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Discover the Longest Battle in History: The Battle of Verdun

Verdon overview.

Discover the Longest Battle in History: The Battle of Verdun

The Battle of Verdun might not be the most well-known of the First World War, but it was one of the most bloody and drawn out. In fact, many sources consider this battle to be the longest of not only WW1 but of all time. Aside from the huge number of casualties that occurred over these long 10 months, there are many interesting facts about this battle that you may not know. We’re going to delve into what made the Battle of Verdun stand out. If you’re looking for another history deep dive, check out our explorations of the most famous Vikings, biggest bank heists, and largest tornados.

11 Interesting Facts About the Battle of Verdun

#1 – Attrition Warfare

Verdun moat.
The objective was to deplete the French of their resources.

There are all sorts of military tactics employed in war, depending on the ultimate objective. But the main goal of the Battle of Verdun was that of exhaustion. In other words, attrition warfare. Instead of quickly overpowering the enemy, the strategy of the German army was aimed at gradually wearing down the French forces through casualties and depleting their resources and morale. This was a battle intended, first and foremost, to eliminate the French army as they defended their homeland.

#2 – Cultural Significance

Verdun map.
Verdun holds cultural significance for the French.

Although capturing Verdun wasn’t the primary objective, it was a huge motivation for the attrition tactics used by the Germans. This is because Verdun holds cultural significance, being one of the last footholds of the French during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The German general Erich von Falkenhayn predicted that the French would passionately defend Verdun. This is because they wouldn’t want to lose this historical site to the Germans.

#3 – Treaty of Verdun

Birds-eye view of Verdun.
The Treaty of Verdun was signed in 843 A.D.

Speaking of importance, Verdun has historical significance for Germany as well, strangely enough. However, this part of history is a lot further in the past — most of what would become modern Germany was created via the Treaty of Verdun, which was signed in 843 A.D and divided up the Carolingian Empire.

#4 – German Ambush

Verdun explosion.
The Germans caught the French by surprise.

It’s safe to say that, however the battle eventually turned out, the Germans started with a distinct advantage. Somehow, they pulled off almost two months of preparation without the French suspecting a thing. Bunkers were assembled, over a thousand pieces of artillery were transported in, and trains brought in millions of shells. The French were ambushed from the get-go.

#5 – Fort Douaumont Was Taken Without Weapons

Map of Verdun.
Fort Douaumont was captured without any shots fired.

It’s pretty rare for any location to be captured in war without any casualties occurring, especially only a week into a battle. But this is exactly what happened with Fort Douaumont. Because of fighting going on elsewhere, the usually heavily defended fort found itself undermanned, and the Germans capitalized on this by entering through passage with no soldiers on guard. The French soldiers still present were forced to surrender by Lieutenant Eugen Radtke, without any shots being fired. The Germans even celebrated this victory with a school holiday, believe it or not.

#6 – The Germans Abandoned Their Strategy

Verdun.
The Germans changed their tactics and went on the offensive.

It’s unclear whether things would’ve turned out differently if the Germans stuck to their original strategy, but this is something they didn’t do. Maybe Crown Prince Wilhelm was spurred on by the early victories enjoyed by the Germans, but either way, Falkenhayn’s tactics were abandoned in favor of a more offensive strategy. With seizing the area becoming the new objective, the German offensive ramped up drastically, but so did their number of casualties, now almost tying with the French.

#7 – La Voie Sacrée

French trenches.
General Petain utilized the sacred road to rotate his soldiers in and out of the trenches.

The French had a tough time securing supplies during this battle. On one hand, the Germans were intent on destroying their resources. On the other, the infrastructure just wasn’t there to aid the French effectively. They were forced to rely on a sole road to keep their supplies coming in, even while under incessant bombardment from the Germans. Later, the road would come to be called “La Voie Sacrée”, or “the Sacred Way”. This was in honor of its importance during the battle. General Philippe Petain used the road to his advantage as much as possible, rotating soldiers throughout the front lines to balance out their exposure to battle and increase their longevity.

#8 – Change of French General

French truck.
General Nivelle took over from Petain in April.

In addition to the Germans changing tactics, the General in charge of the French army changed partway through the battle as well. General Robert Nivelle took over from Petain towards the end of April, who ramped up the French’s own offensive. In theory, this would’ve been an opportune moment for the German forces to reestablish their original strategy. But they plowed on with their attack to their own detriment.

#9 – Support at the Somme

Somme.
The support from the Allies at the Somme helped the French gain the upper hand.

By mid-June, the battle was beginning to favor the French. It’s commonly thought that the support from Allied forces on the Somme played a big part in this. Their combined might gave the Germans no option but to divert forces from Verdun to the Somme. One by one, the forts that were once under German control were re-captured by the French army.

#10 – Catastrophic Casualties

Bataille de Verdun.
Both the French and the Germans suffered many casualties during this long battle.

All in all, it’s hard to say that anyone really “won” this battle. This is due to the sheer degree of the bloodshed. Casualties on both sides were fairly equal, approximating somewhere between 330,000 and 380,000, with around 150,000 deaths for both armies. Combined with the losses sustained on the Somme, this created a true crisis for the Germans in terms of manpower.

#11 – Destruction

War memorial.
A memorial for the French soldiers who fought at Verdun.

The aftermath of the battle of Verdun wouldn’t be easily forgotten. The bombings were so heavy and frequent that not only was Verdun left in utter ruins but so were nine neighboring towns. These would become known as “les villages détruits”, or “the destroyed villages.” Due to the loss of life and the very real danger of live shells being buried in the ground, unfortunately, these towns would never be rebuilt (but they do still have mayors, oddly enough.)

Summary of Facts About the Battle of Verdun:

RankFact
#1It was a battle of attrition
#2A significant battle had happened there before, during the Franco-Prussian War
#3The Treaty of Verdun was signed there
#4The Germans ambushed the French
#5Fort Douaumont fell without any shots being fired
#6General Falkenhayn’s tactics were abandoned by order of Crown Prince Wilhelm
#7French supplies were brought in by “The Sacred Way”
#8The French general Petain was replaced by Nivelle in late April
#9Allied support on the Somme was a pivotal turning point
#10Casualties were immense on both sides
#11Nine towns were destroyed and never rebuilt

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the Battle of Verdun?

The Battle of Verdun is regarded as one of the most violent and long-lasting battles of the First World War, which took place on the hills north of Verdun in France.

How long did the Battle of Verdun go on for?

The battle lasted for 302 days, from February 21 – December 18, 1916.

How many casualties were there?

Overall, there were around 340,00 German casualties and 380,000 French casualties.

How did the French succeed?

It’s largely thought that support from Allied forces during the battle on the Somme forced the Germans to divert troops away from Verdun. This helped the French to re-capture the forts they had lost, and eventually the German’s manpower was cut down so much that they couldn’t maintain their offensive.

What was the aftermath of the battle?

Aside from the huge number of casualties, nine towns were reduced to rubble due to the amount of bombings that took place. These towns never got rebuilt, as the possibility of live shells in the ground made it too dangerous.

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