Chapter 16 “They Shall Not Pass!” – The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I

Chapter 16 “They Shall Not Pass!”

In This Chapter
  • Falkenhayn’s plan to “bleed France white”
  • Verdun: the opening situation and initial assault
  • Pétain’s pledge: “They shall not pass!”
  • German offensives, French responses
  • The British take the initiative at the Somme

Throughout history, the world has known such little peace that the question is unavoidable: What makes war so appealing to so many so much of the time?

One answer is that fighting it out, showing down an enemy, and dealing with him “once and for all” seems to offer the most direct and definitive way of solving international problems. But World War I showed the lie behind this long-cherished belief. By the end of 1915, the war was many horrible things, but whatever it was, it was by no means direct and definitive. Instead, it loomed over Europe like some combination of ravenous beast and intractable puzzle. It ate men, machines, and money, and it defied all attempts to kill it. What was the solution to the puzzle of stalemate?

At the end of 1915, Germany’s highest commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, had an idea.

Falkenhayn Writes to the Kaiser

On Christmas day, 1915, Falkenhayn sent a letter to Kaiser Wilhelm II outlining what he saw as the way to bring about a favorable conclusion to the war.

He first proposed that Britain, whose industrial might and maritime power was the foundation of the alliance against Germany, must be utterly demoralized. To demoralize Britain, two things needed to happen:

  • Unrestricted submarine warfare, directed chiefly at British shipping, had to be renewed.
  • Britain’s continental allies had to be destroyed.

Falkenhayn then addressed priorities concerning these Allies:

  • Italy was not sufficiently important to merit effort from Germany; Austria-Hungary should receive no German aid on the Italian Front at this time.
  • Although it was true that short-term gains had been made against Russia on the Eastern Front and would doubtless continue to be made, victory here would not decisively determine the outcome of the war.

Falkenhayn explored this last point at length:

  • Russia, he declared, was on the verge of revolution, but even if a full-blown revolution did not come soon, the nation’s internal troubles were so great that it would soon be compelled to give up. So why tie down so many German troops on a foregone conclusion?
  • Even if Russia collapsed, it did not offer strategic objectives. The capture of St. Petersburg would have symbolic significance only. The capture of Moscow would lead only to the vast, desolate interior of the Russian nation.
  • The Ukraine was rich in grain and other raw resources, which Germany (like Britain and France) sorely needed. But the Ukraine was accessible only through Romania, a power whose neutrality Germany did not feel that it could afford to violate at this time.

Then Falkenhayn proceeded to a consideration of the peripheral fronts. He dismissed them with a figurative wave of his hand:

  • Action in the colonies, in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Mesopotamia, was simply irrelevant to the outcome of the war.

This left the Western Front. Falkenhayn believed that the British position here was presently too strong to attack directly. France, therefore, was the priority target of choice.

To Bleed France White

“The strain on France,” Falkenhayn wrote to his kaiser, “has reached breaking point—though it is certainly borne with the most remarkable devotion. If we succeed in opening the eyes of her people to the fact that in a military sense they have nothing more to hope for, that breaking point would be reached and England’s best sword knocked out of her hand.”

But just how to reach that breaking point?

Falkenhayn proposed directing a limited offensive on a single point that the French perceived to be so vital that they would be compelled “to throw in every man they have.” Falkenhayn concluded, “If they do so, the forces of France will bleed to death.”

Later, the German commander-in-chief put this another way. He would conduct an operation that “would bleed France white.”

Target: Verdun

Even as he wrote to the kaiser, Falkenhayn had his objective in mind: the fortress of Verdun.

Time out of mind, Verdun had been a fortress. Located in a loop of the Meuse River, it occupied a strategic blocking position in the Meuse River valley. It had figured as an important fortress at least since Roman times, again in the seventeenth century (when the renowned military architect Sebestien le Prestre de Vauban designed its defenses), yet again during the Napoleonic era, and during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) had been the last of the French fortified cities to fall to the Germans. In 1885, the circle of detached forts surrounding the fort’s central citadel and the small fortified town of Verdun was augmented by another circle of forts five miles beyond the center of town. These new forts were strengthened with concrete as well as armor plate, and they now not only guarded passage through the river valley region, but also dominated a key railroad junction leading to points south, southwest, west, and north in France.

 Voices of Battle Henri Desagneaux, a lieutenant in the French Second Infantry Regiment, described the central citadel of Verdun as “a real underground town, with a narrow-gauge railway, dormitories, and rooms of every type; it’s safe here, but very gloomy.”

