Editorial: Battle of Verdun and Changing History
Curtis Szmania gives the Wargamer a bit of a history lesson the Battle of Verdun...and then promptly changes history in the same battle with Operational Art of War III.
Battle of Verdun
21 February 1916 -- 18 December 1916
Map of the Battle of Verdun
World War I was the greatest, deadliest, and most gruesome conflict the world had ever seen up until 1939. Its vastness and effect on human lives cannot be overstated, while the stress it caused on the governments involved destroyed empires. The war was plagued with static frontlines on the Western Front -- which has come to represent the conflict for years to come -- and the armies settled in for long sieges in muddy trenches. Offensives would usually result in minor gains with heavy loss, as generals and chief of staffs looked for a better answer to their woes. One such answer was German Commander-in-Chief General Erich von Falkenhayn's strategy to attack Verdun in early 1916.
German Commander-in-Chief General Erich von Falkenhayn
The new approach taken by Falkenhayn was an attempt to knock out France. Germany realized that the UK relied on France's army, and without it the UK would have to sue for peace. He planned to bleed the French army to death by attacking the forts of Verdun. These rings of fortresses were the gate to Paris. Falkenhayn knew how important these forts were for the French and he assumed they would defend them with everything they could muster. The commander-in-chief relied on German tactics alone to bleed the French military to death while fighting for these forts. The decision to do so was finalized on 24 December 1915, and 1,200 guns were prepared for the attack. In total secrecy the Germans mobilized their forces, planning to shell the enemy frontlines in the opening moments of their offensive.
The French were deceived. They didn't expect the Germans to attack this part of the front simply because it was fortified; why attack the strongest part of the French line? But this notion was misconceived. The forts were actually in a state of disrepair -- having been built after the Franco-Prussian War to prevent a repetition of that conflict's results -- and they were undermanned. To compound the issue, the defenses surrounding the double ring of fortresses were also out-dated and under-manned and pleas to reinforce them fell on deaf ears.
They originally planned to attack in the early morning of 12 February 1916, but the weather didn't allow it. It was thence postponed to 21 February. The days leading up to the attack the French had deployed two divisions in the target area and defenses were also slightly improved. The German guns opened up on the night of the 21st and bombarding the enemy positions for nine hours -- the intensity and length of this bombardment was unprecedented. The guns targeted the east bank of the Meuse River during the attack. The initial assault did not produce the expected results. It wasn't until the 25th that German fortunes turned when the then-thought impregnable fortress of Douaumont was captured. This fort was the anchor for the Verdun fortress-rings and, once in German hands, made the fortress of Verdun itself more vulnerable. Soon after, the Germans found themselves up against stubborn French resistance in the village of Douaumont, which was fought over from the 26th until the 2nd of March.
French General Phillpe Petain of the Verdun Sector
The French immediately reacted to the assault by forming a line of defense on the right bank of the Meuse north of Verdun but south of the most northern fortresses of the fortress-ring. This line was going to be fortified as soon as possible, and the forts just north of it were still to be held at all costs, to buy time in order to build the defenses for the new line. The man assigned to complete this task -- and given overall command of the Verdun sector -- was General Phillipe Pétain. By 2 March the village of Douaumont had fallen to the attackers but its stubborn defense was not in vain. It had allowed the time for the construction of Pétain's new defensive line just to the south -- as planned. French artillery had also been deployed on the left bank of the Meuse to support the defense of Douaumont, harassing the German advance on the other side of the river. This artillery soon became a nuisance and something had to be done about it if the German's wished to succeed in their attack.
The Germans soon after changed their objective from Verdun to neutralizing the French guns on the west side of the Meuse. They decided to attack by advancing up both sides of the river so each thrust could support the other. The main objective on the left bank became the Bois Bourrus, a small fort where most of the enemy artillery was concentrated. The assault on the fort began on the 6th and was directed at Le Mort-Homme (Dead Mans Hill) in order to get to Bois Bourrus. The attack went well at first until they started receiving artillery fire from a nearby hill, Côte 304 (Hill 304). This was dilemma was coupled with the stiff resistance faced at Le Mort-Homme.
