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There’s only one thing I can say about this week; this week the greatest battle that had
ever been fought in history, begins. So many hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of men
would fight and die for such a tiny piece of land; it had never been conceived before.
This was Verdun.
I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War.
Last week Russia took the major fortress city of Erzurum from the Ottomans. Austria-Hungary
and Bulgaria were still overrunning Albania, Germany and the US were having diplomatic
problems, and Belgian armored cars were fighting in Galicia. Here’s what came next.
I think I’ll just jump right in at Verdun, which you’ll hear an awful lot about this whole year.
The very first shot of the Battle of Verdun came February 21st, 1916 from one of the German
long-distance naval guns; the shell exploded in the Bishop’s Palace in Verdun and knocked
a corner off the cathedral. Unternehmen Gericht had begun. The battle began with a 9 hour
German artillery barrage using 1,220 guns on a 20-kilometer front on both sides of the
Meuse (Strachan). In the Bois de Ville, at the apex of the French lines, 40 heavy shells
fell every minute. German Army Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn had wanted of this barrage,
“no line is to remain unbombarded, no possibilities of supply unmolested, nowhere should the enemy
feel himself safe.” (Keegan) The Germans fired roughly one million shells during the
barrage- you heard that right- and you could hear the explosions 100 miles away in the
Vosges. Already by 0800 nearly all French telephone communication to the front was cut
off. French reinforcements could not arrive and effective command no longer existed. The
Germans had even deployed 168 aircraft in the largest aerial net ever in order to prevent
French planes from observation and artillery spotting.
When the barrage ended, at 4pm, the German infantry advanced on the French. The French
front line defenses had been wrecked or just plain buried by the barrage. One French corporal
remarked, that of every five men, “two have been buried alive under their shelter, two
are wounded to some extent or the other, and the fifth is waiting.” But Falkenhayn didn’t
want his men to make a huge advance; not that day, they were to feel out any remaining defenses,
which they did until night fell and the artillery resumed its work.
On day two the Germans surprised the French by using 96 flamethrowers, and by day three
had advanced two miles and taken 3,000 French prisoners. Here’s a story from day three:
(Gilbert) there was a rumor that the village of Samoneaux had fallen to the Germans. When
the rumor was believed, the French bombarded their own troops who were there, and when
the bombardment was over, the Germans just came in and took it. One of the prisoners,
Lieutenant-Colonel Bernard was brought before a visitor to the battleground, the Kaiser
himself, who was watching the battle through a periscope. Bernard told him, “you will
never enter Verdun.” But by February 25th, the French 51st and 72nd Divisions, holding
the line from Herbebois west to the Meuse had suffered 60 percent casualties.
February 24th was actually the day the dam burst. The Germans broke through between Beaumont
and Samogneaux, and the French positions fell in just three hours. The Germans took 10,000
more French prisoners and their territorial gains that day were equal to the first three
days in total and by the evening, for the first time on the Western Front since the
Battle of the Marne, the war was a war of motion. No more trenches, no barbed wire,
no machine gun posts. French morale was crumbling and the French artillery was ominously silent.
Two main fortresses, Douaumont and Vaux, defended the city of Verdun. Fort Douaumont dominated
the northern approach. It had only been completed in 1913 and had 155mm and 75mm guns as well
as machine guns, all of which were housed in steel turrets. Thing is, the French company
that manned the fort had been reassigned to the front lines and the fort was basically
empty and on the 25th, it fell without a shot being fired. This had a huge psychological
effect for both sides. The German advance finally stopped that day only 2 miles from
Verdun itself.
At this point the Germans were in a position to abandon Falkenhayn’s plans and advance
to the city itself, while the French could have given up Verdun, the whole salient, and
made a more defensible line, but that night, at midnight, the defense of Verdun was given
to General Phillippe Petain.
