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By Chris McNab
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When war began in August 1914, after a flurry of failed diplomacy and military mobilisation across Europe, it was readily apparent that France was fighting for its survival. For Germany, a modified (1906) version of the 'Schlieffen Plan' – named after its original architect Count Alfred von Schlieffen – had at its heart a rapid and decisive defeat of France. Germany's age-old problem was how best to deal with the possibility of a two-front war between France to the west and Russia to the east. In the revised plan, largely shaped by the German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke, German forces in the east would focus mainly on holding the Russians in place, banking on slow mobilisation of the vast Russian Army to stem any advance from that quarter. At the same time, a German force, five armies strong, would undertake an invasion of France. Here was the crucial strategic ingredient. Germany's only option, if it was to respect the declared neutrality of Belgium and Luxembourg, would be to advance directly against France's fortified border lines between Belgium and Switzerland. Battering through these regions would likely devolve into a slow grind when time was of the essence – France had to be defeated before the full forces of Russian power could be brought to bear in the east. The solution was to use Belgium and Luxembourg as invasion routes into northern France, the hinge of the thrust in the south being just to the north of Verdun. This way the German armies would be able to advance rapidly, bypassing the French border forts and swinging down through France to capture Paris and effectively knock the French quickly out of the war. Schlieffen himself saw this strategy as a 'battle of annihilation':
A battle of annihilation can be carried out today according to the same plan devised by Hannibal in long forgotten times. The enemy front is not the goal of the principal attack. The mass of the troops and the reserves should not be concentrated against the enemy front; the essential [point] is that the flanks be crushed. The wings should not be sought at the advanced points of the front but rather along the entire depth and extension of the enemy formation. The annihilation is completed through an attack against the enemy's rear ... To bring about a decisive and annihilating victory requires an attack against the front and against one or both flanks ...
Count Alfred von Schlieffen
The 'attack against the front' would largely be provided by the German Fifth Army, which would strike directly into France proper just below the bend of the Franco-Belgian border. Meanwhile, two further armies – the Sixth and Seventh – would adopt holding positions behind the River Moselle, to prevent French incursions into the German homeland. With the defeat of France complete, the bulk of German forces would then redeploy rapidly to the Eastern Front by rail to fight the now-mobilised Russians.
Military plans have a near surgical neatness on paper that is rarely ever realised so cleanly on the ground. The Schlieffen Plan was no exception, as what should have been a swift French defeat became four years of attrition on a near static Western Front. For a start, the French had a response of their own for the eventuality of war with Germany. Known as Plan XVII, the heart of its aims was to retake Alsace and Lorraine – the loss of these territories had been a thorn in the French psyche since 1871 – and to provide a clear offensive demonstration to the Russian allies, encouraging them to act in the east while France advanced to the Rhine in the west. Note also, however, that the French were not naïve to the possibility that the Germans might attempt an invasion via Belgium. For this reason, the French Fifth Army was deployed in the far north, although the French high command never truly envisaged the scale of the German thrust through the neutral territory. For their part, the Russians planned on an offensive against Germany and Austria-Hungary (Germany's principal ally) in East Prussia, Galicia and Silesia, widely separated fronts that would place additional strains on Russian logistics and mobilisation. The British, for their part, would essentially be reactive to events, planning to provide an expeditionary force in support of France and a violated Belgium.
From 4 August 1914, the validity of the respective European war plans was put to the test. German forces swung en masse into Belgium, attacking the fortified defences protecting Liège the next day. Belgian resistance here was stiffer than expected, and it took until 16 August to subdue all the forts, courtesy of the use of massive 305mm and 420mm siege guns, and resume the advance. Note that the German plan allowed for just six weeks in which the French were to be defeated. During this time, the French had responded with the rapid implementation of Plan XVII. Attacks into Alsace on 7 August brought what appeared to be encouraging results for the French – Altkirch, Thann and Mulhouse (Mülhausen) were captured in short order, the latter with a much-publicised bayonet charge. Yet the offensive soon ran into problems, in the face of German counter-attacks. Mulhouse was lost on 10 August, then recaptured a few days later by a more powerful French push by the First and Second Armies. But by now the German counter-attacks were growing in strength, as the German high command gave the southern operations more weight in the overall context of the Schlieffen Plan. Mulhouse fell back into German hands on the 27th, even as other French offensives against Metz and Neufchäteau in the Ardennes were collapsing in the face of German firepower.
What we now know as the Battle of the Frontiers was, after two weeks of fighting, a costly failure for the French forces. The offensives had been pushed back by the Germans and 300,000 French soldiers were casualties, although the Germans were finally stopped in front of the Verdun–Nancy–Belfort fortresses.