On the 8th the Germans advanced up the east bank of the river, but their attack was halted shortly after by French gunfire. The aim of this attack was Vaux, a fortress that had been reinforced and strengthened prior to the 8th. The German assault, although, continued until 19 March but nothing significant had been achieved. The French had been more than prepared for the attack because of the initial offensive towards Verdun, funneling resources into the region. Reinforcements had strengthened the surrounding forts and any further assaults were expected to meet the same stiff resistance.
French General Robert Nivelle of the Verdun Sector, who succeeded Petain
On 1 May Vaux was attacked yet again but this attack bogged down just the same as the last. Also on the 1st the French high command was restructured and Pétain was promoted. General Robert Nivelle took command of the sector -- he favored a merciless head-on frontal attack. The Germans then decided to concentrate on the left bank once again, transferring resources from their postponed attack on Vaux. But in order for an attack on the far side to succeed, forts Thiaumont and Vaux had to be taken. On the 8th an explosion occurred behind German lines at Fort Douaumont, it killed 700 men. The French then launched a counterattack towards Fort Douaumont which instigated two days of intense fighting. The French attack foundered against the defense of the men dressed in field grey -- it was a costly counterattack for the French.
To aid in their attack on Le Mort-Homme it was decided to capture Côte 304, and this attack started on 3 May with the aid of 500 German guns. The two hills were taken, after considerable loss, by the end of May. Subsequently, the fortress of Bois Bourrus fell not much later -- after three months of continuous fighting.
The Germans continued their attack south towards Verdun. The next obstacles towards this goal were the village of Fleury and Fort Souville. Three German Corps were committed to the attack which commenced on 23 June. On that day leading elements of the German attack got within 2.5 miles of Verdun itself. They used phosgene gas in the engagement; it was the first time this gas was used during war. They fired 110,000 shells from 230 guns but the gas couldn't produce a victory and the attack failed in taking Fort Souville, although Fort Thiaumont and Fleury had been reached. Additionally, after a stubborn -- even heroic -- defense Fort Vaux was also taken on 7 July.
Subsequent to being on the receiving end of numerous attacks the French found themselves in a desperate situation. Verdun was now more threatened than ever before; this was the critical moment of the battle. They were considering withdrawing and retreating from the right side of the Meuse completely. The exact turning point of the battle occurred right after a German breakthrough when French officers took it upon themselves and stabilized the situation. Their stubborn, well coordinated, and heroic defense saved Verdun and contained the German juggernaut at the critical moment. A French counterattack was then mounted, just before a second German push towards Verdun. The Germans had to reel and face this attack, as a bitter struggle continued in Fleury.
Once the French attack was contained the Germans countered with yet another offensive on 11 July. The French managed to silence most of this attack with their artillery. Fleury did fall, however, but the reserves that were planned to exploit this breakthrough did not show and the French were able to make good the German advances. Another attempt was made for Fort Souville but it came to nothing.
The British offensive on the Somme began on 1 July 1916 and its objective was to weaken the German pressure on the French at Verdun. This battle, and not to mention the Russian offensive on the Eastern Front, soon overshadowed the events taking place near Verdun and military resources -- troops and artillery -- were subsequently moved from the region because of them. The sector was still active but on a much smaller scale, and the Germans were ordered to limit their use of munitions in the sector; but the high command still saw hope in the situation. The French were the first to take advantage of these distractions. A French offensive was ordered on 15 July by General Charles Mangin towards Fleury. It was yet again a costly affair for the attackers and it ultimately ended without achieving any major success.
