Authors: Alistair Horne
Seldom in the history of war can the commander of a great army have been so cynically deceived as was the German Crown Prince by Falkenhayn.
The highest form of generalship is to baulk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.… In war, the way to avoid what is strong is to strike at what is weak. — SUN TZU (500 BC),
The Art of War
German national genius for organisation had never shown itself to better advantage. To supplement the roads across the boggy Woevre that the French, in a rare piece of pre-war foresight, had left as poor as possible, the Fifth Army now built ten new railway lines and some two dozen new stations. Seven spur lines were established in the Forest of Spincourt alone, to provision the heavy guns that would be concealed there. Whole train-loads of steamrollers and road-building equipment were shipped in. Day and night the little petrol locomotives chugged forward on the sixty-centimetre railways to the front, pulling long trains loaded with supplies for the pioneers. For one corps alone, the quartermaster’s list included 6,000 wire-cutters, 17,000 spades, 125,000 hand grenades, a million sandbags, 265,000 kilogrammes of barbed wire, etc., etc. Entire villages behind the front were evacuated to make room for the 140,000 men assembling for the attack. The few remaining French inhabitants watched in helpless horror at the endless lines of men and material, at the great guns bringing death towards their own people. Occasionally they found comfort in sallies of Gallic humour as the stubby-barrelled mortars passed by; whispering ‘ours are longer’.
It was the artillery that absorbed the maximum German effort. The whole German plan was based on the thesis that their heavy guns would literally blast a deep hole in the French lines, which the infantry would then occupy; with only slight casualties, it was hoped. As successive French reinforcements moved into the Verdun salient to stem the attack, they in their turn would be ground to pieces by the devastating barrages. The concentration of guns and ammunition represented the peak of the German arms’ programme launched in
1914; nothing like it had ever been seen in war before. Falkenhayn’s lavishness in this respect certainly went far towards banishing any doubts lingering in the Crown Prince’s mind as to whether he meant business or not. The area of attack itself would receive the attention of 306 field pieces and 542 heavies, supported by some 152 powerful minethrowers. Additional artillery massed on the flanks brought the grand total to over 1,220; and all for an assault frontage of barely eight miles.
Day and night the great cannon flowed in, from as far away as Russia and the Balkans. In order of size, there were the mighty 420-millimetre mortars, the ‘Big Berthas’ or ‘Gamma Guns’ — thirteen of them — evil instruments, looking like monstrous Guinness bottles. With a calibre of seventeen inches, and firing a shell standing nearly as high as a man and weighing over a ton, they were the biggest guns ever used in the First War. In order to transport them, the ‘Big Berthas’ broke down into 172 pieces, requiring twelve wagons, and took twenty hours to get into action. When they were fired, the concussion broke the windows of houses for two miles around. They were Herr Krupp’s first great contribution to the war effort, and had been Germany’s ‘secret weapon’ of 1914. With a roaring descent as noisy, prolonged and demoralising as a Stuka, the huge shells had shattered the allegedly impregnable forts at Liège, and the Germans hoped they would do the same at Verdun.
Then came two long-barrelled 380 mm. (15-inch) naval guns (also by Krupp) with immensely long range, tucked away safely in the Bois de Wapremont, well behind the front. There were seventeen stocky Austrian 305 mm. mortars, or ‘Beta guns’, and there were masses of the quick-firing, easily transportable 210s, that for the French ‘
’ were to become the most familiar and most feared weapon at Verdun. Next came the long 150s, the future nightmare of French artillerymen and supply troops, with their eternal probing and seemingly limitless range. There were the hated 130 mm. ‘whizz-bangs’, whose flat trajectory gave you no time at all to duck, that preyed on unwary troops making for the latrines, or enjoying a game of cards behind the lines; and, in sharp contrast but equally disfavoured, there were the mine-throwers — crude instruments, throwing canisters filled with over 100 lbs. of explosive, as well as often being packed with bits of alarm clocks to enhance their nastiness. You could see them coming, tumbling slowly over and over in the air; though it seldom did you much good as their gigantic
blast levelled whole sections of trench. At the bottom of the scale came the 77 mm. field guns that could lay down a barrage among attacking troops nearly — but not quite — as lethal as the famous French 75s; and the light-infantry weapons, semi-automatic ‘revolver-cannons’ and ‘pom-poms’. Finally, there was a new instrument of horror that was to make its debut at Verdun: the flame-thrower.
