The Battle of Verdun (Bataille de Verdun, IPA: [bataj də vɛʁdœ̃], Schlacht um Verdun, IPA: [ʃlaxt ˀʊm ˈvɛɐdœŋ]), fought from 21 February to 18 December 1916, was the largest and longest battle of the First World War on the Western Front between the German and French armies. The battle took place on the hills north of Verdun-sur-Meuse in north-east France. The German 5th Army attacked the defences of the Fortified Region of Verdun (RFV, Région Fortifiée de Verdun) and those of the French Second Army on the right bank of the Meuse. Inspired by the experience of the Second Battle of Champagne in 1915, the Germans planned rapidly to capture the Meuse Heights, an excellent defensive position with good observation for the artillery to bombard Verdun. The Germans hoped that the French would commit their strategic reserve to recapture the position and suffer catastrophic losses in a battle of annihilation, not costly for the Germans because of their tactical advantage.
Poor weather delayed the beginning of the German attack until 21 February, but the Germans enjoyed initial success, capturing Fort Douaumont in the first three days of the offensive. Afterwards the German advance slowed, despite many French casualties. By 6 March, 20 1⁄2 French divisions were in the RFV and a more extensive defence in depth had been constructed. Pétain ordered that no withdrawals were to be made and that counter-attacks were to be conducted, despite exposing French infantry to fire from the German artillery. By 29 March, French artillery on the west bank had begun a constant bombardment of German positions on the east bank, which caused many German infantry casualties.
In March, the German offensive was extended to the left (west) bank of the Meuse, to gain observation of the ground from which French artillery had been firing over the river onto the Meuse Heights. The Germans were able to advance at first but French reinforcements contained the attacks short of their objectives. In early May, the Germans changed tactics and made local attacks and counter-attacks, which gave the French an opportunity to begin an attack against Fort Douaumont. Part of the fort was occupied, until a German counter-attack recaptured the fort and took numerous prisoners. The Germans changed tactics again, alternating their attacks on both banks of the Meuse and in June captured Fort Vaux. The Germans continued the offensive beyond Vaux, towards the last geographical objectives of the original plan, at Fleury-devant-Douaumont and Fort Souville. The Germans drove a salient into the French defences, captured Fleury and came within 4 km (2.5 mi) of the Verdun citadel.
In July 1916, the German offensive was reduced to provide artillery and infantry reinforcements for the Somme front and during local operations, the village of Fleury changed hands sixteen times from 23 June to 17 August. A German attempt to capture Fort Souville in early July was repulsed by artillery and small-arms fire. To supply reinforcements for the Somme front, the German offensive was reduced further and attempts were made to deceive the French into expecting more attacks, to keep French reinforcements away from the Somme. In August and December, French counter-offensives recaptured much of the ground lost on the east bank and recovered Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux.
The Battle of Verdun lasted for 303 days and became the longest and one of the most costly battles in human history. An estimate in 2000 found a total of 714,231 casualties, 377,231 French and 337,000 German, for an average of 70,000 casualties a month; other recent estimates increase the number of casualties to 976,000 during the battle, with 1,250,000 suffered at Verdun during the war.
After the German invasion of France had been halted at the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914, the war of movement ended at the Battle of the Yser and the First Battle of Ypres. The Germans built field fortifications to hold the ground captured in 1914 and the French began siege warfare to break through the German defences and recover the lost territory. In late 1914 and in 1915, offensives on the Western Front had failed to gain much ground and been extremely costly in casualties.[a] According to his memoirs written after the war, the Chief of the German General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, believed that although victory might no longer be achieved by a decisive battle, the French army could still be defeated if it suffered a sufficient number of casualties. Falkenhayn offered five corps from the strategic reserve for an offensive at Verdun at the beginning of February 1916 but only for an attack on the east bank of the Meuse. Falkenhayn considered it unlikely the French would be complacent about Verdun; he thought that they might send all their reserves there and begin a counter-offensive elsewhere or fight to hold Verdun while the British launched a relief offensive. After the war, the Kaiser and Colonel Tappen, the Operations Officer at Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL, General Headquarters), wrote that Falkenhayn believed the last possibility was most likely.
By seizing or threatening to capture Verdun, the Germans anticipated that the French would send all their reserves, which would have to attack secure German defensive positions, which were supported by a powerful artillery reserve and be destroyed. In the Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive (1 May – 19 September 1915), the German and Austro-Hungarian Armies attacked Russian defences frontally, after pulverising them with large amounts of heavy artillery. During the Second Battle of Champagne (Herbstschlacht autumn battle) of 25 September – 6 November 1915, the French suffered "extraordinary casualties" from the German heavy artillery, which Falkenhayn considered offered a way out of the dilemma of material inferiority and the growing strength of the Allies. In the north, a British relief offensive would wear down British reserves, to no decisive effect but create the conditions for a German counter-offensive near Arras.
Hints about Falkenhayn's thinking were picked up by Dutch military intelligence and passed on to the British in December. The German strategy was to create a favourable operational situation without a mass attack, which had been costly and ineffective when it had been tried by the Franco-British, by relying on the power of heavy artillery to inflict mass losses. A limited offensive at Verdun would lead to the destruction of the French strategic reserve in fruitless counter-attacks and the defeat of British reserves in a futile relief offensive, leading to the French accepting a separate peace. If the French refused to negotiate, the second phase of the strategy would begin in which the German armies would attack terminally weakened Franco-British armies, mop up the remains of the French armies and expel the British from Europe. To fulfil this strategy, Falkenhayn needed to hold back enough of the strategic reserve for the Anglo-French relief offensives and then conduct a counter-offensive, which limited the number of divisions which could be sent to the 5th Army at Verdun, for Unternehmen Gericht (Operation Judgement).
The Fortified Region of Verdun (RFV) lay in a salient formed during the German invasion of 1914. The Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, General Joseph Joffre, had concluded from the swift capture of the Belgian fortresses at the Battle of Liège and at the Siege of Namur in 1914 that fixed defences had been made obsolete by German siege guns. In a directive of the General Staff of 5 August 1915, the RFV was to be stripped of 54 artillery batteries and 128,000 rounds of ammunition. Plans to demolish forts Douaumont and Vaux to deny them to the Germans were made and 5,000 kilograms (11,000 lb) of explosives had been laid by the time of the German offensive on 21 February. The 18 large forts and other batteries around Verdun were left with fewer than 300 guns and a small reserve of ammunition while their garrisons had been reduced to small maintenance crews. The railway line from the south into Verdun had been cut during the Battle of Flirey in 1914, with the loss of Saint-Mihiel; the line west from Verdun to Paris was cut at Aubréville in mid-July 1915 by the German 3rd Army, which had attacked southwards through the Argonne Forest for most of the year.
For centuries, Verdun, on the Meuse river, had played an important role in the defence of the French hinterland. Attila the Hun failed to seize the town in the fifth century and when the empire of Charlemagne was divided under the Treaty of Verdun (843), the town became part of the Holy Roman Empire; the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 awarded Verdun to France. At the heart of the city was a citadel built by Vauban in the 17th century. A double ring of 28 forts and smaller works (ouvrages) had been built around Verdun on commanding ground, at least 150 metres (490 ft) above the river valley, 2.5–8 km (1.6–5.0 mi) from the citadel. A programme had been devised by Séré de Rivières in the 1870s to build two lines of fortresses from Belfort to Épinal and from Verdun to Toul as defensive screens and to enclose towns intended to be the bases for counter-attacks.[b] Many of the Verdun forts had been modernised and made more resistant to artillery, with a reconstruction programme begun at Douaumont in the 1880s. A sand cushion and thick, steel-reinforced concrete tops up to 2.5 metres (8.2 ft) thick, buried under 1–4 metres (3.3–13.1 ft) of earth, were added. The forts and ouvrages were sited to overlook each other for mutual support and the outer ring had a circumference of 45 km (28 mi). The outer forts had 79 guns in shell-proof turrets and more than 200 light guns and machine-guns to protect the ditches around the forts. Six forts had 155 mm guns in retractable turrets and fourteen had retractable twin 75 mm turrets.