The German high command chose to take advantage of this defensive victory with a follow-up attack between Fleury and the Thiaumont fortification. It was a sporadic offensive and it lasted between 1 August and 6 September. Because it was an erratic affair, both sides often exchanged the upper hand several times with the main focus between the forts of Souville and Froideterre. The ground in the region became barren and pockmarked with muddy shell holes. Munitions, food, and water ran low while casualties ran high for the attackers. The fighting gradually bogged down, like most actions on the Western Front, and the two sides settled-in without taking any of their objectives. By 6 September most of the guns fell silent in the Verdun sector -- an eerie silence prevailed.
On 23 August Von Knobelsdorf, the general in the Verdun Sector, was sacked and C-in-C Von Falkenhayn was replaced by the newly renowned duo Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg. Ludendorff's first move was to attain a cease-fire with the French in the Verdun sector, but his enemy had other plans.
French 400mm Railway Gun used to bombard Fort Douaumont
They knew the Germans were now in a precarious situation and they planned to strike back and reoccupy the lands they lost over the past year. They began this on 21 October 1916 by attacking up the right bank of the Meuse River. The attack was preceded by a severe artillery bombardment that spanned an area of the front 7 km wide. Fort Douaumont was bombarded by a large 400mm gun. As the French infantry "stormed over the top" on 24 October, they pushed their enemy back. Just ahead of their advance the new artillery bombardment tactic took effect -- the creeping barrage. Douaumont was battered to bits and the Germans had no choice but to abandon it as it was now indefensible; it fell into French hands shortly after. Fort Vaux was attacked on the 26th but this fort didn't fall so easily. Wave after wave of Frenchmen fell due to German machinegun fire defending the fortress, but this wasn't to last for long. The German front was being pushed back and Vaux would soon be separated from it -- isolated by French forces on all sides. Therefore, it was decided to abandon the fort and destroy it. What was left of the fort was occupied by the French.
French troops going "over the top" during the Battle of Verdun
After an interval of silence the French launched another offensive. This began on 11 December. The French soldiers moved forward on the 13th behind yet another barrage. The defense was again very stubborn but the attackers managed to breach the lines.
German troops manning a Maxim MG 08 Light Machine Gun
The battle soon came to an end on 18 December 1916. The German high command determined that the Battle of Verdun was a German defeat, having been pushed back to the positions they occupied on 21 February 1916. The casualties of the battle vary according to the source, perhaps because it is difficult to tally such figures on such a scale over nearly eleven months of continuous combat. The French are said to have lost over 360,000 and the Germans 340,000. The casualty figures were fairly even for both sides, but most importantly these were losses the Central Powers could not make up. Falkenhayn's strategy had failed and although he did bleed the French army, he did not bleed it to death as he had hoped. German tactics and resources could not tip the balance unless they were used in new and innovative ways. Unfortunately it wouldn't be until late 1917 that such tactics had been fully developed, by which time the war was already lost with the United States now drawn into the conflict.
Suggested video games: The Operational Art of War series, Hearts of Iron II with 1914 mod, Darkest Hour, World War I, World War One Gold, and Strategic Command WWI: The Great War 1914-1918
And now, Curtis Szmania changes history in The Operational Art of War III:
"Reversing the Battle of Verdun"
The scenario Ill be playing with is called Verdun 1916. The scenario and more information about the scenario can be found here at the Rugged Defense scenario depot: LINK My impressions of the custom-made scenario were good. Although it's in French, I can still make out what is being said in pop-ups and such. Also, the scenario was limited to 12 turns, at half a day each turn. This wasn't enough for what I was conducting and trying to achieve. In fact, that would only make the battle six days long -- historically it was nearly a year long. So I changed the number of turns (this was the only thing I changed) to 20, at half a week per turn. This didn't make the battle its historical length, but made it long enough to produce a German victory. I am also having faith in the scenario creator here, that he created it with the goal of making it as historically accurate as possible.
