Episode 73: Verdun Pt. 11

1916 Episodes Verdun

This episode represents our third to last episode on the events of the battle of Verdun. In the months of June and July the Germans would launch another set of attacks, this time aiming for Fort Souville. This goal could have represented the final goal of the campaign, but we will never know. The effort of these attacks, coupled with the Brusilov Offensive in June and the British attack on the Somme in July, meant that this would also be the end of the German attacks at Verdun. Finally, we will discuss a bit about a change in the German high command where Falkenhayn is forced to resign in favor of Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

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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.


This episode represents our third to last episode on the events of the battle of Verdun. In the months of June and July the Germans would launch another set of attacks, this time aiming for Fort Souville. This goal could have represented the final goal of the campaign, but we will never know. The effort of these attacks, coupled with the Brusilov Offensive in June and the British attack on the Somme in July, meant that this would also be the end of the German attacks at Verdun. Finally, we will discuss a bit about a change in the German high command where Falkenhayn is forced to resign in favor of Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

During the June and July battles it was becoming very clear that the German army was simply overstretched. From February until the end of May the actions at Verdun had been a constant drain on German manpower reserves and then on June 7th Falkenhayn was forced to send troops eastward in the form of 3 divisions that were most of the margin of reserve in the West at the time. This was due to the fact that the Brusilov offensive had begun on the southeastern front as the Russians crashed into the Austrian and German lines over an amazingly long area of the battlefield. The attack was not completely successful, but it did make some progress and more importantly hurt the Austrian and German troops there very badly. The casualties were high and it was likely that if German troops were not rushed east then the front would have collapsed. Because bad things always come in twos it was also apparent to the Germans that the British were getting ready to launch an attack on the Somme, and it had been apparent for months before the July 1st official beginning. With the numbers so strongly against them the Germans were forced to rob Verdun first of reinforcements but then also of heavy artillery. Falkenhayn had been pushing his generals at the front to adopt tactics that used up less men, and had been doing so since March. He urged the generals to move away from the traditional attack waves that the Germans were still using and instead use small squads of men moving forward with automatic weapons and hand grenades. These groups would push forward and past the strongest points in the enemy line, letting follow up units do the clean up. These tactics were already being used in the east during the Brusilov offensive, and would be heavily used by the Germans for the rest of the war. These tactics were still not to their most famous evolution, that of the Stormtroopers of 1918, but they were certainly on the way. To go along with this advice Falkenhayn also sent forward a long series of memorandum addressing a variety of topics. One of these would address how close the infantry should be to the German artillery fire, to which his advice was for them to be danger close. He even went so far as to say that some casualties were completely acceptable because it would inevitably be a smaller number than if the artillery was too far away from the infantry. This example, and many more, were all an attempt to get the results desired with the fewest casualties and in this endeavor Falkenhayn was only mildly successful. Falkenhayn and the Germans did have a trick up their sleeve for the June attacks against Fort Souville, or at least a new twist on an old tactic.

Fort Souville, as I previously stated, was the goal of the June attacks but before that bridge could be crossed two other areas had to be captured. The first was Ouvrage de Thiaumont which was a large redoubt, not a fort, much smaller than a fort, maybe like a really large pillbox. This was a base of French fire that was crippling any German attacks to move forward. The other objective was the village of Fleury, or the area where the village of Fleury once stood. Once these two objectives were captured the Germans hoped to quickly sweep forward to capture Souville. Souville was on the last ridge running in front of Verdun, and its capture might have meant the end of the defense of Verdun. For the attack the Germans had put together a force of 30,000 men, so a shortage of men would not be a problem, at least in the initial rush. These men also included some of the very best that Germany had to offer in 1916. An Alpine Corps was present, a unit of elite mountain troops that made up one of the best divisions in Germany and then other units of Light Infantry that were high in skill and bravery. One of the things that historians love to put in their books is references to when famous World War 2 officers show up on World War 1 battlefields. And so continuing that tradition, and continuing our game of German officer bingo, one of the light infantry officers was none other than Lieutenant Paulus. You may have heard of him much later, after he was promoted to Field Marshall, right before he surrendered to the Russians at a little battlefield called Stalingrad. Anyway, back to 1916, and that trick I mentioned earlier.

