Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Ludendorff on Verdun

The Hindenburg-Ludendorff team bore no responsibility for initiating the Battle of Verdun. In February 1916, when Verdun began, they were responsible for the Eastern Front. Hindenburg and Ludendorff, however, in late August of that year were appointed to the Supreme Command. Hindenburg replaced Falkenhayn to become chief of the General Staff and Ludendorff was named his first quartermaster-general. It would be their first priority to deal with the still raging Battles of the Somme and Verdun, which were now bleeding the German Army on the Western Front. Later in his memoir, My War Memories: 1914-1918, General Erich Ludendorff made many astute observations on those battles that are scattered through his somewhat rambling account. Here, thanks to, I have extracted his commentary on Verdun.

General Ludendorff
In November and December, 1915, our successes against Serbia and Montenegro had brought on the fourth Isonzo battle, and, about Christmas, the Russian offensive on the southern portion of the Austro-Hungarian front. This attack lasted into January of 1916. Both concluded in a successful resistance on the part of our Allies.

The two General Staffs had now to make their plans for the campaign of 1916. Both were to attempt an offensive to bring about a decision. The German G.H.Q. proposed to attack at Verdun, while the Austro-Hungarian had in view an offensive against Italy from the Tyrol. To make the offensive against Verdun possible, heavy artillery had to be transferred from the German East Front to the West. I do not know what the Entente had in view for 1916 before the French Army was compelled to concentrate on Verdun. It appeared, and indeed it was only to be expected, that they were contemplating great offensives on all fronts.

Strategically Verdun as the point of attack was well chosen This fortress had always served as a particularly dangerous sally- port, which very seriously threatened our communications, as the autumn of 1918 disastrously proved. Had we only been able to reach the defenses on the right bank of the Meuse, we should have achieved complete success. Our strategic position on the Western Front, as well as the tactical situation of our troops in the St. Mihiel salient, would have been materially improved. The attack began on February 21st and met with great success, especially during the early days, owing to the brilliant qualities of our men. The advantage, however, was insufficiently exploited, and our advance soon came to a standstill. At the beginning of March the world was still under the impression that the Germans had won a victory at Verdun.

The German attack at Verdun led to no decisive result. By May it bore the stamp of the first great battle of attrition, in which the struggle for victory means feeding the fighting line with a continuous mass of men and materials. The other parts of the Western Front were inactive.

On the Western Front the Verdun battle was dying down, and in the early days of July the battle on the Somme had not brought the Entente the break-through they hoped for.

The second battle of attrition of the year 1916 had since then been in full swing on both banks of the Somme, and was raging with unprecedented fury and without a moment’s respite.

German Assault on Mort Homme

Verdun had exacted a very great price in blood. The position of our attacking troops grew more and more unfavorable. The more ground they gained the deeper they plunged into the wilderness of shell-holes, and apart from actual losses in action, they suffered heavy wastage merely through having to stay in such a spot, not to mention the difficulty of getting up supplies over a wide, desolate area. The French enjoyed a great advantage here, as the proximity of the fortress gave them a certain amount of support. Our attacks dragged on, sapping our strength. The very men who had fought so heroically at Verdun were terrified of this shell-ravaged region. The Command had not their hearts in their work. The Crown Prince had very early declared himself in favor of breaking off the attack.

The Field-Marshal [Hindenburg] and I intended, as soon as conditions allowed, to go to the Western Front to see for ourselves how matters really stood there. Our task was to organize a stiffer defense and advise generally. But before we went there, some divisions were got ready for Romania and H.M. the Emperor was induced to give the momentous order for the cessation of the offensive at Verdun. That offensive should have been broken off immediately it assumed the character of a battle of attrition. The gain no longer justified the losses. On the defensive we had only to hold out in a battle of attrition forced upon us.

The Crown Prince was greatly pleased at the abandonment of the attacks on Verdun, a course he had long and earnestly desired. He discussed other matters also, and mentioned to me his desire for peace ; he did not explain how this was to be obtained from the Entente.

The most pressing demands of our officers [at the Somme] were for an increase of artillery, ammunition, aircraft and balloons, as well as larger and more punctual allotments of fresh divisions and other troops to make possible a better system of reliefs. The breaking-off of the attack on Verdun made it easier to satisfy their wishes; but even there we had to reckon in the future with considerable wastage, if only on account of the local conditions. It was possible that the French would themselves make an attack from the fortress. Verdun remained an open, wasting sore.

At that time I had not a thorough grasp of the local difficulties of the Verdun fighting. After the Somme, the fortress still required the most attention, in spite of that the 5th Army would have to surrender a considerable amount of artillery and aircraft.

German Defenders Late in the Battle
In October. . . The struggle continued in the shell-hole area on the north- eastern front of Verdun. The French were pushing forward and we remained on the defensive. The troops were very exhausted. But there was no change in the general situation there.

As fighting on the French sector of the Somme battlefield died down, the position before Verdun again became critical. The French attacked on the 24th; we lost Fort Douaumont, and on the 1st of November were obliged to evacuate Fort Vaux also. The loss was grievous, but still more grievous was the totally unexpected decimation of some of our divisions.

On the 14th, 15th and 16th of December, however, there was again very hard fighting round Verdun. France attacked so as to limit still further, before the end of the year, the German gains of 1916 before this fortress. They achieved their object. The blow they dealt us was particularly heavy. We not only suffered heavy casualties, but also lost important positions. The strain during this year had proved too great. The endurance of the troops had been weakened by long spells of defense under the powerful enemy artillery fire and their own losses. We were completely exhausted on the Western Front. . . The enemy, too, seemed weary. But they still had the strength to deliver their so successful blow near Verdun.

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