I will be playing as Germany (grey), because France (blue) was declared the victor of the almost year-long battle. The above map shows my dispositions and my plan of attack. The Verdun sector was a salient, with the town of Verdun in the center and base of the salient. Verdun is my ultimate goal, because if Verdun falls, so will the rest of the fortress ring.
Historically the Germans attacked south along both sides of the river -- the river can be seen splitting the battlefield in half, running north and south right down the center of the map. This is the Meuse River. I, on the other hand, have chosen to attack from the east towards the west, straight for Verdun. The map contains five bridges over the Meuse; they are all circled in red. These are my secondary objectives. Controlling these bridges mean I control the movement of my enemy. Their demise would then be guaranteed, as I could just defeat their isolated segments at my leisure.
Distracting my main thrust will be another attack on the west side of the river. This will just be a push with all my available forces on that side of the river towards the south. The reason for this distraction is to divert enemy forces form my primary thrust in the east. And I expect the AI to send reinforcements into the region to counter this feint attack. But most importantly, the main reason for my conviction to launch this secondary attack was because I had no way of sending the extra forces from the west side of the river, to the east side to aid in my offensive. There is no bridge in German control at the beginning of the battle and I do not have any units (as far as I can tell) that have the "major ferry" capability in order to cross large rivers.
Turns Two and Three
To conduct my primary offensive, I had to mobilize my forces towards the southeastern part of the map. This is what I was doing for the first couple of turns. While I was doing this I immediately went on the offensive on the west side of the river. I was making good progress right up against the river's edge, and actually formed quite an impressive spearhead. Though my primary goal was to distract, I felt an opportunity to quickly take the most northern bridge over the Meuse, and I went for it.
Turns Four and Five
The western spearhead wasn't to last long, as I had overrun my capabilities and I began to be pushed back to where I had started. My primary objective however, was to distract the enemy. This diversion seemed to divert attention from other sections of the front, lessening the likelihood of an enemy attack in other areas -- where I had taken forces from to reinforce my primary offensive.
My primary offensive also got going during turn four. I made quick progress, as one can see above. I also was able to encircle a couple enemy units in the process. But I still had many units still mobilizing from other sectors, to give my attack the full punch I was looking for. I had begun may trek towards the Meuse, and nothing was going to stop me! I was also moving parts of my line, to the north of the attack, west in order to shorten my line of defense (so I could muster more reinforcements for my attack) and to pressure the enemy -- tricking them of where my main attack would be.
Turns Six and Seven
By turn 6 I had managed to reach the southern edge of the map with my attack. It was also during this time that I began seeing stiff resistance ahead of me -- between my forces and the town of Verdun. The turns prior had shown the road that I was attacking along -- that ran straight to Verdun -- was clear of enemy presence. But by this time I could see enemy formations all along the road. As I was probing the enemy defenses in front of me, I began to make out a continuous line of defense in front of me. The enemy had reformed their line to meet my attack. Now I was on the search for the weakest part of this defense, so I could pierce through and push towards my objectives. Also, as I pushed forward, I was looking for opportunities to create pockets around enemy units; moving past concentrated enemy formations so I could surround and destroy them later as they ran low of supplies. There were also small and stationary fortifications throughout the map. I knew I would run into these as I pushed west, but my forces could move past them and let the slower units clean them up at my leisure. They were the greatest danger if I attacked them head-on, therefore I decided to just move past these strongpoints and let them die slowly as they ran out of supplies.
On the other side of the river, my line represented what it had when I started. The minor bulge along the western side of the river was now absent, but my forces had still moved a couple hexes south. I was making progress. But more importantly, I was distracting the enemy. I was positioned right in between the left edge of the map and the Meuse River. I was determined not to be pushed back and I was going to use my inferior numbers on this side of the river to the best of my ability. Additionally, during subsequent turns I could see the movements of the enemy forces, although I did have "fog of war" enabled. I could tell the enemy was amassing forces on the west side of the river in order to meet my attack over there. This was perfect! My distraction seemed to be working.
