Horne: The Price of Glory

Looked back at Verdun 1916

notes from Gloves / writers in the ‘60s confidently stated Verdun could never be repeated, but had been at Leningrad and Stalingrad in WWII and were threatened in MAD pxiii-xiv / CH1 / Verdun has the highest density of dead per square yard ever p1 / a Pyrrhic victory p2 / defeat in 1870 set the stage for militarization and prosperity until WWI’s outset p2ff / theory was insane – “desire the bayonet”, “be audacious”, “ignore the enemy’s plan”, “defend every inch”, no artillery p12ff / goal was a lightning assault to recover Alsace-Lorraine p14 / Germany, seeing France’s alliance with Russia, adopted the Schlieffen plan to crush France first, then deal with Russia p14ff / CH2 / the initial conflict of maneuver was costly but indecisive, and set up the trench warfare that dominated the rest of WWI p17-9 / Joffre was a fat idiot with nerves of steel p19ff / Joffre managed combat commanders well, but couldn’t manage the general staff p23 / trench warfare followed a predictable pattern of bombardment, attack, counterbombardment, counterattack, recover into the same positions with 10-25% of the previous strength p25-6 / CH3 / Falkenhayn replaced Moltke in Germany, and was as unmoved by casualties as Joffre – he was also indecisive p29ff / Falkenhayn decided to “bleed France dry” at Verdun p36 / two problems with Verdun order – an attack on one bank of the Meuse instead of both, and uncertainty as to the desire to take Verdun, or just to attack towards it p39 / CH4 / German plans were detailed and secret p44 / at Verdun, “for the first time aircraft were used en masse in support of ground tactics” aiding in secrecy p45 / Verdun’s fortress was well-engineered by the French, but disarmed anticipating an offensive p48ff / CH5 / weather stalled the German advance, giving the French time to think about the impending conflict p56ff / life in the trenches was worse for the French than the Germans p58ff / the industrial revolution resulted in gas and iron shells, both of which had “sickening effect” p65 / CH6 / gas and explosive shells initiated the German attack, well-aimed and well-planned p71ff / French artillery response was weak p76 / most Germans fought with skirmishers, but one division commander attacked in force; nevertheless, generally the French held until nightfall brought bombardment p77ff / CH7 / seasoned German troops against French “Territorial” reserves = no contest p84 / Driant’s gallant defense of a weak point he identified well before the attack slowed the German advance on Verdun p86ff / CH8 / poor communication on the French side “revealed how sadly out of touch” HHQ “was with events at the front” p94 / automatic French counter attacks were suicidal, but their spirit gave pause to the Boche p95-7 / after busting through the first defensive line, the conflict was mobile again p100-1 / Chretien’s Corps was spent by 24 Feb p103 / CH9 / by mistake, the French left Ft Douaumont undefended p109 / the Boche took it p110ff / the French propaganda machine said it was no big deal p121ff / CH10 / Joffre agreed to send Petain’s 2d Army to Verdun p125 / de Castelnau went to Verdun to run the fight, and committed to hold every inch of ground p128-9 / CH11 / Petain was quite unlike Joffre except in peasant upbringing p134 / Petain didn’t prepare for past wars, he studied current ones p136 / Petain believed in attrition - not attrition of infantry against artillery, but artillery against artillery p138 / CH12 / Petain directed a more competent and coherent defense, focusing on artillery and comm p143ff / Germans focused on the village of Douaumont, and the French resisted p149 / CH13 / Germany’s brilliant plan didn’t account for the loss of artillery due to immobility, wear, and lack of ammo p150-1 / French artillery flooded to Verdun p152ff / consultation between the commander of the Verdun offensive and Falkenhayn was minimal and strained p154ff / the Left Bank attack was fierce, and met well-prepared defenses p156-7 / the Germans didn’t have the logistics to conduct a synchronized attack on both banks p160 / CH14 / the key terrain, “Mort Homme”, consumed hordes in the pattern of bombard, attack, counterbombard, counterattack, reset p161 / after working on key terrain, the Germans changed their plan to a broad attack p165 / nevertheless, Mort Homme remained the main effort p167ff / as casualties mounted, Germans determined a flanking hill to be the key to the key terrain of Mort Homme and shelled it for over two days p168ff / CH15 / despite the main effort on the left bank, the right bank area was no picnic, with frequent skirmishing attacks p173 / stinky dead p175-6 / artillery bombardment was dehumanizing to the receivers p178 / hunger and thirst were factors because rations