In 1903, Douaumont was equipped with a new concrete bunker (Casemate de Bourges), containing two 75 mm field guns to cover the south-western approach and the defensive works along the ridge to Ouvrage de Froidterre. More guns were added from 1903–1913, in four retractable steel turrets. The guns could rotate for all-round defence and two smaller versions, at the north-eastern and north-western corners of the fort, housed twin Hotchkiss machine-guns. On the east side of the fort, an armoured turret with a 155 mm short-barrelled gun faced north and north-east and another housed twin 75 mm guns at the north end, to cover the intervals between forts. The fort at Douaumont formed part of a complex of the village, fort, six ouvrages, five shelters, six concrete batteries, an underground infantry shelter, two ammunition depots and several concrete infantry trenches. The Verdun forts had a network of concrete infantry shelters, armoured observation posts, batteries, concrete trenches, command posts and underground shelters between the forts. The artillery comprised c. 1,000 guns, with 250 in reserve and the forts and ouvrages were linked by telephone and telegraph, a narrow-gauge railway system and a road network; on mobilisation, the RFV had a garrison of 66,000 men and rations for six months.[c]
Verdun was isolated on three sides and railway communications to the French rear had been cut except for a light railway; German-controlled railways lay only 24 km (15 mi) to the north of the front line. A corps was moved to the 5th Army to provide labour for the preparation of the offensive. Areas were emptied of French civilians and buildings requisitioned, thousands of kilometres of telephone cable were laid, thousands of tons of ammunition and rations were stored under cover with hundreds of guns installed and camouflaged. Ten new rail lines with twenty stations were built and vast underground shelters (Stollen) were dug 4.5–14 metres (15–46 ft) deep, each to accommodate up to 1,200 German infantry. The III Corps, VII Reserve Corps and XVIII Corps were transferred to the 5th Army, each corps being reinforced by 2,400 experienced troops and 2,000 trained recruits. V Corps was placed behind the front line, ready to advance if necessary when the assault divisions were moving up and the XV Corps, with two divisions, was in the 5th Army reserve, ready to advance to mop up as soon as the French defence collapsed.
Special arrangements were made to maintain a high rate of artillery-fire during the offensive, 33 1⁄2 munitions trains per day were to deliver ammunition sufficient for 2,000,000 rounds to be fired in the first six days and another 2,000,000 shells in the next twelve. Five repair shops were built close to the front to reduce delays for maintenance; factories in Germany were made ready, rapidly to refurbish artillery needing more extensive repairs. A redeployment plan for the artillery was devised, for field guns and mobile heavy artillery to be moved forward, under the covering fire of mortars and the super-heavy artillery. A total of 1,201 guns were massed on the Verdun front, two thirds of which were heavy and super-heavy artillery, which had been obtained by stripping the modern German artillery from the rest of the Western Front and substituting it with older types and captured Russian guns. The German artillery could fire into the Verdun salient from three directions, yet remain dispersed.
The 5th Army divided the attack front into areas, A occupied by the VII Reserve Corps, B by the XVIII Corps, C by the III Corps and D on the Woëvre plain by the XV Corps. The preliminary artillery bombardment was to begin in the morning of 12 February. At 5:00 p.m., the infantry in areas A to C would advance in open order, supported by grenade and flame-thrower detachments. Wherever possible, the French advanced trenches were to be occupied and the second position reconnoitred, for the artillery fire on the second day. Great emphasis was placed on limiting German infantry casualties, by sending them to follow up destructive bombardments by the artillery, which was to carry the burden of the offensive in a series of large "attacks with limited objectives", to maintain a relentless pressure on the French. The initial objectives were the Meuse Heights, on a line from Froide Terre to Fort Souville and Fort Tavannes, which would provide a secure defensive position from which to repel French counter-attacks. Relentless pressure was a term added by the 5th Army staff and created ambiguity about the purpose of the offensive. Falkenhayn wanted land to be captured, from which artillery could dominate the battlefield and the 5th Army wanted a quick capture of Verdun. The confusion caused by the ambiguity was left to the corps headquarters to sort out.
Control of the artillery was centralised by an "Order for the Activities of the Artillery and Mortars", which stipulated that the corps Generals of Foot Artillery were responsible for local target selection, while co-ordination of flanking fire by neighbouring corps and the fire of certain batteries, was determined by the 5th Army headquarters. French fortifications were to be engaged by the heaviest howitzers and enfilade fire. The heavy artillery was to maintain long-range bombardment of French supply routes and assembly areas; counter-battery fire was reserved for specialist batteries firing gas shells. Co-operation between the artillery and infantry was stressed, with accuracy of the artillery being given priority over rate of fire. The opening bombardment was to build up slowly and Trommelfeuer (a rate of fire so rapid that the sound of shell-explosions merged into a rumble) would not begin until the last hour. As the infantry advanced, the artillery would increase the range of the bombardment to destroy the French second position. Artillery observers were to advance with the infantry and communicate with the guns by field telephones, flares and coloured balloons. When the offensive began, the French were to be bombarded continuously, harassing fire being maintained at night.
In 1915, 237 guns and 647 long tons (657 t) of ammunition in the forts of the RFV had been removed, leaving only the heavy guns in retractable turrets. The conversion of the RFV to a conventional linear defence, with trenches and barbed wire began but proceeded slowly, after resources were sent west from Verdun for the Second Battle of Champagne (25 September – 6 November 1915). In October 1915, building began on trench lines known as the first, second and third positions and in January 1916, an inspection by General Noël de Castelnau, Chief of Staff at French General Headquarters (GQG), reported that the new defences were satisfactory, except for small deficiencies in three areas. The fortress garrisons had been reduced to small maintenance crews and some of the forts had been readied for demolition. The maintenance garrisons were responsible to the central military bureaucracy in Paris and when the XXX Corps commander, General Chrétien, attempted to inspect Fort Douaumont in January 1916, he was refused entry.
Douaumont was the largest fort in the RFV and by February 1916, the only artillery left in the fort were the 75 mm and 155 mm turret guns and light guns covering the ditch. The fort was used as a barracks by 68 technicians under the command of Warrant-Officer Chenot, the Gardien de Batterie. One of the rotating 155 mm (6.1 in) turrets was partially manned and the other was left empty. The Hotchkiss machine-guns were stored in boxes and four 75 mm guns in the casemates had already been removed. The drawbridge had been jammed in the down position by a German shell and had not been repaired. The coffres (wall bunkers) with Hotchkiss revolver-cannons protecting the moats, were unmanned and over 5,000 kilograms (11,000 lb) of explosive charges had been placed in the fort to demolish it.
In late January 1916, French intelligence had obtained an accurate assessment of German military capacity and intentions at Verdun but Joffre considered that an attack would be a diversion, because of the lack of an obvious strategic objective. By the time of the German offensive, Joffre expected a bigger attack elsewhere but ordered the VII Corps to Verdun on 23 January, to hold the north face of the west bank. XXX Corps held the salient east of the Meuse to the north and north-east and II Corps held the eastern face of the Meuse Heights; Herr had 8 1⁄2 divisions in the front line, with 2 1⁄2 divisions in close reserve. Groupe d'armées du centre (GAC, General De Langle de Cary) had the I and XX corps with two divisions each in reserve, plus most of the 19th Division; Joffre had 25 divisions in the strategic reserve. French artillery reinforcements had brought the total at Verdun to 388 field guns and 244 heavy guns, against 1,201 German guns, two thirds of which were heavy and super heavy, including 14 in (360 mm) and 202 mortars, some being 16 in (410 mm). Eight specialist flame-thrower companies were also sent to the 5th Army.
Castelnau met De Langle de Cary on 25 February, who doubted the east bank could be held. Castelnau disagreed and ordered General Frédéric-Georges Herr the corps commander, to hold the right (east) bank of the Meuse at all costs. Herr sent a division from the west bank and ordered XXX Corps to hold a line from Bras to Douaumont, Vaux and Eix. Pétain took over command of the defence of the RFV at 11:00 p.m., with Colonel Maurice de Barescut as chief of staff and Colonel Bernard Serrigny as head of operations, only to hear that Fort Douaumont had fallen. Pétain ordered for the remaining Verdun forts to be re-garrisoned. Four groups were established, under the command of generals Guillaumat, Balfourier and Duchêne on the right bank and Bazelaire on the left bank. A "line of resistance" was established on the east bank from Souville to Thiaumont, around Fort Douaumont to Fort Vaux, Moulainville and along the ridge of the Woëvre. On the west bank, the line ran from Cumières to Mort Homme, Côte 304 and Avocourt. A "line of panic" was planned in secret as a final line of defence north of Verdun, through forts Belleville, St. Michel and Moulainville. I Corps and XX Corps arrived from 24–26 February, increasing the number of divisions in the RFV to 14 1⁄2. By 6 March, the arrival of the XIII, XXI, XIV and XXXIII corps had increased the total to 20 1⁄2 divisions.