Yet for all its historical and geographical importance, at the beginning of 1916, Verdun was occupied only by a small garrison, and its fortress guns had been dismantled and transported elsewhere on the Western Front for use as field artillery.

What had happened?

 Words of War A garrison is a body of troops stationed in and assigned to defend a fortress or a fortified town.

After the collapse of mighty Liège in Belgium during the opening days of the war (see Chapter 5, “Battle of the Frontiers”), the French, who had relied so heavily on fortified defenses, suddenly lost all faith in the efficacy of fortifications. Indeed, the Battle of the Frontiers in August 1914 had flowed around Verdun, as if it weren’t even there. Ever since the Western Front had hardened into trenches, Verdun had been a quiet sector.

And there was even more to make Verdun a vulnerable target. It was isolated from the rest of the front, exposed to attack on three sides. Communications from Verdun to the French rear were poor, yet the fortress lay only a dozen miles from the nearest German railhead. Verdun’s advance trenches—three miles from the fortress line—consisted of a single main trench line and one secondary trench.

 Words of War The phrase quiet sector was used during World War I to describe an area of the front in which, typically, little action occurred.

If Verdun had been downgraded in immediate military importance by the French, Falkenhayn understood that it was still of great symbolic significance. With the Western Front stalemated, the French would not willingly allow a German breakthrough at the ancient fortress. By pressing on this one point, the German commander guessed that he could force the French to keep feeding reinforcements into a front only eight miles wide. To Falkenhayn, it all seemed a brutally simple scenario promising victory: If the French gave up at Verdun, they would lose Verdun and allow a German breakthrough. If the French did not give up, they would be “bled white,” their army eaten up. He called it Operation Judgment.


Yet operations in this war rarely proceeded as simply as plans called for. The German Crown Prince was given the mission of assaulting Verdun with his Fifth Army. His plan was for an overwhelming assault on both sides of the Meuse River. Concerned that this would produce too many losses, the conservative Falkenhayn ordered the attack to be confined to the east bank of the river.

It was set to begin February 12, but bad weather intervened, and the operation was postponed to the 21st. In the meantime, the delay resulted in French detection of the German buildup. Papa Joffre, slow to realize that Verdun was in peril, finally began ordering reinforcements to be sent to the menaced sector. For his part, the commandant of Verdun, Lieutenant Colonel Emile Driant, wasted no time in digging in deeper and doing everything possible to prepare for an onslaught. Despite his efforts, however, most of his units failed to improve their trench systems.

Driant was a bold, impetuous, and even insubordinate officer. He was a member of Parliament, and he was a popular writer whose books were sensational speculations on the future of warfare. Now he would prove himself also to be a practical soldier of great courage. Driant posted himself with two battalions of elite chasseurs at the forefront of the coming battle, the very tip of the Verdun salient, on the east bank of the River Meuse.

At 7:15 on the morning of February 21, fire came from the sky. The Crown Prince had massed 1,400 guns along a tightly packed, eight-mile front. He now commenced the bombardment. Each hour, all morning and into the afternoon, the guns fired, pouring 100,000 shells each hour into that small front.

The German idea was that the heavy bombardment would leave very few Frenchman left to fight. But, again, reality turned out not to be so simple. After the first artillery assault, scouting parties were sent in to probe the defenses. What they found, to their surprise, was that the destruction had been far from complete. It seemed clear that surviving parties of French troops, about half the original fighting force, were prepared to put up a determined defense. The initial German probe was withdrawn, and another artillery bombardment was ordered. In retrospect, it is probable that a massed advance at this point might well have succeeded in taking Verdun, but, to the Germans, it continued to seem highly formidable.

 From the Front In the Bois des Caures, the forward position where Driant had his headquarters, 80,000 shells fell in an area of 500 by 1,000 yards.

By the end of the day, the Germans had succeeded in overrunning only the front-line trenches. Driant was killed, and his two battalions were virtually annihilated. Yet German assault troops were withdrawn to allow more artillery preparation, and the momentum of the attack was sacrificed. Because of this, French artillery was able to get into position to enfilade (fire laterally, through and across) the advancing German lines from across the river.

Failure at Fort Douaumont

The German attack faltered, in part, because the German objective had never been simply to overrun Verdun. Rather, it was to provoke the French into a series of counterattacks, which would be monumentally costly to them. That is, it was not so much the German offensive that would “bleed the French army white,” but the stubborn determination of the French army itself. Falkenhayn hoped to provoke a kind of mass suicide.

