2010/04/23

Rehabilitating "Operation Gericht" (Battle of Verdun)

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The Battle of Verdun is being 'remembered' as a collossal waste of lives and a failure.
It's correct that a quick peace would have been a MUCH better option on every day of WWI, but I think that history writers don't deal justice to the German military top leadership of the time.

First of all, they were as unable to foresee the future. The experiences of 1915 weren't telling enough to anticipate how the Battle of Verdun would look like.

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Germany could have limited itself in 1916 to attacks with limited objectives (very small raids or capturing of small areas of particular interest, usually with surprise effect and very few troops) on the Western Front. This is what many consider today as a superior alternative to the Battle of Verdun. There were enemies with their own will tot ake into account, though...

Both France and the British (Empire) had the intent and capability to launch offensives in France. The British had alternatives overseas (especially against the Ottomans), but they needed to exert pressure in France in order to support the French.

The Germans had thus the choice between launching an offensive themselves or to wait till the Western Entente powers launched offensives.

Nobody can foresee the future or be certain about alternate history, but it's relatively obvious that the French would have launched an offensive to their leadership's liking if they had not been drawn to Verdun. The French would have had the initiative, thus being able to choose location and time. The location would certainly have been a much better choice for them than Verdun because Verdun was a protruding front line extension with bottleneck logistical connections (only one rail line).



The German's option of not launching a major offensive in the West would not have freed many divisions for actions on the Eastern Front because an offensive was bound to happen on the Western Front anyway; the only questions were the time and place.

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The tactical level was full of dilemmas

The German offensive at Verdun provoked a French counter-offensive by capturing some prestigious ground at Verdun. In other words; a limited, short offensive gained the initiative and fixed much French strength at Verdun, the least favourable battle location for the French.
This did also ensure that no joint British-French offensive could take place in the North where both armies were in contact.

Historians are still debating whether the German commander von Falkenhayn had a pure attrition strategy for Verdun. The primary operational value of the offensive was a different one anyway; the transfer of the operational initiative from the French to the Germans.
If a major French-German battle in 1916 was inevitable (except for the peace option) - why not choose the location yourself?

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The execution of the Battle was problematic. The initial attacks didn't gain much ground. This loss of ground was enough to provoke French attacks, but this didn't mean that only the French were provoked to attack. The defence requires counter-attacks for stability, for the enemy usually gains some ground. The ground would quickly have been lost if the Germans didn't include counter-attacks in their defence.


There was basically a choice between
(1) exploiting the advantage of a tactical defence (without counter-attacks) and accept that the whole operational effect would have quickly been lost because the French would quickly regain all lost ground
or
(2) defend with counter-attacks and accept that both sides would mix tactical defence and tactical offence, leading to no systematic exchange ratio advantage for either side.

The pursuit of additional German ground gains after the French had counter-concentrated was only adding to the cascade of attack and defence of the original offensive - with the same dilemma.
It's easy to see why the soldiers on both sides had the impression of being fed into a mincing machine.


You may wonder "why not accept enemy offensive and defend with the advantage of tactical defence without much counterattacking"? There are three major problems with such an approach;
(1) The German war economy depended on captured French iron ore mines. A long withdrawal was therefore unacceptable.
(2) Morale and discipline of an army are getting hammered if the troops do only withdraw and never advance. Commanders at level division and below might have reduced their effort to a delay because ground was to be paid for blood anyway and dwouldn't have meant much any more. A delay would have allowed too great ground gains by the Western Entente.
Such a permanent withdrawal under pressure would have risked an operational disaster.
(3) The tactical defence's greatest advantage of the time were trenches. A slowly withdrawing army would have had much lesser quality field fortifications than the Germans had at their static front line.

The German Army had one more alternative; a partial and controlled withdrawal to a shortened front line, similar to the 1917 withdrawal to the Siegfried line. This shortening of the front line freed 12 infantry division for the theatre reserve in 1917. The material and time requirements of the construction of the Siegfried line were certainly a challenge and the withdrawal would not have averted a French offensive to their linking.


It's my conclusion that launching the Battle of Verdun was among the smartest (= among the least terrible) military options. The tactical problems of the battle themselves were a hellish choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.

This leads to the smartest thing to do in early 1916 (both sides!): To seek armistice and peace. That war broke many European countries for no apparent reason; some officially and even more unofficially.

Sven Ortmann
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1 comment:

  1. one of the most important battles of the first world war, it is too undermined by the modern warfare of ww2. :-)

    ReplyDelete

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