Unternehmen Gericht (Operation Judgement) was due to begin on 12 February but fog, heavy rain and high winds delayed the offensive until 7:15 a.m. on 21 February, when a 10-hour artillery bombardment by 808 guns began. The German artillery fired c. 1,000,000 shells along a front about 30 km (19 mi) long by 5 km (3.1 mi) wide. The main concentration of fire was on the right (east) bank of the Meuse river. Twenty-six super-heavy, long-range guns, up to 420 mm (16.5 in), fired on the forts and the city of Verdun; a rumble could be heard 160 km (99 mi) away. The bombardment was paused at midday, as a ruse to prompt French survivors to reveal themselves and German artillery-observation aircraft were able to fly over the battlefield unmolested by French aircraft. The 3rd, 7th and 18th corps attacked at 4:00 p.m.; the Germans used flamethrowers for the first time and storm troops followed closely with rifles slung, to use hand grenades to kill the remaining defenders. This tactic had been developed by Captain Willy Rohr and Sturm-Bataillon Nr. 5 (Rohr), which battalion conducted the attack. French survivors engaged the attackers, yet the Germans suffered only c. 600 casualties.
By 22 February, German troops had advanced 5 km (3.1 mi) and captured Bois des Caures, at the edge of the village of Flabas. Two French battalions led by Colonel Émile Driant had held the bois (wood) for two days but were forced back to Samogneux, Beaumont and Ornes. Driant was killed, fighting with the 56th and 59th Bataillons de chasseurs à pied and only 118 of the Chasseurs managed to escape. Poor communications meant that only then did the French High Command realise the seriousness of the attack. The Germans managed to take the village of Haumont but French forces repulsed a German attack on the village of Bois de l'Herbebois. On 23 February, a French counter-attack at Bois des Caures was repulsed. Fighting for Bois de l'Herbebois continued until the Germans outflanked the French defenders from Bois de Wavrille. The German attackers had many casualties during their attack on Bois de Fosses and the French held on to Samogneux. German attacks continued on 24 February and the French XXX Corps was forced out of the second line of defence; XX Corps (General Maurice Balfourier) arrived at the last minute and was rushed forward. That evening Castelnau advised Joffre that the Second Army, under General Pétain, should be sent to the RFV. The Germans had captured Beaumont, Bois des Fosses and Bois des Caurières and were moving up ravin Hassoule which led to Fort Douaumont.
At 3:00 p.m. on 25 February, infantry of Brandenburg Regiment 24 advanced with the II and III battalions side-by-side, each formed into two waves composed of two companies each. A delay in the arrival of orders to the regiments on the flanks, led to the III Battalion advancing without support on that flank. The Germans rushed French positions in the woods and on Côte 347, with the support of machine-gun fire from the edge of Bois Hermitage. The German infantry took many prisoners as the French on Côte 347 were outflanked and withdrew to Douaumont village. The German infantry had reached their objectives in fewer than twenty minutes and pursued the French, until fired on by a machine-gun in Douaumont church. Some German troops took cover in woods and a ravine which led to the fort, when German artillery began to bombard the area, the gunners having refused to believe claims sent by field telephone that the German infantry were within a few hundred metres of the fort. Several German parties were forced to advance to find cover from the German shelling and two parties independently made for the fort.[d] They did not know that the French garrison was made up of only a small maintenance crew led by a warrant officer, since most of the Verdun forts had been partly disarmed, after the demolition of Belgian forts in 1914, by the German super-heavy Krupp 420 mm mortars.
The German party of c. 100 soldiers tried to signal to the artillery with flares but twilight and falling snow obscured them from view. Some of the party began to cut through the wire around the fort, while French machine-gun fire from Douaumont village ceased. The French had seen the German flares and took the Germans on the fort to be Zouaves retreating from Côte 378. The Germans were able to reach the north-east end of the fort before the French resumed firing. The German party found a way through the railings on top of the ditch and climbed down without being fired on, since the machine-gun bunkers (coffres de contrescarpe) at each corner of the ditch had been left unmanned. The German parties continued and found a way inside the fort through one of the unoccupied ditch bunkers and then reached the central Rue de Rempart. After quietly moving inside, the Germans heard voices and persuaded a French prisoner, captured in an observation post, to lead them to the lower floor, where they found Warrant Officer Chenot and about 25 French troops, most of the skeleton garrison of the fort, and took them prisoner. On 26 February, the Germans had advanced 3 km (1.9 mi) on a 10 km (6.2 mi) front; French losses were 24,000 men and German losses were c. 25,000 men. A French counter-attack on Fort Douaumont failed and Pétain ordered that no more attempts were to be made; existing lines were to be consolidated and other forts were to be occupied, rearmed and supplied to withstand a siege if surrounded.
The German advance gained little ground on 27 February, after a thaw turned the ground into a swamp and the arrival of French reinforcements increased the effectiveness of the defence. Some German artillery became unserviceable and other batteries became stranded in the mud. German infantry began to suffer from exhaustion and unexpectedly high losses, 500 casualties being suffered in the fighting around Douaumont village. On 29 February, the German advance was contained at Douaumont by a heavy snowfall and the defence of French 33rd Infantry Regiment.[e] Delays gave the French time to bring up 90,000 men and 23,000 short tons (21,000 t) of ammunition from the railhead at Bar-le-Duc to Verdun. The swift German advance had gone beyond the range of artillery covering fire and the muddy conditions made it very difficult to move the artillery forward as planned. The German advance southwards brought it into range of French artillery west of the Meuse, whose fire caused more German infantry casualties than in the earlier fighting, when French infantry on the east bank had fewer guns in support.
Before the offensive, Falkenhayn had expected that French artillery on the west bank would be suppressed by counter-battery fire but this had failed. The Germans set up an artillery task-force, to counter French artillery-fire from the west bank but this also failed to reduce German infantry casualties. The 5th Army asked for more troops in late February but Falkenhayn refused, due to the rapid advance already achieved on the east bank and because he needed the rest of the OHL reserve for an offensive elsewhere, once the attack at Verdun had attracted and consumed French reserves. The pause in the German advance on 27 February led Falkenhayn to have second thoughts to decide between terminating the offensive or reinforcing it. On 29 February, Knobelsdorf, the 5th Army Chief of Staff, prised two divisions from the OHL reserve, with the assurance that once the heights on the west bank had been occupied, the offensive on the east bank could be completed. The VI Reserve Corps was reinforced with the X Reserve Corps, to capture a line from the south of Avocourt to Côte 304 north of Esnes, Mort-Homme, Bois des Cumières and Côte 205, from which the French artillery on the west bank could be destroyed.
The artillery of the two-corps assault group on the west bank was reinforced by 25 heavy artillery batteries, artillery command was centralised under one officer and arrangements were made for the artillery on the east bank to fire in support. The attack was planned by General Heinrich von Gossler in two parts, on Mort-Homme and Côte 265 on 6 March, followed by attacks on Avocourt and Côte 304 on 9 March. The German bombardment reduced the top of Côte 304 from a height of 304 metres (997 ft) to 300 metres (980 ft); Mort-Homme sheltered batteries of French field guns, which hindered German progress towards Verdun on the right bank; the hills also provided commanding views of the left bank. After storming the Bois des Corbeaux and then losing it to a French counter-attack, the Germans launched another assault on Mort-Homme on 9 March, from the direction of Béthincourt to the north-west. Bois des Corbeaux was captured again at great cost in casualties, before the Germans took parts of Mort-Homme, Côte 304, Cumières and Chattancourt on 14 March.
After a week, the German attack had reached the first-day objectives, to find that French guns behind Côte de Marre and Bois Borrous were still operational and inflicting many casualties among the Germans on the east bank. German artillery moved to Côte 265, was subjected to systematic artillery-fire by the French, which left the Germans needing to implement the second part of the west bank offensive, to protect the gains of the first phase. German attacks changed from large operations on broad fronts, to narrow-front attacks with limited objectives. On 14 March a German attack captured Côte 265 at west end of Mort-Homme but the French 75th Infantry Brigade managed to hold Côte 295 at the east end. On 20 March, after a bombardment by 13,000 trench mortar rounds, the 11th Bavarian and 11th Reserve divisions attacked Bois d'Avocourt and Bois de Malancourt and reached their initial objectives easily. Gossler then paused the attack, to consolidate the captured ground and to prepare another big bombardment for the next day. On 22 March, two divisions attacked "Termite Hill" near Côte 304 but were met by a mass of artillery-fire, which also fell on assembly points and the German lines of communication, ending the German advance.
The limited German success had been costly and French artillery inflicted more casualties as the German infantry tried to dig in. By 30 March, Gossler had captured Bois de Malancourt but had lost 20,000 casualties and the Germans were still short of Côte 304. On 30 March, the XXII Reserve Corps arrived as reinforcements and General Max von Gallwitz took command of a new Angriffsgruppe West. Malancourt village was captured on 31 March, Haucourt fell on 5 April and Béthincourt on 8 April. On the east bank, German attacks near Vaux reached Bois Caillette and the Vaux–Fleury railway but were then driven back by the French 5th Division. An attack was made on a wider front along both banks by the Germans at noon on 9 April, with five divisions on the left bank but this was repulsed except at Mort-Homme, where the French 42nd Division was forced back from the north-east face. On the right bank an attack on Côte-du-Poivre failed.