Each class of gun had its own carefully appointed task. The mighty Gamma and Beta mortars, hidden behind the hills of Romagne and Morimont, with their superb observation points, were to concentrate on the forts. One of the 380 mm. naval guns was to drop a steady forty shells a day on Verdun itself; the other to interrupt communications far away on the left bank of the Meuse. The 210s — one battery to every 150 yards of trench – were to pulverise the French first line. When that was taken, they would lift and ‘box off’ the intermediary areas with an impenetrable
to stop French reinforcements coming up to counter-attack. Any strong-points that somehow withstood the mortars would be administered the
by the close-in mine-throwers. As soon as the attack succeeded, the lighter guns would first move up into new prepared positions, covered by the heavies behind, which, in their turn would move forward as soon as the light batteries were ready to give covering fire. On D-Day, recognised French battery positions would be deluged with gas by the howitzers and field artillery, while special batteries of 150s stood by to eliminate any new guns that might appear in the course of the battle. Meanwhile, other long-range 150s would be constantly raking all roads and tracks leading up to the front. ‘No line is to remain unbombarded,’ ran the German gunners’ orders, ‘no possibilities of supply unmolested, nowhere should the enemy feel himself safe.’ To supply this fearful bombardment, six days’ ammunition had been stocked near the guns. This added up to 2,500,000 shells, the transportation of which had required some 1,300 munition trains. Yet, despite the appalling road conditions, Major-General Beeg, GOC Artillery to the Fifth Army, could report on February 1st that the last of the twelve hundred guns was in position, on schedule — even though the supreme effort had cost him thirty per cent of his horses. In the woods ringing Verdun there was hardly room for a man to walk between the massed cannon and ammunition dumps.
No tiny detail was overlooked in the meticulous German plans; up in the front line emplacements were already being dug for the
heavy howitzers to move into once the French first line had been taken; artillery telephone lines were spooled up in readiness to be run forward to overrun positions. There were special liaison troops equipped with large red balloons, to show the artillery just where the attacking infantry had reached in the dense woods.
Only more remarkable than the speed of the German preparations was their secrecy; here the influence of Falkenhayn had played its part. The rest of the Germany Army was kept in the dark about ‘
’ until the very last moment. Liaison officers from other armies were banned from the Fifth Army front, and even Colonel Bauer, Falkenhayn’s chief artillery adviser, was not shown the plans until it was already too late for him to alter the artillery programme. Down at the far south of the line, General Gaede was allowed to go blithely ahead with preparations for ‘Operation Black Forest’, an attack on Belfort that Falkenhayn had had no intention of consummating. To add weight to the deception, the Crown Prince made a well-publicised trip to Army Group Gaede, ostentatiously shaking hands with Swiss frontier guards. Elaborate diversionary bombardments were planned for several other sectors, and, when it was no longer possible to conceal that something was afoot at Verdun, German agents in various neutral countries spread rumours that this was only a feint, while the big attack would come elsewhere. Even nurses arriving at the vast new hospitals set up behind Verdun were told that they were simply ‘for the treatment of internal illnesses’. To what extent the enemy were taken in by all this will be shown shortly; meanwhile Germany’s ally, Austria, was hardly better informed — an astonishing error of diplomacy on the part of Falkenhayn that was to have its repercussions.
In their attempts to conceal the mammoth activities going on behind Verdun, the Germans were greatly helped by the broken and heavily wooded country of the Meuse foothills, as well as by the mists that so often hung there in winter. (Indeed, the decision to attack from the covered North-eastern approaches instead of along the perhaps more tempting Eastern axis, out of the exposed Woevre, had been dictated almost exclusively by the need for concealment.) What Nature supplied, German ingenuity supplemented. Franz Marc, the artist, was among those set to work painting camouflage nets and canvasses to cover the guns. Where mere were no trees, these were draped across all roads, like great fishing nets hung out to dry. The installation of the twelve-hundred cannon was accomplished
with considerable finesse; when crews had reconnoitred positions, gun pits were dug at night and immediately camouflaged; then the ammunition came up and finally when all was ready, the tell-tale cannon themselves. Before the attack, only long-established guns, that were assumed to be already pin-pointed on French artillery charts, were permitted to reply to enemy fire.
