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Verdun Ends and National Roast Suckling Pig Day

18 December…chestnuts roasting on an open fire…and all that.  On this day in 1261 the Yuan Dynasty began in China. And in 1603 the first Dutch East India fleet left the Scheldt. New Jersey ratified the Constitution on this day in 1787; and Amendment XIII banning slavery went into effect in 1865. And in 1800 Charles Goodyear, future tire king, was born in Hartford, Connecticut. Joseph Stalin, future bloodthirsty cannibal, was born in TIflis in what is now Georgia on this day in 1879, the same day that John Kehoe, quasi-anarchist leader of the Molly Maguires, was hanged in Pennsylvania. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., son of the first African-American general officer and the future first African-American lieutenant general, was born on this day in 1912 in Washington DC. And Woodrow Wilson married Edith Galt at the White House on this day in 1915.  But today, we’re talking about French charnel houses, and roast pork.

…committing to attrition as an offensive strategy was alien to German arms

Before 1916, no German planner ever thought attrition was a good idea for German arms: they simply weren’t set up for it. German war-making had always emphasized the quick encirclement and decisive warfare: Germany was never prepared logistically to pound an enemy to death. Germany had built splendid entrenchments starting in 1915 that could withstand attrition, but committing to attrition as an offensive strategy was alien to German arms.

In February 1916, Germany began an offensive at the traditional German invasion route of France: at the forts guarding the city of Verdun on Meuse river, the clearest route to Paris. 

But Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of Staff to the German Army, believed that France was teetering on the edge of military and political disaster. He believed that French casualties were such that the manpower pool was dry, so his plan for Verdun was two-fold: attack France at its most vulnerable point–Paris, and draw as many French reinforcements as possible into the killing ground. In February 1916, Germany began an offensive at the traditional German invasion route of France: at the forts guarding the city of Verdun on Meuse river, the clearest route to Paris.

Battle_of_Verdun_map
From WIkipedia, the cleanest available

…the metal expended by the guns of Verdun from February 1916 to December could have built the French Navy twice over.

On 21 February 1916, the German offensive kicked off with a horrific bombardment, but it was also clear that the French still had plenty of fight left in them. While the major success at Fort Douaumont took just three days, it was one of the few tactical successes the Germans saw.  The offensive continued week after week, month after month. Few of Falkenhan’s calculations proved correct.  No matter what he did he could not suppress the French artillery enough to reduce his casualties. First Phillipe Petain then Robert Nivelle, commanding the French forces in the area, managed to keep the trenches filled with men, often with fresh troops every fifth day.  Nearly every French soldier in uniform at the beginning of 1916 spent at least some time in the Verdun killing zone; four out of five French infantrymen were in the Verdun area for more than a month. Half of French and 2/3rds of German heavy (155 mm and larger) and super-heavy (208 mm and larger) artillery was in range of the Verdun battlefield at one time in 1916. Though the infantry often had a respite from attacking trenches, hills, craters and ruins for a few yards of gain, the artillery never fell completely silent for nearly a year.  One scholar estimated that the metal expended by the guns of Verdun from February 1916 to December could have built the French Navy twice over.

It saw the destruction of the old British professional army in favor of a drafted force…

But 1916 was about a great deal more than Verdun. As a break in the deadlock on land, Reinhard Scheer took his High Seas Fleet out of port at the end of May to parry with John Jellicoe’s Home Fleet, and the resulting battle in the Skagerrak (also called Jutland) cost only about ten thousand lives and a few ships and the reputation of the naval leadership and the builders of ships. But the German fleet never ventured out again. In June, the Russians under Alexei Brusilov launched an offensive in Galicia that cost as much as 2.5 million casualties for very little territorial gain. To take some pressure off of Verdun, Britain launched their infamous Somme offensive to the north of the Verdun abattoir in on 1 July, and that slaughter-fest cost another million casualties until the offensive officially ended in November. It saw the destruction of the old British professional army in favor of a drafted force, and the deadlock in the trenches went on.

No country that fought in the European theater in 1916 came out untouched by the costs of Verdun.

