Battle of Verdun

Germany began the Battle of Verdun as part of a plan to force the surrender of France through excessive losses, but heavy costs were inflicted on both sides.

Summary of Event

When Allied and German forces reached a stalemate on the western front following the Battle of the Marne in 1914, they prepared different strategies. The French and the British tried to break through the German lines and repeatedly attacked German defenses along the hastily fortified northern portion of the front, but the German lines held despite bloody assaults at Ypres and elsewhere. In contrast, the Germans held to their defensive positions. They realized the great cost in troops spent on offensives in such a war and chose to concentrate on an offensive in the east, where they routed the Russian armies. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Battle of Verdun[Verdun]
Verdun, Battle of (1916)
[kw]Battle of Verdun (Feb. 21-Dec. 18, 1916)
[kw]Verdun, Battle of (Feb. 21-Dec. 18, 1916)
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Battle of Verdun[Verdun]
Verdun, Battle of (1916)
[g]France;Feb. 21-Dec. 18, 1916: Battle of Verdun[03960]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb. 21-Dec. 18, 1916: Battle of Verdun[03960]
[c]World War I;Feb. 21-Dec. 18, 1916: Battle of Verdun[03960]
[c]Military history;Feb. 21-Dec. 18, 1916: Battle of Verdun[03960]
Falkenhayn, Erich von
William II
William (1882-1951)
Knobelsdorf, Schmidt von
Joffre, Joseph-Jacques-Césaire
Castelnau, Noël-Marie-Joseph-Édouard de Curières de
Pétain, Philippe
Nivelle, Robert

Sensing the effect that the loss of men was having on Allied forces, General Erich von Falkenhayn, the chief of the General Staff of the German army, approached Emperor William II with a plan late in 1915. Falkenhayn suggested hurling an army against a fortified French position that the French could not surrender without a great loss of prestige. This hesitancy to lose such a position would force France to defend the position. In the process of defending the position, Falkenhayn calculated, France would suffer such tremendous losses it would be forced to surrender. The plan was designed to inflict French casualties rather than to capture strategic positions. The emperor approved the plan, and the fortress town of Verdun was selected as the target.

Verdun, a small town ringed with fortresses, was in a salient and could be attacked on three sides. A fortified city, Verdun was 125 miles east of Paris and 40 miles from the German fortress of Metz. Although the French valued Verdun as a defensive position, they did not believe a massive German attack on the city was likely. Indeed, shortly before the attack the French military command began moving supplies from Verdun to what were believed to be more threatened positions. Falkenhayn’s plan called for the German army, led by Crown Prince William, to attack the ring of the fortress. German troops would then be supplied to the crown prince at a rate to ensure the attack kept pace, but not in sufficient numbers to enable a breakthrough by German forces. Neither the crown prince nor his chief of staff, General Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, was told anything about the design of the attack. Like their men, they believed that the assault was designed to achieve a military breakthrough. Falkenhayn was convinced that the plan would “bleed the French army white” and force them to negotiate with Germany. The German plan was code-named Gericht, German for “a place of execution.”

The German attack began with a massive artillery barrage on February 21, 1916. More than one million German shells pounded the French fortifications. A force of 140,000 German infantrymen attacked the French positions. The German troops made some early gains and captured a few of the key fortresses. German gas attacks on the first day of battle prompted the French to launch gas attacks on the advancing German forces. General Joseph-Jacques-Césaire Joffre, commander in chief of the French armies, and his chief of staff, General Noël-Marie-Joseph-Édouard de Curières de Castelnau, reacted as Falkenhayn had predicted. The French command concluded that Verdun was to be held at all costs and moved the French Second Army under General Philippe Pétain to the defense of Verdun. A number of leaders in the French military believed that a German attack on Verdun would prove to be a strategic and military victory for the French. Before the battle, Joffre seemed to welcome the opportunity to confront the Germans at Verdun. He said, “I ask only one thing, and this is that the Germans will attack me and if they do attack me, that it will be at Verdun.”