To prevent unnecessary losses among his own infantry, Falkenhayn was determined to rely as much as possible on artillery bombardment. When it came time for the follow-up infantry attack, he launched it from only one side of the Meuse. Had he gone for broke and attacked from both sides, as the Crown Prince had wanted to do, the Germans would have certainly overrun the weakly held positions over the entire eight-mile front. Verdun would have fallen—a German triumph, to be sure, but not the one Falkenhayn most wanted. If the battle could be prolonged, more French would die.

Although Verdun, then, was still in French hands, the situation was desperate. On February 23, a lieutenant of the 72nd Division sent a message to headquarters: “The commanding officer and all company commanders have been killed. My battalion is reduced to approximately 180 men (from 600). I have neither ammunition nor food. What am I to do?”

How could headquarters make an answer? The next day, the second line of trenches was overrun, but two outer forts, Vaux and Douaumont, held out. On the 24th, a fresh French division was sent in piecemeal. It broke under German artillery fire.

At last, on the 25th, Douaumont fell. As popular lore had it, the fort was captured by a German sergeant who had been blown into the fort’s moat by the force of an exploding shell. Dazed, he picked himself up and decided to explore the interior of the battered hulk of a fort. There he found a handful of French soldiers. He told them that he was accompanied by a large force of troops, and the Frenchmen, doubtless reeling from the incessant bombardment, took him at his word.

In reality, the feat was not quite so extraordinary—though almost so. That sergeant was part of several elements of the 24th Brandenburg Infantry Regiment, which had used infiltration tactics to probe toward the fort without losing a single man. The unit commander, Lieutenant Eugen Radtke, backed up his sergeant in the actual capture of the fort. The fall of Fort Douaumont sent a shiver of panic through the defenders of Verdun, including the fresh reinforcements who were just beginning to arrive. Many of the soldiers looted food stocks in anticipation of a siege.

“Ils Ne Passeront Pas!”

Thanks to the heedless unflappability of Papa Joffre at the top of the French high command—he promised to court-martial any commander who voluntarily gave up ground—and thanks also to the initiative of lower-level commanders, the panic was quelled. And when General Langle de Cary, in overall command of the Verdun defenses, decided on the evening of February 24 to evacuate the Wöevre plain and the east bank of the Meuse, Joffre fired him. Joffre’s second in command, Edouard de Castelnau, an officer with a reputation as a “fighting general,” nominated Henri Philippe Pétain as Langle de Cary’s replacement.

Pétain had risen slowly in the prewar army because he refused to fall into line with the prevailing doctrine of “offensive to the utmost,” which he thought a prescription for costly disaster. In consequence, while many of his contemporaries had achieved general-officer rank, Pétain started the war as a mere colonel of the 33rd Regiment (Charles de Gaulle was a lieutenant in that outfit). He soon proved himself as unflappable as Joffre—a man wholly undeterred by losses, no matter how severe. As a result, the promotions came rapidly, and when he was called on to defend Verdun, he was already in command of the entire Second Army.

 Combatants Henri Philippe Pétain (1856–1951) was the son of a peasant family who managed to gain entrance to the prestigious École de Saint-Cyr, the French military academy. Graduating near the top of his class, he was commissioned an officer of the elite chasseurs alpins, mountain troops, in 1876. However, he achieved promotion slowly because of his advocacy of defensive strategy and tactics, which ran counter to the prevailing French doctrine of offense at any cost.

At the outbreak of World War I, Pétain was no more than a colonel in command of the 33rd Regiment, but in this capacity he quickly distinguished himself. In February 1916, when the all-important fortress of Verdun was menaced, it was Pétain to whom France turned. He was credited with the phrase that made him a popular hero of the war: “Ils ne passeront pas!” (“They shall not pass!”)

Pétain’s tremendously costly but ultimately successful defense of Verdun earned him promotion to the command of Army Group Center, but put his subordinate, the hyperaggressive and brilliantly dashing Robert Nivelle, in command of the Verdun sector. From this position, Nivelle was then promoted ahead of Pétain. When Nivelle failed disastrously with his Chemin-des-Dames offensive in April 1917, however, Pétain was called in to relieve him and to assume supreme command of all the French armies. He stressed preparedness and reasonable objectives rather than enforcing the long-cherished but typically suicidal policy of all-out attack.

At war’s end, Pétain was made Marshal of France and served in other military roles before becoming a civilian politican. With the military collapse of France early in World War II, French president Albert Lebrun asked this hero of Verdun to form a new government, and on June 22, 1940, Pétain negotiated surrender to the Germans. He would thus go down in history as the man who sold out his nation to the Nazis, creating the cowardly collaborationist Vichy government.

