Verdun, or the German effort to win the war in 1916

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cape_royds
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Verdun, or the German effort to win the war in 1916

Post by cape_royds » Tue Mar 15, 2016 10:05 pm

In 1914, the Germans wanted to score a "knock-out" against France, but they failed.

In 1915, the Central Powers went on the defensive in the west, while mounting successful major offensives in Poland and in the Balkans. Russia was mauled, and Serbia nearly annihilated. A secure overland supply route was route was established to Turkey, enabling the Turks to remain viable in the war.

From the point of view of the German high command, the stage was now set for a renewed effort to win the war in 1916.


Considerations:

1. There were divided views among the German high command. Hindenburg and Ludendorff wanted to finish off Russia, but Falkenhayn did not see how invading Russia more deeply would necessarily compel the Russians to make peace. Nor could sufficient forces for such an invasion be spared while danger remained in the West.

2. Falkenhayn believed the Russians' severe losses in 1915, while not knocking them out of the war, would nevertheless render Russia incapable of making any major offensive in 1916. That meant the Eastern Front could be left mostly as a "quiet" sector, and left mostly to the weaker Austro-Hungarian forces to defend.

3. The Germans had no way to get at the core of the British Empire's war potential. The Germans can't destroy the new British armies, since those armies are not yet fully deployed. Nor can the Germans destroy the British navy. Again, there were divided views among the German high command. Some argued that a renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare might cripple the British Empire's war effort. Falkenhayn was not opposed to the notion, but he was sceptical of the claims. Germany did not have enough submarines, and in any case an anti-shipping campaign would probably take more than a year to be effective.

4. Conrad, the Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, argued for a knock-out blow against Italy. Falkenhayn believed this to be militarily possible, but even if it were successful, it could not be decisive. None of other enemy powers would be compelled to make peace if Italy dropped out of the war. Meanwhile, the cost of containing the Italians' offensives against Austria-Hungary, while heavy, should be bearable for at least another year.

5. So if Germany can't finish off Russia, can't really hit Britain, and sees no point in destroying Italy, then how can the Central Powers win the war? Falkenhayn's answer was that there was still a member of the enemy alliance that could be properly gotten at in 1916: France. If the French can be forced out of the war, that would necessarily entail the collapse of the entire enemy alliance. Britain can't fight a continental war without a continental base, while Russia and Italy are both too weak to stand by themselves.

6. But how to compel the French to make peace? In view of the unsatisfactory results of the enemy's efforts to break through in the West in 1915, Falkenhayn did not believe it would be possible for Germany to mount a decisive breakthrough operation in the West. In any case Germany would not have an adequate margin of numerical superiority to risk a major breakthrough attempt. But if you can't break through, how to destroy the French armies?

7. Falkenhayn observed that Germany still retained a distinct advantage over their enemies in terms of heavy artillery and heavy shell supply. The problem with this advantage is heavy artillery is destructive but not very mobile--the enemy can choose to fall back, and it takes a while to redeploy the heavy guns. The French might play for time, until the new British armies are ready, and the Russians recover. So where can Germany attack the French with a mass of heavy artillery, to which the French cannot respond, but also where the French feel they cannot afford to retreat? If such a place could be found, the French could be forced to accept battle at an ongoing disadvantage, and be systematically decimated in situ. Once the French armies are wrecked, the French war effort would collapse, and the enemy alliance would fall with it.

8. Falkenhayn studied the enemy front in the West. To attack in Flanders would mean fighting the British, not the French. In the Champagne region, the French could afford to retreat. The Vosges region is easily defensible, and there too the French could afford to give ground. But in the upper Meuse sector, around Verdun, if the French retreat they would expose one of their main lateral railroad lines, which would in turn mean making a deeper retreat along a broad area of the front. Therefore, it is to be expected that the French would stand and fight, even at heavy cost, rather than cede that ground. Moreover, the Verdun sector is a salient, exposed through most of its depth to heavy artillery fire from both flanks.

9. That's why Falkenhayn embarked on an attritional campaign against the French in the Verdun salient. His operational plan was to make shallow attacks for limited territorial gains, where the French would be obliged to counter-attack to regain critical ground, remaining the whole while within the killing zone of the superior German heavy artillery.

10. The time window, however, was limited. Falkenhayn expected that the new British armies might become capable of staging a meaningful offensive by late summer or early autumn (that estimate was shared by the British high command). Falkenhayn hypothesized it would take about six months to slay or maim enough French soldiers to surpass the critical level, beyond which the French armies would no longer be able to find and train enough recruits, quickly enough, to maintain their fighting value and cohesion.

11. That calculation, and also a natural desire to retain the strategic initiative, is why Falkenhayn decided to launch the Verdun offensive early in the year, in February 1916. The tactical risks of poor visibility and soft ground were less dangerous than the strategic risk of delay.

12. Falkenhayn's reasoning proved mostly correct. The French indeed engaged their armies in costly counter-attacks rather than cede Verdun. The attrition rate at Verdun was favourable to the Germans. But Falkenhayn had made two key assumptions which, while both quite reasonable, proved to be mistaken in the event: that the British would not launch a major offensive until their armies were ready, and that the Russians would not launch a major offensive until their armies had recovered. The result of those two mistaken strategic assumptions becomes the story of the rest of 1916: the Galician campaign ("Brusilov Offensive"), and the Battle of the Somme.


