For details of the speaker for December's meeting, see the Branch Meetings section - click here.

Last Month’s Talk

Tim Cockitt presented an account of the Battle that tested France to the extreme. It lasted from February to December 1916 on the Western Front. The battle was the longest of the First World War and took place on the hills north of Verdun-sur-Meuse. The German 5th Army attacked the defences of the Fortified Region of Verdun (RFV, Région Fortifiée de Verdun) and those of the French Second Army on the right (east) bank of the Meuse. Using the experience of the Second Battle of Champagne in 1915, the Germans planned to capture the Meuse Heights, an excellent defensive position with good observation for artillery-fire on Verdun. The Germans hoped that the French would commit their strategic reserve to recapture the position and suffer catastrophic losses at little cost to the Germans. Several of the forts in the area had been virtually denuded of their guns, which had been taken to supplement those on the Western Front as trench warfare evolved.

Poor weather delayed the beginning of the attack until 21 February but the Germans captured Fort Douamont in the first three days. A German NCO climbed inside and found a small contingent of soldiers whom he promptly forced to surrender.The advance then slowed for several days, despite inflicting many French casualties. By 6 March, 20 French divisions were in the area and a more extensive defence in depth had been constructed. Philippe Pétain ordered no retreat and that German attacks were to be counter-attacked, despite this exposing French infantry to German artillery-fire. By 29 March, French guns on the west bank had begun a constant bombardment of Germans on the east bank, causing many infantry casualties. The German offensive was extended to the left (west) bank of the Meuse, to gain observation and eliminate the French artillery firing over the river but the attacks failed to reach their objectives.

In early May, the Germans changed tactics again and made local attacks and counter-attacks; the French recaptured part of Fort Douaumont but then the Germans ejected them and took many prisoners. The Germans tried alternating their attacks on either side of the Meuse and in June captured Fort Vaux. The Germans advanced towards the last geographical objectives of the original plan, at Fleury-devant-Douaumont and Fort Souville, driving a salient into the French defences. Fleury was captured and the Germans came within 4 km (2 mi) of the Verdun citadel but in July the offensive was cut back to provide troops, artillery and ammunition for the Battle of the Somme, leading to a similar transfer of the French Tenth Army to the Somme front. From 23 June to 17 August, Fleury changed hands sixteen times and a German attack on Fort Souville failed. The offensive was reduced further but to keep French troops in the area away from the Somme, ruses were used to disguise the change.

Verdun could not be easily accessed by railway, as the train line was overlooked by German positions, so Petain came up with the idea of supply by motor vehicles along a narrow road which became known as La Vie Sacre. It was kept open by round the clock repair groups and any vehicle that was hit or broke down would be pushed off the road.

In September and December, French counter-offensives recaptured much ground on the east bank and recovered Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux. The battle lasted for 302 days, the longest and one of the most costly in human history. The French suffered 377,231 casualties and the Germans 337,000, a total of 714,231 and an average of 70,000 a month. In France, the battle came to symbolise the determination of the French Army and the destructiveness of the war.

Terence Jackson