But by far the most effective contribution to secrecy was the great concrete
, or underground galleries, hastily burrowed out all along the attack zone. In the futile offensives of 1915, the vital element of surprise had been lost each time by the cramming of assault troops into the forward trenches, so easily visible to a vigilant enemy. Not only had this at once given the game away, but almost invariably led to hideous casualties from the counter-bombardment. The Allied generals never learnt, but the Germans did, and at Verdun the assaulting infantry were housed in these capacious, shell-proof
, some of which could hold half a battalion of men, well out of sight of French eyes. On D-Day, the infantrymen emerging from the
would have to cover not fifty, but often as much as 1,000 yards of No-Man’s-Land. It was a calculated risk based on the assumption that most of the French 75s would have been knocked out by the German bombardment; and it was a technique that was to be used against the British in March 1918 with even greater success.
Over all this terrestrial activity watched the first air umbrella the world had ever seen. Up to 1916, the infant air weapon on both sides had confined itself largely to single, gladiatorial combats between heroic young men flying flimsy and primitive aircraft. A start had been made on photographic reconnaissance (though viewed with gravest suspicion by the Army Staffs) and there had of course been the Zeppelin raids. But that was about all. Now, at Verdun, history was to be made in the air. For the first time aircraft were used en masse in support of ground tactics. Before the attack on Verdun, the Germans mustered there the main weight of their air strength — 168 planes, plus fourteen captive balloons and four Zeppelins. A huge force by First War standards, it was to provide a dawn to dusk ‘aerial barrage’ which would, in theory, prevent any French aircraft from spying out the German preparations as completely as the ground barrage was later to ‘box off’ French reinforcements. Once the attack had begun, the German ‘aerial barrage’ was to protect the vital observation balloons, the eyes of the artillery, from French aircraft.
The days of the gladiators were numbered and the Battle of Britain a step closer.
* * *
Behind the city of Verdun lay a long and quite distinguished history in which, among the deities, Mars had had an unusually large interest. Even in Roman times,
was already an important fortified camp, and considered worth burning by Attila. In 843 the Treaty of Verdun was signed there by the three quarrelling heirs of Charlemagne; it divided Europe between them, and gave birth to Germany as a nation — hence part of the eternal mystique Verdun held for Teutonic minds. Although in theory the Treaty made Verdun part of France, in 923 it fell under German suzerainty where it remained until ‘liberated’ by Henri II in 1552. Just over a hundred years later Veuban confirmed France’s title by turning Verdun into the most imposing fortress in his cordon protecting France. Besieged in the Thirty Years’ War, the experience was repeated regularly once a century, up to 1916. In 1792 Verdun held out against Prussian guns until its commander, Beaurepaire, committed suicide, rather than surrender (or, as another version has it, was murdered by less patriotic burghers); in 1870, it was the last of the great French fortresses to fall, surviving Sedan, Metz and Strasbourg. Thus on both sides there was plenty of symbolic and sentimental material on which to draw.
At the opening of 1916 Verdun was a sleepy, duller-than-average French provincial town, unassumingly modest about its noble past and strangely insouciant about the future. It was proud of its sugared almonds (they had replaced the rather less
trade in eunuchs, the city’s principal commerce up to the seventeenth century); but not so proud of a climate that must be one of the rainiest, foggiest and nastiest in all France. Considering that since September 1914 the enemy had been less than ten miles from the city gates, life in Verdun seemed remarkably little altered from pre-war days. The place was full of troops, but this was nothing new to the Verdunois, as it had always been a garrison town. The proximity of war and the spasmodic bombardments had reduced the population 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
(at a handsome profit); a hotel for travelling salesmen
had put up the boards but did a brisk business in wine by the barrel, and cheese and oranges were retailed from a disused cinema. Instead of four wine merchants, there were now a dozen, and former bank clerks, teachers and even policemen (those that had not been called up) had gone into the
business — while Verdun’s twenty-five established grocers had watched the emergence of forty new competitors with mild indifference.