In March the German attacks had no advantage of surprise and faced a determined and well-supplied adversary in superior defensive positions. German artillery could still devastate French defensive positions but could not prevent French artillery-fire from inflicting many casualties on German infantry and isolating them from their supplies. Massed artillery fire could enable German infantry to make small advances but massed French artillery-fire could do the same for French infantry when they counter-attacked, which often repulsed the German infantry and subjected them to constant losses, even when captured ground was held. The German effort on the west bank also showed that capturing a vital point was not sufficient, because it would be found to be overlooked by another terrain feature, which had to be captured to ensure the defence of the original point, which made it impossible for the Germans to terminate their attacks, unless they were willing to retire to the original front line of February 1916.
By the end of March the offensive had cost the Germans 81,607 casualties and Falkenhayn began to think of ending the offensive, lest it become another costly and indecisive engagement similar to the First Battle of Ypres in late 1914. The 5th Army staff requested more reinforcements from Falkenhayn on 31 March with an optimistic report claiming that the French were close to exhaustion and incapable of a big offensive. The 5th Army command wanted to continue the east bank offensive until a line from Ouvrage de Thiaumont, to Fleury, Fort Souville and Fort de Tavannes had been reached, while on the west bank the French would be destroyed by their own counter-attacks. On 4 April, Falkenhayn replied that the French had retained a considerable reserve and that German resources were limited and not sufficient to replace continuously men and munitions. If the resumed offensive on the east bank failed to reach the Meuse Heights, Falkenhayn was willing to accept that the offensive had failed and end it.
The failure of German attacks in early April by Angriffsgruppe Ost, led Knobelsdorf to take soundings from the 5th Army corps commanders, who unanimously wanted to continue. The German infantry were exposed to continuous artillery fire from the flanks and rear; communications from the rear and reserve positions were equally vulnerable, which caused a constant drain of casualties. Defensive positions were difficult to build, because existing positions were on ground which had been swept clear by German bombardments early in the offensive, leaving German infantry with very little cover. The XV Corps commander, General Berthold von Deimling also wrote that French heavy artillery and gas bombardments were undermining the morale of the German infantry, which made it necessary to keep going to reach safer defensive positions. Knobelsdorf reported these findings to Falkenhayn on 20 April, adding that if the Germans did not go forward, they must go back to the start line of 21 February.
Knobelsdorf rejected the policy of limited piecemeal attacks tried by Mudra as commander of Angriffsgruppe Ost and advocated a return to wide-front attacks with unlimited objectives, swiftly to reach the line from Ouvrage de Thiaumont to Fleury, Fort Souville and Fort de Tavannes. Falkenhayn was persuaded to agree to the change and by the end of April, 21 divisions, most of the OHL reserve, had been sent to Verdun and troops had also been transferred from the Eastern Front. The resort to large, unlimited attacks was costly for both sides but the German advance proceeded only slowly. Rather than causing devastating French casualties by heavy artillery with the infantry in secure defensive positions, which the French were compelled to attack, the Germans inflicted casualties by attacks which provoked French counter-attacks and assumed that the process inflicted five French casualties for two German losses.
In mid-March, Falkenhayn had reminded the 5th Army to use tactics intended to conserve infantry, after the corps commanders had been allowed discretion to choose between the cautious, step-by-step tactics desired by Falkenhayn and maximum efforts, intended to obtain quick results. On the third day of the offensive, the 6th Division of the III Corps (General Ewald von Lochow), had ordered that Herbebois be taken regardless of loss and the 5th Division had attacked Wavrille to the accompaniment of its band. Falkenhayn urged the 5th Army to use Stoßtruppen (storm units) composed of two infantry squads and one of engineers, armed with automatic weapons, hand grenades, trench mortars and flame-throwers, to advance in front of the main infantry body. The Stoßtruppen would conceal their advance by shrewd use of terrain and capture any blockhouses which remained after the artillery preparation. Strongpoints which could not be taken were to be by-passed and captured by follow-up troops. Falkenhayn ordered that the command of field and heavy artillery units was to be combined, with a commander at each corps headquarters. Common observers and communication systems would ensure that batteries in different places could bring targets under converging fire, which would be allotted systematically to support divisions.
In mid-April, Falkenhayn ordered that infantry should advance close to the barrage, to exploit the neutralising effect of the shell-fire on surviving defenders, because fresh troops at Verdun had not been trained in these methods. Knobelsdorf persisted with attempts to maintain momentum, which was incompatible with the methods of casualty conservation, which could be implemented only with limited attacks, with pauses to consolidate and prepare. Mudra and other commanders who disagreed were sacked. Falkenhayn also intervened to change German defensive tactics, advocating a dispersed defence with the second line to be held as a main line of resistance and jumping-off point for counter-attacks. Machine-guns were to be set up with overlapping fields of fire and infantry given specific areas to defend. When French infantry attacked, they were to be isolated by Sperrfeuer (barrage-fire) on their former front line, to increase French infantry casualties. The changes desired by Falkenhayn had little effect, because the main cause of German casualties was artillery-fire, just as it was for the French.
From 10 May German operations were limited to local attacks, either in reply to French counter-attacks on 11 April between Douaumont and Vaux and on 17 April between the Meuse and Douaumont, or local attempts to take points of tactical value. At the beginning of May, General Pétain was promoted to the command of Groupe d'armées du centre (GAC) and General Robert Nivelle took over the Second Army at Verdun. From 4–24 May, German attacks were made on the west bank around Mort-Homme and on 4 May, the north slope of Côte 304 was captured; French counter-attacks from 5–6 May were repulsed. The French defenders on the crest of Côte 304 were forced back on 7 May but German infantry were unable to occupy the ridge, because of the intensity of French artillery-fire. Cumieres and Caurettes fell on 24 May as a French counter-attack began at Fort Douaumont.
In May, General Nivelle, who had taken over the Second Army, ordered General Charles Mangin, commander of the 5th Division to plan a counter-attack on Fort Douaumont. The initial plan was for an attack on a 3 km (1.9 mi) front but several minor German attacks captured Fausse-Côte and Couleuvre ravines on the south-east and west sides of the fort. A further attack took the ridge south of the ravin de Couleuvre, which gave the Germans better routes for counter-attacks and observation over the French lines to the south and south-west. Mangin proposed a preliminary attack to retake the area of the ravines, to obstruct the routes by which a German counter-attack on the fort could be made. More divisions were necessary but these were refused, to preserve the troops needed for the forthcoming offensive on the Somme; Mangin was limited to one division for the attack with one in reserve. Nivelle reduced the attack to an assault on Morchée Trench, Bonnet-d'Evèque, Fontaine Trench, Fort Douaumont, a machine-gun turret and Hongrois Trench, which would require an advance of 500 metres (550 yd) on a 1,150 metres (1,260 yd) front.
III Corps was to command the attack by the 5th Division and the 71st Brigade, with support from three balloon companies for artillery-observation and a fighter group. The main effort was to be conducted by two battalions of the 129th Infantry Regiment, each with a pioneer company and a machine-gun company attached. The 2nd Battalion was to attack from the south and the 1st Battalion was to move along the west side of the fort to the north end, taking Fontaine Trench and linking with the 6th Company. Two battalions of the 74th Infantry Regiment were to advance along the east and south-east sides of the fort and take a machine-gun turret on a ridge to the east. Flank support was arranged with neighbouring regiments and diversions were planned near Fort Vaux and the ravin de Dame. Preparations for the attack included the digging of 12 km (7.5 mi) of trenches and the building of large numbers of depots and stores but little progress was made due to a shortage of pioneers. French troops captured on 13 May, disclosed the plan to the Germans, who responded by subjecting the area to more artillery harassing fire, which also slowed French preparations.
The French preliminary bombardment by four 370 mm mortars and 300 heavy guns, began on 17 May and by 21 May, the French artillery commander claimed that the fort had been severely damaged. During the bombardment the German garrison in the fort experienced great strain, as French heavy shells smashed holes in the walls and concrete dust, exhaust fumes from an electricity generator and gas from disinterred corpses polluted the air. Water ran short but until 20 May, the fort remained operational, reports being passed back and reinforcements moving forward until the afternoon, when the Bourges Casemate was isolated and the wireless station in the north-western machine-gun turret burnt down. Conditions for the German infantry in the vicinity of the fort were far worse and by 18 May, the French destructive bombardment had obliterated many defensive positions, the survivors taking post in shell-holes and dips on the ground. Communication with the rear was severed and food and water ran out by the time of the French attack on 22 May. The troops of Infantry Regiment 52 in front of Fort Douaumont had been reduced to 37 men near Thiaumont Farm and German counter-barrages inflicted similar losses on French troops. French aircraft attacked eight observation balloons and the 5th Army headquarters at Stenay on 22 May. Six balloons were shot down but the German artillery fire increased and twenty minutes before zero hour, a German bombardment began, which reduced the 129th Infantry Regiment companies to about 45 men each.
