Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 247th installment in the series.
August 18, 1916: The Tide Turns At Verdun
When 1916 began, German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn hoped it would be the year that delivered final victory for Germany, thanks to his plan to “bleed France white” with a massive onslaught at Verdun. Eight months later, however, it had delivered only dashed hopes and setbacks.
To begin with the Verdun attack had gone off the rails, as the Fifth Army commander, German crown prince Frederick Wilhelm, allowed his corps and divisional commanders to press forward despite heavy casualties, either failing to understand or simply disregarding Falkenhayn’s fine-tuned plan to lure the French into a battle of attrition; indeed Verdun ended up costing the Germans almost as many casualties as they inflicted on the French. Then, beginning in June the Russian Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front smashed through Austria-Hungary’s weakened armies in Poland and Galicia, forcing Falkenhayn to withdraw troops from the Western Front to shore up Germany’s ailing Habsburg ally. Just as the situation on the Eastern Front seemed to be stabilizing, in July and August the mighty British assault on the Somme forced him to withdraw more troops from Verdun, effectively ending the German offensive there. As the summer wore on a new Russian push and Italy’s unexpected victory at the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo only added to the Central Powers’ woes.
With the balance of forces at Verdun gradually tipping against the Germans, it was only a matter of time before the French began trying to push their foes back from the citadel, now a prime symbol of French resistance to the invader. The task fell to two officers known for their brash confidence and aggressive attitudes: General Robert Nivelle, commander of the French Second Army, and his subordinate Charles Mangin, who earned the nickname “the Butcher” for his apparent indifference to casualties.
“They Shall Not Pass!”
After capturing Fort Vaux in early June, the Germans mounted a series of attacks battering away at the last ring of French defenses in front of Verdun, bringing them within a few miles of the citadel itself. On June 22 the attackers unleashed phosgene gas for the first time, with horrifying results, but failed to overcome the defenders in Fort Souville, as French artillerymen rushed back to their guns as soon as the gas cleared. Another German assault on Fort Souville on July 11 again failed to take its objective – this time the French had their gas masks ready – but the attackers did manage to capture the ruins of the village of Fleury, occupying a key strategic position on the road to Fort Souville (by this time of course the village had been wiped off the map; below, a monument to Fleury today). It was during the desperate defense of Fort Souville that General Nivelle made his famous vow, “Ils ne passeront pas!” – “They shall not pass!” – which proved prophetic. Indeed, this was the high watermark of the German offensive at Verdun.
As the Germans came under sustained pressure at the Somme, beginning in mid-July the fighting at Verdun transitioned (temporarily) from large-scale offensives to numerous smaller actions, as both sides sought to improve their position by straightening the frontline or capturing fortified positions – but the whole time the tide was steadily turning against the Germans.
One of the main French objectives was Fleury, connecting Fort Souville with the Ouvrage de Thiaumont, a fortified artillery position which in turn dominated the road to Fort Douaumont in the north – the key to the entire Verdun fortress complex, in German hands since February. Nivelle and Mangin were determined to recapture the village; meanwhile the Germans, also under the spell of Verdun’s symbolism, fought tooth and nail for every inch of territory. Thus the struggle for Fleury became just as intense, within its narrow confines, as the much bigger clashes earlier in the battle.
In a measure of the ferocity (and futility) of the fighting during this period, it is worth noting that between June 23 and August 18, the ruins of Fleury were conquered and re-conquered by the opposing sides 16 times, or about once every four days on average, amid shocking bloodshed every time.
Finally, in fierce fighting on August 8-18, 1916, the French took possession of Fleury again – this time for good. The honor, and horror, of this occasion fell to a French colonial infantry regiment from Morocco, who pushed the Germans from the desolate battlefield and then mounted a tenacious resistance in the face of numerous counterattacks over this ten-day period. Supposedly the Moroccan regiment sang the French national anthem, the “Marseillaise,” during the final assault on August 17-18. This victory laid the groundwork for a new series of French counterattacks from August to October, 1916, gradually pushing the Germans back to Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux (see map below).
The ruins of Fleury, the object of some of the most ferocious combat of the First World War, contained gruesome sights. On August 20, William Stevenson, an American volunteer ambulance driver serving with the French Army at Verdun, wrote of the village and its environs:
The ground over which the men fight is simply indescribable,– nothing but twisted and splintered stumps of trees (the place around here was formerly a wood). The ground looks as though a huge plough had furrowed and turned it over. Empty shells everywhere, arms and accouterments of all sorts strewing the land, unexploded grenades, and fusées [flares] that threaten one every step. Bastions of [sand]bags and bits of trenches, hastily made, connect up a few of the larger and most useful shell holes – dismounted “75’s,” bloody rags and clothes, mouldy food and half-empty tins. And the most pathetic of all, numberless graves simply made by covering up a body in a shell hole, with a bit of wood stuck in it, or a bottle with the man’s number on it. These, in turn, have been blown up again and again. Over all prevailed a smell of rotting flash and the acrid, damp odor of burned clothes and wood, such as one gets after a city fire when the ruins have been soaked in water. Not a sign of life except the myriads of gnats and flies which darken the air when disturbed, and the rats that scurry from under one’s feet. One of the “Génie” [engineers] told us that the job of trench-digging through this land fought over for two years is about the most horrible imaginable, as they constantly have to dig through rotting bodies which render the trench, once dug, almost uninhabitable.
And Fleury was just one small corner of the Verdun battlefield, albeit a heavily contested one: similar sights were to be found all along the front, from “Hill 304” and the saddleback ridge known as “Le Mort Homme” to the ruins of Bras and the slopes before Fort Vaux (below, a pile of human remains at Verdun).
In July 1916 an anonymous French soldier summed up the feeling of the hundreds of thousands of men who witnessed and participated in these scenes, leaving them both physically and emotionally scarred for life:
Anyone who has not seen these fields of carnage will never be able to imagine it. When one arrives here the shells are raining down everywhere with each step one takes but in spite of this it is necessary for everyone to go forward. One has to go out of one’s way not to pass over a corpse lying at the bottom of the communication trench. Farther on, there are many wounded to tend, others who are carried back on stretchers to the rear. Some are screaming, others are pleading. One sees some who don’t have legs, others without any heads, who have been left for several weeks on the ground...
In light of the never-ending psychological trauma, it’s no wonder so many men suffered from shell shock, a vague and broadly defined phenomenon whose symptoms overlapped with what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, and which manifested in extreme effects ranging from physical paralysis to psychosis. On August 25, 1916, Stevenson recorded an everyday occurrence for the ambulance crews:
I carried a crazy man this morning. I found him wandering aimlessly around Verdun with a nasty hole in his head, and tried to get him into the car, but he kept insisting he was too heavy. Finally, with the aid of a couple of soldiers we made him get aboard… I held him with one hand while I steered him to the hospital in the town… Then, when he got to the hospital he refused to leave the car. He seemed to have become attached to it, so we had to drag him out.