21 February–1 March: The Opening Attack
On 21 February, at 0715 hrs the Germans opened fire on the two banks of the Meuse, over a front of 40 kilometers. Simultaneously, Verdun proper was systematically bombarded, the first shells falling on the cathedral grounds. Fire was kept up for nine hours, the 1200+ German artillery pieces included a high proportion able to fire heavy-caliber shells.
|Lt. Col Driant (Center) with His Officers at Bois des Caures
The infantry attack was launched out of the north at 1615 hrs, just before dusk, from the Haumont-Ornes Woods. The first strong resistance they met was from Chasseurs deployed in Bois des Caures commanded by Lt. Col. Emile Driant, who became the first hero of the battle after being killed the second day.
Over the next few days the terrain and villages between the Bois des Caures and Fort Douaumont were systematically conquered.
|Recent Aerial View of Fort Douaumont
(Note Autos in Left Parking Lot to Gauge Size)
Click Image to Enlarge
The massive fort, which was almost abandoned, fell without resistance on 25 February. It would later be written that this failure cost France 100,000 lives.
General Henri-Philippe Pétain took command over the army of Verdun the same day. To better organize the defenses, he implemented a rotational system for the defending troops and improved the only supply route to the City, the Bar-le-Duc-Verdun road, which came to be known to posterity as the Voie Sacrée or Sacred Way.
|Pétain and His Staff at Verdun