Primary Documents - Erich von Falkenhayn on the Battle of Verdun, 21 February 1916
Often described as the greatest battle of the war, casualties on both sides were immense. Falkenhayn's stated intention was to "bleed France white" in the latter's defence of Verdun.
Such virtually proved to be the case - although the scale of German losses brought Falkenhayn much criticism. Indeed the failure to capture Verdun ultimately resulted in Falkenhayn's removal as Chief of Staff and Paul von Hindenburg's installation (along with Erich Ludendorff).
The text below essentially comprises Falkenhayn's rationalisation for the Verdun offensive.
Click here to read Crown Prince Wilhelm's summary of the battle. Click here to read Wilhelm's summary of its abandonment. Click here to read von Hindenburg's decision to call off the offensive. Click here to read Erich Ludendorff's dismissive view of the battle. Click here to read Joseph Joffre's August 1916 summary of the battle. Click here to read British newspaper baron Lord Northcliffe's despatch during the early days of the battle. Click here to read a French memoir of the German attack on Le Mort Homme in May 1916. Click here for a memoir of the struggle for Fort Douaumont the same month. Click here for a memoir of the German assault upon Fort Vaux in June 1916. Click here to read General Millerand's official account of the see-saw fighting at Thiaumont in July and August 1916. Click here to read a semi-official German historian's account of the end of the battle. Click here to read General von Zwehl's memorandum issued immediately before the French recapture of Forts Vaux and Douaumont. Click here to read Ludendorff's statement regarding the loss of Forts Vaux and Douaumont. Click here to read French General Pierre Dubois's view of the German approach at Verdun. Click here to read a French staff officer's account of the recapture of Fort Douaumont in October 1916.
Erich von Falkenhayn on the Battle of Verdun
For the assault on Verdun the supply of ammunition considerably exceeded the quantity which all previous experience suggested as likely to be needed. Similarly, every demand for labour and equipment was complied with.
In order to divert the attention of the enemy from all these preparations, the other armies in the West were charged with the task of keeping him busy by small enterprises on their sectors.
In this they acquitted themselves in exemplary fashion. On the 9th of January the Third Army attacked at Maisons de Champagne, on the 12th of February at Ste. Marie a Py, and on the 13th of the same month at Tahure.
On the 28th and 29th of January the Second Army had a fine success at Frise, south of the Somme. The Sixth Army struck on the 26th of January at Neuville, on the 8th of February to the west of Vimy, and on the 21st of February east of Souchez.
Gaede's Army Detachment pushed forward into the French lines near Obersept on the 13th of February. Everywhere the appointed objectives were reached, and the enemy suffered heavy losses.
The relatively slight German losses sustained on these occasions were justified, for it is highly probable that these operations materially contributed to mask our plans. In return, it was only in the nature of things that larger operations other than the main attack already planned should be discountenanced.
When the Third Army inquired whether it was still to undertake a big attack on its sector, it was informed accordingly, and the following remarks were added in explanation of the plans to be followed in the Meuse sector:
"Our precise problem is how to inflict heavy damage on the enemy at critical points at relatively small cost to ourselves. But we must not overlook the fact that previous experience of mass attacks in this war offers little inducement to imitate them. It would almost seem as if the questions of command and supply in these attacks were insoluble."
On the day appointed for the opening of the attack the condition of the ground in the Meuse district, soaked with continuous rain, prevented any movement of the troops, while the poor visibility in the cloud-laden sky made artillery work impossible. Not till the middle of the month did the weather improve sufficiently to admit of the bombardment starting on the 21st of February.
The successful infantry attack on the following day was carried out with an irresistible impetus, and the enemy's first lines were simply overrun. Nor could the advanced fortifications, constructed in peace, stop the brave attackers, although these works were not much damaged by our artillery.
On February 25th the 24th (Brandenburg) Infantry Regiment stormed the Fort Douaumont, the strong and reputedly impregnable north-eastern pillar of the Verdun defence system.
Simultaneously the enemy gave way in the Orne valley as far as south of the Metz-Verdun road, so that the German front here also moved forward to the foot of the Heights of the Meuse.
From many signs it was clear that this powerful German thrust had not only shaken the whole enemy front in the West very severely, but that its effects had not been lost on the peoples and the Governments of the Entente.
However, the Headquarters Staffs of the Army Groups considered it necessary to stay the forward movement against the Heights. Violent - one may say desperate counter-attacks by troops collected in extreme haste from all parts of the front had begun. They were repulsed everywhere with very heavy loss to the enemy.
