The longest single battle of the Great War began 100 years ago today, on February 21st 1916. The idea of the German Chief of Staff, General van Falkenheyn, the offensive was designed to ‘bleed France white’ by drawing more and more soldiers into the defence of a narrow range of forts regarded as being of supreme importance to French national pride and, hence, morale.
Verdun itself was part of a defensive network of supposedly impregnable forts built following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. The narrow strip of land had been relatively quiet since the outbreak of hostilities. As a result, the first of the the forts to fall – the huge defensive pile of Douamont, considered to be among the largest in the world – was manned by just a small cadre of elderly retainers and soon succumbed to the enormous weight of the German attack.
But if that attack (the first to include the widespread use of flame throwers) did indeed lead to huge and barely sustainable French casualties, it also cost the Germans dearly. Three months into the campaign, at the end of April, French casualties stood at 133,000 – only slightly higher than the number of German dead which stood at 120,000.
But the battle still looked likely to destroy the French army, and in July – earlier, much earlier than Haig had wanted – the bloody and futile Battle of the Somme was launched further north as a diversionary tactic, with the aim of drawing German forces away from the increasingly static fighting around Verdun.
Ultimately, French resistance prevailed. Verdun did not fall, and the battle – which was ultimately to claim over half a million lives, petered out in December 1916.
Lest we forget.