After ten months, the French were strong enough to counterattack and start pushing the Germans back.  Falkenhayn was compelled to resign, and the German offensive at Verdun was called off on 18 December 1916.  There were nearly a million casualties at Verdun…a million that anyone officially counted.  But there were deep political and psychological wounds for both the French and the Germans, for the British and the Russians and the Austro-Hungarians.  France had survived, but Germany was entering a period of famine called the “turnip winter” caused by a combination of the British blockade, wet autumn weather, lack of agricultural manpower and collapsing transportation networks. Of all these causes, the blockade and the lack of manpower are the most cited as being responsible. It is not difficult to trace the failure of German plans at Verdun to their resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare that led to the entry of the United States in the war. Germany survived, but the government of the French Third Republic itself came under siege. French soldiers, though relieved to have survived, felt at if their politicians didn’t care about them. Russia survived, but Austria-Hungary, always a weak link in the German armor, teetered on the precipice of economic and social collapse.  Britain survived, but Russia was cut off completely from the outside world because she could not get her agricultural product out or military goods in, despite Britain’s dominance of the seas. Worse, Russia’s armies were burning with a deep resentment that, in just a few months, would spark a revolution. Russia survived for the moment, but Britain was confronted not just with bankruptcy of funds but bankruptcy of men. No country that fought in the European theater in 1916 came out untouched by costs of Verdun.


18 December is National Roast Suckling Pig Day for some reason (apparently no one really knows why).  The featured image above is a vegetarian creation. A suckling pig is generally less than six weeks old when slaughtered, usually between 8 and 30 pounds.  Cooking it can be tricky because the cross-section is so thin, but those whose cooking skills extend beyond mine (that would be…pretty much anyone who can actually roast anything without the smoke alarm going off) assure me that it’s like roasting a turkey.  Somehow, not reassuring.

As for Why the Samurai Lost, it’s proceeding apace. Remember to check in with us at JDBCOM.COM for more.

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Verdun: Operation Judgement

Erich von Falkenhayn’s offensive of 1916 was aimed directly at the traditional invasion route between the Rhine and Paris.  The area had been used often enough that the area called the Heights of the Meuse were heavily fortified by the French over the years to have culminated in a series of forts that, if nothing else, put the entire Meuse-Rhine plain under observation for artillery.

The German plan was simple: take the forts, make the French commit their strategic reserves protecting the route to Paris, build up behind the bulge, press on to Paris in the summer months until France gave up and march home in triumph before fall.  The strategic motivations, however, were far more complex.  German agriculture was suffering under the loss of so much of its manpower, and was sorely affected by the British blockade–far more than Germany could withstand.  Though Germany had suffered less than had Britain and France in the battlefields, combined the Allies had far more manpower than did the Central Powers.  Germany, the most powerful of the Powers, was in the second year of a war she had anticipated would last two months.  Knocking France out of the war was the key to Germany’s survival.

On 21 February, the Germans unleashed their Fifth Army on the French Second Army manning the nineteen fortresses of the Verdun complex.  The first French fort to fall, three days later, was Douaumont, the largest and highest of the outer ring forts, by a small German raiding party.   Even though it had been unoccupied for months, the French were scandalized, and in Gallic rage they threw more and more men into the face of the German offensive.

While most scholars feel that this was the German intention all along, German military theory and doctrine never, ever had attritional battle in mind.  Prussia/Brandenburg, the font of Imperial German military tradition, never had the numbers nor the temperament for a drawn-out brawl, and always preferred maneuver–preferably to encirclement–to merely adding up casualties.  Tannenberg, the August 1914 double-envelopment of the Russian Second Army in East Prussia, was far more to Prussian/German liking than was the long slog of Verdun.  It is likely that post-Verdun German commentators merely claimed that attrition was the German plan all along, when in truth the French defense, orchestrated by Robert Nivelle, was more persistent and successful than they had imagined was possible.

Verdun would rage on unabated for ten months, consuming the lives of some three hundred thousand men out of the million committed, and occupying the full attention of over a hundred divisions. It would have been impossible for the rest of the world not to notice, and it would have been impossible for the Americans not to look on in horror, and in contemplation.  American military men may have been forbidden by President Woodrow Wilson to prepare contingency plans, but that did not prevent preparedness plans from being put into action with some urgency.  The Plattsburg Movement, a civilian-driven (if military favored) program of camps that trained young collegians in various places in the country, had finally come to fruition in the National Defense Act of 1916, that created the Army Reserves.  Approval of NDA 1916 and the increase in American preparedness had been spurred, in part, by the specter of the 2,300 French and Germans casualties About a regiment) every day on the Verdun front alone.

Two years after the worst of the fighting at Verdun had been concluded, the Americans were fighting to throw the Germans out of some of the 1916 gains at the Meuse-Argonne.  This battle was the largest American campaign between Appomattox in 1865 and the invasion of Sicily in 1943.  Wiley-Blackwell’s A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, edited by Ed Lengel, contains an essay by John D. Beatty entitled “We Can Kill Them But We Cannot Stop Them: An Evaluation of the Meuse-Argonne,” which looks at American performance there, and the influences of American preparedness before 1917.  Available in hardback and E-book from fine booksellers everywhere.