During turn 7 an important event occurred. The units that were stationed in the northeastern part of the map and marked with orange were now available for me to be used. They were reinforcements, and had been locked prior to turn 7. I immediately put these units into action, strengthening my thrust towards the Meuse. There were also reinforcements gradually flowing into the game throughout its course. This was one aspect that I knew the enemy had the advantage. The enemy reinforcements I started saw pour into the battle from this turn onward were astounding. I was starting to feel I would be beaten by sheer numbers alone.
Turns Eight and Nine
During these turns I continued with my push towards the Meuse, but I was aggressively searching for an opportune breakthrough point. I formed dense columns of formations in an attempt to breach the French lines. Also during this time, I started receiving intelligence that there was a large concentration in and around Verdun. My own morale began to weaken as well, while more and more enemy reinforcements poured into the map. Did I still have enough men to reach Verdun and secure the bridges?
On the west side of the river I began gathering forces to conduct an encirclement. The beginnings of the encirclement were forming out of the center of my line, and I envisioned to trap enemy units as I darted for the left edge of the map. This began taking shape during these turns.
Turns Ten and Eleven
During turns 10 and 11 I pushed ever closer to the Meuse with my primary attack. The enemy presence was strong in the Verdun region so I was planning of reaching the river just south of the town -- where there was less enemy presence. I continued to gather forces to accomplish this final push towards the river, which would -- once completed -- create another pocket to the south. There is no doubt that the speed of my advance had slowed down and it seemed as if I was only moving at a snails pace. But I figured, if I kept the determination and kept pushing on I would reach my goal.
During these movements the enemy continued to harass my positions elsewhere on the line, but I managed to make-do and close the gaps as quickly as possible. This threat alarmed me the greatest, because I only left a few units to contain such a break in my line. The incursions were occurring north of Verdun, on the north-northeastern section of the line. But my units were entrenched -- actually fortified -- and their defensive positions were sound. There were also a few machine gun positions placed at intervals throughout the line -- this aided my defense very much. I had faith that they were adequate at holding enemy attacks, and the enemy was beaten back from those strong positions on more than one occasion.
On the west side of the river I had completed the planned encirclement. I trapped several units, which helped my odds of numbers on that side of the riverbank. However, in performing this encirclement, the eastern part of my line (the half that was up against the river's edge) was weakened. I had moved forces from one side of the line to the other in order to conduct the encirclement. I had to eliminate the entrapped enemy units as soon as possible so I could get my units back onto the line to help defend. I already began to notice the enemy concentration near the rivers edge, and they began probing my line making weak attacks.
Turns Twelve and Thirteen
During these two turns I continued my push towards the Meuse, but the enemy reinforcements were beginning to make the push much more costly. My guns were firing incessantly in an attempt to decimate the strong enemy formations. Their concentration of forces in the region made my goings tough, and I moved units around looking for weaknesses. But I had the firepower to beat them back. I knew I had more artillery in the vicinity and if it came down to a "blow for blow" situation, I would most likely get the best of it. I had concentrated nearly all of my artillery (on the eastside of the river) for this attack. My artillery consisted of mortars, field guns, and howitzers. I had many of each type and each type had certain firing distances.
On the west side I was tightening the noose around the units I had encircled and sent some units to prevent an enemy breakthrough near the rivers edge. Also at this time, I began assembling forces for yet another encirclement. My plan was to launch it out of the center of my line yet again. But this time I would be heading east to the river.
I made a strong attempt towards the river during this turn. My forces were concentrated and I pushed west in an impressive spearhead made of men and artillery. I knew I only had a couple of hexes to go to reach the Meuse and my mouth was watering just thinking about it.
On the other side of the Meuse I had entrapped a couple enemy battalions, but this wasn't my goal here. I wanted to entrap more. I continued with my sweep south and then east towards the waters edge. I needed to shift the balance in my favor once and for all on this side of the river, so I could make an all-out frontal attack.