Further north, the Germans were pushing on, although not without problems. Following the defeat of the Liège fortifications, the German First, Second and Third Armies deepened their advance into central Belgium, taking Brussels on 20 August. An attempted encirclement of the Belgian Army had not been realised; the 117,000 men of the Belgian Army managed to slip out of the closing net and retreat to secure fortified positions in Antwerp. Struggling against the German advance were four French armies (from west to east, the Fifth, Ninth, Fourth and Third) plus, on the far left flank, 110,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), who had begun to arrive in France on 7 August and who inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans at the Battle of Mons on 23–24 August. Despite such victories, the BEF and the French Fifth Army were unable to contain the combined force of the German First and Second Armies. As Germany pushed down into northern France in late August, Paris itself seemed imperilled and to the casual observer the Schlieffen Plan looked to being unfolding as intended.
Yet behind the scenes, Moltke's vision of a quick French defeat was dissolving. Logistics were starting to fail to keep up with the lengthening advance (a shortage of horses and specialist engineering troops were critical problems, as was the issue of ever greater distance from railheads), and men were becoming exhausted. The German high command also made a serious strategic blunder as they approached the French capital. Not wishing to over-extend their front, the German First and Second Armies swung to the east of Paris, rather than the west, leaving them exposed to an unexpectedly ferocious counter-attack on the Marne.
The Battle of the Marne was one of the critical moments in the early years of the war. Launched on 5 September it effectively stopped the advance of the German First Army and split it from the Second Army further east. The BEF and the French Fifth Army exploited the gap with an attack on the 9th, and in response the German First Army was forced to make a withdrawal back to the Aisne.
Paris was saved, and the strategic and moral nature of the victory was not lost on General (Gen.) Joseph Joffre, a central figure in the French victory:
The completeness of our victory becomes more and more apparent. Everywhere the enemy is in retreat. The Germans are abandoning prisoners, wounded, and material in all directions.
After the heroic efforts displayed by our troops during this formidable battle, which has lasted from the 5th to the 12th of September, all our armies, exhilarated by success, are carrying out a pursuit which is without parallel in its extension.
On our left we have crossed the Aisne below Soissons, thus gaining more than 100 kilometres in six days of battle. In the centre our armies are already to the north of the Marne. Our armies of Lorraine and the Vosges are reaching the frontier.
Our troops, as well as those of our Allies, are admirable in morale, endurance, and ardour. The pursuit will be continued with all our energy. The Government of the Republic may be proud of the army which it has prepared.
General Joseph Joffre, 13 September 1914
The ebullient mood was justified, but the war was about to develop in a way few strategic thinkers would have conceived. Both sides saw the opportunity to outflank the other in the west in the territory between Soissons and the French/Belgian coast. Their attempts to do so became known as the 'Race to the Sea'. Neither side ultimately managed to outflank, but in the process they created a long, static frontline that stretched from the Swiss border to Nieuport on the coast in Flanders. This frontline hardened into the earth in the form of trench positions, manned by the huge volumes of volunteer and regular soldiers now being poured into the Western Front. The Schlieffen Plan, which was meant to be an epic demonstration of German mobile warfare, was now locked into a frontline that would scarcely change significantly for the next three years.
Taking the Offence
Naturally enough for nations eager to secure victory, much effort and huge volumes of blood were expended in attempts to break the deadlock on the Western Front in 1915 and 1916. Offensive action, at least until the Battle of Verdun, was disproportionately weighted in favour of the French and the British. The Germans, during the Race to the Sea, had managed to secure for themselves a good collection of geographically and militarily defensible positions along the frontline, while retaining a large chunk of northern France and most of Belgium. They were also engaged in a major war on the Eastern Front, which in itself was gobbling up thousands of men, so by far the best policy on the Western Front was to establish very strong lines of defence and let the enemy wear himself out on them.
For the French and British a similar policy would have been spiritually intolerable. Thus we see a regular sequence of major Anglo-French offensives (combined or unilateral) conducted throughout 1915. Detailing the development and fighting of each of these offensives is beyond the scope of this book, but a demoralising pattern steadily emerged for the Allies. In many cases, an offensive would begin promisingly, a surging infantry assault pushing across no man's land in the wake of a bludgeoning artillery bombardment. Often the German first-line trenches were penetrated and overcome, but the Germans were masters of recovery and defence in depth. After an initial Allied advance, therefore, the momentum would drain away as the French or British soldiers ran up against strong second-line positions, or were driven back by an elastic counter-attack, often to their start positions. Moreover, the cost of each offensive was horrendous, given the paltry gains made. For example, a French offensive launched in Champagne on 16 February 1915 lasted just over a month and cost 40,000 casualties for just 3km (1.8 miles) of territory gained. Another French push in Artois on 25 September resulted in a further 190,000 casualties for inconsequential results. With the French Army having suffered 1.2 million war casualties by the end of 1915, there was the real danger that the offensive spirit might simply bleed away its soldiery.