The assault began at 11:50 a. m. on 22 May on a 1 km (0.62 mi) front. On the left flank the 36th Infantry Regiment attack quickly captured Morchée Trench and Bonnet-d'Evèque but was costly and the regiment could advance no further. The flank guard on the right was pinned down, except for one company which disappeared and in Bois Caillette, a battalion of the 74th Infantry Regiment was unable to leave its trenches; the other battalion managed to reach its objectives at an ammunition depot, shelter DV1 at the edge of Bois Caillette and the machine-gun turret east of the fort, where the battalion found its flanks unsupported. Despite German small-arms fire, the 129th Infantry Regiment reached the fort in a few minutes and managed to get in through the west and south sides. By nightfall, about half of the fort had been recaptured and next day, the 34th Division was sent to reinforce the fort. The reinforcements were repulsed and German reserves managed to cut off the French troops in the fort and force them to surrender, 1,000 French prisoners being taken. After three days, the French had lost 5,640 casualties from the 12,000 men in the attack and German casualties in Infantry Regiment 52, Grenadier Regiment 12 and Leib-Grenadier Regiment 8 were 4,500 men.
Later in May 1916, the German attacks shifted from the left bank at Mort-Homme and Côte 304 and returned to the right bank, south of Fort Douaumont. A German offensive began to reach Fleury Ridge, the last French defensive line and take Ouvrage de Thiaumont, Fleury, Fort Souville and Fort Vaux at the north-east extremity of the French line, which had been bombarded by c. 8,000 shells a day since the beginning of the offensive. After a final assault on 1 June, by c. 10,000 German troops, the top of the fort was occupied on 2 June. Fighting went on underground until the garrison ran out of water and surrendered on 7 June. In five days the German attack had advanced 65 metres (71 yd) for a loss of 2,700 killed against 20 French casualties. When news of the loss of Fort Vaux reached Verdun, the Line of Panic was occupied and trenches were dug on the edge of the city. On the left bank, the German advanced from the line Côte 304, Mort-Homme and Cumières and threatened Chattancourt and Avocourt. Heavy rains slowed the German advance towards Fort Souville, where both sides attacked and counter-attacked for the next two months.
On 22 June, German artillery fired over 116,000 Diphosgene (Green Cross) gas shells at French artillery positions, which caused over 1,600 casualties and silenced much of the French artillery. Next day the German attack on a 5 km (3.1 mi) front at 5:00 a.m., drove a 3 km × 2 km (1.9 mi × 1.2 mi) salient into the French defences unopposed until 9:00 a.m., when some French troops were able to fight a rearguard action. The Ouvrage de Thiaumont and the Ouvrage de Froidterre at the south end of the plateau were captured and the village of Fleury and Chapelle Sainte-Fine were overrun. The attack came close to Fort Souville, which since April had been hit by c. 38,000 shells, and brought the Germans to within 5 km (3.1 mi) of the Verdun citadel. Chapelle Sainte-Fine was quickly recaptured by a French counter-attack and the German advance was halted. The supply of water to the German infantry broke down, the salient was vulnerable to fire from three sides and the attack could not go on without Diphosgene ammunition. Chapelle Sainte-Fine became the furthest point reached by the German Verdun offensive and on 24 June, the Anglo-French preliminary bombardment began on the Somme. Fleury changed hands sixteen times from 23 June – 17 August. Four French divisions were diverted to Verdun from the Somme and the French artillery recovered sufficiently on 24 June, to cut off the German front line from the rear. By 25 June both sides were exhausted and Knobelsdorf suspended the attack.
By the end of May French casualties at Verdun had risen to c. 185,000 and in June German losses had reached c. 200,000 men. The opening of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July, forced the Germans to withdraw some of their artillery from Verdun, which was the first strategic success of the Anglo-French offensive.
Fort Souville dominated a crest 1 km (0.62 mi) south-east of Fleury and was one of the original objectives of the February offensive. The capture of the fort would give the Germans control of the heights overlooking Verdun and allow the infantry to dig in on commanding ground. A German preparatory bombardment began on 9 July, with an attempt to suppress French artillery with over 60,000 gas shells, which had little effect since the French had been equipped with an improved M2 gas mask. Fort Souville and its approaches were bombarded with more than 300,000 shells, including about 500 14 in (360 mm) shells on the fort. An attack by three German divisions began on 11 July but German infantry bunched on the path leading to Fort Souville and came under bombardment from French artillery. The surviving troops were fired on by sixty French machine-gunners, who emerged from the fort and took positions on the superstructure. Thirty soldiers of Infantry Regiment 140 managed to reach the top of the fort on 12 July, from where the Germans could see the roofs of Verdun and the spire of the cathedral. After a small French counter-attack, the survivors retreated to their start lines or surrendered. On the evening of 11 July, Crown Prince Wilhelm was ordered by Falkenhayn to go onto the defensive and on 15 July, the French conducted a larger counter-attack which gained no ground; for the rest of the month the French made only small attacks.
On 1 August a German surprise-attack advanced 800–900 metres (870–980 yd) towards Fort Souville, which prompted French counter-attacks for two weeks, which were only able to retake a small amount of the captured ground. On 18 August, Fleury was recaptured and by September, French counter-attacks had recovered much of the ground lost in July and August. On 29 August Falkenhayn was replaced as Chief of the General Staff by Paul von Hindenburg and First Quartermaster-General Erich Ludendorff. On 3 September, an attack on both flanks at Fleury advanced the French line several hundred metres, against which German counter-attacks from 4–5 September failed. The French attacked again on 9, 13 and from 15–17 September. Losses were light except at the Tavannes railway tunnel, where 474 French troops died in a fire which began on 4 September.
In October 1916 the French began the 1ère Bataille Offensive de Verdun (First Offensive Battle of Verdun), to recapture Fort Douaumont, an advance of more than 2 km (1.2 mi). Seven of the 22 divisions at Verdun were replaced by mid-October and French infantry platoons were reorganised to contain sections of riflemen, grenadiers and machine-gunners. In a six-day preliminary bombardment, the French artillery fired 855,264 shells, including 532,926 × 75 mm field-gun shells, 100,000 × 155 mm medium shells and 373 × 370 mm and 400 mm super-heavy shells, from more than 700 guns and howitzers. Two French Saint-Chamond railway guns, 13 km (8.1 mi) to the south-west at Baleycourt, fired the 400 mm (16 in) super-heavy shells, each weighing 1 short ton (0.91 t). The French had identified about 800 German guns on the right bank capable of supporting the 34th, 54th, 9th and 33rd Reserve divisions, with the 10th and 5th divisions in reserve. At least 20 of the super-heavy shells hit Fort Douaumont, the sixth penetrating to the lowest level and exploding in a pioneer depot, starting a fire next to 7,000 hand-grenades.
The 38th Division (General Guyot de Salins), 133rd Division (General Fenelon F.G. Passaga) and 74th Division (General Charles de Lardemelle) attacked at 11:40 a.m. The infantry advanced 50 metres (55 yd) behind a creeping field-artillery barrage, moving at a rate of 50 metres (55 yd) in two minutes, beyond which a heavy artillery barrage moved in 500–1,000 metres (550–1,090 yd) lifts, as the field artillery barrage came within 150 metres (160 yd), to force the German infantry and machine-gunners to stay under cover. The Germans had partly evacuated Douaumont, which was recaptured on 24 October by French marines and colonial infantry; more than 6,000 prisoners and fifteen guns were captured by 25 October but an attempt on Fort Vaux failed. The Haudromont quarries, Ouvrage de Thiaumont and Thiaumont Farm, Douaumont village, the northern end of Caillette Wood, Vaux pond, the eastern fringe of Bois Fumin and the Damloup battery were captured. The heaviest French artillery bombarded Fort Vaux for the next week and on 2 November, the Germans evacuated the fort, after a huge explosion caused by a 220 mm shell. French eavesdroppers overheard a German wireless message announcing the departure and a French infantry company entered the fort without firing a shot; on 5 November, the French reached the front line of 24 February and offensive operations ceased until December.