Since the gas attack at Ypres way back in 1915 there had been something of an arms race on the Western Front. It was gas masks against gas, scientist against scientist, the battle of the century. For the most part all of the armies were equipped with gas masks that were more than capable of dealing with the gases available to the armies. They were a serious pain to wear, and they hindered the ability of the men to effectively fight, but they worked and it kept them alive. We have already seen examples of this in the early days of Verdun when the German gas failed to fully neutralize the French artillery. It was really just inevitable that both sides captured the enemy's gas masks, which allowed them to experiment on them and try to find a new concoction that could be used to get through the masks. The Germans had been doing this for months and they had finally found something that would work. This new gas would be called Phosgene and it would be by far the most deadly gas of the entire war, over 75% of all gas casualties during the war would be caused by Phosgene. It was a horrible weapon and it attacked not just men and animals, but everything. Phosgene took what was left of the vegetation around Verdun and killed it. Much like in previous gas attacks at Verdun the French artillery was the primary target, there was enough to dowse the batteries in the center of the French line, but not enough to get the guns on the flanks. This would end up being critical, and it represented yet another instance where a weapon was used before it was fully ready for primetime. Not only did the Germans not have enough of the Phosgene to fully feel the benefits of the new weapon the French masks also proved to be more effective than expected in protecting the soldiers from its effects. A critical component that had to be considered was that the Phosgene had to reach a certain concentration level to reach through the French masks and due to the limited quantity available it is my guess that they simply could not reach that concentration in the real world conditions at Verdun. This resulted in concentrations less than expected, and consequently effects that were less than expected. But even before the phosgene began falling on their soldiers, there were other problems on the French side of the lines.

Since Nivelle had taken over command and began his policy of constant counter attacks the French were chewing through even more men than they had been before, up to the rate of something like 2 divisions every 3 days. They were also having the same artillery problems that the Germans had begun to experience the month before, the guns had just fired too many rounds and their barrels were worn out to the point that they were becoming dangerous. Added onto this fact was the problem where every step the French took backwards meant there were fewer of the really good artillery observation points that had allowed the French to lay such devastating fire on the Germans throughout the spring. It got to the point where Nivelle, the man where every battle involved simply a red arrow pointing to the enemy, began to possibly, maybe, consider evacuating the East Bank. The only possibility that seemed to harbor some hope was if the action on the Somme could get started. Petain petitioned Joffre and Haig to push up the date of the Somme offensive to relieve the pressure at Verdun, but unfortunately for Petain it was not possible to bring it forward into June. Also, the government back in Paris was becoming more concerned seemingly by the day. The Chamber was getting to the point where on any given day there was a real chance of the government being replaced. On Jun 16th a Secret Session was held to discuss the situation at the front. The first to speak was Maginot, yes that Maginot, and he would say "What might seem astonishing is that until now we have all kept quiet." In the end Maginot was talked off the cliff, but he insisted that his concerns were entered into the official record. While the government was close to calling for a change, something was happening at the front that had not happened in the first two years of the war. Worrying reports were beginning to filter back from the front that French morale at Verdun was reaching a new low. With the change in the rotation system troops were staying at Verdun longer than before, and those that managed to get out of the line found themselves trudging back into it more frequently. Shortly after the fall of Fort Vaux the first instances of French soldiers refusing to go to the front were reported. In response to this threat to discipline Nivelle ordered officers to employ the harshest necessary measures to maintain discipline. This also meant that the French leadership was extremely sensitive to any form of lack of resolve among the troops. An example of this would be one French Lieutenant, who was the only officers left for a unit near the Ouvrage de Thiaumont. On June 7th his men had been under the fire of German artillery for hours and then attacked by infantry and they had already lost a huge majority of their men. He ordered his unit to retreat, which then caused a chain reaction among local units, resulting in several other officers also ordered a retreat. Because of his actions the Lieutenant was shot without trial on the charge of cowardice. Was it a bit draconian? Absolutely, but the French commanders believed that it was the only way that they could get the French soldiers to hold the line.

