I have just returned from three days walking on the Verdun battlefield, guided by the inimitable Christina Holstein. I first went to the battlefield when I was 18, 44 years ago.
It is an eerie place, covered in pines, astonishingly pock-marked by shell craters. Where there is natural growth it is stunted, a testament to the poison in the ground. Unlike the Somme, the 13 villages ‘mort pour la France’ were never rebuilt (as agricultural communities they would have foundered in the polluted landscape). One does not have to go and peer through the ground level windows of the Douaumont ossuary and contemplate the piles of femurs, ribs and skulls to understand that Verdun is about death. It is all around you. Nowhere on the Western Front is like it. The preserved landscape speaks to us more about the reality of attritional warfare than any other of the now sanitised battlefields of Flanders, Artois or Picardy. It is misery and brutality incarnate.
On the appropriately (but coincidentally) named Mort Homme on the left bank stands a monument facing the German advance – a partially fleshed skeleton. In many ways it is like the abris, ouvrages and forts cracked open by artillery shells. Partly dead but surviving still, and purposeful … the enemy did NOT pass.
Falkenhayn believed that he could grab the heights on the right bank of the Meuse, move his heavy guns up and draw the French into a deadly sacrificial pit on the slopes below, martyred to save Verdun. Once they had seen the futility of this wastage, the French would give up. In the end the Germans suffered perhaps as many casualties as the French, some estimates suggesting over 370,000 on each side. What the Germans hoped to achieve in a week they could not achieve in eleven months. To stand on the crest of the German advance at Verdun is to know that Clausewitz’s maxim is absolutely true – war is always fought against ‘an enemy with an independent will, that never passively submits, and that constantly seeks to outwit, deceive and destroy’ (T. Waldman, War, Clausewitz and the Trinity, p.182).
Certain places at Verdun unavoidably remind you that this independent will is born on the backs of flesh and blood. The Tavannes Tunnel swept by fire at the cost of perhaps a thousand French dead; the 650 plus dead Germans still entombed in Douaumont, victims of an accidental explosion, some killed by their comrades as they emerged from the bowels of the fort burned and blackened, mistaken for French colonial troops who had somehow entered the fort. The nightmare of the nature of the cost of the titanic struggle at Verdun is appalling.
Verdun is a testament to the reality of the part that topography plays in defeat. Yet it is hard to perceive it. The tactically crucial ridges and the valleys in between that cruelly exposed human beings to hecatomb by shellfire can now hardly be seen among the tall pines, visible only to the experienced eye. The forts that ring the town now lurk in innocuous stands of trees. To walk in the forest is to be in some ways like the soldier of 1916, lost without any idea of what any feature actually is. As Holstein points out, Ouvrage de Thiaumont on the Douaumont dominated ridge is supposed to have passed from French to German hands many times. In reality, when troops thought they had taken Thiaumont they had in fact taken some other concrete edifice.
To stand on top of Douaumont is to be temporarily lifted above the fog of war. Standing similarly on top of Vaux and looking over the valley it took the Germans from 25 February to 2 June to cross, one becomes painfully aware that the conduct of the battle also reminds us that the supposedly superior German army was prone to operational and tactical error (which certain American historians would have us believe as being the prerogative only of the British army), long before March 1918. The German high command fought itself into the same trap as Haig has been so criticised for on the Somme or at Ypres in 1917 – once embarked on a course of action it is hard, given the losses sustained and the political and reputational commitment implied, to give it up and seem to acknowledge failure. It is also testament to how operational aims can become distorted – instead of slaughter of the French by artillery, the goal mutated once opportunity had passed into the capture of Verdun itself, something never intended. The battle reminds of other realities of the First World War. As William Philpott in his recent book ‘Attrition‘ points out, the key to victory on the Western Front was availability of reserves. In a war of attrition the army left standing that could deploy its reserves would be victorious. The Germans never had the reserves to create the schwerpunkt required at Verdun, a result in itself of the dissipation of resources stemming from the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, and certainly not after the Somme offensive began.
The battle also demonstrates that whilst 1916 was the year of crucial learning for all the combatants, the Germans had as much to learn as any of their enemies. Their artillery was massed like never before, just as was that of the British in the preliminary bombardment on the Somme, yet it never achieved the initial destructiveness intended. The complex creeping barrage that might have made the difference to many of the suicidal German attacks was a thing of the future, and a technique never fully mastered by them. The same may be said of logistics. The Germans intended to bring forward their heaviest guns without a thought as to how they might do so over ridges and valleys in winter. Rob Thompson draws our attention to the fact that Third Ypres was essentially an engineering failure for the British. Verdun absolutely was for the Germans.
Leaving the battlefield and heading back towards the town one emerges from the forest of pines into farmland. Something akin to dark into light. One leaves behind a magical, ghostly place. Yet one in which all the ghastly conundrums of the Great War are laid out. It repays study.