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Phase 5 -  
The Last German Offensive (23 June - 6 September)

Content - The Last German Offensive


The first German attack: the occupation of Fleury

The crises in the French defence

The second German attack: the failed attack of Fort Souville

The third German attack: the battle of Fleury

The explosion in the Tavannes Tunnel

The Battle of Verdun is considered the greatest and lengthiest in world history. Never before or since has there been such a lengthy battle, involving so many men, situated on such a tiny piece of land. The battle, which lasted from 21 February 1916 until 19 December 1916 caused over an estimated 700,000 dead, wounded and missing. The battlefield was not even a square ten kilometres. From a strategic point of view there can be no justification for these atrocious losses. The battle degenerated into a matter of prestige of two nations literally for the sake of fighting...... 

       Click here to see the map of the Battle of Verdun 1916   

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French troops detraining on their way to the Verdun front

 The first German attack: the occupation of Fleury

The next big offensive is aimed at the occupation of the village of Fleury and the conquering of Fort Souville. From there the German army intends to march on to Verdun. Before the big attack takes place the three German divisions, which are situated between Côte du Poivre and Fort Douaumont, have to strengthen their point of departure and take the Thiaumont-fortification. This is a small fort with an armoured turret that accounts for a lot of the damage done to the German troops from its mighty position on the hillcrest.

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The battlefield between 26 February and 12 July 1916

Thursday - 8 June   The attack starts but is warded off. The next attacks on Monday 12 and Tuesday 13 June were only partly successful: a number of French fortifications and machine-gun posts are taken in this area. The Thiaumont fortification, however, is still in French hands.

Wednesday - 21 June 3:50 p.m.  
Three army corps, existing of 6 divisions with a total of 60,000 men come into action in order to prepare for the planned attack that will take place two days later. The preliminary bombardment causes less damage than expected but it served as a warning to the French with regard to the next attack. The French surrender at some places but in most cases the Germans are awaited by machine-gun fire. Sharpshooters try to eliminate the German officers, as is common with these kinds of attack. This attack is not successful either. Only at the left wing, between Fort Vaux and Fort Tavannes, the French fortifications are taken

(Note: later the officers can no longer be distinguished from the soldiers. Also at the battle of the Somme the German sharpshooters receive the order to shoot at English officers, who can be recognised by their sword belts and their high leather boots).

This last attack is the first step towards the big offensive on 23 June, a scorching hot summer day. During this attack a new kind of poisonous gas is used for the first time. It is phosfine gas, which is lethal, but not for a couple of days and under the most horrible circumstances. It is expected that the French gas masks will not be able to withstand this new poisonous gas. On Thursday 22 June, at 10:00 P.M. the signal is given and 230 guns shoot 110,000 poisonous gas grenades. The French guns fall silent one by one; the poisonous gas seems to be working.

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Men and horses wearing gasmasks during the gas attacks

Friday - 23 June at 6:00 a.m. The attack starts; the gas has silenced the battery of guns in the hinterland but the front French lines, barely suffered from the gas attack. The German attack stagnates at an early stage. The attack of Fort Souville fails completely. Only in the centre of the attack successes are reported: the Thiaumont fortification is taken and Fleury is partly occupied. The village now has an important position in the German frontline.

At 9:00 a.m. the French artillery revives. They aim their fire, following the Germans example, at the village of Fleury where the Germans and French are involved in man-to-man fights for every inch of land. In the meantime the fortification of Froideterre is taken as well and the French command post in Quatre Cheminees is besieged and captured. At the end of the afternoon the battle diminishes. The heat and thirst take their toll; the troops become exhausted and lack water and ammunition. The German army commanders are disappointed: the attack at Verdun has failed again.

A French soldier: …and during the summer months the swarms of flies around the corpses and the stench, that horrible stench.
 If we had to construct trenches we put garlic cloves in our nostrils... 