had to be man-ported in p182 / medical evacuation was nearly impossible p183ff / CH16 / German population was feeling the strain more than the French population p193 / CH17 / aviators died in high ratios, but it looked and was perceived as more heroic p199ff / aircraft were, however, seen as of very little military utility p201 / Verdun did more than a little to change that attitude p202ff / patrols of multiple aircraft replaced solo flights p206 / Germans failed to use air to interdict the supply line or any LOC to Verdun p208 / Lafayette Escadrille had its greatest effect in good publicity for the war in the US p209ff / CH18 / Mar-May were the bloodiest at Verdun, with see-saw fighting near Douaumont p214ff / Falkenhayn vacillated over the decisiveness of Verdun p216 / accidental explosion at Ft D… demoralized sgfnt German troops p220 / the Crown Prince was powerless to stop the impending butchery because his father discounted his input p225-6 / CH19 / Petain would have fought a slow retreat, but de Castelnau and Joffre wouldn’t hear of it p228 / the Frankish rapid rotation of troops helped French morale and hurt German morale p228 / Nivelle et al moving to command at Verdun increased the number and ferocity of counterattacks and repulsing attacks p234 / Nivelle’s deputy Mangin lunged at Ft D…, took most of it, but lost it to a counterattack (hurting French morale) p235ff / CH20 / the world had the general sense of Verdun as a bloodletting p243ff / the Germans planned MAY CUP as a renewed, massive offensive to take Verdun once and for all p245ff / CH21 / Germans focused on Ft Vaux, smaller that Ft D… with no mounted guns, but a heroic commander in Raynal who was honored in surrender p252ff / Nivelle sent a tragic sixth force to relieve Ft Vaux’s garrison after it had surrendered p265ff / CH22 / Ft Vaux was one of the key features of Petain’s defensive line, and its loss was sgfnt p267 / by mid-June, French morale and French troop levels were at their lowest at Verdun since Feb p268ff / CH23 / Falkenhayn unable to communicate effectively with subordinates, peers, or superiors (including Conrad, a key Austrian general) p277ff / Falkenhayn was compelled to send troops destined for Verdun to the eastern front p282 / this break gave Nivelle time to get ready for the attack against Ft Souville p283 / CH24 / Ft S… was the last major barrier between the Boche and Verdun p284 / German phosgene gas started the offensive p286 / besides the Germans, French enemies included thirst and lack of ammo p287 / tactical German errors in this offensive p291ff / this failure meant the worst was over p292 / Britain’s stupid and bloody counterattack at Somme, presaged by long-range artillery and hastened by Joffre, sounded the death knell to Falkenhayn p293 / CH25 / last-gasp attack by the Germans on Verdun planned for 7 Jul, but delayed 2 days by weather p296-7 / by mid-July, Mangin had pushed the Germans back to their starting positions p300 / the German’s couldn’t surrender their indefensible terrain because of the disastrous morale effect p301 / Falkenhayn’s ouster in favor of Hindenburg p303-4 / CH26 / French counter-offensive planned by Petain, Nivelle, and Mangin p308 / Neville’s innovation of a creeping barrage behind which infantry could march p309 / at the end, the French morale was climbing and the German fading p310ff / the French attack to regain Ft D… p310ff / CH27 / Joffre was a casualty of his bloody strategy, replaced by Nivelle p319ff / Nivelle wanted to duplicate his success at Verdun, but the Germans had learned – and the subsequent military disaster led to mutiny on 3 May p321ff / Petain replaced Nivelle to restore order, and led a few successful but small campaigns to restore morale p324 / Petain, unstrung and unskilled in attack, surrendered Supreme Command to Foch p325 / CH28 / Verdun’s scars have taken longer for nature to heal than any other battlefield p326ff / France “won” Verdun, but at too high a price p328 / “we lost the war against an unlimited superiority because we never succeeded in concentrating superiority at the decisive point” p329 / Hitler shared French foolishness (don’t surrender an inch) in Russia p330 / “neither side won at Verdun … it was the indecisive battle in an indecisive war” p331 / German leaders were questioned by their subordinates; the US was encouraged to enter the war p331-2 / more than any other event, Verdun led to France’s defeat in 1940 because it deified the system of forts p336ff / other impactful things: air used as a force, German infantry infiltration, creeping barrage; mostly, the horrendous bloodletting p336-7 / Germans developed Panzer tactics in response to Verdun p342 / EPILOGUE / the pendulum swing against militarism initiated by Verdun swung back in Indo-China et al. p347ff

