The Prussian Machine  -  Battles

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* Dates:  21 Feb - 11 July 1916

* Background:  The Verdun offensive, codenamed Operation Gericht (Judgement) had its beginnings dating to a Christmas 1915 report to the Kaiser from Chief of General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn (supposedly, there is no documentary evidence for this report other than Falkenhayn's mention of it in his memoirs). In the report, he confessed that Germany could not win a drawn out war due to thinning manpower reserves. He added that, while England was the great adversary, Germany would be better off trying to "bleed the French Army white" thereby forcing a capitulation. Since the Eastern Front had become fairly stabilized, Falkenhayn had the luxury of being able to reconcentrate some of his forces back west to break the stalemate. His choice of targets came down to the fortresses of Belfort or Verdun, the latter ultimately winning out due to its proximity to German railway support. The key to victory, however, was the German Supreme Command's conviction that the French would try and protect Verdun at all costs (which was in fact what General Petain ordered).

* The Germans:  The massive offensive against the Verdun salient began on 21 February 1916 under the direction of the Kaiser's eldest son, Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, commander of the Fifth Army. The Crown Prince's able chief of staff was Lt. General Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf. Fifth Army corps commanders included:  Lochow (III), Strantz (V), Deimling (XV), Schenck (XVIII), Guendell (V. Reserves), Gossler (VI. Reserves), and Zwehl (VII. Reserves). The Crown Prince never saw a copy of Falkenhayn's Christmas letter, but rather received orders to carry out "an offensive in the Meuse area, in the direction of Verdun." He and his chief of staff falsely assumed that Supreme Command wanted the fortress captured as soon as possible. Falkenhayn's diabolical plan, however, was to release replacement troops to the Fifth Army only to maintain the battle but never enough to end it.

Friedrich Wilhelm


Fifth Army

  Generalleutnant Crown Prince Wilhelm
   III. Corps   Gen.d.Inf. Ewald von Lochow
   V. Corps   Gen.d.Inf. Hermann von Strantz
   XV. Corps   Gen.d.Inf. Berthold von Deimling
   XVIII. Corps   Gen.d.Inf. Heinrich Dedo von Schenck
   V. Reserves   Gen.d.Inf. Erich von Guendell
   VI. Reserves   Gen.d.Inf. Konrad von Gossler
   VII. Reserves   GenLt. Hans von Zwehl


* The Battle:  German artillery bombarded Verdun for an entire week, using up a supply of three million shells. In addition to artillery units organic to the Fifth, they also brought in the BIG guns: 130-mm, 210-mm, 305-mm, and 420-mm. The following week the Germans advanced steadily along the narrow front, surprised to find anyone on the French side alive; they actually occupied Forts Douaumont and Haraumont by the end of February, and later captured Fort Vaux. After a full-scale assault in mid-April failed, it was clear to Falkenhayn that Operation Gericht was futile. Urged along by Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, however, Crown Prince Willie used his father's authority to modify the plan; he was determined to achieve a major victory to his credit regardless of the cost. But, the battle effectively ended anyway in July when German divisions were transferred north to defend against the Somme Offensive.  Skirmishing in the Verdun region continued through the end of 1916 with the French retaking the captured forts Douaumont (24 October) and Vaux (2 November). The Fifth Army had advanced approximately four miles beyond the front, only to fall back to the starting point over 400,000 casualties later.

* click to enlarge