Sunday, 28 February 2016

Verdun 4: The second phase - 25th February to 10th March

Gen. Henri Philippe Petain.
"Courage - on les aura!"
(Courage - we'll get them!)
The Germans were chastened by the limited success of their frontal assault on the right bank. They had gained around four miles of ground, but were still well short of Verdun. Paradoxically their greatest success, certainly in terms of morale and propaganda emerged almost by chance.
Of all the fortifications, in their concentric rings, protecting Verdun, the elevated plain of Douaumont with its 'impregnable' fort was the greatest. It was symbol itself of symbolic Verdun, to the French people if not to Joffre. Its great subterranean garrison, capable of holding 1000 troops, held only 500 at the start of February, and by 25th was held by only 50 part time irregulars. Its capture on that day provided Germany's greatest morale boost of the campaign, and a major challenge to the French spin doctors. Otherwise this second phase provided more hard won gains for the German, but the pattern of valiant French resistance and high casualties on both sides was becoming established. 
Petain became the embodiment of France's determination to hold - "Tenir!"

The heroics of Driant and his men had held up the whole of General Schenk's 18th Army Corps to such an extent it took Schenk two days to gain two kilometres of ground - despite the pulverising preliminary barrage. By the 25th the French, although holding their line, were at the point of collapse. However, the German vanguard was almost exhausted by the violence of the French defence, and it was here that Falkenhayn's risk in leaving large reserves on the other parts of the front, lost him the decisive breakthrough.
German heroes of the 24th Brandenburgers,
who captured Douaumont almost by chance.
The Germans redoubled their efforts to take Poivre and Douaumont under orders that at all costs the latter must be taken. Their infantry surged up the sides of the heights, taking serious casualties from French 75mm artillery. However, it provided the opportunity for the 24th Brandenburger Regiment to storm the inexcusably vulnerable  defenders of the Douaumont fort, to give Germany its only real propaganda coup of the week. 
However, they could not take the redoubt to the east, or the village of Douaumont itself to the west, so the line held – just – at the end of 25th.
On that day, Castelnau arrived to take charge of the overall defence, and the next day Petain arrived by car, ahead of his 2nd Army. Pétain’s arrival was timely. Over the previous five days the French line had been pushed back over four miles. On Saturday 26th a counter attack was launched, and the 20th Corps of Nancy, led by Balfourier, pushed the Germans off the Douaumont plateau, except for the 80 Brandenburg men who remained locked inside the fort. Balfourier’s achievement marked the ending of this first and most critical phase of Verdun, focused as it was on Douamont and the surrounding high ground. The Germans did try one more outflanking movement to the east. Having failed to dislodge the French from Eix and its surrounding heights, they moved on the village of Manheulles, six miles to the south.  They were attempting to gain artillery access to the French southern line of supply, but they did not succeed.  The topography and the communication lines were more difficult for them, and they did not try again. 
The valiant, skilful French defence and withdrawals had exacted heavy casualties, and forced the Germans to pause for a few days of relative quietude, and reconsider their plans.  They determined to broaden the assault, involving a major offensive on the left bank, with the high ground of Mort-Homme as the main prize. They would also persist further from the north east on the right bank against Vaux.
The German forces were thus split into two groups, NE and NW, and they would spend the next few weeks throwing themselves against the corresponding parts of the salient. Each had a new commander, and the Crown Prince Wilhelm was pushed into something of a back seat. They renewed their assaults in more traditional pincer style between 6-8th March, and the fighting resumed its full ferocity.
Tenir - 'hold!' French poilus in early days of
Verdun. Note the shallow trenches.
On the left bank, attacking between Bethincourt and Forges the Germans advanced slowly, and took the the villages of Forges and Regneville before being repulsed by the French and pushed back into Corbeaux Wood. In another two days they regained the wood and pushed to the lower slopes of Goose Hill leading to Mort-Homme. The village of Cumieres was a focus of particularly severe action and changed hands more than once. To the east, the fierce German assaults on the slopes of Vaux and its fort were resisted. None of these small gains provided the Germans with the morale boost to match the capture of the Douaumont fort.
On the opposite side, the French defence had been invigorated by the arrival of Pétain. He immediately organised his line of defence into four sectors; and his forces into four concentric groups corresponding to the sectors. He greatly strengthened medium and heavy artillery positions in the four levels of retreat.  He planned and began to implement the policy of tourniquet (literally 'turnstile'), which rotated the frontline troops every few days to ensure at least some rest and relief (a very relative concept). He also set about fortifying the road supply line from Bar le Duc, for food, weapons and men. This became immortalised as the Voie Sacrée. With the blockade of the main railway lines north and west of Verdun it would prove the only route to keep supply lines open. Above all, Pétain inspired confidence and resolve amongst the troops. On 10th March, Petain addressed his men:
         "For three weeks you have withstood the most formidable attack which the enemy 
          has yet made. Germany counted on the success of this effort, which she believed 
          would prove irresistible, and for which she used her best troops and most powerful 
          artillery. She hoped by the capture of Verdun to strengthen the courage of her Allies
         and convince neutrals of German superiority. But she reckoned without you! The
         eyes of neutral countries are on you. You belong to those of whom it will be said:
         "They barred the road to Verdun."  