The 2ième Bataille Offensive de Verdun (Second Offensive Battle of Verdun) was conducted by the 126th Division (General Paul J. H. Muteau), 38th (General Guyot de Salins), 37th Division (General Noël Garnier-Duplessix) and the 133rd Division (General Fenelon F. G. Passaga), with four more in reserve and 740 heavy guns in support. The attack was planned by Pétain and Nivelle and commanded by Mangin. The attack began at 10:00 a.m. on 15 December, after a six-day bombardment of 1,169,000 shells, fired from 827 guns. The final French bombardment was directed from artillery-observation aircraft and fell on trenches, dug-out entrances and observation posts. Five German divisions supported by 533 guns held the defensive position, which was 2,300 m (2,500 yd) deep, with 2⁄3 of the infantry in the battle zone and the remaining 1⁄3 in reserve 10–16 km (6.2–9.9 mi) back; two of the German divisions were understrength with only c. 3,000 infantry, instead of their normal establishment of c. 7,000. The French advance was preceded by a double creeping barrage, with shrapnel-fire from field artillery 64 m (70 yd) in front of the infantry and a high-explosive barrage 140 m (150 yd) ahead, which moved towards a standing shrapnel bombardment along the German second line, laid to cut off the German retreat and block the advance of reinforcements. The German defence collapsed and 13,500 men of the 21,000 in the five front divisions were lost, most having been trapped while under cover and taken prisoner when the French infantry arrived.
The French reached their objectives at Vacherauville and Louvemont which had been lost in February, along with Hardaumont and Côte du Poivre, despite attacking in very bad weather. German reserve battalions did not reach the front until the evening and two Eingreif divisions, which had been ordered forward the previous evening, were still 23 km (14 mi) away at noon. By the night of 16/17 December, the French had consolidated a new line from Bezonvaux to Côte du Poivre, 2–3 km (1.2–1.9 mi) beyond Douaumont and 1 km (0.62 mi) north of Fort Vaux, before the German reserves and Eingreif units could counter-attack. The 155 mm turret at Douaumont had been repaired and fired in support of the French attack. The closest German point to Verdun had been pushed 7.5 km (4.7 mi) back and all the dominating observation points had been recaptured. The French took 11,387 prisoners and 115 guns. Some German officers complained to Mangin about their lack of comfort in captivity and he replied, We do regret it, gentlemen but then we did not expect so many of you.[f] Lochow, the 5th Army commander and General Hans von Zwehl, commander of XIV Reserve Corps, were sacked on 16 December.
Falkenhayn wrote in his memoir that he sent an appreciation of the strategic situation to the Kaiser in December 1915,
The string in France has reached breaking point. A mass breakthrough—which in any case is beyond our means—is unnecessary. Within our reach there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death.— Falkenhayn
The German strategy in 1916 was to inflict mass casualties on the French, a goal achieved against the Russians from 1914 to 1915, to weaken the French Army to the point of collapse. The French Army had to be drawn into circumstances from which it could not escape, for reasons of strategy and prestige. The Germans planned to use a large number of heavy and super-heavy guns to inflict a greater number of casualties than French artillery, which relied mostly upon the 75 mm field gun. In 2007, Foley wrote that Falkenhayn intended an attrition battle from the beginning, contrary to the views of Krumeich, Förster and others but the lack of surviving documents had led to many interpretations of Falkenhayn's strategy. At the time, critics of Falkenhayn claimed that the battle demonstrated that he was indecisive and unfit for command; in 1937, Förster had proposed the view "forcefully". In 1994, Afflerbach questioned the authenticity of the "Christmas Memorandum" in his biography of Falkenhayn; after studying the evidence that had survived in the Kriegsgeschichtliche Forschungsanstalt des Heeres (Army Military History Research Institute) files, he concluded that the memorandum had been written after the war but that it was an accurate reflection of much of Falkenhayn's thinking in 1916.
Krumeich wrote that the Christmas Memorandum had been fabricated to justify a failed strategy and that attrition had been substituted for the capture of Verdun, only after the city was not taken quickly. Foley wrote that after the failure of the Ypres Offensive of 1914, Falkenhayn had returned to the pre-war strategic thinking of Moltke the Elder and Hans Delbrück on Ermattungsstrategie (attrition strategy), because the coalition fighting Germany was too powerful to be decisively defeated by military means. German strategy should aim to divide the Allies, by forcing at least one of the Entente powers into a negotiated peace. An attempt at attrition lay behind the offensive against Russia in 1915 but the Russians had refused to accept German peace feelers, despite the huge defeats inflicted by the Austro-Germans that summer.
With insufficient forces to break through the Western Front and to overcome the Entente reserves behind it, Falkenhayn attempted to force the French to attack instead, by threatening a sensitive point close to the front line. Falkenhayn chose Verdun as the place to force the French to begin a counter-offensive, which would be defeated with huge losses to the French, inflicted by German artillery on the dominating heights around the city. The 5th Army would begin a big offensive with limited objectives, to seize the Meuse Heights on the right bank of the river, from which German artillery could dominate the battlefield. By being forced into a counter-offensive against such formidable positions, the French Army would "bleed itself white". As the French were weakened, the British would be forced to launch a hasty relief offensive, which would also be a costly defeat. If such defeats were not enough to force negotiations on the French, a German offensive would mop up the last of the Franco-British armies and break the Entente "once and for all".
In a revised instruction to the French army of January 1916, the General Staff had stated that equipment could not be fought by men. Firepower could conserve infantry but a battle of material prolonged the war and consumed the troops which were preserved in each battle. In 1915 and early 1916, German industry quintupled the output of heavy artillery and doubled the production of super-heavy artillery. French production had also recovered since 1914 and by February 1916, the army had 3,500 heavy guns. In May 1916, Joffre implemented a plan to issue each division with two groups of 155 mm guns and each corps with four groups of long-range guns. Both sides at Verdun had the means to fire huge numbers of heavy shells to suppress defences, before risking infantry movements. At the end of May, the Germans had 1,730 heavy guns at Verdun against 548 French, which were sufficient to contain the Germans but not enough for a counter-offensive.
German infantry found that it was easier for the French to endure preparatory bombardments, since French positions tended to be on dominating ground, not always visible and sparsely occupied. As soon as German infantry attacked, the French positions "came to life" and the troops began machine-gun and rapid fire with field artillery. On 22 April, the Germans had suffered 1,000 casualties and in mid-April, the French fired 26,000 field artillery shells during an attack to the south-east of Fort Douaumont. A few days after taking over at Verdun, Pétain told the air commander, Commandant Charles Tricornot de Rose, to sweep away the German air service and to provide observation for the French artillery. German air superiority was challenged and eventually reversed, using eight-aircraft Escadrilles for artillery-observation, counter-battery and tactical support.
The fighting at Verdun was less costly to both sides than the war of movement in 1914, which cost the French c. 850,000 and the Germans c. 670,000 men from August to December. The 5th Army had a lower rate of loss than armies on the Eastern Front in 1915 and the French had a lower average rate of loss at Verdun than the rate over three weeks during the Second Battle of Champagne (September–October 1915), which were not fought as battles of attrition. German loss rates increased relative to French rates, from 2.2:1 in early 1915 to close to 1:1 by the end of the Battle of Verdun and rough parity continued during the Nivelle Offensive in 1917. The main cost of attrition tactics was indecision, because limited-objective attacks under an umbrella of massed heavy artillery-fire, could succeed but created unlimited duration.
Pétain used a "Noria" (rotation) system, to relieve French troops at Verdun after a short period, which brought most troops of the French army to the Verdun front but for shorter periods than for the German troops. French will to resist did not collapse, the symbolic importance of Verdun proved a rallying point and Falkenhayn was forced to conduct the offensive for much longer and commit far more infantry than intended. By the end of April, most of the German strategic reserve was at Verdun, suffering similar casualties to the French army. The Germans believed that they were inflicting losses at a rate of 5:2; German military intelligence thought that French casualties up to 11 March, had been 100,000 men and Falkenhayn was confident that German artillery could easily inflict another 100,000 losses. In May, Falkenhayn estimated that the French had lost 525,000 men against 250,000 German casualties and that the French strategic reserve had been reduced to 300,000 troops. Actual French losses were c. 130,000 by 1 May and the Noria system had enabled 42 divisions to be withdrawn and rested, when their casualties reached 50 percent. Of the 330 infantry battalions of the French metropolitan army, 259 (78 percent) went to Verdun, against 48 German divisions, 25 percent of the Westheer (western army). Afflerbach wrote that 85 French divisions fought at Verdun and that from February to August, the ratio of German to French losses was 1:1.1, not the third of French losses assumed by Falkenhayn. By 31 August, 5th Army losses were 281,000 and French casualties numbered 315,000 men.
