21 February, 1916 — German and French armies go head to head, starting in the early morning. Lead erupted from the barrel of a Langer Max siege and coastal-defense weapon, firing 15 inch (38 cm) rounds into French positions. The first building to take a hit would be a French cathedral, and the firing of these weapons kicked off the longest and biggest battle between the French and the Germans in the first World War — it was one of the most casualty producing battles in history.
After some delays from weather, the Germans were able to kick off their assault on the eastern French position, and they were initially met with a fair amount of success. The Germans continued to advance, causing a significant amount of French casualties until they were met with French artillery, which slowed them down considerably. This constant back and forth barraging of one another produced considerable casualties, on top of the infantry slaughter that would end up defining the war.
This battle was not over and done with in a matter of days, or even weeks. It began on 21 February, but it wouldn’t end until 18 December of the same year. To give you an idea of the scope: approximately 50 French divisions fought in Verdun, adding up to 130,000 soldiers in combat — just to start. The Germans had somewhere between 75 and 85 divisions, and began with only 30,000.
However, those numbers would change drastically with reinforcements throughout the 303 days of combat. By the end, around 143,000 French had been killed and Germans lost between 156,000 and 162,000. This is an average of around 70,000 casualties (wounded and killed) a month — an unfathomable number, and soldiers continued to head into the meat grinder of a battle. Some estimates go as high as to say there were a total of 1,250,000 casualties by the end, counting all sides.
This battle wound up becoming one of the signature battles of WWI, alongside The First Battle of the Marne, Gallipoli, Jutland and the Battle of the Somme. Though the Germans would eventually pull their troops out, it was a battle that was seared into the French psyche, and drastically affected French political and military choices throughout the rest of the war. After all, the first German general in charge of attacking Verdun admitted that he did not necessarily want to take the historic city immediately, but rather would “Bleed France White” during the ensuing fight. However, he may not have realized that the battle would also threaten to bleed Germany white too.
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.