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Phase 6 - 
The French offensive (21 October - 19 December)

Content - The French offensive


The relief of Knobelsdorf and Falkenhayn

The fall of Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux

The last French offensive 

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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One of the most impressive pictures ever made

The relief of Knobelsdorf and Falkenhayn

The German troops become more and more demoralised as pressure by the French increases at the front. 

A German officer: …the number of defectors increases, the front soldiers become numb by seeing the bodies without heads, without legs, shot through the belly, with blown away foreheads, with holes in their chests, hardly recognisable flab’s, pale and dirty in the thick yellow brown mud, which covers the battlefield…

In order to lift spirits general Lochow orders to be very strict when cowardliness and insubordination occur; more than once there are instant executions.

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A trench after a hand-to-hand combat 

Wednesday - 23 August   The German headquarters at Stenay receive the message that General Knobelsdorf is going to be relieved of his duty. He is held responsible for the failed Verdun offensive, which is threatening to end in defeat. Criticism at Falkenhayn is increasing as well. He is held accountable for the fact that the Verdun battle, which was intended to bleed the French to death, has turned into a mincer, which grinds in its machine the German troops and artillery as well. This eventually causes all offensive possibilities to fail.

When on Sunday 27 August Rumania appears to be joining the allied forces in stead of remaining neutral, a crisis situation develops at the German Supreme Command in Charleville-Mèziers. The German emperor decides that Ludendorff and Von Hindenburg, who have proven their value at the Eastern front, will have to become the new Supreme Commanders and that Falkenhayn will be transferred to Rumania.

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Hindenburg, Kaiser Wilhelm and Ludendorff in Stenay

After being persuaded by the Crown Prince the first measure General Ludendorff takes is ending the German activities at Verdun, unfortunately the taken course cannot be given up. The French are not even considering stopping the battle. They continue to attack German fortifications, which are usually difficult to defend and this is the reason the Germans suffer more losses than the French.

The French Army Command is determined to beat the Germans for the last time. The major attack is prepared in great detail. The right riverbank of the Meuse changes into an enormous construction site: roads and artillery fortifications are constructed and large supplies of ammunition are stored. General Mangin has eight divisions available, which are trained in the hinterland, in a mock battlefield complete with forts.

General Nivelle develops a new artillery tactic: the creeping barrage. With this the infantry marches on right behind the solid artillery fire, which is moved to the front, leaping a 100 metres at a time. Attack troops and shellfire reach the enemy lines almost simultaneously and the defence will no longer have time to appear from their bunkers. This new method requires a perfect co-ordination between artillery and infantry: to obtain this, an especially designed underground telephone network is laid out. On top of that Nivelle can make use of the 400-mm Creusot-Schneider guns, which have an enormous penetrating capacity. They are placed on rails 6 kilometres from Verdun and have to fire at the forts. 

The fall of Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux

Saturday - 21 October
   The French attack starts a bombardment with a lot of strong calibre on a frontal width of 7 kilometres. At the same time Fort Douaumont is taken under fire with the new 400-mm guns; the bombardment is directed from a reconnaissance plane which is circling above the fort at that time.

A German soldier: …in the drumfire bravery no longer exists: only nerves, nerves, nerves. When anyone is exposed unto such trials and tribulations he is no longer of any use as an attacker or defender…

The following day the French artillery suddenly falls silent. 
The Germans are awaiting the attack and their batteries start to shoot and thus give away their position. However, there is no attack. The French resume the bombardment and manage to damage 70 percent of the German batteries

Monday - 23 October  
Both Creusot-Schneider guns start to fire again at Fort Douamont. Two perfect hits penetrate the core of the fort and cause enormous damage. The lights stop shining and the second hit kills all that are present in the military hospital. Also a fire starts. Unfortunately, grenades make numerous victims. There are many wounded and poisoned with gas and the troops start to panic. 

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The inside of Fort Douaumont just after it's recapture 

The German Commander decides to evacuate the fort. A small occupying force stays behind in the fort, under the command of Captain Soltau. At his request to send reinforcements he receives no response and because he cannot defend the fort with just a few soldiers, he decides to evacuate the fort. Among the first group that left the fort was Captain Prollius who makes the decision to return to the fort because he considers it wrong to hand the fort over to the French without a fight. After close inspection the fort seems to be free of gas and the fires seem to be under control. With no more than twenty hastily assembled men he decides to occupy Fort Douaumont once again. 

