encountered was the refuse of battle. Lieutenant Georges Gaudy would have this to say about it "First came the skeletons of companies occasionally led by a wounded officer, leading on a stick. All marched, or rather advanced in small steps, zigzagging as if intoxicated. It was hard to tell the colour of their faces from that of their tunics. Mud had covered everything, dried off, and then another layer had been re-applied. They said nothing. They had even lost the strength to complain." What Gaudy is describing is just the men who were able to move themselves back off the line and does not include the wounded and the dead being evacuated. As the soldiers got closer to the front a fog of smoke that was all pervasive during most of the battle began to make its presence known, giving everything a grey and nightmarish quality. Once the soldiers were close to behind the line they then prepared for the slow and difficult movement up to the reserve trenches and then to the front line. Future President of France Rene Coty was one of the men moving into the line during the fighting “Verdun means first of all the nocturnal climb of men bent beneath the weight of pack and munitions, stumbling in the shell holes,” On all of the World War 1 battlefields the first thing to be obliterated seemed to be any form of navigational aids in the forms of signs or landmarks. This meant that the troops would sometimes wander around for hours and hours trying to find their way to their destination, all while weighed down with supplies. Sometimes the men would just get completely lost and not even arrive at the part of the line they were supposed to. It was only too often that they would spend so much time wandering, generally under the first of artillery, that they would arrive at the line with far fewer numbers than what they started with.

Those men who did arrive at the front were met with a special kind of horror. Here is Alistair Horne from Price of Glory "Most Europeans alive today can conjure up some picture of existence in the trenches, but even to those who actually experienced it the intervening years have mercifully softened the full memory of its miseries. Modern imagination quails at the thought of human being living month after month like rodents below the earth, never completely dry, never free of the evil-smelling mud, and free from lice only for brief periods following a spell out of the line." One feature of the Gallipoli battle that we discussed last years was what happened to all of the dead between the lines when it began to get warmer during the summer. The men at Verdun experienced the same problem. It was simply impossible to bury all of the dead, and even when they could get buried it did not mean that they would stay buried. One man would write in a letter home that "The shells rip open and disinter the dead and send them past your face in shreds" And then the warmth of spring and summer came and the situation went from horror to something that I don't think I have the words to properly describe. By night the men would labor to do whatever they could to improve their positions, they would dig deeper usually, sometimes encountering dead bodies, sometimes not. In the end it did not matter became when the day came the accurate shelling would begin anew, generally destroying any improvements that had been made the night before. This cycle would continue for weeks and months at a time. One of the interesting features of the Verdun battle, and this was something that would happen along the front during quieter times as well, is that a unit would be in the trenches for their entire tour of duty and not see a single enemy, all they would see was the artillery shells falling on them day after day. Once the unit was sufficiently weakened, another would be brought up to take is place. This sounds really silly, sending one unit up to just get chewed up by artillery only to send another, and if you think it is silly you are not wrong. However, the French could not move troops out of the front line, especially in the most critical areas of the front where the loss of 100 meters could cause the entire French position along the front to unravel just due to geography. For the Germans they were constantly moving infantry up to attack, and if they lost any of their hard earned gains to a French counter attack they would just have to take it back all over again. So both sides kept pushing strength up to the front and the meat grinder continued to churn. This created a dread shared among all of the infantry over what the artillery could do to a man. It could just remove a man from existence, which created cases of shell shock and other neurological problems at the front, I mean physically artillery does horrible things to the human body. And it was not just being completely blown up but instead the way it injures a body. Bullets leave nice clean in and out holes most of the time, but shells broke into awkwardly shaped fragments that would crash into soft human bodies like a large truck hitting a small car. Another psychological condition caused by the artillery was isolation and loneliness. The artillery prevented any good connections with the rear and the flanks, even at the best of times. During an attack units could find themselves completely cut off from everybody around them and a handful of men might find themselves holding a hundred meters of trench all by themselves for days on end, with no contact with the outside world. The only way to even try to connect with other units was through runners, but this was often just a death sentence. During one attack a regiment on Mort Homme would lose 21 runners in 3 hours. But some form of communication had to be kept between the front and the rear, and so the runners would keep on running. General Chretien would write that “Many complain of the anguish a troop feels when it believes itself abandoned by the rear leading sometimes to a general depression that can end up paralyzing all action.” There was also a larger isolation felt by the troops at Verdun, and this seems to be more present in the German army, where there was this inability to identify with troops who had not been at Verdun. Here is Horne again here "After a spell in the line men felt as if they belonged to some exclusive monastic order whose grim rites were simply beyond the comprehension of the laymen in the rear." Even with all of these problems and the difficulty of living at the front there were remarkably few men who would revolt or refuse to go into the line, some of the closest you get are when troops found other ways to complain about their conditions, but those will be discussed as part of a story for another episode. Next week we arrive at one of the great stories of Verdun, the heroic defense of Fort Vaux by the French forces as our chronicle of Verdun roles through May and into June.