The crises in the French defence

By now the French defence has manoeuvred itself into a crisis situation. French troops are panicking and fleeing through the streets of Verdun. Defence trenches are already being constructed in the city. Soldiers who are poisoned with gas can be seen everywhere. They lie on the ground screaming and suffer immensely. In a moment of panic they start with the evacuation of army units and supplies. The army commanders offer no co-ordination whatsoever and no one has any insight in the situation. In this period it is even considered, by Pétain and Nivelle as well, to vacate the right riverbank of the Muese. Pétain used as a motive for this that the Germans, if a breakthrough would occur, would gain power over a large part of the entire French artillery. This would mean a considerable setback for the fighting strength of the French army.

Nevertheless they are afraid to take the risk because of the influence that the evacuation might have on the morale of the French people. The supreme command would be accused of the fact that the immense losses have been pointless and that surrendering Verdun will be considered a failure for the entire French nation. (Note: the same argument is used at German side!)

Allegedly there even is a crisis situation at the Headquarters and Joffre and De Castelnau are supposed to be at a complete loss. That night Joffre even promises to send four new divisions, in spite of the fact that these troops are essential in the upcoming offensive at the Somme front. Mangin, who was dismissed, is called back

The fact that the Germans are not able to force a breakthrough is due to individual actions of French officers who individually organise the defence at the front. And to the French artillery that carries on with the barrage which causes the Germans to be stuck in their fortifications.

Saturday - 24 June
  The headquarters of the Vth army receive the request to be more economical with men, materials and ammunition. The German supreme Command expects a large allied attack in the Somme area and a large Russian offensive at the eastern front, which has started on Sunday 4 June, demands all attention as well.

Von Knobelsdorf wants to launch a very last attack on Verdun. Ceasing the attacks would mean that the German troops have to retreat because the terrain that is conquered so far, is extremely difficult to defend. The question remains how the terrible sacrifices will ever be justifiable if the conquered area is given up voluntarily?

Sunday - 25 June
  The French, after a brief preliminary bombardment, launch an unexpected counterattack, in which the Thiaumont-fortification is almost taken. In the following days the French army keeps on attacking, which is the reason the German preparations for the planned attack have to be postponed.

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French attack on the Thiaumont-fortification

Saturday - 1 July   The Battle of the Somme begins. Troops, artillery and aeroplanes are transferred from the Verdun front to the Somme front. The Verdun front is in danger of becoming less important. This does not mean the battle has become less fierce. Bitter fighting still continues over Fleury. Day and night of bombardments follow; attack and counterattack.

(Note: it is even mentioned that the village has changed occupiers 16 times during the battle.) The circumstances are excruciating. There is no drinking water as the village pump is heavily damaged. The soldiers get water at night from the shell-holes, in which corpses have been floating for days. The Thiaumont-fortification is besieged time after time and changes occupiers regularly.

An eye-witness: …mud, heat, thirst, filth, rats, the sweat smell of corpses, the disgusting smell of excreta and the terrible fear:
 ... 'it seems we will have to attack’, and that when nobody has any strength left... 

The second German attack: the Battle for Fort Souville

The planned German attack will take place on a narrow front area to make it possible for the artillery to focus at full strength. The main attack takes place somewhere between the Bois de Chapitre and Fleury and another German attack is also launched from the left wing, which is aimed at Fort Tavannes as well. 

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Aerial view of a gas attack

Poisonous gas grenades again initiate the attack; 63,000 pieces are there to use. However, the attack, which is planned for 7 July, has to be postponed until 11 July, because of bad weather conditions. At 00:00 hours the bombardment begins, but the poisonous gas has little effect on the French; they are prepared and are using well working gas masks. When the German attacking troops get in motion, French fire is so severe that it creates gigantic confusion: because of the narrow front the attack troops and reserve troops get mixed up without co-ordination. One of the battalion Commanders of the 3d Regiment Jäger, refuses to continue the attack: it would lead to useless blood shattering among the inexperienced newcomers in his battalion.

Yet there is one success to report: Fleury is eventually completely occupied by the Germans. Fort Souville is situated at a distance of 500 metres

The occupiers of Fleury are waiting for the reserve troops that will have to come from Fort Douaumont, so that a breakthrough to Verdun can be made. 

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Fort Souville at the end of 1916

The reserve troops do not appear and neither do the supplies; there is an immense lack of ammunition, food and drink. French reinforcements do appear after a short period of time on the Belville hill crest and they immediately deploy field artillery, aimed at Fleury, which forces the Germans into hiding.