One might say that the planning of the Verdun offensive is a good example of the rationalistic mindset found among the elite of the early 20th century Western world. The Verdun offensive was the result of clear-headed observation, reasoned debate, and rationally framed hypotheses.

If History is a science, war and politics are things found at the empirical end. The experiments, however, are uncontrolled, unreproducible, and few of them would ever pass review by an ethics committee. We could say that the Battle of Verdun, like so many things in the Great War, was the work of "mad scientists."

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Sey
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Post by Sey » Wed Mar 16, 2016 12:13 am

Scientists? It's politicians calling the shots. How moral/rational are they?

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Post by DMB » Wed Mar 16, 2016 12:29 am

I think Verdun had a huge psychological impact on the French. In the post-war period its name stood for the suffering of the soldiers. The French shot a relatively large number of deserters (in comparison with the British). IMO it's arguable that the memory of Verdun contributed to the early French collapse in WW2. And of course we shouldn't forget that the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War was not all that distant in time.

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Post by DMB » Tue May 31, 2016 11:37 am

Just to register the fact that Verdun started on 30th May 1916, 100 years ago.

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-ww1-c ... SKCN0YK0C3

Image
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande marked the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Verdun side-by-side on Sunday, laying a wreath at a cemetery in northeastern France for the 300,000 soldiers killed.

The Verdun battle was one of the longest in World War I, lasting more than 300 days from February to December 1916, and its commemoration has come to signify the reconciliation between Germany and France after decades of hostility and distrust following two world wars.

"We are side by side to tackle the challenges of today and first of all the future of Europe, because, as we know disappointment was followed by disenchantment, and after doubts came suspicion, and for some even rejection or break-up," Hollande said in a closing speech at the ceremony.
Article about what the battle field is like nowadays (lots of photos):

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article ... years.html
The forest in northern France appears almost fairytale-like like in its eerie calm.

But the apparently lush ground hides a deadly secret: underneath this green carpet lies lethal levels of arsenic, unexploded bombs, tracts of barbed wire and the remains of the men who gave their lives fighting for control of this strip of land almost 100 years ago.

The forest is so dangerous that swathes of it have been declared a no-go zone, where trees no longer grow, and only the brave or foolish have dared tread in the 97 years since the end of the First World War.

For the forest, and countryside surrounding it, was the site for the Battle of Verdun, the longest in history, now categorised as a 'Zone Rouge' - still toxic after all this time.

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Post by Jobar » Tue May 31, 2016 1:34 pm

I knew that most of the poison gases were chlorine-based, but I wasn't aware of the arsenic in the detonators. That's going to render that area toxic for many thousands of years.

There were multiple battles around Verdun, right up until the end of the war. My great uncle, who came over with the AEF, was gassed and machine-gunned just outside the nearby village of Bezonvaux, which was utterly destroyed and never rebuilt, in 1918.

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Post by DMB » Wed Jun 01, 2016 12:43 pm

[staffnote=Mod Note]I've just moved two posts that were about WW1 in general rather than Verdun tothis thread[/staffnote]

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Post by Hermit » Wed Jun 01, 2016 1:04 pm

The battles of Verdun were the subject of an anti-war song around 1966. I can only remember the melancholic, plaintive melody and the first line of it now. "Die Wälder von Verdun, die haben keine Bäume" The forests of Verdun, they have no trees. 50 years later no trace of it can be found on the internet. The place is filled with enthusiastic calls by armchair generals and the hotheaded rabble to nuke this or that enemy instead. Islamic nations, and North Korea of course seem to be flavour of the month. Now as then, people seem to be tragically unaware that the soldiers who kill and are killed have more in common with each other than with those whose orders they are obeying.

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Post by DMB » Wed Jun 01, 2016 1:45 pm

[quote=""Hermit""]The battles of Verdun were the subject of an anti-war song around 1966. I can only remember the melancholic, plaintive melody and the first line of it now. "Die Wälder von Verdun, die haben keine Bäume" The forests of Verdun, they have no trees. 50 years later no trace of it can be found on the internet. The place is filled with enthusiastic calls by armchair generals and the hotheaded rabble to nuke this or that enemy instead. Islamic nations, and North Korea of course seem to be flavour of the month. Now as then, people seem to be tragically unaware that the soldiers who kill and are killed have more in common with each other than with those whose orders they are obeying.[/quote]

As we can see from the article I posted above, there are still a lot of missing trees.

At least now that the survivors of WW1 are safely dead, we can try to make reconciliation our goal.

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Post by Hermit » Wed Jun 01, 2016 2:00 pm

[quote=""DMB""]
Hermit;640003 wrote:The battles of Verdun were the subject of an anti-war song around 1966. I can only remember the melancholic, plaintive melody and the first line of it now. "Die Wälder von Verdun, die haben keine Bäume" The forests of Verdun, they have no trees. 50 years later no trace of it can be found on the internet. The place is filled with enthusiastic calls by armchair generals and the hotheaded rabble to nuke this or that enemy instead. Islamic nations, and North Korea of course seem to be flavour of the month. Now as then, people seem to be tragically unaware that the soldiers who kill and are killed have more in common with each other than with those whose orders they are obeying.
As we can see from the article I posted above, there are still a lot of missing trees.