The French army leader General Joseph Joffre’s chief of staff, Noel de Castelnau, knew what
effect the loss of Verdun would have on national morale and persuaded Joffre it must be held,
hence Pétain. But this was falling right into Falkenhayn’s plans! When Pétain ordered
his men to “beat off at all costs the attacks of the enemy, and retake immediately any piece
of land taken by him”, he was reading a script written by Falkenhayn! Falkenhayn’s
plan was to attack the national treasure Verdun that the French would have no choice but to
defend, and bleed the French army to death by attrition.
Well, when Pétain took over, he saw his two main tasks as co-ordinating the artillery
and opening a supply line. And from this point on it was the Germans who were constantly
deluged by shells when they made their way forward or stuck to the front lines. And the
road from Verdun to Bar-le-Duc became a supply route for truck and trucks alone. Three and
a half thousand of them. The men marched in the fields on the sides of the road. If a
truck broke down, it was pushed off the road so that the 24 hour traffic never came to
a halt. Eventually, 12,000 trucks would be driving what became known as the sacred road.
Pétain was commander of the French Second Army, and in 1914 had been actually about
to retire. He had seen the evolution of trench warfare, not from the rear, but as a front
line commander and his conclusion was that it was not possible in one big jump to take
all of the successive lines of the enemy, right? He recommended, just a few months before
Verdun, limited offensives that didn’t go further than artillery could reach and only
once the enemy was exhausted would breakthrough tactics be adopted. This would become the
basis of his defense at Verdun. In 1914, enormous forts of reinforced concrete had proven vulnerable
in Belgium, but Pétain would make the inner ring of forts at Verdun the backbone of his
tactical plans. He would use it as a barrage position.
And turning out attention to another part of Europe, we see another barrage in progress.
In Albania on the 25th, Austro-Hungarian artillery began to fire upon Durazzo, the capital. It
had been evacuated the day before and the closest thing Albania had to a ruler at the
moment, Essad Pasha, had fled to Italy.
And further to the east, another flight was in progress.
A huge Turkish army was retreating from Erzurum, now in Russian hands. The country west of
Erzurum was very difficult terrain for the retreat, but it was also hell for the advancing
Russians who were unable to follow up the capture of Erzurum by capturing the Ottoman
army so they turned their attention toward Trabzon, the Turkish supply base on the Black
Sea, but the Turks were reinforcing it, so it was a race against the clock for both sides.
And here’s something from the Russian home front.
On February 20th, Tsar Nicholas learned of a plot within the Interior Ministry to murder
the influential mystic Rasputin. Interior Minister Alexei Khvostov, who apparently believed
the rumor that Rasputin and the Tsarina were German spies, had offered a man named Komissarov
200,000 rubles, about 15,000 pounds, to do the job, but he failed. The plot was revealed
when Khvostov appointed police chief Stepan Beletsky Governor of Irkutsk, but the appointment
was quickly withdrawn and Beletsky, in revenge, gave Rasputin details of the plot. Rasputin
told the Tsarina. Khvostov was forced to resign and was banished to his estate.
And we come to the end of another week or war. Albania nearly overrun, Russian intrigue
at home, and Russians still advancing in the field.
And the greatest artillery barrage in the history of the world so far. That also happened
this week. At Verdun. To begin the Battle of Verdun. And 100 years later, what is Verdun?
Alistair Horne wrote, “Verdun was the First World War in microcosm; an intensification
of all its horrors and glories, courage and futility.” And here’s a last something
to remember today; though there was a battle with more dead during the war, the proportion
of casualties suffered to the number of men who fought was markedly higher at Verdun than
any other World War One battle, as was the number of the dead in relation to the size
of the battlefield. I cannot even begin to picture the carnage and destruction that fell
exactly 100 years ago. Neither can you. Thank God for that.
And even though artillery played such an important role in Verdun, close combat in the trenches
was also common. We started a small series about the tactics for trench assaults and
you can check that out right here:
Our Patreon supporter of the week is Mr splashypants - thanks to your support on Patreon we are
making this show more independent from often fluctuating add revenue. Help us out on Patreon,
so we can make the show even better. For more insights into the Battle of Verdun,
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The Battle of Verdun - They Shall Not Pass I THE GREAT WAR - Week 83

222 Folder Collection
tyui published on July 19, 2017
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