Pétain immediately realized that the main problem was to keep Verdun supplied with troops and material. As troops moved into the area to stop the German advance, supplies became jammed because German forces had managed to cut the southern and western rail links to the city. Transport was of utmost importance, and the only access the French possessed were a narrow-gauge railway and one small road. Pétain ordered the road rebuilt and organized a massive motorized supply column of more than three thousand trucks per day to supply French forces. The road became a critical supply route during the ten-month battle and became known to the French as the voie sacrée, or “sacred path.”

The crown prince and Knobelsdorf attempted to break through the French lines but were hampered by Falkenhayn’s limitations on the number of troops as well as Pétain’s organized defense. The Germans soon realized that their casualties began to equal and at times exceed those of the French. By mid-April, Pétain moved to the offensive, and Falkenhayn found that he had extended his troops into a dangerous position. German prestige now demanded the capture of Verdun. In June, the Germans almost broke through the French lines, but French forces held firm. Complicating matters for the Germans was the British attack on the Somme that began in midsummer. German troops had to be pulled away from the Verdun sector to counter the Allied offensive. As the summer turned to fall, the fighting degenerated into vicious attacks and counterattacks amid the misery of trench warfare.

Pétain was elevated to commander of the entire central front, and General Robert Nivelle was placed in command of the French Second Army. Like the Germans, the French now saw Verdun as a test of national will. Despite the fact that Verdun was never of great strategic importance to the French, political leaders now directed the military to hold the line at Verdun despite the tremendous loss of life. Aristide Briand, Briand, Aristide] the French prime minister, told Joffre and his staff, “If you surrender at Verdun, you will be cowards, cowards. And you needn’t wait till then to hand in your resignation. If you abandon Verdun, I sack you all on the spot.” General Nivelle led a series of French counterattacks in the late summer and fall. By the winter, the exhausted German army gave up their positions; the Battle of Verdun was officially over on December 18, 1916.


The French had held the city, but the sacrifice was enormous. The battle had been the longest and most costly of the war. Militarily, the ten months of fighting were inconclusive. Neither the Germans nor the French succeeded in delivering a decisive strategic blow to end the battle. The French sustained some five hundred thousand casualties, and the Germans, four hundred thousand. Nevertheless, the battle did considerable psychological damage to the Germans, whereas for the French, Verdun became the outstanding symbol of French resistance.

The battle’s outcome also influenced the futures of the commanders of both sides. Falkenhayn was dismissed, and General Paul von Hindenburg succeeded him. Nivelle, covered with glory, attempted to repeat his performance at the Battle of the Aisne Aisne, Battle of the (1917) in 1917, which ended with disastrous results and a mutiny that almost broke the French army. Pétain gained the greatest prestige, eventually replacing Joffre as commander in chief of the French armies and later becoming the marshal of France. World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Battle of Verdun[Verdun]
Verdun, Battle of (1916)

Further Reading

  • Gilbert, Martin. The First World War: A Complete History. New York: Henry Holt, 1994. Comprehensive volume provides a thorough account of the battles of World War I as well as the diplomacy of the time. Includes maps, illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • Marshall, S. L. A. World War I. 1964. Reprint. New York: Mariner Books, 2001. History of the war written by an American general. Chapter titled “Ordeal of Nations” provides a brief introduction to Verdun and other ill-fated battles designed by generals to deliver a decisive blow and bring the “Great War” to a close.
  • Ousby, Ian. The Road to Verdun: World War I’s Most Momentous Battle and the Folly of Nationalism. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 2002. Describes the battle in detail and also examines its underlying causes. Includes maps, illustrations, and index.
  • Strachan, Hew, ed. World War I: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Collection of essays covers all aspects of the war and the issues surrounding it. Includes many illustrations, maps, and index.
  • Winter, J. M. The Experience of World War I. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Collection of historical materials, eyewitness accounts, photographs, and more aims to convey what it must have been like to experience World War I firsthand. Chapter titled “1916-17: The Great Slaughter” provides a valuable introduction to the Battle of Verdun that includes a chronology and maps detailing the attacks and counterattacks.

World War I

First Battle of the Marne

Germany Begins Extensive Submarine Warfare

Germany Uses Poison Gas Against Allied Troops

Battle of Jutland

Meuse-Argonne Offensive