At least now that the survivors of WW1 are safely dead, we can try to make reconciliation our goal.[/QUOTE]
A most desirable goal it is too, and Franco-Germanic relations have become increasingly cordial for some decades now, but re-read my last sentence, please. As a species we have not learnt a lot.

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Post by DMB » Wed Jun 01, 2016 2:15 pm

[quote=""Hermit""]
DMB;640008 wrote:
Hermit;640003 wrote:The battles of Verdun were the subject of an anti-war song around 1966. I can only remember the melancholic, plaintive melody and the first line of it now. "Die Wälder von Verdun, die haben keine Bäume" The forests of Verdun, they have no trees. 50 years later no trace of it can be found on the internet. The place is filled with enthusiastic calls by armchair generals and the hotheaded rabble to nuke this or that enemy instead. Islamic nations, and North Korea of course seem to be flavour of the month. Now as then, people seem to be tragically unaware that the soldiers who kill and are killed have more in common with each other than with those whose orders they are obeying.
As we can see from the article I posted above, there are still a lot of missing trees.

At least now that the survivors of WW1 are safely dead, we can try to make reconciliation our goal.
A most desirable goal it is too, and Franco-Germanic relations have become increasingly cordial for some decades now, but re-read my last sentence, please. As a species we have not learnt a lot.[/QUOTE]

I did read your whole post. I fear that the USA might be about to elect a POTUS who should be allowed nowhere near control buttons for nuclear strikes.

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Post by Hermit » Wed Jun 01, 2016 3:09 pm

[quote=""DMB""]I did read your whole post.[/quote]
I know. That's why I said: "re-read". ;)

[quote=""DMB""]I fear that the USA might be about to elect a POTUS who should be allowed nowhere near control buttons for nuclear strikes.[/quote]He suits the millions who enthusiastically call for the nuking of this or that enemy, doesn't he? People like Trump are not a huge problem - unless they have the support of the majority that enables them to put their crazy plans into action. Which is the position he is just about in. We have not learnt a lot indeed.

Looks like I'm getting ranty again, doesn't it?

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Post by Pierrot » Wed Jun 01, 2016 3:11 pm

My maternal grandfather died in 1918, from the wounds that he received at Verdun two years earlier.

1.4 million French soldiers were killed in WW1, and over 4 million wounded - over 50% of men mobilised. If any American dares call the French "surrender monkeys" in my presence, I will put aside my normally non violent nature.

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Post by Hermit » Wed Jun 01, 2016 3:21 pm

Not being American it must be safe for me to refer to the frogs as surrender monkeys then, amirite? The R 35 was intended to replace the FT as standard light infantry tank from the summer of 1936, but the discovery of a serious construction fault put it out of contention. Due to a mistake by a hungover draughtsman the gearboxes were bolted to the motor the wrong way round. This meant the tank was inadvertently equipped with four forward gears and only one reverse.

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Post by late » Wed Jun 01, 2016 5:44 pm

[quote=""Hermit""]

Not being American it must be safe for me to refer to the frogs as surrender monkeys then, amirite? The R 35 was intended to replace the FT as standard light infantry tank from the summer of 1936, but the discovery of a serious construction fault put it out of contention. Due to a mistake by a hungover draughtsman the gearboxes were bolted to the motor the wrong way round. This meant the tank was inadvertently equipped with four forward gears and only one reverse.

[/quote]

At the beginning of WW2, French tanks were slightly better than the German ones. But they didn't have Guderian.

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Post by Hermit » Wed Jun 01, 2016 6:11 pm

[quote=""late""]
Hermit;640033 wrote:
Not being American it must be safe for me to refer to the frogs as surrender monkeys then, amirite? The R 35 was intended to replace the FT as standard light infantry tank from the summer of 1936, but the discovery of a serious construction fault put it out of contention. Due to a mistake by a hungover draughtsman the gearboxes were bolted to the motor the wrong way round. This meant the tank was inadvertently equipped with four forward gears and only one reverse.
At the beginning of WW2, French tanks were slightly better than the German ones. But they didn't have Guderian.[/QUOTE]
They had better guns and better armour. That made them a lot better. The biggest defect was that none of them were equipped with transceivers. Not even a Guderian could have made up for it. His tactics, let alone the strategy behind the attack would have been impossible if his tanks had to rely on semaphore to communicate.

Sorry. Looks like we've strayed off-topic again. In 1916 tanks were not the issue they became later. Instead, generals made the absurd decision to throw human waves against the enemy in frontal attacks, where they were mown down by machine guns. And they made the same decision day after day. No matter whose side they were fighting on, the soldiers must have been brave beyond imagination, knowing how slim their chances of survival were when they went over the top. Once again generals conducted a war using the knowledge of a previous one, which no longer applied.
Last edited by Hermit on Wed Jun 01, 2016 6:22 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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