The following text is based loosely on a narrative by the interwar German military historians Cron and Goes. It is an overview, it does not go into detail, but the intention to to give the history in a nutshell... too much detail and it gets knocked off balance. The Photographs belonged to a French Captain of the 112eme Regiment d'infanterie.
In 1916 Falkenhayn had come to the conclusion that the war would be won or lost on the Western front. The German successes in Russia and Serbia had been great, but not decisive. On the Western front however, Falkenhayn did not have enough troops for a large assault. The enemy did. Falkenhayn decided to take the initiative and attack the large fortress of Verdun. He hoped this would suck in the French reserves and hamper their efforts to mount a large offensive elsewhere. Falkenhayn's plan would indeed suck in the French reserves, but at the end of the battle the casualties of both sides were so high it is hard to call the battle a victory for either side. The failure for either side to win the battle rests not on the shoulders of the soldiers that suffered there. They fought what could be considered the hardest battle of the war.
Pre war German plans had seen the neccesity for an attack on both the east and west banks of the Maas if the town of Verdun were to be captured, but in Febuary 1916 the German commander had decided to attack on the east bank alone.
The East Bank
After numerous bad weather delays the battle for Verdun finally started on the 21st February 1916 when at 07.15 am German time a bombardment with 1400 guns started along a 40 km front. Between 16:00 and 17:00 it reached its peak before the infantrymen of the 5. Armee clambered out of their bunkers, through paths cut in their wire and attacked on a front stretching 12 km from Haumont to Ornes. The initial plan was to advance carefully with fighting patrols, feeling their way forward and assessing the work of the artillery, but the VII R.K. on the right flank was overeager and attacked with its full force in the Haumont-Wald. The neighbouring XVIII A.K. fought its way forward in the Caures-Wald while on the left Flank the III. A.K. took the French second line. By the second day the attack slowed considerably, the only tangible victory being the fall of Haumont, taken by the VII. R.K. On the third day the VII. R.K. continued forward taking Samogneux which allowed the XVIII. A.K. on its left flank to finally get its foothold in Caures-Wald while the 5. I.D. attacked the Wavrille-Wald. On the 24th Febuary the attackers made better, but still too little progress. The VII. R.K had been withdrawn but the 25. I.D. was already attacking height 378. The 21. I.D. was in the forest in front of Louvemont. The 5. I.D. had made it into the Fosses-Wald. The 6. I.D. stood in front of the Caurier-Wald and that evening the 10. R.D. took Ornes.
In view of these successes the French were considering evacuating the east bank when Petain ordered the troops to hold steady. The 25th saw heavy fighting with initially little progress but that evening due to a terrible error by the French command the Fort Douamont fell into German hands.
After the fall of Fort Douamont the fort to the southeast became the goal of the attackers. Fort Vaux was a cornerstone of the ring of forts around Verdun. After Vaux the ring curved away to the south. The French realised the importance of the fort and poured troops into the area in front of it to stop the German advance. On the 2nd March the Village of Douamont fell to the 5. I.D. and at the same time the V. R.K. attacked Fort Vaux itself. The men of the V. R.K were met with a withering fire from the Weinberg-Höhe by Damloup. The attack on Fort Vaux could not continue until these flanking positions were destroyed and the attack was postponed until the 7th March..
The foggy morning of the 7th March did not allow for effective artillery fire so the shelling could only start in the afternoon. Even then breaks had to be made to wait for better visibility. The 9. R.D. was waiting for the signal to advance towards the fort, but night fell and no order came. At around midnight the III. A.K. and V. R.K. began to move forward. Once again they were fired on from the flanks, from the Caillette-Wald and Weinberg-Höhe, and again the attack came to a halt. The artillery thundered throughout the the next day and that evening the attackers made another effort as the R.I.R. 19 made it to the fort before being pushed back. Reinforced by the R.I.R. 6 they forced their way forward again, only to be pushed back a second time. The I.R. 155 started to clear the Weinberg-Höhe, the origin of much deadly flanking fire, while parts of the R.I.R. 19 and 98, I.R.64 and the 3. Jäger fought their way into Vaux Village.
A couple of days later the R.I.R. 37 attacked in the direction of the fort. They came within assault distance before collapsing. The French had held out and the German high command realised that an immense artillery preperation was needed before they could successfully take the fort.
The West Bank: Toten Mann and Cumiers
The Germans had managed to break through the first lines of defence and take Douaumont but their operations were hampered by artillery fire from the west bank. The Crown Prince therefore decided to launch a belated offensive on this side of the river.