On June 22nd these actions would be put to the test when the artillery fire for the next German attack began. Along with the typical deluge of high explosive and shrapnel shells there were also 100,000 shells full of phosgene. Here is an excerpt from A World Undone by G. J. Meyer “Our heads are buzzing, we have had enough,” a French lieutenant somehow was able to write in his journal while this attack was in process. “Myself, Agnel, and my orderly are squashed in a hole, protecting ourselves from splinters with our packs. Numb and dazed, without saying a word, and with our hearts pounding, we await the shell that will destroy us. The wounded are increasing in numbers around us. These poor devils not knowing where to go come to us, believing that they will be helped. What can we do? There are clouds of smoke, the air is unbreathable. There’s death everywhere. At our feet, the wounded groan in a pool of blood; two of them, more seriously hit are breathing their last. One, a machine-gunner, has been blinded, with one eye hanging out of its socket and the other torn out: in addition he has lost a leg. The second has no face, an arm blown off, and a horrible wound in the stomach. Moaning and suffering atrociously one begs me, ‘Lieutenant, don’t let me die. Lieutenant, I’m suffering, help me.’ The other, perhaps more gravely wounded and nearer death, implores me to kill him with these words, ‘Lieutenant, if you don’t want to, give me your revolver!’ Frightful, terrible moments, while the cannons harry us and we are splattered with mud and earth by the shells. For hours, these groans and supplications continue until, at 6 P.M., they die before our eyes without anyone being able to help them." The German infantry went forward at 5AM on June 23rd and almost immediately a deep hole was made in the center of the French line, although it was a narrow one. The first rush to the Germans onto the Ouvrage de Thiaumont, which would be the focus of the early fighting. Due to its importance on this particular battlefield it would change hands no less than 14 times during the upcoming fighting. Alistair Horne uses this fighting as an example of the intensity of the fighting at this stage he would call it "Indicative in itself of the constantly mounting frenzy of the battle, the French with their backs to the wall, the Germans so close to victory." Near the Ouvrage the Alpine Corps was moving forward towards Fleury, and quickly. Just 3 hours after the start of the attack they were already overrunning the village and shortly after it was fully in German hands. If you just take these two gains at face value the Germans seem to be doing quite well, but then we come to the problem of how narrow the front of the attack was. On both sides of the advance the French on the flanks were starting to be extremely problematic, which caused the attack to begin to bog down. Then, just when the impetus of the advance began to slow, the Germans ran into a wall of French resistance, bolstered strongly both from the air and from machine guns on the flanks. Here is Max Wittmann who was a German soldier taking part in the attack "After the first squads to be sent over were mown down by machine-gun fire, no one else was willing to go forward. This first debacle and refusal to be uselessly slaughtered defined the rest of the tour. After ‘two tough days’ at the front, Wittmann recorded that ‘many in our company have hidden themselves and done a bunk so that we now number around 45–50 out of 170 men’. After a night spent cowering in a shell hole in no-man’s-land under artillery fire, he too decided that discretion was the better part of valour and headed back to German lines in search of deeper shelter." It certainly did not help the German soldiers, or really the French either, that the 23rd of June turned out to be a very warm day. Water became a huge problem very early in the afternoon as the men ran through the amount that they had brought forward with them. This hampered the German ability to continue to push their men forward, and by the end of the day most of the German units on the front lines were at the end of their ability to continue fighting. On the French side, they once again did not realize that the Germans were completely at the end of their ropes. In fact June 23rd would mark the greatest day of crisis and panic since February at French high command. Nivelle would give his dramatic order of the day as "You will not let them pass" which at the time was a bit funny since there were constant reports of German advances. When they finally came to halt they were just 2.5 miles from Verdun, Nivelle even took the step of ordering some of the artillery across the river to keep it from falling into German hands. The governor of Verdun also ordered trenches to be dug in the streets of Verdun itself, and the buildings to be fortified. Petain was also very very close to just evacuating the entire area and giving the city over to the Germans. In fact, he even took the step of telephoning Castelnau to tell him that he had committed his best and last reserves, if the Germans advanced any further he would have to evacuate the East Bank. The night of the 23rd was probably a sleepless night at French command as they contemplated the possibilities for the next day. Would the Germans launch more Phosgene? Would they continue the attack? Did they have more infantry to bring up? In fact the Germans were out of phosgene, having used all of their shells in the initial attack, and they were also very short of men. The German advance was now over, and in fact almost immediately on the 24th the Germans began to lose ground near Fleury as they came under crippling artillery fire and French counter attacks. When it became apparent early on the 24th that another German attack was not going to materialize, Nivelle, in classic Nivelle fashion, ordered French counter attacks to begin with all strength towards Fleury. Over the next 10 days the French launched 8 attack with heavy casualties on both sides. It would be near the end of June that casualties on both sides would tip over the 200,000 mark.