Sugar's tips on Horne

Why study Verdun and WWI?

What happens when your doctrine and training turn out to be almost completely wrong, and 300,000 people are killed and wounded in the first two weeks (as in the case of France)? How do you adapt when your strategy is based on flanking attacks, and suddenly there are no flanks? What happens when the battlespace is far deadlier than you had anticipated because of the unprecedented numbers of guns, soldiers, and supplies available? What if, unlike in your previous paradigm of warfare in which the weaker side eventually gives up and negotiates, the other side doesn’t gives up, and instead puts its women and kids in sweatshops to keep up war production? What do you do if the entire “A team” of military professionals is killed almost to a man, forcing you to concentrate your “second string” team of replacements because their training is too poor to do anything else? How do you even contemplate settling for limited terms or losing after you plant almost an entire generation in the ground, and it seems that the only currency that can secure victory is more dead soldiers? If all of these things happen, how do you 1. Identify the problems, and 2. adapt new tactics more quickly than the enemy? Truly a “wicked” problem – perhaps it’s a bit of an oversimplification to assume that the carnage of Verdun was caused mostly by an overzealous and misplaced belief in the power of the offensive and “elan” on the part of the French... and may explain some of the shocking conclusions about acceptable ends and means that they arrived at during strategy development.

Take aways:

The first battle is seldom (if ever) the way you think it will be - plan for flexible responses . The Air War Plans Division’s development of AWPD-1 was a great example of planning for branches if the initial assumptions proved wrong – good read for later:

Intellectual flexibility is what gives you the best chance of success, and allows you to see the possibilities inherent in your current ways and means (i.e. the uses of aircraft beyond observation)

Questions to ask during strategic formulation based on this historical example:

How much will this cost? How much political and economic preparation will be required to sustain the effort?

How long could this take?

What happens if Plan A doesn’t work?

What happens when the political objectives change due either to success or failure on the battlefield?

What off- ramps are we leaving available for the enemy to give up short of total annihilation?

What does the “better peace” on the other side of this look like?

How will diplomacy complement the military effort, and vice versa?

Why else are we studying this mostly tactical history of Verdun?

The visceral descriptions in this book were what fueled many of the early airpower advocates to seek ways to avoid the utter carnage described here, leading to some of the earliest “effects based” thinking, and even leading some to the point of suggesting the bombing and gassing of civilian population centers (Douhet) would be a preferable strategy for victory over a repeat of Verdun. The WWI experience also had a dramatic effect on the European perspective on war, and largely explains many of the political and military decisions made during the interwar period, especially regarding the reemergence of Germany and its appeasement by the other European powers. It’s also good for the strategist to never forget how much is going on in the frontlines based on a few lines in an OPORD or a JAOP that he/she has written (see The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer for the quintessential WWII example of this ).

Closing thought

Written in May 1915, and still resonating today (check our UK friends uniforms for an additional accoutrement starting a few weeks before Nov 11 this fall)

In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved, and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.

Lt.-Col. John McCrae (1872 - 1918)

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