Nestled into the northeastern territory of Lorraine in France, the small city of Verdun was the site of the largest battle on the Western Front in World War I. After having been delayed for almost two weeks, German forces launched Unternehmen Gericht (Operation Judgement) on the morning of 21 February 1916.
The opening of engagements at Verdun saw the Germans launching an intense artillery barrage (Trommelfeuer) in an attempt to soften French forces occupying the Verdun salient. Bombardment continued throughout the entire day, pausing only once in an attempt to locate surviving French forces.
By the end of February 1916, Fort Douamont had fallen into German hands. However, German infantry had extended itself beyond the range of its own artillery cover, causing their advance to stall, and allow French forces to rearm, resupply, and fill in their ranks on the frontlines. The progress also brought the Fifth German Army into range of heavier French artillery and guns.
The German advance near Verdun had become uniform with the rest of the Western Front, moving a few miles at any given time, but generally staying the same. The village of Fleury just northeast of Verdun changed hands over a dozen times through August of 1916, making any gains or defense of land east of Verdun temporary.
It was not until October of 1916 that France had recouped their forces to a point where they were prepared to attempt to recapture areas east of Verdun. By 24 October, the French had taken back Douamont, marking the beginning of the retreat of German forces from the Verdun salient. By the evening of 5 November, French forces had reached back to the front lines east of Douamont to Vaux.
With this boost in morale, General Petain ordered a second offensive against the Germans. The first day of the offensive, the French were able to recapture Vacherauville and Louvemont which were lost in the opening days of the battle. By the end of the battle on 17 December, the Germans had been entirely repelled and the salient was wiped out, marking a staunch victory for the French.
The devastation of the artillery used by both belligerents in such a small area of battle made conditions miserable for troops moving across it. Millions of shells were used, paralyzing many soldiers on the field. One French officer described the battlefield as “a massacre...a scene of horror and carnage”, and described what he saw as worse than Hell. Even today, the scars left over by the blistering artillery can be seen in the mound-filled fields and forests near Verdun.
Verdun would see itself as the staging point for several additional military operations by the end of World War I. The most notable being the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918. While Verdun did not have any key strategic value to the Germans or the French, almost one million casualties were shared by both sides; a quarter of a million of those were fatal. The Germans would not make an attempt on Verdun for the remainder of the war, either due to denial by the French, or lack of manpower.
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