Turn 15 was the turning point of the battle: I had reached the Meuse! I made a stretch out towards the river and reached it, although my line of advance was quite thin and vulnerable to an attack on its flanks. The point of the river I had reached was the most southern bridge, so I was now in control of it. Reaching the river split the enemy on the east side of the Meuse in half. I had one group to the north of my intersection with the river, and a smaller one to the south which was essentially encircled. The southern pocket was quite large, and I knew it would take some time to tighten the noose and finish off the enemy units within it. So I realized my future maneuvers on this side of the river were going to be dictated by the manpower commitment that I had containing the southern pocket. All of my efforts had to be focused on containing and destroying the enemy units within that pocket -- all other operations were second to that. But I had a lot of firepower lagging behind, and I needed a place to use it. I kept pushing my guns forward.
During turn sixteen I was consolidating my hold on the river's edge near Verdun. My guns and manpower were brought forward and my position next to the river was secure. My artillery was immediately trained on enemy units guarding the remaining bridges to the north. I wanted to force my way across these bridges but first wanted to weaken the enemy units defending them. The most northern bridge was out of reach of my guns. On the west side of the river I created a salient towards the south that I planned to turn east towards the river. There were many enemy units up against my line near the river's edge that I wanted to entrap.
Turns Seventeen and Eighteen and Nineteen
During turns 17 and 18 I had made progress in eliminating the large southern pocket. There were now only a few enemy units still resisting, but I was confident that they would be taken care of in the very near future. After congregating my forces, I made an attempt to take one of the bridges to the north. I succeeded in taking it, but did not succeed in holding it. The large mass of enemy formations on the far side of the river simply pushed me off of the bridge the very next turn. Subsequently, I trained my guns on the units on the far bank, but then reconsidered and trained them to the north. I was now looking to close the northern pocket on the east side of the river. I planned to do this by moving up the river's edge on its east side and take the bridges as I progressed. Additionally, the numerous enemy battalions on the other side of the bank concerned me as to whether I should destroy the one bridge I controlled. I didn't want the enemy to attack behind me as I advanced north up the river. I chose to destroy the bridge, and I started to move my forces north, looking for another encircling opportunity with my massive horde.
My western line managed to create another pocket, successfully closing it by turn 18. There were numerous enemy forces within the pocket, and I was required to weaken their numbers by using the little amount of artillery I had in the vicinity. While I was doing this however, I was concerned if the enemy might be able to break out of the pocket on its southern side. I sent as many units as I could to strengthen these positions and then hoped for the best.
Turns Nineteen and Twenty
By turn nineteen I was close to completing another encirclement and I was about to reach the river's edge to close it off. By turn 20 I had completed this encirclement and entrapped yet more French battalions. But something else occurred during this turn that changed the game completely. I discovered that all of the remaining bridges in French hands had been destroyed. The AI destroyed them. This meant that all of the enemy units on the east side of the Meuse are cut off from supply. They are in a large German pocket and they cannot get out. On the west bank I was still in the process of destroying the units that were entrapped. Also on that side I noticed several enemy units moving to the southwestern section of the map. They were amassing there. Were they retreating?
With the retreat of the enemy units, the bridges destroyed, and the several encirclements I had made; it was only just a matter of time that I would destroy all of the enemy units on the map. Verdun would ultimately fall as well. According to World War I standards, just the success that Ive had thus far would be considered an astounding German success. I firmly believe the turning point of the battle has already passed, and the defeat of all French forces on the map is inevitable. I had reached the outskirts of Verdun and the towns fall was also inevitable. I had made much more progress than the Germans had historically, and I took out many French units I the process. Had the Germans decided to use this strategy, they may have won the Battle of Verdun, and perhaps the war. So, that is how you win the Battle of Verdun as the Germans.
Article written by: Curtis Szmania, Staff Writer