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Verdun 3: The opening onslaught 21st - 25th February

Crown Prince Wilhelm -
a better soldier than his
image suggested
The artillery onslaught before infantry action grew in enormity through 1915, starting at Neuve Chapelle, and increasing dramatically at Gorlice-Tarnow, Champagne and at Loos. Earlier in the war the heaviest German shelling had been at the great defensive fortifications at Liege, Naumur and Antwerp. But 1916 saw preliminary artillery bombardments grow to new levels of destruction. The assault on the centre of the Verdun salient comprised more than a million shells in twelve hours. Unlike the later British bombardment at the Somme - a full week - these German shells fell on fairly weak French positions. Even so, the limitations of the approach were there to see. As with indiscriminate bombing of cities by Germany and Britain during WW2, the apparent scale of destruction did not correlate directly with the 'degradation' of the enemy's resistance or morale. 
The leader of the German forces at Verdun - Crown Prince Wilhelm, the Kaiser's son - did not enjoy the public profile of a dashing young hero. His awkward manner and appearance had him lampooned as "the Clown Prince" by allied propaganda and cartoonists, nor was he was particularly popular in Germany. However, he was a good soldier who understood his men. He was unhappy with Falkenhayn's restricted objectives and knew that his men would fight better for a glorious cause than a cynical one. He was also concerned that his infantry might lose their edge if they were kept waiting too long. He wanted to press forward with decisive action from the 12th February, but he was foiled by bad weather.

An intermittent shelling of various points of the whole salient commenced on 16th, but it was no heavier than many of the diversionary actions all along the Western Front. It was not until 21st February that the French could be absolutely certain that Verdun was the object of German ambitions. A massive hammer blow of heavy artillery shelling commenced at 7.15 on that morning. It surpassed any previous bombardment, and for 12 hours more than 100,000 shells per hour fell on the 6 miles central section of the French line. Late in the afternoon the German infantry moved forward, expecting a trouble free advance to the main heights outside Verdun. Initially, the advance proceeded like clockwork. They advanced through the Bois de Haumont and the Bois de Caures, and the French line between Brabant and Herbebois was pulled back, effectively straightening out the blunt nose of the salient. Another heavy bombardment followed at first light on 22nd, and a day of fierce fighting ensued, with valiant resistance form the French poilus in the southern parts of the woods. The Germans used flamethrowers in their attack on the village of Brabant and continued to flatten Herbebois with artillery. Mostly the day became one of desperate fighting in the south of the woods. By the end of the day the Germans had forced their way into the shattered village of Haumont, and were emerging from the Bois de Caures to the village of Beaumont. It was here that the heroic stand of the light infantry Chasseurs, led by the aforementioned Colonel Driant, held them up until nightfall. Driant had only two battalions, numbering 1300 men, against the centre of the German advance with nearly 150,000 men in total. Only 118 of Driant’s brave men survived but – as in Belgium in 1914 – the delay imposed on the German juggernaut by heroic resistance would prove significant. [Guderian, the Panzer ace of WW2 watched this as a junior intelligence officer from the Crown Prince’s HQ and resolved on a more mobile warfare in future]
Gradually the French had to fall back, but retreated skilfully. Driant was last to retire and fell, mortally wounded. (A poignant statue and tribute marks the spot just outside Beaumont, north of Douaumont).