By the first week of July it was clear to everybody, and perhaps clearest to the Germans that they were in trouble. Even though they seemed to be in an okay position, so close to their final goal, they were quickly running out of men. The earlier attacks had taken more troops than expected, and there were simply not enough reinforcements to bring in to bolster the ranks. Because this when the Germans would try to launch another attack on July 9th it would have just 3 mostly intact divisions. Thankfully for the Germans troops they had first been able to capture a position called High Battery, a strong position with several concrete bunkers which might have given them some chance of success with further attacks, maybe. Unfortunately for everyone shortly after this capture it began to rain again, for two days the artillery continued to fire and the rain continued, turning the battlefield into a sea of mud. The rain was back for both sides, but it was worse for the Germans. The troops stuck on the front lines had not had time to properly construct positions after the previous attack and then meant that they were often stuck in the open in shell holes created by past artillery bombardments. As these started to fill with water…well…I probably do not need to tell you how bad that sucked. A few hours before the attack on the 11th the German artillery switched to the few phosgene shells that had made it to the batteries, once again focusing on the French artillery positions. When the infantry went forward they were hit hard by French artillery. In the week since the first phosgene attack the French had rushed new gas masks forward and this saved the French artillerymen from the gas and became of this they were able to wait until the German troops began to move forward before hitting them with all they had. The German infantry tried, a small group even made it to Fort Souville on July the 12th, but it was only 40 or so men, not enough to be a believable threat. No one was able to come and give them any aid and they were all either killed, captured, or pushed back from the fort. The attacks on July 11th and 12th were the last attacks by the German troops at Verdun. The troops in the front line of the attack had been on the front line for over a week with little supplies or reinforcements reaching them. What reinforcements were available were often just remnant of previously shattered units. And so, not with a bang but with a whimper, the great German attack at Verdun was…over…and it would be over for good. On the 12th of July Falkenhayn ordered the 5th army to move over to the defensive. This meant that the Germans near Souville were stuck in an impossible situation, their current positions were horrible, but could they really just retreat? Falkenhayn did not think so, and neither did the Crown Prince who admitted that it was impossible because psychologically it "would have had an immeasurable disastrous effect" Because of this belief, throughout the rest of the summer the Germans would fight a defensive battle from generally inferior positions. The French would attack again and again, actions that we will cover next week. Even General Mangin was brought back into the fray, always pushing his troops forward. When the first French counter attacks moved forward soon after the 12th they did not find the customary prepared German positions but instead small groups of men spread out among the shell holes, with some machine guns mixed in and while the German advance was over the horror of the battle still have several more months remaining. It did not make it any more palatable for the troops that the fighting would now be happening over battlefields that had already seen their fair share of fighting. Here is French Major Roman speaking about his dugout during some fighting July "On my arrival, the corpse of an infantryman in a blue cap partially emerges from this compound of earth, stones and unidentifiable debris. But a few hours later, it is no longer the same; he has disappeared and has been replaced by a Tirailleur in khaki. And successively there appear other corpses in other uniforms. The shell that buries one disinters another. One gets acclimated, however, to this spectacle; one can bear the horrible odour of this charnel-house in which one lives, but one's joie de vivre, after the war, with eternally be poisoned by it." For the first time at Verdun the situation for the Germans was objectively worse than for the French, in their exposed positions along the front the German casualties started to consistently outnumber those of the French. While there was still fighting, the writing was now on the wall, the French had won the Battle of Verdun.

By July 15th the casualty numbers were up to 275,000 for the French and under just under 250,000 for the Germans. By the end of August that would be 315,000 French and 281,000 German. Here are some other random stats, the Germans had fired 22 million artillery shells, the French 15 million, and as July came to a close the French were still firing over 100,000 shells every single day. On August the 23rd the Crown Prince had enough of the situation and appealed to the Kaiser to get a replacement for his Chief of Staff. By this point the winds had decisively shifted in Berlin, and it was clear that Verdun was a loss, and because of this the Crown Prince found receptive ears. Here was given a new Chief of Staff to replace Knobelsdorf in the form of General von Luttwitz who seemed to agree with the Crown Prince's evaluation of the situation. Knobelsdorf was not the only change in command in the German army in August 1916 though, Falkenhayn's time was now over. There is something that we will focus more on later in the year, a whole episode will probably be devoted to it due to its importance for the German war effort for the rest of the war. Here I will say that it was a combination of failures that caused Falkenhayn to be replaced. The failure at Verdun, the horrible casualties on the Somme, and then Romania's entry into the war all played a part. He was extremely confident that Romania was not close to entering the war on August the 18th, although they would declare for the Allies shortly thereafter and this gave the German leaders the perfect excuse to let him go. His sacking was not due simply to performance though, his popularity had been decreasing in Berlin for the better part of the year and many of the highest ranking officials in the government were now against him, people like the Chancellor and Bethmann-Hollweg. There was of course also the fact that his replacements were waiting, and actively advocating for his removal, and these men were of course Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Falkenhayn, with the writing on the wall resigned on August the 29th. Fear not, brave listeners, Falkenhayn shall make a triumphant return in our narrative in just a few short months as he is given the command of the Romanian front, where he performs his duties to the highest of standards. For the French, the commander of the German armies really did not matter too much, what mattered now was preparing to drive the Germans back at Verdun. Petain wrote to Neville and Mangin and told them to conserve most of their strength for just a few months so that a large counter attack could be launched. By September the French preparations had begun, along with an almost complete halt to French counter attacks. The Germans were not attacking anymore, for the first time in almost 6 months. And now it was time for the final act of the Verdun saga to begin, and it would go far faster than anybody could have expected.