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12 July 1916 – Verdun

Field Marshall Erich Georg Anton von Falkenhayn is making one last supreme effort to take the forts above Verdun. If achieved, this feat would set the stage for his plan to attrit the French Army — “bleed them white” — by massing shellfire against their infantry counterattacks, the format of violence which has scored the best ratio of dead Frenchmen to Germans during nearly two years of war.

His sophisticated plan to inflict a favorable balance of casualties by seizing a target that France cannot resist fighting to regain has failed to translate into reality, however. During the five months that Falkenhayn’s mammoth Operation Judgment has pressed inexorably forward, French losses have been horrendous, but so have his. Altogether, just less than half of the 450,000 killed, wounded, and captured men at Verdun have been Germans.

It isn’t for want of trying; Falkenhayn has simply run out of time. His attacks at Verdun have indeed moved the French, but not as he would have wished. Instead, Paris prevailed on the Tsar to let General Brusilov attack the Austrians, and on London to speed up their own grand opera of destruction at the Somme, in order to divert their enemy’s strength away from their historic city. This gambit is having its intended effect, for Falkenhayn is under tremendous pressure to divert his heavy artillery to meet the British thrust — and to send divisions east, where his rivals Hindenburg and Ludendorff aim to replace him as Chief of Staff.

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The main entrance of Fort Souville, which is basically a huge underground bunker, during the battle

Fort Souville was among Falkenhayn’s planned first-day objectives in the Battle of Verdun, for infantry in command of the heights over the town will be perfectly positioned to smash any French counterattack. His preparatory bombardment, which focused big guns on the fort and used some 300,000 shells, included 60,000 gas shells containing a mix of phosgene to suppress French artillery counterfire. Small compared to the enormous ammunition expenditures of the battle’s first days, this curtain of fire nevertheless fell two days ago along a relatively narrow front to pave the way forward for three divisions, who went over the top yesterday.

Within moments, they learned to their dismay that French M2 gas masks (see above) are proof against phosgene. Like ants, the French defenders at Souville surged out of their nest to meet the attack with massed rifle fire and machine guns. Renewing their efforts today, Germans gain the pile of rubble that was once the town of Fleury, and a platoon from Infantry Regiment 140 even crawls onto the top of the fort, briefly glimpsing the town below. They are lying on a high tide mark of blood; they try to signal for reinforcements, but none are coming.

Last night, Falkenhayn instructed Crown Prince Wilhelm to adopt a defensive posture all along the Verdun front, so today’s bloodletting has been a supremely unnecessary failure.

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Fort Souville after the battle. Built into the crest of a ridge, it allowed infantry to wait out bombardments

The French then take three days to organize a counterattack, which also gains no ground at tremendous cost. After that, the month of July will see only small-scale operations around Fort Souville while General Pétain prepares a counteroffensive. Nearby Fleury, which has already been captured and recaptured three times, will change hands again in August. The German Army will never reach Fort Souville again.

Yet the Battle of Verdun rages on, and not just because the French want to win back every yard of crimson ground. Falkenhayn has been outflanked in Potsdam, and the Kaiser will sack him for his failures in August, but the 5th Army staff is steeped in a culture that measures victory by objectives, not attritional ratios. Even with the architect of Verdun long gone, they are determined to claim a military success for their future kaiser, so they reinforce the failures of Falkenhayn’s grand plan by trying to hold onto their gains.

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A map of the Battle of Verdun; note the bulge inwards around Fleury and at the metaphorical gates of Fort Souville