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World War I Western Front (1916) - Part 3

World War I Western Front (1916) - Part 3

Events that took place in the third year of WWI

1916 witnessed two of the most costly and least-inspired military operations in history, when both camps were already experiencing severe shortages of manpower (to the extent that in Britain it was necessary to institute compulsory military service for the first time). Both sides decided on offence.


Index of content


To Bleed France White

If the British high command was bitterly dissatisfied with the course of the war at the end of 1915, so was the German. Looking for a way to break the deadlock on the western front, Falkenhayn concluded England had to be thoroughly demoralized. But the way to accomplish this, he wrote to the kaiser, was to knock France out of the war. He believed France was already near the breaking point. To take it beyond that point, he proposed to direct a limited offensive against a single point the French perceived as vital.

The objective Falkenhayn chose was the fortress of Verdun, which had figured as an important fortress since Roman times. In a loop of the Meuse River, it occupied a strategic blocking position in the Meuse River valley. It was now a state-of-the-art military fortification, yet at the beginning of 1916 it was occupied only by a small garrison, and its fortress guns had been dismantled and transported elsewhere on the western front for use as field artillery. Ever since the front had hardened into a set of trenches, Verdun had been a quiet sector, which had seen little action.

Even if Verdun had been downgraded in immediate military importance, Falkenhayn understood it was still of great symbolic significance to France. With the western front stalemated, the French would not willingly allow a German breakthrough at the ancient fortress. By threatening this one point, the German commander guessed he could force the French to keep feeding reinforcements into a front only 13 kilometers (eight miles) wide. If the French gave up at Verdun, they would lose Verdun and allow a German breakthrough. If the French did not give up, they would be “bled white.”

The German crown prince was given the mission of assaulting Verdun with his Fifth Army. He wanted to make an overwhelming assault on both sides of the Meuse River, but the conservative Falkenhayn overruled him and ordered the attack to be confined to the east bank of the river. Bad weather delayed the operation until February 21, 1916, giving Joffre time to order reinforcements to the menaced sector.

At 7:15 on the morning of February 21, the attack began with a massive, 1,400-gun artillery bombardment, which poured 100,000 shells each hour onto the small front. Despite heavy losses, Verdun’s defenders continued to resist; as Falkenhayn had predicted, Joffre resolved to hold Verdun at all costs. What Falkenhayn had not counted on was how costly this resistance would be to the Germans.

On February 25, an outlying fortress, Fort Douaumont, fell to the Germans, sending a shiver of panic through Verdun. Joffre responded with a promise to court-martial any commander who voluntarily gave up ground. He also replaced the hesitant General Langle de Cary, in overall command of the Verdun defenses, with Henri Philippe Pétain (1856–1951), who pledged “They shall not pass!” The phrase instantly became the battle cry of Verdun and the French motto for the rest of the war.

Pétain was certainly willing to spend lives in the defense of Verdun, but he was also skilled at exacting tremendous casualties from the Germans as well. He did not merely hunker down but, on assuming personal command, used artillery to bombard the German columns as they threaded forward through the steep, narrow valleys east of the Meuse. Pétain also understood the crucial importance of keeping Verdun supplied with ammunition, provisions, and reinforcements.

The general designated the one road that led to a depot, Bar-le-Duc, 80 kilometers (50 miles) westward, as an artery for the exclusive use of supply trucks. An entire division of Territorials was assigned to repair the road continually, filling in shell craters as soon as they were made. They christened the route the “Voie sacrée” (the Sacred Way).

On March 6, the Germans ordered a fresh assault, which made deadly progress until it, like the others, was finally repelled. Over the course of the month Falkenhayn sent wave after wave against the reinforced French, even reluctantly committing an entire reserve corps for an attack up the left bank of the river toward a small ridge with the sinister name of “Le Morte-homme” (The Dead Man). This would be the focus of the back-and-forth fighting for the rest of the campaign through April and May, when at last German energy and resources flagged. In the meantime, Pétain was promoted to higher command and was replaced at Verdun by the dashing Robert Nivelle (1856–1924).

In June, however, the Germans took Fort Vaux, an outlying outpost on the east bank of the Meuse. This reinvigorated them sufficiently to renew their efforts. In late June and early July, the Germans unleashed their newest form of poison gas, phosgene, which worked by turning into hydrochloric acid in the lungs. Even Pétain, overriding the new commander, Nivelle, recommended withdrawal from Verdun. Joffre refused, however.

A Russian offensive in the East put a sudden demand on German forces, and 15 German divisions had to be withdrawn for duty on the eastern front. Verdun was saved, and, on August 29, 1916, having lost 400,000 men in his effort to bleed the French army white, Erich von Falkenhayn was relieved of command, to be replaced by the team that had been so successful in the East: Erich Ludendorff (1865–1937) and Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934).


The French go on the Offensive

Shortly after the Germans replaced Falkenhayn, the French brought in a new commander at Verdun, Charles Mangin (1866–1925). During the closing months of 1916, Mangin took his army on the offensive, retaking Fort Douaumont on October 24 and Fort Vaux on November 2, ultimately pushing his lines forward, nearly to the position the French had held at the beginning of the battle. The cost to the French of the Verdun campaign was 542,000 killed and wounded, whereas German losses for the period totaled 434,000.


The Somme Offensive

The First Battle of the Somme began on June 24, 1916. Following a massive seven-day artillery preparation, the British Fourth Army, under General Henry S. Rawlinson (1864–1925), made the principal thrust north of the Somme, while General Edmund Allenby (1861–1936) led the Third Army in a supporting action to the north. Simultaneously, south of the Somme, Foch’s French Army Group of the North made a holding attack.

On July 1, the British infantry hit the strongly defended German Second Army, which yielded scant territory at a cost of 60,000 British casualties, the heaviest one-day loss in Britain’s military history. The British pressed the attack, and action on the Somme continued through July 14, when a British nighttime attack broke through the German second line. Unfortunately, the breakthrough faltered and failed because of poor communications; the attackers were slaughtered, and the German defenders retaliated with massive counterattacks.

Through the rest of the summer, a series of smaller actions engulfed the Somme front. On September 15, southwest of the village of Bapaume, Haig unleashed another major offensive, which employed for the first time the tank, a British innovation intended to break the trench-war stalemate by simply rolling over the trenches. The new weapon created shock and panic where it was used, but its numbers and its mechanical reliability did not make a significant impact on the battle.

The First Battle of the Somme spanned June 24 to November 13, 1916, and resulted in territorial gains for the Allies, but at tremendous cost. The British lost 420,000 men killed and wounded and the French 195,000; German losses numbered about 650,000.


The United States Drifts Toward War

U.S. president Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) won a second term in the White House in 1916 on the campaign slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.” Since its beginning in 1914, Americans had watched the war with a combination of anxiety and relief but, in many quarters, also with an awareness that the war was profitable.

As a neutral, the United States traded with all sides. Soon, however, it became apparent that American public opinion and business and capital favored the Allies over the Central Powers. U.S. financial institutions made huge loans to both sides, but far more to England and France than to Germany and Austria-Hungary. America drifted closer to the Allied camp.

WWI (1914-1918)
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