Lessons from Verdun

Today’s post is by Lee Preston, a National Archives volunteer.

During the Cold War, I was drafted into the U.S. Army and in 1955-56 stationed in Verdun, France. Verdun is the principal city of the Meuse River valley, a historic corridor of aggressive contact between French and German interests. The Verdun area had been fortified since the Roman era, and was surrounded by a ring of massive forts at the time of the first World War.

The Battle of Verdun (1916-18) was one of the most important battles of World War I, and a significant event in the history of modern warfare. The U.S. Army was not involved in Verdun; the worst of the fighting there took place during 1916, before the U.S. had entered the war. However, I recently discovered the report of an American officer who was sent to study the battle in 1917 on behalf of the U.S. Army (RG 120, HQ 1st Division, Records of the American Expeditionary Forces, ARC ID 301641, Box 122, Item #1350). He reports:

The terrific effect of artillery fire and bursting shells under which the ground fairly trembled, is at times appalling. Standing in a trench with only a few men near, not another thing in sight, except a great number of airplanes, with the realization that one is in the midst of a great modern battle, beggars description.

A study of the Verdun experience at that time was worthwhile, because it presented the ultimate example of trench warfare that was in progress all across northern France. The strength of the French fortifications at Verdun was well known, but the Germans (referred to by the French as “les Bosches”) believed that they could capture Verdun and move quickly into the heart of France. They thought they had a strategic advantage because they had direct rail access to the area, which assured them of adequate supplies, reinforcements, and medical support, whereas the nearest French rail depot (Bar-le-Duc) was 50 miles to the south. However, the French were able to reinforce an existing road between Verdun and the rail line and assign it exclusively to military traffic. A steady bumper-to-bumper flow of trucks back and forth on this road—which came to be called the “Voie Sacree” (Sacred Way)–kept the front reasonably well-supplied most of the time. (American expatriates in Paris supported this effort by creating an ambulance/medical service on this road that eventually attracted nearly a thousand American volunteer drivers and orderlies.)

The Germans also believed that the anticipated heavy cost in French casualties would undermine support for the war. However, although French public and military support waivered during the worst part of the battle (1916), the rallying cry of “Ils ne passeront pas” (“They shall not pass”) motivated support for—or at least tolerance of– the battle until the end of the war. In the end, it turned out that casualties on both sides were nearly the same–over 300,000 each.

In August 1917 the Commanding General of the 1st Division, American Expeditionary Forces, arranged for Col. G.B. Duncan to visit the Verdun front and see what could be learned from the French experience there. Duncan joined a unit just returning from its rest station, where the men had been given intensive training in their combat roles, using simulated battlefield terrain. He was impressed by the detailed preparation and constant review needed to maximize impact and minimize casualties. He gave a detailed description of one specific attack which is too long to summarize here.

Duncan’s overall impressions were largely favorable. He was impressed by the daily preparation and distribution of detailed maps (based on aerial photographs) showing the precise effects of French attacks on German positions. He believed that these maps, in addition to direct observation from concealed viewpoints and constant front-to-rear communication, provided important motivation for the soldiers. He also noted the strictly correct conduct of the officers and the generally positive attitude of the troops–the latter no doubt encouraged by the well prepared and abundant supply of food, availability of medical and religious support, and the high level of detailed field information maintained. Duncan describes “a cordial bond of sympathy” among all the parties, and notes that he did not observe a single instance of “temper or harshness” during the visit. (His emphasis on these points suggests that they may offer some contrast to situations he had observed in the U.S. Army.)

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