On the 6th March the men of the VI. R.K. advanced. It was the start of the terrible fighting for the Toten Mann. On the left flank of the German attack the 22. R.D. attacked the Höhe 265 near Forges which had been a major thorn in the German side. They then withstood furious counter attacks in the Raben-Wald while on their right the neighbouring 12. R.D. attacked the Toten Mann frontally. To cover the attack the I.R. 156 attacked Bethincourt but suffered heavy losses and had to pull back. The 14th March was a bright sunny day. After the German artillery had turned the peak into a volcano of powder and dust the 12 R.D. attacked. In spite of heavy enemy machine-gun fire the Germans were able to capture the forward positions before the the II./R.I.R.38 and Res.Jäger-Btln. 6 stormed the Northern peak capturing three field guns. The Germans had taken the northern peak but the French still held the higher southern peak and the fighting shifted there.
A usually unemotional Cron writes "In the fighting here, the furnace of Verdun was at its hottest. Every battalion and regiment that fought there was literally burnt out. What not only the men in the shell holes but also the staffs, the messengers, the telephone operators, the artillery observers, the gunners, the ration carriers and the medics sacrificed and suffered, can only really be appreciated by those who suffered through the inhuman conditions. The German language has no word capable of conveying the appreciation owed for their achievement."
With their overpowering artillery fire and ability to rotate in fresh units the French were able to win back a number of positions from the newly arrived XXII R.K. which had taken over from the VI. R.K., but on the 20th May the 43. and 44. R.D. attacked in one of the most successful actions on the Verdun front, taking the Southern peak at a heavy cost. On the 23rd May the 22. R.D. attacked Cumiers, the R.I.R.94 taking the ruins and holding it against furious counter attacks until the 29th when the Caurettes-Heights and ground up to Cumieres was secured by the Germans. With that the Toten Mann was safely in German hands.
The West Bank: Avocourt, Malancourt, Haucourt and the Termiten-Hügel.
It was only after the fall of the Toten Mann on the that the right flank could start their attack on the Wald von Avocourt. Since the start of March the men of the 11. R.D. and 11. bayer. I.D. had been under heavy artillery fire as they lay in position waiting for the order to attack. When the order came on the 20th it was almost a relief for the men as they scrambled forward to meet the enemy. The men of the 11. bayer. I.D. along with a battalion of the R.I.R.10 advanced in a series of bounds and fighting their way hand to hand they cleared 3 lines of trenches pushing the enemy back to the tree line. Two days later the next attack broke loose. This time the 11. R.D. on the Bavarians left flank went first, storming the peak 270 and 275.4. The Bavarians were less successful. Their attack ran into the glacis-like side of peak 279 and no amount of bravery could get the attack moving again. Under fire from machine-gun positions on their flanks, some even to the rear, they were ordered to retreat back to the edge of the forest.
For the next few days heavy French artillery fire pounded the tree line and the forest where the Germans were sheltering. The shells and pouring rain created a sea of mud that made digging in impossible. The 192 Inf.Brig. arrived to replace some of the burned out units and bit by bit over the next few days they fought their way forward taking peak 279 despite heavy losses.
On the 21st March the I.R.156 took the heights to the North of Malancourt.. That same day the French counter counter-attacked the southern edge of the Wald des Avocourt but were thrown back by the I.R. 193 and the 13. bayer. R.I.R. On the 30th March the I.R. 156 took the town of Malancourt and on the 5th April the I.R. 192 took Haucourt after fighting for every house and every cellar. The last goal was now the position called the Termiten Hügel. This fell on the 7th April to the R.I.R. 10 supported on their left by the I.R. 22 and I.R. 192 and on the right by the 25. bayer. I.R.The Termiten Hügel and the surrounding positions were taken. This left the way open for the attack on Höhe 304.
The East Bank: Douaumont
Back on the east bank the fighting around Fort Douaumont continued unabated. In the ravines and on the spurs, in the forests stripped by explosions the soldiers fought in muddy shell holes. It was a battlefield that German and French veterans call the most terrible of the war. Shells screamed up the valleys and exploded on the exposed slopes where the men of both sides struggled to survive.
The East Bank: Louvemont and Bezonvaux
After the suffering throughout the year of 1916, there was to be no relief for the Germans at the end of the year. Having taken Douaumont and Vaux the French sat on the high ground and could look down on the German positions. Throughout November and the first half of December they pounded the German positions. Although the men at the front believed an offensive was in the offing, the German O.H.L. Divisions which were recovering from the Somme battles or were made up of older men were put into the line.
On the 15th December the French attacked, after an intense two hour barrage including large amounts of gas. They attacked the weakened German lines before the surprised Germans could offer any adequate artillery support. Into the evening the 10. and 14. I.D. held their positions against the attackers but between the 10. I.D. and the neighbouring 39. I.D. the French managed to break through. The 39. I.D. had been badly battered on the Somme and were here pushed aside by theFrench. The 39. bayer. R.D. which had arrived from the Vogesen was in line on the Hardaumont-Rücken between Fort Douaumont and Bezonvaux and was swept away by the attackers.