So where did Verdun fit into this big picture, from both sides of the frontline? (Note that the actual structure of the French defences at Verdun is described in the next chapter.) Verdun, occupying a bulging salient, was actually one of the most defensible French positions along the entire frontline, although not everyone on the French staff appreciated that fact. In September 1914 German forces had attempted to encircle and cut off the fortified town. This effort came close to success, not only because the German pincers nearly closed around Verdun, but also because Joffre had actually ordered the town to be abandoned. Thankfully for the French, Verdun's commander disobeyed the order. Yet the Germans did succeed in weakening Verdun's defensive integrity. The outlying Fort Troydon and Fort Camp des Romains were destroyed and captured respectively, and two of the main railway lines into Verdun were cut, leaving the town with just a single road and a narrow-gauge railway track from Bar-de-Luc as its main routes of supply from the west. The Germans also managed to capture the Les Éparges ridge, a strategically useful piece of high ground 24km (15 miles) to the south-east of Verdun. A French counter-attack from 17 February 1915 reclaimed much of the ridge, although some eastern parts of the feature remained in German hands almost until the end of the war. Twenty-four kilometres (15 miles) to the west of the town, the elevated Butte de Vauquois was similarly contested. The German capture of the feature brought vigorous French counter-attacks in the early months of 1915, but while infantry combat largely ground to a halt by 4 March, mine warfare continued for months to come, as each side attempted to secure the feature.
Did you know?
The Underground Citadel at Verdun featured 4km (2.5 miles) of passages, set deep beneath the earth. It could also accommodate 6,000 men, although the conditions beneath the ground were often dank and unwholesome.
While fighting continued around Verdun, the town and its fortresses themselves came in for German attention, chiefly in the form of aerial and artillery bombardment. The latter included a fearsome pounding of Forts Douaumont and Vaux by 420mm howitzers, which succeeded in creating some significant external damage but without disabling critical French gun emplacements. Apart from such fiery interruptions, however, Verdun was actually one of the quieter sectors on the front. This was reflected not only in an encroaching complacency amongst the French garrison, but also in the stripping of many of the fortress' guns to provide artillery for batteries elsewhere. (Both these occurrences are examined in more detail in the following chapter.) The insouciance of the Verdun town itself is summed up perfectly by Verdun historian Alistair Horne:
The proximity of war and the spasmodic bombardments had reduced the population of Verdun from somewhere under 15,000 to about 3,000. But those that remained had adapted themselves well, and had seldom had it so good. The proprietors of a former music shop now sold tomatoes and tins of sardines to the voracious poilus (at a handsome profit); a hotel for travelling salesmen had put up the board but did a brisk business in wine by the barrel, and cheese and oranges were retailed from a disused cinema ... At the Coq Hardi evenings were as gay as ever before the war. The officers dining there may have looked back with some nostalgia on the peacetime fishing in clear streams and the wonderful chasses au sanglier among the oak woods that covered the hills beyond the Meuse, now the forward area, but otherwise life was not disagreeable.
Alistair Horne, Price of Glory, pp.46–47
Unknown to the French in Verdun, decisions were being taken within the German high command that would eventually make this relaxed existence nothing but a haunted and shattered memory.
In 1915, with the Schlieffen Plan clearly dead in the water, the German high command began to contemplate its next major strategic move to turn the war in its favour. In December 1915, Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of staff, who had replaced Moltke in September 1914, began writing a lengthy memorandum for Kaiser Wilhelm, in which he outlined the state of the conflict and the route to victory. Falkenhayn, giving priority to the Western Front over the Eastern Front (earning the enmity of many of his peers), identified Britain as Germany's most pressing foe, with its vast industrial resources and the human capacity of its great empire. Falkenhayn laboriously listed the strategic options for taking on Britain, but through circuitous logic arrived at the conclusion that the best strategy was to knock the French out of the war:
There remains only France ... If we succeeded in opening the eyes of her people to the fact that in a military sense they have nothing more to hope for, that breaking point would be reached and England's best sword knocked out of her hand. To achieve that object the uncertain method of a mass breakthrough, in any case beyond our means, is unnecessary. We can probably do enough for our purposes with limited resources. Within our reach behind the French sector of the Western front there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death.
Quoted in Horne, Price of Glory, p.36
Excerpted from Verdun 1916 by Chris McNab. Copyright © 2013 The History Press,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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