Thursday, 15 December 2016

Verdun 7 - Tables are turned

Gen. Mangin  (3rd L) at the front with some of
his commanders in late 1916
We last visited Verdun on 6th April (Verdun 6. France holds - "Ils ne passerons"), covering the great July assault of the Germans on the east bank, and the destruction of Fleury. Extraordinary to think that during all the time of the significant events covered since then - Jutland; Italy; Brusilov; Somme and Roumania) - the fighting and carnage at Verdun continued unabated. From July to late August, the same pattern of German attacks - sudden violent attacks testing the French lines at different points on both banks of the Meuse - were fought off with heavy losses to both sides, and were followed by intermittent counter-attacks to no great advantage. By late August the relentless pressure from British and French attacks on the Somme were weakening the German reserves, and more men had to be shifted north to that battle field. And with this, the tide began slowly to turn more in France's favour, and further initiatives would come from the French, not the Germans. This stage is referred to by the Michelin Guide to the Western Front as "Phase 4 - retreat and stabilisation".

As an artillery Colonel, Robert Nivelle had distinguished himself in the French defensive victories at the Marne and the Aisne in 1914. He was promoted to replace Petain as Commander of the Second Army in late April 1916, as Petain was promoted to command of the Army Central Group (Soissons to Verdun). He had led the July attacks with great verve, and was intent on further attacks to push the Germans back from the high ground they had gained in the earlier stages of the battle. Further progress in August saw the ruined but symbolic village of Fleury back in French control, and by September it was becoming clear that the Germans were going to have to consolidate.
The French assaults in this stage were restricted to the right bank of the Meuse (as had been the case with the German first assault in February).With Nivelle commanding the broader battle zone of the French 2nd Army from the Argonne to Lorraine, his right had man - Charles Mangin - became the key commander for the two main advances of October and December. Like Nivelle, Mangin had come to notice from his actions in previous battles of the Marne and Aisne, and was another General moved from the preparations at the Somme to Verdun in early 1916. He was 50, full of energy and a determination to vanquish the Germans from the Verdun battlefield. He intended to make his first move in early October, but his planning and preparation was so meticulous that the date was pushed back by 2-3 weeks. Troops were withdrawn from the front for special training in mocked up battle fronts (as happened pre Somme attacks). Light railways were built to speed up the supply chain to the front; and more artillery – heavy and field – was procured for the attack. Buchan gives a vivid description of the relevant sector: “From Fort Souville, looking north, the eye saw nothing but desert, pitted and hummocked as by the eruption of gigantic earthworms……. Only the naked ridges of Douaumont, Froideterre and Vaux were left of what had once been a pleasantly diversified countryside. But in every square yard of that landscape lay France’s dead.”*
Although charismatic, and capable of inspiring his poilus for the fight, Mangin did not share Petain’s concerns for their welfare. He was quite prepared to reverse Falkenhayn’s cynical tactic of ‘bleeding the enemy white’ provided German losses exceeded French. As at the Somme, the German first lines were strongly fortified; so once again high casualties were inevitable.
The now familiar massive bombardment began on 21st October. On 23rd, three Divisions of assault troops moved up to the front line to relieve those who were wearied from carrying out the preparations, and on the morning of 24th October they went over the top.
The recapture of Douaumont and Vaux forts -
first assault October 1916

Joffre, Nivelle and Petain had travelled to Mangin’s headquarters in the expectation of good news, and by late afternoon’s dusk they had it. All three divisions had achieved their objectives, some with comparative ease. Nearly 5000 German prisoners had been taken. On the left (west) of Mangin’s attack, the heavily fortified Haudromont quarry and the important heights of Ravin de la Dame and Couleuvre had been won. In the centre the French advanced rapidly from Fleury and carried Thiaumont and Douaumont villages. Then in late afternoon came the great prize – the recapture of Fort Douaumont by two battalions of Moroccan troops.  It was on the right (east) of their advance that progress was slowest. Strong German fortifications plus the difficulty of the terrain made for fierce fighting and heavy losses on both sides. In fact it took a further week of thrust and counter-thrust to take complete control of the Vaux hillsides and the fort itself. By 4th November the Germans had been driven off the north eastern plateau to the plain beyond Damloup. In ten days, Mangin’s forces had pushed the Germans back in this sector to the lines they held at the start of the battle in February.
Flushed with success, Mangin argued for a second and larger assault to push the Germans off the high ground north of Douaumont, between Bezonvaux and Louvemont. Similar preparations took place, and by early December he was ready to advance again, this time with four Divisions (but against five German divisions, with four more in reserve).
The second successful, but costly, advance to the
north, December 1916
The bombardment began on 11th December, but the whole operation was more difficult this time, hampered as it was by fog, rain and short daylight hours. On the morning of 15th, the French attacked, wheeling to the north west, so that the left (west) flank had only one mile to gain, whereas the right (east) had to gain double the ground. As before, success came, but with slower progress on the right. Fierce fighting continued to the 18th, with both sides sustaining heavy losses yet again. Exhaustion set in, but the French had achieved their aim of regaining all high ground on the right bank of the Meuse. The Verdun front was now more or less stabilised until the 1917 Franco-American and the 1918 American campaigns. 

Although continuing officially until February 1917, the worst carnage of the Battle of Verdun was over. Around 300,000 men died, and injured and missing brought the casualties total to almost 1 million. German casualties accounted for nearly half the total. They had committed nearly one million troops to the battle, negating Falkenhayn’s initial plans. France had held on to Verdun, and her national pride, but at tremendous cost. Another Pyrrhic victory.
Mangin’s December victory immediately had two wider implications. December 15th was the day Nivelle succeeded Joffre as military chief, and the successes of his deputy greatly strengthened his hand for the 1917 strategy discussions. It was also the day after Germany had published its disingenuous peace proposals (of which more in the next post) - Mangin thereby producing a robust response on behalf of the Allies.

*Buchan J. A History of the Great War (Vol III) p295

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