At last there was a breakthrough on the Verdun front but not for the Germans, for the French !
The Germans threw in hastily assembled "Kampfgruppen" and reserves and finally managed to plug the gaps but the French had advanced in bounds capturing not only valuable artillery but also important terrain like a part of the Pfefferrücken, Louvemont, Höhe 378 to the south of the Fosses-Wald, the Hardaumont-Rücken, and Bezonvaux.The attack continued on the 16th December but came to a stop in the Fosses-Wald and Chaume-Wald where the 13. R.D. and 5. I.D. fought a determined defence.
It was the last nail in the coffin for the battle on the east bank.
The West Bank: Höhe 304, 1917
Although major operations were over, the fighting in Verdun would flare up again briefly in June-July of 1917. General v. Francois, commanding Maasgruppe West had a plan to finally take the peak of Höhe 304, a plan that the O.H.L. grudgingly authorised. On the 28th June the men of the 10. R.D..stormed and took the plateau in a brilliant assault. To their right men of the 2. L.D. took some trenches in the Wald von Avaucourt while on the left the 6. R.D. took a number of positions on the eastern slope of Höhe 304. Units of the 48. R.D. participated in the assault as well. The attack achieved its goal, but losses were very heavy.
The counterattack was not long in coming. The immediate French response was extremely heavy artillery fire which levelled the newly captured positions. After a few months of relative calm the full fury of Verdun had awakened again on Höhe 304. On the night of the 17th July the 29. I.D. relieved the 48. R.D. and the next morning the full force of the French counter attack broke over its positions. The men of the 29. I.D. were fighting in unfamiliar territory and crumbled under the attack, the French troops sweeping them off the plateau and regaining not only the ground lost three weeks before, but also much of the western slope.
At this stage, as Cron says, it " would have been better not to reawaken the demon of Verdun because each attempt cost streams of blood.", but Ludendorff authorised another attack and the thunder of artillery grew loud once again. On the 1. August the 29. I.D. attacked, reinforced by a battalion of the 213. I.D., the Sturmbataillon 7, Pioniers and flamethrowers. The attack threw the French off the south western part of the Höhe and for once there was no immediate counter attack. It was a small but costly victory.
Ludendorff wrote " I was happy that the fighting there had come to an end and was not content that I had allowed the attacks. As before on the Eastern front, I had an aversion to victories with an unpreportionally high cost in blood."
The Final Battle
In August 1917 the French were to bring the fighting to an end. While the Germans were struggling to cover all bases with their meager reserves of men, the French planned to throw them back to the positions they held in February 1916 with an offensive on both banks of the Maas.During the first days of August a French bombardment started from Höhe 304 to the Vaux-Kreuz-Höhe, a bombardment that increased to the intensity of a volcano with the German artillery firing back furiously. In this hell of explosions and gas the French pilots were able to swoop down, marking the positions of the sheltering German reserves for their artillery. There was nowhere to hide. The bombardment lasted nearly three weeks until there was almost nothing living in the front line positions any more. The northern front in Verdun shook under a rolling barrage on the morning of the 20th August as the French troops advanced over a field of bodies. Suddenly they came up against the German machine gun bunkers and were faced with bursts of bullets and hand grenades. The German Eingreifsdivisionen was rushed up and the battlefield was the scene of bloody, small unit actions that lasted throughout the day. On the 21st August the Germans could take stock of the situation. The French had captured much high ground and had pushed in many places well into the German defensive zone. The 213. and 29. I.D. had held the Höhe 304 brilliantly but had to give it up to avoid the enemy bypassing them as they advanced on their flanks. The Vaux-Kreuz-Höhe had been held thanks to the bravery of the 28. I.D.
At this point the fighting on the west bank slowly died out, but intensified on the east bank, a series of attacks and counter attacks with little time between them. The ruins of Beaumont fell to the French on the 26th August but was retaken that evening by the 242. I.D. The Vaux-Kreuz-Höhe fell on the 7th September only to be retaken 8 days later by the 28. I.D. in an assault General von Gallwitz called "the crown of bravery". In the Chaume-Wald the 13. and 46. R.D. gained ground and improved their positions and elsewhere on the 2nd October the men of the 243. I.D. beat back 12 French counterattacks. All over the front there was bitter fighting culminating on the 25th November with a French attack on Beaumont.
On that day the Battle for Verdun was finally over, a battle that had given the area the distinction of having more dead per square meter than any battlefield in history