At 7:15 this morning, a storm of steel begins to fall on a sixty square mile area north of the ancient city of Verdun. Taking cover in their trenches and dugouts, the French defenders expect the Trommelfeuer (Drumfire) to herald an infantry attack, but they are not prepared for the sustained intensity of the German bombardment. With 1,400 guns firing 100,000 rounds per hour, one million shells methodically pound away at French positions, gun batteries, and supply corridors in a target zone smaller than Manhattan over a ten hour period, reaching a crescendo in the last hour that is heard one hundred miles away in Rheims. As their Fokker monoplanes command the skies, the Germans have no less than eight observation balloons aloft to direct the symphony of destruction with impunity. A mix of high explosive and shrapnel shells gives way to a torrent of the former. The big 420 mm guns, which annihilated Belgian fortifications in the war’s first weeks, strike the twenty antique forts around the city. Trench mortars sited in the German front lines join the fray. Gas shells target known French artillery positions, suppressing any retort.
There is a brief pause at noon to let air reconnaissance do an assessment of the damage. When the curtain finally shifts rather back against secondary lines of defense, thousands of Frenchmen are already dead, and the shattered survivors are in a state of total confusion. Worse, communications with the rear have been cut, leaving higher headquarters aware of the attack but unable to assess the damage or direct reinforcements as needed. When the shaking, exhausted French troops take up fighting positions on their parapets, an army of three corps is already flowing across no man’s land in a series of three waves led by storm troopers and flamethrower teams, both of which are seeing their first use in large numbers. Field Marshall Falkenhayn’s decision not to dig approach trenches has tricked the French high command into discounting all other signs of an impending offensive. For the moment, it seems as if the attack is proceeding exactly as planned.
But the bombardment has failed to annihilate all French resistance, and the first firefights begin as soon as the Germans heave into sight. Badly outnumbered, the French Artillery goes to its grim work with accurate fire on formations moving in the open. On the west bank of Meuse, where Falkenhayn has economized his forces, the German VI Reserve Corps is in fact outgunned, and so a merciless flanking fire begins to fall on the Germans advancing on the east bank. At the Bois des Caures, Colonel Émile Driant throws his two battalions of elite Chasseurs Alpins into the hottest point on the battlefield, making such a fierce stand that it takes the German infantry 24 hours to outflank him and force his withdrawal. Driant, who had labored hard to bring attention to the inadequate defenses at Verdun, is killed during the retreat; only 118 of his 1,200 men escape death or capture.
Nevertheless, the German assault captures most of its first-day objectives, the huge artillery park begins crawling forward to strike behind the new enemy line, and the bulging salient that the French call the Région Fortifiée de Verdun (RFV) begins to shrink. This achieves Falkenahyn’s strategic goal of alarming the French Grand Quartier Général (General Headquarters), which has already dispatched reinforcements to the scene and now sends even more. Although both sides have suffered nearly the same number of casualties, his plan to ‘bleed France white’ appears set to succeed. General Fernand de Langle de Cary, who was put in charge of the RFV just four weeks ago, sees the situation as untenable, and wants to fall back onto heights more easily defended than Verdun. This is unacceptable to Field Marshall Joseph Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, who reacts much as Falkenhayn wants by insisting on a total defense of the symbolic national stronghold. By the first week of March, French force levels have increased to more than 20 divisions and de Cary has been sacked.
The longest, and one of the bloodiest, battles of the Great War is now underway. The Battle of Verdun is taking shape much as its architect had foreseen, but that will not last. French pilots, including Georges Guynemer, are flying a new generation of fighter aircraft superior to the Fokkers, and within days the skies are unsafe for German artillery observers to go aloft in balloons. More critically, the German 5th Army staff under Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm have added to Falkenhayn’s plan, calling for “relentless pressure” on France rather than letting their enemy destroy himself against their newly-won positions. This minor alteration will derail the entire purpose of the offensive, inflicting almost as many casualties on Germany as France and bleeding both armies white over more than three hundred days of intense fighting.
Furthermore, the Battle of Verdun will have effects far afield. In accordance with agreements made at strategic conferences in December, it is the “relentless pressure” on France which causes both Britain and Russia to move up the timetables for their own massive operations at the Somme and in Galicia. After eighteen months of deadlock, 1916 will be the bloodiest year yet for all combatants.