Four days after opening their biggest offensive of 1916, the German Fifth Army has taken possession of twelve square miles of French territory north of the historic city of Verdun on the right bank of the Meuse river. Despite putting up a fierce resistance, thousands of French soldiers have already surrendered to the massive onslaught, which is supported by the largest artillery park ever assembled on the Western Front. Today, as the defenders organize a new defensive line below the village of Louvemont with fresh reinforcements making a hard march to join the battle, confusion and lost communications are still leading to major blunders. The civilian population of Verdun is being evacuated in the opposite direction, creating a familiar snarl of road traffic that lasts all day long and into the night.
Arriving amid this agonizing scene with his Second Army is General Henri-Phillippe Pétain. Known for his tactical brilliance, detailed preparations, and emphasis on economy of force, he has identified the errors of the disastrous Champagne offensives in 1915 and personally observed France’s fledgling tank development program. Pétain is here to take over for the hapless General Langle de Cary, who has just been sacked as the scapegoat for the strategic blindness by which French intelligence missed German offensive preparations. Pétain’s resolute leadership could not possibly have been dispatched to the Région Fortifiée de Verdun (RFV) at a more auspicious and critical moment.
At about 3 o’clock this afternoon, the 24th Brandenburg Regiment begins an assault on Hill 347 and the Bois Hermitage, immediately outflanking the French defenders and pushing them back into Douaumont village. In yet another comedy of errors like so many that take place in this conflict, a small group of Germans seeks refuge from machine gun fire and ‘friendly’ artillery shelling by pressing forward onto Douaumont Fort, which to their great surprise is poorly defended. As they cut the barbed wire around the fortress, their signal flares — which are meant to call off the bombardment of their own guns — illuminate them for the French gunners, who inexplicably mistake them for friendly troops in retreat from Hill 347 and cease fire.
As a result, before darkness falls the Germans penetrate the fort at its northwest corner, finding that the defensive machine gun bunkers have been left unmanned. Shortly thereafter, they take the few remaining defenders prisoner without a fight. Behind them, five hundred comrades lie dead in the mud. Fort Douaumont will now become a German bastion; having been lost without a fight, its recapture will cost tens of thousands of French lives before the battle is over.
Pétain is informed of the debacle at 11 PM as he reaches his headquarters to assume control of the situation. One of his first orders of business will be to have the forts, which were stripped of guns and men prior to the battle, restored to strength as much as possible with all due speed. Consolidating his lines, Pétain also arranges for the newly-opened road from Bar-le-Duc to be managed as an efficient motor transport corridor, with an endless line of trucks in constant motion to bring supplies and ammunition to his beleaguered force. It will become known as the Voie Sacrée — the Sacred Way. Broken telephone lines are relaid and buried. As snow and rain turn the ground to mush in the next few days, Pétain uses the opportunity to pull off a miracle of organization that slows the German advance to a crawl.
Nearly fifty thousand men are already dead on both sides, with the casualties split almost evenly. A hasty counterattack on Fort Douaumont is repelled the next morning, and Pétain orders no more such efforts take place, for unlike too many of his peers in the French Army, he understands the futility of reinforcing failures. Rather than push his divisions past their limits, he introduces a rotation system that brings them out of the line every two weeks; known as ‘noria,’ for a chain of buckets used to draw water from a well, this innovation is credited with maintaining the morale of the French soldier during what will be the longest and bloodiest battle of the war for France — indeed, Verdun remains one of the most lethal and destructive battles ever fought.