The French now began to employ similar tactics to Falkenhayn – maximising the opponents’ losses. To the rear of Driant’s small force, Colonel Chretien’s 30th Corps numbered 35,000 men. They resolved to withdraw a little with each successive German assault, taking as heavy a toll as possible, and then to stand on a final position at all costs once the enemy had been weakened. Accordingly, they resolved to pull back from Brabant to Samogneux, south of Beaumont.
Fort Douaumont pre battle
from the air, Feb 1916
The attack of 23rd had a less precise artillery prelude, but another full day of vicious fighting. The French again withdrew their lines at the end of the day in order to strengthen defensively (sensible and appropriate, but opposite to Joffre’s early war tactics). They pulled back from Ornes and Beaumont, and also shortened their lines to the east of Verdun by pulling back from the Woeuvre. The retreat was another valiant affair that exacted very high German casualties.
By 25th the French were virtually at the limit of their withdrawal. They were holding a line from Vacherauville on the Meuse, eastward along the Cote de Poivre, south of Louvement, then southwards by the woods of La Vauche and Hardaumont to the edge of the hills at the gorge of Vaux. The “must hold” positions were the Cote de Poivre on Froideterre and the Douaumont plain (fortunately not the Fort itself). This was the fifth day of battle. The Germans had anticipated holding Verdun itself by this time, and it had started snowing.  They were limited to a four mile front, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to advance further into a salient surrounded by strengthening defences. Falkenhayn's plan began to look suspect.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Verdun 2: French positions and preparations

The cause of justice for Alsace and Lorraine
was at the forefront for La France
Falkenhayn's plan to break through the narrow central part of the Verdun salient is a serious error when viewed through the retrospectoscope, but his reasoning at the time was sound, even if it flew in the face of conventional military strategy. Rather than throw his maximum forces at the 'shoulders' of the salient, creating the classic pincer movement, he believed that with a smaller, albeit significant, force he could impose major damage on the French and take the garrison town itself within five days. The aim was to overwhelm French defences from the north and north east following massive artillery bombardments, and then force their way into the garrison town. They were prepared to tolerate high initial losses provided the French casualties were much higher. He also read correctly the deep French emotional attachment to Verdun as a symbol of nation and defiance. 

Verdun was a key part of General Sere de Rivieres' system of defences built to guard the new French border following the war of 1870 (a predecessor of the post WW1 Maginot Line). It was decided to fortify the surrounding hills with forts, batteries and redoubts. It had more recently been enhanced by the Brialmont system of the Belgian forts such as Liege, and had the retractable heavy guns on the turrets of its main forts. The town itself was walled, entrenched and fortified; then there was an inner ring of redoubts outside the city walls (Belleville, St  Michel, Belrupt and de Regret). Beyond these there was a strong ring  of 27 forts and batteries extending for some thirty miles and on either side of the Meuse (see map).

Revanche translates as 'revenge' but the French psyche, following the humiliation of the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, ran beyond into a deep sense of the need for justice and putting right the wrongs done to Alsace and Lorraine, annexed since then.The French desire for revanche was everywhere, but also powerful was the French tradition of elan rather than defence, particularly amongst the senior military - and above all in Joffre. By autumn 1915 he had denuded the forts of most of their big guns, and was planning and pushing hard for the joint major offensive in the Somme in 1916. Against his dominance in planning for this, Colonel Driant's protests (see previous post, 5th February) can be likened to Churchill's wilderness years warning about German rearmament in the 1930s. It was unwelcome and derided at the time, but turned to prescience in the light of subsequent events.

