It was one of the longest battle in history, and one of the most costly battles of World War I. The Battle of Verdun lasted almost a year and cost the lives of 300,000 men.
At the onset of WWI, Germany’s main aim was to take France as quickly as possible before moving on to take Great Britain. The success of a speedy victory would have relieved Germany of the entire western front and allowed them to focus their efforts on facing Russia in the east.
France and Germany have a long and bitter history that tells of invasion and occupation. By 1870, there was general agreement in Prussia that it was in the interests of all German states to unify under one nation: Germany.
France disagreed. Responding with aggression to the German threat, the French parliament voted to declare war on Prussia on July 16th, 1870.
It is debated among historians as to whether Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck deliberately provoked the French into declaring war, or if he simply capitalized on the situation.
It is certain, however, that the Prussian leader saw potential in a joint victory over France that would unite all the states of Germany and push them into unification.
Regardless of how the Franco-Prussian War came about, Bismarck was prepared for it. Not only did he mobilize his troops faster than the French did, but his were also more numerous, better trained, and more advanced in modern technology.
In a matter of months Paris fell, and France was defeated in January 1871. Emperor Napoleon III was captured, and after the French Third Republic was established he was exiled to England. Thus Germany became one nation.
Knowing that France wanted to retake the territory of Alsace-Lorraine, which it had ceded to Germany during the peace negotiations, it was not long before a German Field Marshal, Alfred von Schlieffen, devised a plan to defeat France in one rapid advance should another conflict occur. The plan involved entering France through Belgium and aiming straight for Paris.
The onset of World War I gave Germany the perfect opportunity to activate the “Schlieffen” plan. The German army was under the command of Helmuth von Moltke and it has since been disputed that he meddled with the specifics of the plan. After facing heavier opposition than expected from the Belgian people, the German army was halted at the Belgian-French border town of Mons by the British Expeditionary Force.
Eventually, the British and French forces retreated a little and then held their ground, by which point the Germans ran out of steam and the frontlines were established. What followed was almost two years of a complete stalemate.
While the Allies looked to push the Germans back into Germany, the men of Emperor Wilhelm II believed that all they had to do was drain France of men and resources until she had neither left.
It was the battle that epitomized the German military mandate on the Western Front. The topographical value of Verdun was minimal, yet the target of a German victory was not in an immediate swift advance of its troops. Instead, the new German Chief of General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, wanted a battle that would “bleed France white.”
He wanted a battle that would, by sheer force and longevity, drain France of her men and resources and ultimately cripple them into submission. From there, Germany could take Paris, then the rest of France before finally moving on to Great Britain.
The area around Verdun was home to a number of ancient forts and battlements that historically served as protection for France’s eastern border. They were a source of great national sentiment, and Falkenhayn believed that France’s pride would supersede its rationality and that the French would fight to protect their national heritage no matter the cost.
In parts, Falkenhayn was correct. Waging from February to December, 1916, in one of the longest and bloodiest battles in history, the French fought furiously in an attempt to save their historic city from German occupation.
What Falkenhayn did not expect, however, was how ferociously the French were to fight back. Although their morale eventually hit an extreme low, the French soldiers were anything but submissive, taking just as many German lives as they themselves suffered.
Despite this, it was clear that Allied intervention was required to avoid an ultimate German victory. The pressure needed to be taken off of Verdun and the mainstay of the German army had to be someplace where Allied troops were fresher and better prepared.
It was with this reasoning that a British-led offensive in the north along the Somme front was decided upon. Beginning on July 1, 1916, the battle was initially seen as a costly disaster, with 60,000 casualties on the first day alone. But over the course of four months, the Somme offensive served its initial purpose and diverted the main German war effort away from Verdun.
By the end of the Battle of Verdun, the landscape was likened to the surface of the moon. The pockmarks, mine craters, and flattened forts bore almost no resemblance to its pre-war self. That is why, over 100 years later, the battle scars of the Verdun landscape are still so visible. And it is proof of what can happen when a nation, so desperate for victory, tries to bleed the other white.