Sunday, 21 September 2014

Verdun: Operation Gericht

Reconciliation? But not in 1916

The small city of Verdun sits rather comfortably in the beguiling and femininely named district of Lorraine, in  north eastern France. Aptly the name means 'strong fort' in the Gaulish language.

In 1916 the fortress of Verdun strutted into the German lines. A stronghold salient beleaguered on three sides by powerful German forces. The Germans had a plan. They would bombard this little salient with cannon. They rightly surmised that for this small patch of land the French would fight dearly.

All this of course was madness. The salient held no strategic value for the French and from a pure militaristic viewpoint they should have given ground to the Germans on the sound of the first cannonade. But the fortress held the hearts and minds of the French nation and became a powerful symbol of French national pride. Of course this formed the basis of the German war plan. Battles have been fought for land, booty and even for women. But this battle would be fought solely to bleed a nation's manhood dry. Truly terrible in concept and application, Verdun, with other battles on the Western Front, came to encapsulate the futile horror and moral decay of this Great War.

On the 21st of February the battle opened with a massive artillery bombardment followed by a German infantry attack. The plan, as originally conceived, was to conserve German manpower and let the artillery do the killing. However, as the battle unfolded the Germans became giddy with their initial gains and began to feed more and more men into the mincing machine. The French resisted with all their strength. Men and supplies were sent into the salient in a constant stream along the only road into Verdun, 'Voie Sacree.'  The ferocity of the battle cannot be imagined or the terrors that men, on both sides, endured. The French policy during the battle was to continually rotate units into the battle zone. In this way, 259 out of 330 French infantry regiments participated in the battle. Although a sound policy, it opened the way for mass discontent in the French armies which would culminate in the French mutinies of April 1917. The battle would continue for 11 months, although the German scaled back the offensive following Allied operations on the Somme in July.          

And so the butcher's bill. A modern estimate has placed the number of causalities at 714,231 men; the causalities being roughly equal among the German and the French. Some consider the final toll to be higher at just under a million men.    

The Germans hoped to bleed the French army white, and in this they scored a partial success, but only at the expense of horrendous losses in men and material for themselves. The French eventually recovered all the German gains and the battle boosted French national pride. However, the battle destroyed the offensive spirit of the French army and losses of this magnitude would no longer be tolerated by the French soldiery. As for the Germans: the battle represented a lost opportunity. They should have stuck to their original plan and to their guns. The salient offered unique prospects for the German artillery and the German infantry could have been used sparingly. Instead the Germans lost sight of the original object to kill as many French as possible whilst conserving German manhood.

Ponder and weep


  1. It's a little late to be up posting to your blog Saxon. Guess you're up watching the NZ election results (whilst drinking wine on Saturday night). Oh hang on - it's Sunday morning there now so stop drinking immediately?!