The French held salient in February 1916 had been improved somewhat by the exertions of 1915, and was a flattened crescent facing north, curving gently round from Avocourt in the west, past Malancourt, then Brabant(on the right bank of the river) round to Flabas  and Ornes and then Eix to the east of Verdun. Although unknown to Falkenhayn, the French defence in the central area remained weak, but ironically it helped them to have to focus on resistance at this single thrust, rather than at various points around the salient. Castelnau's timely reinforcements had stiffened the central defences just enough to prevent a rout in the coming days. He brought larger artillery and fortified trenches to the right bank - the poilus called them 'Castelnau's network'.

Despite the secrecy and subtleties of the German build up before their assault, people had a sense of what was coming. The Crown Prince's original attack date, 12th February, had to be postponed because of bad weather. A trickle of information from captured or deserting Germans confirmed what was building. Many of the small villages in the salient were swiftly abandoned, and the town itself evacuated a large number of civilians. Communications to and from the salient were difficult. The nearby main railway lines ran north to south and were under control of the Germans. The one other line running westwards to Paris  ran close to German artillery at the edge of the salient and could not be used. This left a single road from Bar le Duc just over 30 miles to the south. The centrality of this route in the dramas of Verdun was to earn it the accolade of la voie sacree. At this early stage, the first of the troop reinforcements marching north from Bar le Duc met large numbers of Verdun refugees heading south away from the imminent carnage.  

Friday, 5 February 2016

Verdun 1: Falkenhayn's judgement

There is a mystique about Verdun, the historic town some 160 miles from Paris, to the east of the Argonne forest on the upper Meuse river, and in 1914 only 20 miles from the German border. Ian Ousby's superb book (see bibliography) describes in detail the French psyche in the eventful years between the humiliations of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the outbreak of war in August 1914. Although Napoleon III was exiled after that defeat, the aftershocks of the Revolution of 1789 persisted, and the country remained split between monarchists (led by senior military and the church) and republicans.
The Dreyfus affair (1894-1906) was a long running saga indicative of this, and split the country. However, felt by the whole of France was the longing for 'revanchement' - restoration of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine so tragically lost in 1870. 

Trapped in a salient by Prince Wilhelm’s forces 
since the Battle of the Marne in 1914, Verdun was a historic and symbolic example of French resistance. Since the year of 450 a.d. when Attila’s forces left it in ruins, it had been besieged ten times. In 1870 the garrison finally fell to the Germans on November 8th after stubborn and heroic resistance. The German governor sent to administer had been Theodor von Bethmann-Hollweg, uncle of the current German Chancellor. 

January 1916 found the Allies in a strong position for men and materiel. Britain had as many men training in reserve back in England as there were at the fronts, and weapons production had improved dramatically during 1915. It was a similar story in France. The Russians were beginning to match materiel to their seemingly endless supply of troops. Faced with this, the Germans were almost forced to do something pre-emptive, and in this case (unlike early 1915 when the Kaiser ruled in favour of the East) it was Falkenhayn’s call, and he called Verdun on the Western Front. 
Erich von Falkenhayn.
His Christmas memo to
the Kaiser proposed the
Verdun campaign

 His reasons and logic for this (rather than potentially less costly initiatives to the east) were set out famously in his ‘Christmas Memorandum’ to the Kaiser. 
He reasoned that over time, Germany’s most formidable opponent was Britain. Unable to attack Britain except by submarines, or through Flanders, which would prove difficult or indecisive, the best strategy was to weaken fatally Britain’s main ally France. If the French army could be disabled, then the British army on the Western Front would be bereft. Falkenhayn sensed no great danger from the Russian or Italian fronts, but saw great advantages in taking a major stronghold of the French – either Belfort or Verdun. He settled on Verdun, and argued the following benefits of doing so:

  •         It would be a huge strategic and moral blow against France
  •         It would pre-empt a feared Allied offensive further north, probably on the Somme
  •         Balkan neutrals veering to the Allies would re-think
  •         Low morale at home would be raised by the propaganda benefits of such a victory
  •         The prestige of the Royal Family would be enhanced (Crown Prince Wilhelm was in command).
Cynically (but correctly), Falkenhayn reasoned that he could force the French army to ‘bleed white’ because of its emotional commitment to the cause of saving Verdun. He believed Germany could control the battle so that France would be obliged to pour reinforcements into its defence, whereas the Germans would sustain light losses with (relatively) limited forces.  In this regard he went against the great Prussian military principles of Clausewitz and Moltke, dictating the need to strike with maximum available force to create a decisive breakthrough. Deliberately, he did not move significant forces from other parts of the western front, but left 90 Divisions largely inactive, to guard against Allied counterstrokes. Nevertheless he did move resources from the east, and during January the Crown Prince’s army was increased by three additional corps and massive artillery back up. Also brought under Prince Wilhelm’s command were the detachments situated in Alsace, Lorraine and the Woevre plain. Like Gorlice-Tarnow in 1915 (and he may have been secretly hoping for such a dramatic breakthrough), the build up was done with great stealth, mostly at night, and the French were slow to appreciate what was happening. They were misled in part by diversionary actions placed at various points of the front through January by the Germans. In part they were prevented from gaining intelligence by much improved German airpower, with the arrival at the front of the new armed Fokke aircraft that were much more effective in reducing Allied air reconnaissance.

Colonel Emile Driant.
Another of WW1's
great characters. 
Meanwhile, the French commanders on the ground were much concerned by the poor state of preparedness to defend a move against Verdun. Following the destruction of the Liege and Antwerp forts in August 1914 by modern heavy artillery, Joffre had come to the view that the defensive concept of the fort was irrelevant to the unfolding western front situation post the Marne. Heavy guns from the forts had been redeployed on other parts of the front, and the fortifications were lightly manned. General Herr, Commander of Verdun, was unsuccessful in pleading for reinforcement of the garrison, and his shortages became so serious that he was forced to weaken the defences of the right (east) bank, including the centrepiece Douaumont fort itself. Eventually in late 1915 he and Colonel Driant (a Chasseurs [light infantry] commander serving in the Verdun salient) by-passed their senior officers and raised their concerns directly with the Government. Driant was a military veteran - soon to be elevated to national hero status by the events of Verdun - who had dabbled in military politics and derring-do novels before becoming Deputy for Nancy in Parliament. He contacted directly his friend, Deschanel, the President of the Chamber of Deputies, in late 1915 warning of the vulnerability of Verdun to a major German attack. The War Minister, now General Gallieni, demanded reassurances from Joffre and the GHQ, receiving a testy and resentful reply protesting Joffre’s extreme displeasure at being by-passed. Nevertheless, Joffre did dispatch General Castelnau to Verdun to review defensive arrangements. He took General Henri Philippe Petain, one of the army’s best commanders, with him. From early February rapid improvements began - just about in time as it turned out.

The topography of this fortress town on the river Meuse is vividly described by Buchan:
 “The city lay on both sides of the river in a pocket of plain. West and north on the left bank rose at some distance low hills, of which the nearest and most conspicuous was the ridge of Charny bearing the outworks of de Riviere’s [post 1870 defensive line] system. On the right bank the heights of the Meuse rose steeply from the stream to some 500 feet above the water level of the valley. These heights from west to east were five to six miles broad, and broke sharply down to the clayey flats of the Woeuvre. They were not a range of hills but a plateau, showing in places a gentle rise to inconsiderable crests. The summit was largely cultivated, and diversified with great woods of beech, oak and chestnut. The ravines which descended to the Meuse and Woeuvre were deeply cut and filled with scrub. Little villages and farms were scattered over it, and several roads followed the natural hollows of the tableland. One, which was conspicuous in the coming battle, ran from Vacherauville on the Meuse, by Beaumont, to Ville and Chaumont in the Woeuvre; another followed the crest of the heights from Bras by Louvement to Herbebois and Ornes. The Metz railway tunnelled the range to Eix [to east of Verdun]; a little line crossed by the gorge of Vaux, and skirted the east side of the hills to Damvillers and the vale of the Loison; the main line to Sedan and the north followed the western side of the Meuse trench. The inner circle of forts kept the first crest of the rise; the outer circle was farther over on the tableland, corresponding to what was its line of greatest elevation”