Tuesday - 24 October at 12:00 a.m.
   The French attackers come into action, despite the fact that the battlefield is covered in a thick mist. The system of the creeping barrage is working perfectly; the co-ordination between infantry and artillery appears to be flawless and the German front is pushed back. Fleury and the Bois de Chapitre are taken; the Thiaumont-fortification and Fort Douaumont are reached

At some places the Germans stand firm, for example at Haudromont, mainly because of the strategically placed machine-gun nests. The taking of Fort Douaumont is placed in the hands of the Regiment d’Infantery Coloniale du Maroc, under the command of Nicolaï. After a brief encounter Captain Prollius decides to hand the fort over to Major Nicolaï. The Germans loose their most important base at the Verdun front.

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Aerial view of Fort Douaumont in November 1916

(Note: during these days before the French attack 240,000 grenades are fired per day; on an average day this number is 100,000. In the previous seven months the French have used an estimated 23,000,000 grenades.)

The German left wing offers a lot of resistance in the line between Fort Vaux and the Bois de Fumin where the French regiments endured many losses. 
Only late in the evening the resistance is given up. Many Germans surrender and disappear into captivity. Fort Vaux is the next aim of attack for the French

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German prisoners of war captured in November 

Wednesday - 25 October   Fort Vaux is attacked. The first French wave of attacks is gunned down by the German machine-gun fire. Without mercy the French Commanders organise two more attacks without any artillery support and again the French collapse under the murdering machine-gun fire. 
The whole battleground is covered with an estimated 800 to 1,000 dead; the number of wounded is innumerable. Even though this is an exception, both sides take a break from the fighting to bury the dead and to take care of the wounded (Source: Werth p. 342). The attacks on Fort Vaux are stopped after this.

It appears that with a new French attack from the Bois de la Caillette, the fort will be cut off from the German frontline, which is being laid out at Hardoumont. At German side the concept of strategic drawback is mentioned for the first time; a concept that could not have been mentioned before

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Fort Vaux after the withdrawel of the Germans

General Ludendorff is in strong favour of withdrawing the troops from front situations, which no longer have a strategic purpose, to be able to avoid unnecessary losses. It is decided to evacuate Fort Vaux and to destroy it. 
On Thursday 2 November at 12:00 p.m. the garrison starts marching off and at 1:30 p.m. the explosives are detonated.

(Note: Only on 3 November the French enter the remainders of the fort; after they have heard that the fort has been evacuated, over the German radio. Source: Werth p. 344).

The last French offensive

Following the fall of Fort Vaux it remains silent at the front for several weeks. In the meantime General Nivelle has been appointed Supreme Commander of the French army and General Mangin Supreme Commander of the Verdun front. Mangin decides to attack one more time to force the Germans back to their original position of February 1916.

A French soldier: …everyone who searches for cover in a shell hole, stumbles across slippery, decomposing bodies and has to proceed with smelly hands and smelly clothes…

Monday - 11 December    The French shelling start again in all intensity and on Wednesday 13 December the creeping barrage becomes operational again. Still the Germans do not surrender. 

The losses on French side are enormous but eventually the front breaks open: Bezonvaux, the Bois de Hassoule, the Bois de Chauffour and Louvemont are recaptured by the French troops

A German soldier writes to his parents: ...An awful word, Verdun. Numerous people, still young and filled with hope, had to lay down their lives here – their mortal remains decomposing somewhere, in between trenches, in mass graves, at cemeteries....

German reinforcements that have arrived in a hurry are standing firm in a line which exists of inter-connected shell holes in which the Germans are standing, shivering in freezing cold water that comes up to their knees. 

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The battlefield after the battle

Tuesday - 19 December   The German army Command reaches the conclusion that at Verdun a complete defeat had been suffered. More than 11,000 German soldiers and officers have surrendered; they often did not even come out of their shelters to fight anymore. At that date the German army is definitively thrown back in its original positions. The Battle of Verdun has come to an end.

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