The situation might have changed, however, had we not brought up our artillery, which had been unable to follow fast enough over the still barely passable roads, and assured the supply of ammunition and food.
Meanwhile the enemy had with astonishing rapidity brought a number of powerful batteries of artillery into position behind the Marre ridge, on the western bank of the river. Their half-flanking effect made itself severely felt on our assault troops.
The discomfort caused by these guns had to be stopped. This could not possibly be effected from the right bank of the Meuse, for here we had our hands full in dealing with the enemy forces immediately confronting us.
The only means available - as had been foreseen and prepared for - was to push forward the German front on the left bank so far that its artillery could deal with the Franco-British guns on the Marre ridge more effectively than before. We now had troops available to carry out this necessary movement.
Apart from a weak attempt in Champagne, there had been no relief attacks by the enemy in any other sectors, and our observations showed that no preparations for any immediate attack of this sort were in hand. Indeed, it had become highly improbable.
The French had nearly got together the whole of their reserves from the rest of their front, and had quickly handed over to the English the sector near Arras, formerly held by them, in order to provide the wherewithal to hold their positions in the Meuse sector.
The English had been compelled, by taking over the Arras sector, to extend their line so much, that nothing on a big scale from this direction was to be apprehended. To be sure, the formation of Kitchener's conscript armies in England was proceeding vigorously. Thus it was to be anticipated that the forty to forty-two English divisions, whose presence on the Continent had been established, would be nearly doubled at no very distant date. Whether, and when, these new troops would become fit for use in an offensive was still, however, a matter of uncertainty.
In these circumstances the question that had to be considered by G.H.Q. was whether to intimate that the continuance of the operation on the Meuse would be abandoned, and a new enterprise started on another front.
This measure would have meant a complete departure from the views on which the attack north of Verdun was based. Nor was there any reason for doing so. We had hitherto achieved what we had set out to achieve, and there was every reason to hope we should do so again in the future.
As a matter of fact, that is what actually happened. No offensive elsewhere had particularly good prospects. The enemy still held their line in great strength. The English, for example, had from seven to eight men to every yard of their front.
Success was to be gained against positions so strongly held as these only by employing the artillery we had concentrated on the Meuse. Further, it would have meant a great loss of time, and the enemy would assuredly have taken advantage of this to transfer his reserves likewise. It was therefore decided to renounce the idea of changing the scene of operations.
The attack carried out on the 6th of March and in the succeeding weeks on the west bank succeeded to this extent, that the French were thrown out of their foremost lines with heavy casualties every time.
Owing to the peculiar confirmation of the country we could not use these successes to bring our artillery far enough forward, and consequently the preparatory work here had to be continued. Intense fighting lasted for the whole month of April on the western bank. Not till our occupation of the main portion of Hill 304, on the 7th of May, was there any momentary pause in our attack in this sector.
The conduct of the actions in the Meuse sector was at first directly in the hands of the H.Q. Staff of the Crown Prince's Army Group itself. But with the extension of operations some relief of the burden on this Staff became necessary. Accordingly, in March, while preserving its control, we put General von Mudra in command on the right bank, and on the left General von Gallwitz, whose command of the Eleventh Army in Macedonia was taken over by Lieutenant-General von Winckler.
As already stated, there had been a temporary cessation of our attack in the western sector; but it must not be assumed from this that things had become absolutely quiet there.
Here, as on the eastern bank, the fighting raged continuously and more fiercely than ever. The French saw to that with their practically incessant counter-attacks. The artillery battle never stopped.
The raids of the defenders were generally relieved by big thrusts carried out by forces far superior to those of the attackers. For example, a particularly resolute thrust was made on the 22nd and 23rd of May in the region of Douaumont, and for a time our hold on the armoured fort was in danger.
For our part, we usually confined ourselves to sending our opponents home with bloody pates, recovering from him such small patches of ground as he might have gained here and there, and, where necessary, effecting slight improvements in our positions.
Nevertheless, this fighting without visible or - for the man at the front - tangible result afforded the sternest test imaginable of the capabilities of the troops. With very few exceptions they stood the test most brilliantly.
The enemy nowhere secured any permanent advantages; nowhere could he free himself from the German pressure. On the other hand, the losses he sustained were very severe. They were carefully noted and compared with our own which, unhappily, were not light.
The result was that the comparison worked out at something like two and a half to one: that is to say, for two Germans put out of action five Frenchmen had to shed their blood. But deplorable as were the German sacrifices, they were certainly made in a most promising cause.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
A 'Tracer' was a phosphorescent machine-gun bullet which glowed in flight, indicating course as an aid to artillery.
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