Battle of Verdun was fought between German and French armies in 1916 during the First World War. Fought for nearly the entire year, it is the longest battle in human history and one of the bloodiest during World War I. Here are 10 interesting facts about this epic battle.
#1 The chief architect of the Battle of Verdun was Erich von Falkenhayn
German Chief of General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, came up with the plan to attack Verdun in France. He believed Britain formed the foundation of the Allied effort but it lay behind the shield of the French army and could be defeated only after this shield was broken. Hence he wanted to launch a massive German attack on France to kill so many of their men that it would open an opportunity to defeat Britain or to force them to negotiate.
#2 Verdun was chosen for its historical significance
Falkenhayn chose Verdun as the focus of the German offensive because it was historically important to the French as its forts had been key assets in wars since ancient times. Verdun lay vulnerable to attack from three sides and it would have been much practical to defend the woods immediately behind it. Verdun was of greater value to France symbolically than strategically and Germany wanted to exploit this.
#3 Battle of Verdun was intended to be an attrition battle
Falkenhayn believed that the French would ‘throw in every man they have’ to retain Verdun to prevent national humiliation. He intended the Verdun offensive to be an attrition battle to bleed France to death. Falkenhayn plan was for Germany to inflict comparatively much more damage to France and he was certain that the French losses would ultimately change the course of World War I in Germany’s favor.
#4 The German offensive in Verdun was delayed due to bad weather
The German offensive in Verdun was scheduled to begin on 12 February but due to poor weather it was delayed till 21 February, 1916. Although this gave France time to construct defensive lines and send reinforcements, yet the French were hugely unprepared when bombardment began on the morning of Feb 21. On 25 February, the Germans occupied the huge fort at Douaumont, considered one of the most powerful forts in the world.
#5 Germany reached within two and a half miles of Verdun by June 23
Germany continued to advance till June 23, 1916, albeit slowly. Their advance was hindered by small-scale counter-attacks made by the French under the able leadership of General Philippe Petain. Petain also insured that the Germans suffered almost as much losses as the French. On June 23, 1916, The German line was just in front of Fort Souville, 2.5 miles from Verdun itself. This was their furthest point of advance.
#6 The Somme Offensive was launched to relieve the French at Verdun
On July 1, the Somme Offensive was launched primarily by Britain to divert German resources from Verdun in the defense of the Somme. Somme became the primary focus of Germany and they called off their Verdun offensive in mid-July. The French then began to regain their lost forts and territory and by the time Battle of Verdun ended on 18 December 1916, they were close to the line where the battle had started ten months earlier.
#7 Falkenhayn was replaced as Chief of Staff due to his failure at Verdun
Erich von Falkenhayn’s strategy at Verdun failed as the casualties on both sides were nearly equal while he expected a casualty ratio of 5:2 to France’s disadvantage. Primarily due to his failure at Verdun, he was replaced as Chief of Staff by Paul von Hindenburg. Falkenhayn went on to become a military writer after World War I. For his outstanding military leadership at Verdun, Philippe Petain was viewed as a national hero in France. He was appointed Premier of France in 1940.
#8 Battle of Verdun is the longest battle in human history
The Battle of Verdun started on February 21st 1916 and ended on December 16th 1916. With duration of 303 days it is the longest battle in human history. Although the exact casualty figure of the battle varies considerably according to sources, it is estimated that the casualties for both sides totaled between 600,000 and 700,000. With an estimated total casualty figure of 1.25 million, it was one of the most costly battles of World War I.
#9 Verdun was called “Hell” by troops on both sides
So much fighting over such a long duration in a small area like Verdun, devastated the land and resulted in deplorable conditions for the troops on both sides. Many troops at the battle never saw an enemy soldier, experiencing nothing but artillery fire. Troops on both sides referred to Verdun as “Hell”. With neither side gaining a tactical or strategic advantage due to the battle, the military strategy during the battle has been severely criticized.
#10 Verdun has become a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation
Since the 1960s Verdun has become a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation due to remembrance of common suffering. On 22 September 1984, German Chancellorl Helmut Kohzand French President Francois Mitterrand stood at the Douaumont cemetery located within the Verdun battlefield, holding hands for several minutes as a gesture of Franco-German reconciliation.