The German attack on the left wing fails. The German troops are fired at with such force that they cannot leave Fort Vaux. After a bombardment that lasts for 8 hours there is an interlude. Only half of the turned out troops reach Batterie de Damloup. The target, the Laufée-fortification, is not reached but along the way a few smaller fortifications are taken anyway.

In stead of breaking through the gap in the defence near Fleury to reach Verdun, the German army leaders decide to launch an attack on Fort Souville, where a lost French company coincidentally reinforced the Garrison.
(Note: from 1 July onwards the fort is fired at on a daily basis by the Germans; the total of the fired grenades in this period is supposed to be more than 38,000.)

Wednesday - 12 July 
The order to attack Fort Souville is given. There are only two companies of the 140th Regiment Infantry available to launch the attack. 
Driven by their own artillery fire, which does not reach far enough, only a few German soldiers manage to reach the fort; even the upper side of the fort is taken. They see Verdun in the distance but no reinforcements appear and eventually the French overpower them. Again the German attack on Verdun has failed

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German flame-thrower attack

This day General Nivelle gives a moving order of the day, in which the French troops are praised for their perseverance and their persistency. He concludes with the famous sentence: 'Ils ne passeront pas!' ['They will never pass']

Louis Barthas describes such an flame-thrower attack
...At my feet two unlucky creatures rolled the floor in misery. Their clothes and hands, their entire bodies were on fire. They were living torches... [The next day] ... In front of us on the floor the two I had witnessed ablaze, lay rattling. They were so unrecognisably mutilated that we could not decide on their identities. Their skin was black entirely. One of them died that same night. In a fit of insanity the other hummed a tune from his childhood, talked to his wife and his mother and spoke of his village. Tears were in our eyes... (Louis Barthas  - Les carnets de guerre de Louis Barthas, tonnelier, 1914-1918)

From 12 July onwards General Falkenhayn tells the Vth army that a period of quiet at the front must follow. The conquered lines have to be defended, even against heavy counterattacks. The assignment is given to economise on ammunitions. Troops and artillery are still being transferred to the Somme front and to the eastern front.

The battle at the Verdun front still continues, albeit on a smaller scale, and is mainly concentrated around the fortifications and armed bunkers that belong to the originally French defence system around Verdun. Here heavy fighting occurs daily, which causes the front line to differ from day to day.

Saturday - 15 July
  General Mangin launches an even larger attack on Fleury. The 37th African division is deployed in this attack but does not succeed in taking the village. Again this is a hasty attack without artillery back up and the French losses are enormous again

The third German attack: the Battle for Fleury

The German army commanders decide to attack one more time in order to consolidate the front between Fleury and the Thiaumont-fortification.

Tuesday - 1 August
  The attack takes place. The German left wing almost reaches Fort Tavannes but they have no success on the right wing. Until Saturday 12 August the battle goes back and forth. The Thiaumont-fortification is conquered and re-conquered several times. On this day the fortification is back in German hands.

In the German headquarters in Stenay it is now considered to cease the Verdun offensive altogether. There are no more prospects for any victory: there is a shortage of artillery and ammunition. Also there are no more reserve troops available and the front troops are completely exhausted. Nevertheless the battle continues: the area between Fort Souville and the Froideterre-fortification is one large muddy field with shell-holes where French and Germans take turns in attacking and counterattacking. 

A German soldier: … you could never get rid of the horrible stench. If we were on leave and we were having a drink somewhere, it would only last a minute before the people at the table beside us would stand up and leave. It was impossible to endure the horrible stench of Verdun...

The battlefield is covered with dead bodies and wounded men; there is nothing even remotely resembling a front-line. On both sides the troops live in beastly circumstances. There is an enormous shortage of drinking water, ammunitions and food. Once again the losses are huge.

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A French trench after an attack

Thursday - 17 August   The French attack again, without result, near the Fleury and Thiaumont-fortification. On Sunday 3 September the Germans make a small progress in gaining ground in the area of the Nez de Souville but on Wednesday 6 September the French launch a counterattack and the old front line is restored once again.

     Read about the explosion in the Tavannes Tunnel 

From 6 September it becomes (temporarily) quiet on the battlefield of Verdun.

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