Falkenhayn and the Battle of Verdun

Falkenhayn and the Battle of Verdun

Erich von Falkenhayn was strongly criticised for his tactics at the Battle of Verdun. Once the war was over, he defended what he had done by writing an article to explain his decisions.

Verdun was one of the most costly battles in World War One in terms of lives lost, with many historians arguing that it ‘bled the French Army to death’. However, the Germans also suffered serious losses.

In his article, Falkenhayn argued that all demands for labour equipment and ammunition were met ahead of the battle, and a number of smaller armies were given the task of keeping the enemy busy while they prepared.

"In this they acquitted themselves in exemplary fashion. On the 9th of January the Third Army attacked at Maisons de Champagne, on the 12th of February at Ste. Marie a Py, and on the 13th of the same month at Tahure.

On the 28th and 29th of January the Second Army had a fine success at Frise, south of the Somme.  The Sixth Army struck on the 26th of January at Neuville, on the 8th of February to the west of Vimy, and on the 21st of February east of Souchez.

Gaede's Army Detachment pushed forward into the French lines near Obersept on the 13th of February.  Everywhere the appointed objectives were reached, and the enemy suffered heavy losses.
There were some German losses as a result of these smaller battles, but Falkenhayn stated that these were justified in order to mask the German plans for Verdun.

When the Third Army inquired whether it was still to undertake a big attack on its sector, it was informed accordingly, and the following remarks were added in explanation of the plans to be followed in the Meuse sector:

"Our precise problem is how to inflict heavy damage on the enemy at critical points at relatively small cost to ourselves.  But we must not overlook the fact that previous experience of mass attacks in this war offers little inducement to imitate them.  It would almost seem as if the questions of command and supply in these attacks were insoluble."

On the day when the attack was supposed to take place, continuous rain meant it was very difficult for troops to move and artillery fire was impossible. As such, the bombardment took place from 21st February.

The successful infantry attack too place the following day and “overrun” the Allied lines. Four days later, the 24th Brandenburg Infantry Regiment attacked For Douaumont and the Germans also saw success in the One valley up to Metz-Verdun road, and the infantry moved forward to the Heights of the Meuse.

"From many signs it was clear that this powerful German thrust had not only shaken the whole enemy front in the West very severely, but that its effects had not been lost on the peoples and the Governments of the Entente.

However, the Headquarters Staffs of the Army Groups considered it necessary to stay the forward movement against the Heights.  Violent - one may say desperate counter-attacks by troops collected in extreme haste from all parts of the front had begun.  They were repulsed everywhere with very heavy loss to the enemy.

The situation might have changed, however, had we not brought up our artillery, which had been unable to follow fast enough over the still barely passable roads, and assured the supply of ammunition and food."

However, Falkenhayn went on to explain that the Allies then produced a number of batteries of artillery behind Marre ridge, which had a big impact on German troop numbers and “had to be stopped”. Unable to move right due to the battles raging in that area, the Germans had to move on the left bank far enough to be able to deal with the guns.

Falkenhayn continued:

"Apart from a weak attempt in Champagne, there had been no relief attacks by the enemy in any other sectors, and our observations showed that no preparations for any immediate attack of this sort were in hand.  Indeed, it had become highly improbable.

The French had nearly got together the whole of their reserves from the rest of their front, and had quickly handed over to the English the sector near Arras, formerly held by them, in order to provide the wherewithal to hold their positions in the Meuse sector.

The English had been compelled, by taking over the Arras sector, to extend their line so much, that nothing on a big scale from this direction was to be apprehended. To be sure, the formation of Kitchener's conscript armies in England was proceeding vigorously. Thus it was to be anticipated that the forty to forty-two English divisions, whose presence on the Continent had been established, would be nearly doubled at no very distant date.  Whether, and when, these new troops would become fit for use in an offensive was still, however, a matter of uncertainty."

According to Falkenhayn, this left G.H.Q. with the question of whether to intimate that the operation in the Meuse be abandoned and a new campaign started elsewhere. However, this would have destroyed the Germans position and he felt that many senior officers would be angered by a decision to pull back.

However, the Allies continued to fight back and soon Falkenhayn felt his only option was to employ artillery that was being used on the Meuse, which would have meant losses time and a potential advantage for Allied nations.

The attack that was carried out on the 6th March succeeded in that the French were subjected to heavy casualties but there was  no room to move the German artillery forwards. This resulted in the continuation of the intense fighting for the whole of April, with the only pause in German offence coming when they occupied the main portion of Hill 304.

Continuing to justify the actions across the Western Front during the attack on Verdun, Falkenhayn added:

"The conduct of the actions in the Meuse sector was at first directly in the hands of the H.Q. Staff of the Crown Prince's Army Group itself.  But with the extension of operations some relief of the burden on this Staff became necessary.  Accordingly, in March, while preserving its control, we put General von Mudra in command on the right bank, and on the left General von Gallwitz, whose command of the Eleventh Army in Macedonia was taken over by Lieutenant-General von Winckler.

As already stated, there had been a temporary cessation of our attack in the western sector; but it must not be assumed from this that things had become absolutely quiet there.

Here, as on the eastern bank, the fighting raged continuously and more fiercely than ever. The French saw to that with their practically incessant counter-attacks.  The artillery battle never stopped.

The raids of the defenders were generally relieved by big thrusts carried out by forces far superior to those of the attackers.  For example, a particularly resolute thrust was made on the 22nd and 23rd of May in the region of Douaumont, and for a time our hold on the armoured fort was in danger.

For our part, we usually confined ourselves to sending our opponents home with bloody pates, recovering from him such small patches of ground as he might have gained here and there, and, where necessary, effecting slight improvements in our positions.

Nevertheless, this fighting without visible or - for the man at the front - tangible result afforded the sternest test imaginable of the capabilities of the troops. With very few exceptions they stood the test most brilliantly."

Falkenhayn stated that the Allied troops had at no point secured any permanent advantage in their position, and that they were unable to free themselves of the pressure put on them by the Germans. However, the losses of the British and French troops were somewhat overshadowed by the losses suffered by the Germans.

"The result was that the comparison worked out at something like two and a half to one: that is to say, for two Germans put out of action five Frenchmen had to shed their blood. But deplorable as were the German sacrifices, they were certainly made in a most promising cause."

MLA Citation/Reference

"Falkenhayn and the Battle of Verdun". HistoryLearning.com. 2023. Web.