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French soldiers attacking from their trench

9 little-known facts about the Battle of Verdun

French soldiers going over the top of their trench at the Battle of Verdun | Image: Public Domain

The Battle of Verdun is known as one of the most deadly in human history. Running from 21st February until 18th December 1916, the battle was the longest of the First World War. It left the armies on both sides with significant casualties and remains one of the most significant French memories of the war. Here we’re exploring nine lesser-known facts about the battle.

1. The first shot was fired on 21st February 1916

21st February 1916 marked the beginning of the Battle of Verdun. The first shot came from a German long-distance naval gun and hit Verdun Cathedral in the centre of the city. This was quickly followed up by a barrage of Verdun’s front defences, with huge numbers of casualties from day one. The beginning of the battle took the French defence by surprise which led to major casualties in the early stages.

2. Erich von Falkenhayn engineered the German attack

Erich von Falkenhayn was the Chief of the German General Staff and his battle tactics focused on a concentrated offensive effort against the French forces. Von Falkenhayn viewed the French forces as the weak link in the Allied attack, so he believed targeting France’s strongholds would result in the Germans finally breaking through.

3. France heavily defended their city

Verdun was well protected by the French forces. Heavily armed forts surrounded the city. It was recognised as one of France’s key strategic fortresses and an important link in the French Western Front. They were particularly proud of Verdun which also influenced von Falkenhayn’s decision to target it.

4. Verdun is a symbolic city

Verdun’s position as a fortress not only appealed to the Germans strategically, but it also had political importance. The history of the city shows it has changed hands and been a key point of battle on previous occasions. It was among the final to fall when France was defeated in 1870-1871 and the Franco-Prussian War. The humiliation during this war meant the French did all they could to defend the city and make sure it was fully protected against any attack.

5. The significance of Fort Douaumont

Fort Douaumont was one of Verdun’s most prized buildings and its strongest form of defence. It was only built in 1913 and housed some of the most innovative technologies in warfare including several machine gun nests held within steel pillboxes. Despite France’s real belief in the strength of the fort, it fell to the Germans on 25th February, not long after the battle began. This was a huge shock to the French forces and it took them many months to regroup and recapture the fort in October 1916.

6. The first battle using flamethrowers

It’s hard to imagine flamethrowers being used outside computer games in the modern age, but they were a powerful weapon for warfare in the early 20th century. Flamethrowers were operated by highly trained German stormtroopers who were also able to throw grenades to destroy everything in their wake.

7. A sense of stalemate

The First World War was known for its drawn-out periods of little progress and the same was true of the Battle of Verdun. The lack of progress meant the battlefront was seen as something of a joke by the wider German forces as von Falkenhayn continued to bring more reserve troops into the operation as he attempted to move forward.

8. Nearly one million casualties

Official records show that France lost 162,440 soldiers and a further 216,337 were wounded. Historians have since argued the figures should be over 500,000 and Germany, of course, had significant losses too.

Nearly 75% of the French army was involved in the Battle of Verdun, with colonial forces also playing their part. It remains one of the most violent and bloody battles in world history and the losses had a significant impact on the trajectory of the whole of the First World War.

9. Both sides are memorialised

The Verdun Memorial is situated on the battlefield not far from the site of Fleury-Devant-Douaumont, a village completely destroyed by the battle. It was constructed in the 1960s and has been open for the public to visit since 1967. The memorial remembers French and German soldiers as well as the civilians who lost their lives during the battle. It also houses a military museum where visitors can see authentic armaments from both sides.

The Battle of Verdun was a fierce attempt by the German forces to break through the Western Front. Though they had some initial victories, the success was not maintained. When France recaptured Douaumont, the German forces recognised the end was nigh.