Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 224th installment in the series.
February 12, 1916: Verdun Attack Delayed
By early February, 1916, the German Army had amassed one of the greatest concentrations of firepower in history north of Verdun in preparation for the Fifth Army’s impending assault on the fortified town, a key defensive position and symbol of French national pride, as part of chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn’s plan to “bleed France white” and end the war.
Artillery would play a central role in the German battle plan – first by breaking up French fixed and improvised defenses to allow German infantry to advance and seize the strategic high ground above the town of Verdun, then by slaughtering French infantry sent to recapture the heights at all costs.
This dominant role was reflected in the sheer number of artillery pieces of all sizes involved, redeployed from across the Western Front to the Verdun sector: the Fifth Army under German Crown Prince Wilhelm was equipped with over 1,400 guns, including 13 “Big Berthas,” the 420-millimeter monsters which had obliterated the forts at Liege in the opening days of the war; 17 equally fearsome 305-millimeter howitzers; and 542 heavy guns, in addition to hundreds of medium, light, and field artillery pieces, mortars, and trench mortars. The Germans also stockpiled over 2.5 million shells for the opening bombardment alone, and built ten new rail lines behind the lines to keep the guns supplied.
Arrayed alongside this awesome collection of destructive power were 140,000 German infantry gathered for the initial attack (many more would serve over the course of the battle) including units representing the cutting edge of German innovation in battle tactics – the stormtroopers. These elite assault units consisted of small numbers of specially trained and equipped troops who carried with them all the different tools needed to infiltrate and overwhelm enemy defenses at key points in the battlefield, including light field guns for sudden pinpoint bombardments, barbed wire and machine guns that could be quickly brought forward to fortify and hold newly seized positions, and a terrifying new weapon, the flamethrower, to clear enemy troops from heavily-entrenched “last ditch” positions in dugouts and bunkers.
Incredibly, in January and early February the German Fifth Army had managed to bring up all these guns and troops without arousing real suspicion amongst the French, by limiting major movements to nighttime and carefully concealing gun positions in woods, behind hills, and in ravines, with additional camouflage to foil French aerial reconnaissance. Meanwhile the infantry were hidden in scores of deep concrete dugouts built behind the frontline trenches, providing a final element of surprise.
Even worse, the French, complacently believing Verdun to be impregnable, had been steadily hollowing out its defenses, stripping many of the forts around the city of their guns for use elsewhere on the Western Front, as well as neglecting to complete the fortifications by digging trenches and creating strongpoints connecting the forts. One French commander, General Chretien, recalled his feeling of shock on seeing the state of the defenses:
The generals and corps commanders who had held the ground since September 1914 had ignored trench warfare and the defensive systems used by both sides. There was no continuous front; the strongpoints had no communication with each other; between them were vast areas of open ground blocked by a few strands of barbed wire and little else.
The French remained unaware until virtually the last minute, despite a number of warnings. On January 15, 1916, a German deserter who crossed no-man’s-land warned his French captors that “something terrible” was about to happen, and as far back as the fall of 1915 Colonel Emile Driant, the commander of two battalions of chasseurs a pied north of Verdun, believed the Germans were planning an attack. Driant shared his fears with General Joseph Gallieni, now serving as Minister of War, pointing to the failure to complete fortifications and the lack of manpower (by early February there were just four divisions and two territorial brigades holding the line).
However French commander in chief Joseph Joffre angrily dismissed these warnings, insisting that the main German attack in the spring would fall against the Russians on the Eastern Front. The Chamber of Deputies nonetheless dispatched a team to investigate the claims. Meanwhile French aerial reconnaissance continued to miss the German buildup due to bad weather and aggressive interference by German fighters.
Disaster was impending: the German opening bombardment was scheduled to begin on the morning of February 12. But on the evening of February 11, the French won a temporary, last-minute reprieve courtesy of Mother Nature, as a late-season blizzard descended on the region and continued for over a week, making the ground impassable and forcing the Germans to delay their offensive.
The delay gave the French a crucial additional period to rush reinforcements to shore up the undermanned fortifications around Verdun, as the damning report from the investigators dispatched by the Chamber of Deputies finally spurred the French military to action. New divisions were arriving by rail beginning on the night of February 11 – not sufficient to yield victory against the overwhelming German forces, but enough to stave off complete defeat.