In June 1916, the amount of French artillery at Verdun had been increased to 2,708 guns, including 1,138 × 75 mm field guns; the French and German armies fired c. 10,000,000 shells, with a weight of 1,350,000 long tons (1,370,000 t) from February–December. The German offensive had been contained by French reinforcements, difficulties of terrain and the weather by May, with the 5th Army infantry stuck in tactically dangerous positions, overlooked by the French on the east bank and the west bank, instead of secure on the Meuse Heights. Attrition of the French forces was inflicted by constant infantry attacks, which were vastly more costly than waiting for French counter-attacks and defeating them with artillery. The stalemate was broken by the Brusilov Offensive and the Anglo-French relief offensive on the Somme, which had been expected to lead to the collapse of the Anglo-French armies. Falkenhayn had begun to remove divisions from the armies on the Western Front in June, to rebuild the strategic reserve but only twelve divisions could be spared. Four divisions were sent to the 2nd Army on the Somme, which had dug a layered defensive system based on the experience of the Herbstschlacht. The situation before the beginning of the battle on the Somme was considered by Falkenhayn to be better than before previous offensives and a relatively easy defeat of the British offensive was anticipated. No divisions were moved from the 6th Army, which had 17 1⁄2 divisions and a large amount of heavy artillery, ready for a counter-offensive when the British offensive had been defeated.
The strength of the Anglo-French offensive surprised Falkenhayn and the staff officers of OHL despite the losses inflicted on the British; the loss of artillery to "overwhelming" counter-battery fire and the policy of instant counter-attack against any Anglo-French advance, led to far more German infantry casualties than at the height of the fighting at Verdun, where 25,989 casualties had been suffered in the first ten days, against 40,187 losses on the Somme. The Brusilov Offensive had recommenced as soon as Russian supplies had been replenished, which inflicted more losses on Austro-Hungarian and German troops during June and July, when the offensive was extended to the north. Falkenhayn was called on to justify his strategy to the Kaiser on 8 July and again advocated sending minimal reinforcements to the east and to continue the "decisive" battle in France, where the Somme offensive was the "last throw of the dice" for the Entente. Falkenhayn had already given up the plan for a counter-offensive near Arras, to reinforce the Russian front and the 2nd Army, with eighteen divisions moved from the reserve and the 6th Army front. By the end of August only one division remained in reserve. The 5th Army had been ordered to limit its attacks at Verdun in June but a final effort was made in July to capture Fort Souville. The effort failed and on 12 July, Falkenhayn ordered a strict defensive policy, permitting only small local attacks, to try to limit the number of troops the French took from the RFV to add to the Somme offensive.
Falkenhayn had underestimated the French, for whom victory at all costs was the only way to justify the sacrifices already made; the pressure imposed on the French army never came close to making the French collapse and triggering a premature British relief offensive. The ability of the German army to inflict disproportionate losses had also been exaggerated, in part because the 5th Army commanders had tried to capture Verdun and attacked regardless of loss; even when reconciled to Falkenhayn's attrition strategy, they continued to use the costly Vernichtungsstrategie (strategy of annihilation) and tactics of Bewegungskrieg (manoeuvre warfare). Failure to reach the Meuse Heights, forced the 5th Army to try to advance from poor tactical positions and to impose attrition by infantry attacks and counter-attacks. The unanticipated duration of the offensive made Verdun a matter of German prestige as much as it was for the French and Falkenhayn became dependent on a British relief offensive and a German counter-offensive to end the stalemate. When it came, the collapse of the southern front in Russia and the power of the Anglo-French attack on the Somme reduced the German armies to holding their positions as best they could. On 29 August, Falkenhayn was sacked and replaced by Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who ended the German offensive at Verdun on 2 September.
In 1980, Terraine gave c. 750,000 Franco-German casualties in 299 days of battle; Dupuy and Dupuy gave 542,000 French casualties in 1993. Heer and Naumann calculated 377,231 French and 337,000 German casualties, a monthly average of 70,000 casualties in 2000. Mason wrote in 2000 that there had been 378,000 French and 337,000 German casualties. In 2003, Clayton quoted 330,000 German casualties, of whom 143,000 were killed or missing and 351,000 French losses, 56,000 killed, 100,000 missing or prisoners and 195,000 wounded. Writing in 2005, Doughty gave French casualties at Verdun, from 21 February to 20 December 1916 as 377,231 men of 579,798 losses at Verdun and the Somme; 16 percent of Verdun casualties were known to have been killed, 56 percent wounded and 28 percent missing, many of whom were eventually presumed dead. Doughty wrote that other historians had followed Churchill (1927) who gave a figure of 442,000 casualties by mistakenly including all French losses on the Western Front. (In 2014, Philpott recorded 377,000 French casualties, of whom 162,000 men had been killed, German casualties were 337,000 men and a recent estimate of casualties at Verdun from 1914 to 1918 was 1,250,000 men).
In the second edition of The World Crisis (1938), Churchill wrote that the figure of 442,000 was for other ranks and the figure of "probably" 460,000 casualties included officers. Churchill gave a figure of 278,000 German casualties of whom 72,000 were killed and expressed dismay that French casualties had exceeded German by about 3:2. Churchill also stated that an eighth needed to be deducted from his figures for both sides to account for casualties on other sectors, giving 403,000 French and 244,000 German casualties. Grant gave a figure of 434,000 German casualties in 2005. In 2005, Foley used calculations made by Wendt in 1931 to give German casualties at Verdun from 21 February to 31 August 1916 as 281,000, against 315,000 French casualties. Afflerbach used the same source in 2000 to give 336,000 German and 365,000 French casualties at Verdun, from February to December 1916.
In 2013, Jankowski wrote that since the beginning of the war, French army units had produced états numériques des pertes every five days for the Bureau of Personnel at GQG. The health service at the Ministry of War received daily counts of wounded taken in by hospitals and other services but casualty data was dispersed among regimental depots, GQG, the État Civil, which recorded deaths, the Service de Santé, which counted injuries and illnesses and the Renseignements aux Familles, which communicated with next of kin. Regimental depots were ordered to keep fiches de position to record losses continuously and the Première Bureau of GQG began to compare the five-day field reports with the records of hospital admissions. The new system was used to calculate losses since August 1914, which took several months but the system had become established by February 1916. The états numériques des pertes were used to calculate casualty figures published in the Journal Officiel, the French Official History and other publications.
The German armies compiled Verlustlisten every ten days, which were published by the Reichsarchiv in the deutsches Jahrbuch of 1924–1925. German medical units kept detailed records of medical treatment at the front and in hospital and in 1923, the Zentral Nachweiseamt published an amended edition of the lists produced during the war, incorporating medical service data not in the Verlustlisten. Monthly figures of wounded and ill servicemen that were treated were published in 1934 in the Sanitätsbericht. Using such sources for comparisons of losses during a battle is difficult, because the information recorded losses over time, rather than place. Losses calculated for particular battles could be inconsistent, as in the Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War 1914–1920 (1922). In the early 1920s, Louis Marin reported to the Chamber of Deputies but could not give figures per battle, except for some by using numerical reports from the armies, which were unreliable unless reconciled with the system established in 1916.
Some French data excluded those lightly wounded but some did not. In April 1917, GQG required that the états numériques des pertes discriminate between the lightly wounded, treated at the front over a period of 20–30 days and severely wounded evacuated to hospitals. Uncertainty over the criteria had not been resolved before the war ended, Verlustlisten excluded lightly wounded and the Zentral Nachweiseamt records included them. Churchill revised German statistics, by adding 2 percent for unrecorded wounded in The World Crisis, written in the 1920s and the British official historian added 30 percent. For the Battle of Verdun, the Sanitätsbericht contained incomplete data for the Verdun area, did not define "wounded" and the 5th Army field reports exclude them. The Marin Report and Service de Santé covered different periods but included lightly wounded. Churchill used a Reichsarchiv figure of 428,000 casualties and took a figure of 532,500 casualties from the Marin Report, for March to June and November to December 1916, for all the Western Front.
The états numériques des pertes give French losses in a range from 348,000 to 378,000 and in 1930, Wendt recorded French Second Army and German 5th Army casualties of 362,000 and 336,831 respectively, from 21 February to 20 December, not taking account of the inclusion or exclusion of lightly wounded. In 2006, McRandle and Quirk used the Sanitätsbericht to adjust the Verlustlisten by an increase of c. 11 percent, which gave a total of 373,882 German casualties, compared to the French Official History record by 20 December 1916, of 373,231 French losses. A German record from the Sanitätsbericht, which explicitly excluded lightly wounded, compared German losses at Verdun in 1916, which averaged 37.7 casualties for each 1,000 men, with the 9th Army in Poland 1914 average of 48.1 per 1,000, the 11th Army average in Galicia 1915 of 52.4 per 1,000 men, the 1st Army Somme 1916 average of 54.7 per 1,000 and the 2nd Army average on the Somme of 39.1 per 1,000 men. Jankowski estimated an equivalent figure for the French Second Army of 40.9 men per 1,000, including lightly wounded. With a c. 11 percent adjustment, following the views of McRandle and Quirk, to the German figure of 37.7 per 1,000 to include lightly wounded. The loss rate is analogous to the estimate for French casualties.
