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Battle of Verdun

The Battle of Verdun, was fought from 21 February to 18 December 1916 on the Western Front in France. 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 and those of the French Second Army on the right 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. Poor weather delayed the beginning of the attack until 21 February but the Germans captured Fort Douaumont in the first three days; the advance slowed for several days, despite inflicting many French casualties. By 6 March, ​20 1⁄2 French divisions were in the RFV 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 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 made local attacks and counter-attacks; 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 of the Verdun citadel but in July the offensive was cut back to provide troops and ammunition for the Battle of the Somme. 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 RFV, away from the Somme, ruses were used to disguise the change. In August and December French counter-offensives recaptured much ground on the east bank and recovered Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux; the battle lasted for the longest and one of the most costly in human history. In 2000, Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann calculated that the French suffered 377,231 casualties and the Germans 337,000, a total of 714,231, an average of 70,000 a month. In 2014, William Philpott wrote of 976,000 casualties in 1916 and 1,250,000 in the vicinity during the war. In France, the battle came to symbolise the determination of the French Army and the destructiveness of the war. After the German invasion of France had been halted at the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914, the war of movement ended at the Battle of the Yser and the First Battle of Ypres; the Germans built field fortifications to hold the ground captured in 1914 and the French began siege warfare to break through the German defences and recover the lost territory.

In late 1914 and in 1915, offensives on the Western Front had failed to gain much ground and been costly in casualties. According to his memoirs written after the war, the Chief of the German General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, believed that although victory might no longer be achieved by a decisive battle, the French army could still be defeated if it suffered a sufficient number of casualties. Falkenhayn offered five corps from the strategic reserve for an offensive at Verdun at the beginning of February 1916 but only for an attack on the east bank of the Meuse. Falkenhayn considered it unlikely. After the war, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Gerhard Tappen, the Operations Officer at Oberste Heeresleitung, wrote that Falkenhayn believed the last possibility was most likely. By seizing or threatening to capture Verdun, the Germans anticipated that the French would send all their reserves, which would have to attack secure German defensive positions supported by a powerful artillery reserve. In the Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive, the German and Austro-Hungarian Armies attacked Russian defences frontally, after pulverising them with large amounts of heavy artillery.

During the Second Battle of Champagne of 25 September – 6 November 1915, the French suffered "extraordinary casualties" from the German heavy artillery, which Falkenhayn considered offered a way out of the dilemma of material inferiority and the growing strength of the Allies. In the north, a British relief offensive would wear down British reserves, to no decisive effect but create the conditions for a German counter-offensive near Arras. Hints about Falkenhayn's thinking were picked up by Dutch military intelligence and passed on to the British in December; the German strategy was to create a favourable operational situation without a mass attack, costly and ineffective when it had been tried by the Franco-British, by relying on the power of heavy artillery to inflict mass losses. A limited offensive at Verdun would lead to the destruction of the French strategic reserve in fruitless counter-attacks and the defeat of British reserves in a

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