The concentration of so much fighting in such a small area devastated the land, resulting in miserable conditions for troops on both sides. Rain, combined with the constant tearing up of the ground turned the clay of the area to a wasteland of mud full of human remains. Shell craters filled, becoming so slippery that troops who fell into them or took cover in them could drown. Forests were reduced to tangled piles of wood by constant artillery-fire and eventually obliterated. The effect on soldiers in the battle was devastating and many broke down with shell shock. Some French soldiers attempted to desert to Spain, those caught being court-martialled and shot. On 20 March, French deserters disclosed details of the French defences to the Germans, who were able to surround 2,000 men and force them to surrender.
A French lieutenant at Verdun, who would be killed by a shell, wrote in his diary on 23 May 1916, "Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!" Discontent began to spread among French troops at Verdun during the summer of 1916. Following the promotion of General Pétain from the Second Army on 1 June and his replacement by General Nivelle, five infantry regiments were affected by episodes of "collective indiscipline". Two French Lieutenants, Henri Herduin and Pierre Millant, were summarily shot on 11 June; Nivelle then published an Order of the Day forbidding French troops to surrender. In 1926, after an inquiry into the cause célèbre, Herduin and Millant were exonerated and their military records expunged.
An attack on 9 km (5.6 mi) fronts on both sides of the Meuse was planned, the XIII and XVI corps to attack on the left bank with two divisions each and two in reserve. Côte 304, Mort-Homme and Côte de l'Oie were to be captured in a 3 km (1.9 mi) advance and on the right bank, the XV and XXXII corps were to advance a similar distance to capture Côte de Talou, hills 344, 326 and the Bois de Caurières. About 34 km (21 mi) of road was rebuilt 6 m (6.6 yd) wide and paved for the supply of ammunition to each corps, along with a branch of the 60 cm (2.0 ft) light railway. The French artillery prepared the attack with 1,280 field guns, 1.520 heavy guns and howitzers and 80 super-heavy guns and howitzers. The Aéronautique Militaire crowded 16 fighter escadrilles into the area to escort reconnaissance aircraft and protect observation balloons. The 5th Army had spent the previous year improving their defences at Verdun, including the excavation of tunnels linking Mort-Homme with the rear, for supplies to be carried and infantry to move with impunity. On the right bank, the Germans had developed four defensive positions, the last on the French front line of early 1916.
The French had no possibility of strategic surprise; the Germans had 380 artillery batteries in the area and frequently bombarded French positions with the new Mustard gas and made several spoiling attacks to disrupt French preparations. Counter-attacks were made to regain lost ground but Fayolle eventually limited ripostes to important ground only, the rest to be retaken during the main attack. The French preliminary bombardment began on 11 August and after two days, the destructive bombardment began but weather delays led to the infantry attack being postponed until 20 August. The assembly of the 25th, 16th, Division Marocaine and 31st divisions was obstructed by German gas bombardments but their attack captured all but Hill 304, which was encircled and captured on 24 August. On the right bank, XV Corps had to cross the Côte de Talou in the middle of no man's land which was 3 km (1.9 mi) wide at this point. The attacking divisions reached their objectives except for a trench between hills 344 and 326 and Samogneux, which was taken on 23 August. XXXII Corps reached its objectives in a costly advance but the troops found themselves too close to German trenches and under the guns on high ground between Bezonvaux and Ornes. The French took 11,000 prisoners for the loss of 14,000 men, 4,470 being killed or posted missing.
After the success of the attack in August, Guillaumat was ordered to plan an operation to capture several trenches and a more ambitious offensive on the east bank to take the last ground from which German artillery-observers could see Verdun. Pétain questioned Guillaumat and Fayolle, who criticised the selection of objectives on the right bank and argued that the French could not remain in their present positions but must go on or go back. The Germans counter-attacked several times in September from higher ground and holding the ground captured in August proved more costly to the French than taking it. Fayolle advocated a limited advance to make German counter-attacks harder, improve conditions in the front line and deceive the Germans about French intentions. XV Corps attacked on 7 September which failed and XXXII Corps the next day which was a costly success. The attack continued and the trenches necessary for a secure defensive position were taken but not the last German observation point. Further attempts to advance were met by massed artillery-fire and counter-attacks; the French commanders ended the operation. On 25 November after a five-hour hurricane bombardment, the 128th and 37th divisions, supported by 18-field artillery, 24 heavy and 9 trench artillery groups, conducted a raid in appalling weather. The operation on a 4 km (2.5 mi) front reached a line of pillboxes which were demolished and then the infantry retired to their own positions.
The French Fourth Army and the American First Army attacked on a front from Moronvilliers to the Meuse on 26 September 1918 at 5:30 a.m., after a three-hour bombardment. American troops quickly captured Malancourt, Bethincourt and Forges on the left bank of the Meuse and by midday the Americans had reached Gercourt, Cuisy, the southern part of Montfaucon and Cheppy. German troops were able to repulse American attacks on Montfaucon ridge, until it was outflanked to the south and Montfaucon was surrounded. German counter-attacks from 27–28 September slowed the American advance but Ivoiry and Epinon-Tille were captured, then Montfaucon ridge with 8,000 prisoners and 100 guns. On the right bank of the Meuse, a combined Franco-American force under American command, took Brabant, Haumont, Bois d'Haumont and Bois des Caures and then crossed the front line of February 1916. By November, c. 20,000 prisoners, c. 150 guns, c. 1,000 trench-mortars and several thousand machine-guns had been captured. A German retreat began and continued until the Armistice.
In April 1916, Pétain had issued an Order of the Day, "Courage! On les aura" (Courage! We will get them) and on 23 June 1916, Nivelle ordered, "They shall not pass".
Vous ne les laisserez pas passer, mes camarades (You will not let them pass, my comrades).— Nivelle
Nivelle had been concerned about diminished French morale at Verdun; after his promotion to lead the Second Army in June 1916, manifestations of indiscipline occurred in five front line regiments. Défaillance reappeared in the French army mutinies that followed the Nivelle Offensive (April–May 1917).
Denizot published statistical tables including French troop movements, as well as monthly French artillery ammunition consumption by type of gun (German artillery ammunition consumption is reported in lesser detail) and period photographs show overlapping shell craters in an area of about 100 km2 (39 sq mi). Forests planted in the 1930s have grown up and hide most of the Zone rouge (Red Zone) but the battlefield remains a vast graveyard, where the mortal remains of over 100,000 missing soldiers lie, unless discovered by the French Forestry Service and laid in the Douaumont ossuary.
Pétain praised what he saw as the success of the fixed fortification system at Verdun in La Bataille de Verdun published in 1929 and in 1930, while construction of the Maginot Line (Ligne Maginot) began along the border with Germany. At Verdun, French field artillery in the open outnumbered turreted guns in the Verdun forts by at least 200:1. It was the mass of French field artillery (over 2,000 guns after May 1916) that inflicted about 70 percent of German infantry casualties. In 1935, a number of mechanised and motorised units were deployed behind the Maginot line and plans were laid to send detachments to fight a mobile defence in front of the fortifications. Verdun remained a symbol and at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1953–1954), General Christian de Castries said that the situation was "somewhat like Verdun". French forces at Dien Bien Phu were supplied by transport aircraft, using a landing strip in range of Viet Minh artillery; the French forces at Verdun were supplied by road and rail, beyond the reach of German artillery.
Verdun has become for the French the representative memory of World War I. Antoine Prost wrote, "Like Auschwitz, Verdun marks a transgression of the limits of the human condition". From 1918 to 1939, the French expressed two memories of the battle, a patriotic view embodied in memorials built on the battlefield and the memory of the survivors who recalled the death, suffering and sacrifice of others. In the 1960s, Verdun became a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation, through remembrance of common suffering and in the 1980s it became a capital of peace. Organisations were formed and old museums were dedicated to the ideals of peace and human rights. On 22 September 1984, the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (whose father had fought near Verdun) and French President François Mitterrand (who had been taken prisoner nearby in World War II), stood at the Douaumont cemetery, holding hands for several minutes in driving rain as a gesture of Franco-German reconciliation.