The critic of the doctrine of the offensive telephoned the commander of XX Corps at what was now the front line of Verdun’s defenses: “I have taken command. Tell your troops. Hold fast.” To his superiors, he pledged “Ils ne passeront pas!”—“They shall not pass!”—which instantly became the battle cry of Verdun and, indeed, the French motto for the conduct of the rest of the war.

Pétain’s Courage

Pétain would now prove his courage and resolve. The defense of Verdun would make him France’s first high-level hero of the war.

Yet whom did that courage serve?

 From the Front The phrase “Ils ne passeront pas!” usually attributed to Pétain, is sometimes credited to his subordinate, the mindlessly aggressive General Robert Nivelle.

Falkenhayn could not have asked the French to send a commander better suited to his own plan for Verdun. He had hoped for a commander willing to bleed his own army white, and Pétain was prepared to do just that. Had Joffre and Pétain given more thought to the tactics of Verdun than to its symbolism, they would have abandoned it as something that had ceased to be a fort and was now a death trap. Better to have withdrawn to the woods behind Verdun, where there was room for maneuver and terrain much more easily defended. Such a tactical move would have proved much more costly to the Germans and much less so to the French.

Falkenhayn must have been delighted that the French had taken his bait, that they suddenly deemed Verdun a kind of sanctified place and its defense a cross between a holy mission and a patriotic duty. What he had not counted on was just how determined the defense would be—and, under Pétain, just how effective.

The “Sacred Way”

Pétain was willing to spend lives, but he would do so in a way that would exact maximum casualties from the Germans. He threw himself into organizing two keys to the defense of the position. The first was artillery. Pétain assumed personal command of the French guns, and he used them mercilessly, determined to give the Germans what they had given the French. He would bombard them in the front lines and as they filed forward through the steep, narrow valleys east of the Meuse.

 Words of WarTerritorials are reserve troops, typically past the usual age of eligibility for service, who are assigned such rear-echelon duties as supply, construction, and miscellaneous labor.

The second key was supply. Verdun would become the focus of a massive supply effort. Pétain designated the one road that led to a depot, Bar-le-Duc, 50 miles westward, as an artery for the exclusive use of supply trucks. Troop columns were ordered to march to the side, in the fields, to keep the road absolutely clear. An entire division of Territorials was assigned continually to repair the road by filling in shell craters as soon as they were made. The route was christened the Voie Sacrée—the Sacred Way.

Wave Upon Wave

The Germans launched another major assault against Verdun on March 6. It made excellent headway at first, but then Pétain pushed the offensive back with a series of counterattacks driven by a single order: “to regain every piece of ground lost.”

Over the course of the month, the Germans hurled wave after wave against the reinforced French. Falkenhayn reluctantly committed another entire army corps from his jealously hoarded reserves for an attack up the left bank of the river toward a small ridge with the sinister name of Le Morte-homme, the Dead Man. It would be the scene of see-saw fighting for the remainder of the campaign. During this fighting, Pétain insisted on rotating troops rapidly in and out of the front line. Casualties on both sides mounted horribly, but the French always seemed to find fresh troops—or, at least, rested troops—for the trenches.

On April 9, the Germans launched their third major offensive against both sides of a salient that had been thrust into their lines. Once again, Pétain checked the advance. Through the end of May, a terrible rhythm of attack and counterattack was played out until German energy flagged. In the meantime, Pétain, in large part on the strength of his performance at Verdun, was promoted to higher command and was replaced at Verdun by the dashing Robert Nivelle.

 From the Front About 3,500 trucks were mustered to transport 2,000 tons of stores daily to the Verdun garrison. Any truck that broke down en route was pushed off to the side so that the flow of goods would not be interrupted. Before the Battle of Verdun was concluded, 12,000 trucks traveled the Voie Sacrée (the Sacred Way).

Fall of Fort Vaux

Despite heavy casualties, the Germans did manage to push closer and closer to Verdun, and Fort Vaux, on the east bank of the Meuse, finally fell on June 9, having held out since February. By this time, its garrison was without water, and the fort had ceased to be a building at all, but was a heap of rubble. In a show of chivalry rare in this brutal, by-the-numbers conflict, the German Crown Prince offered his personal congratulations to the commandant of Fort Vaux, a major named Raynal.

The victory at Fort Vaux seemed to reinvigorate the Germans, who very nearly succeeded in breaking the French line in late June and early July. Indeed, on June 23, they advanced toward Fort Souville, almost in sight of Verdun itself. The Germans now unleashed their newest form of poison gas, phosgene, which worked by turning into hydrochloric acid in the lungs (see Chapter 12, “Deadlock”). Even Pétain, over-riding Nivelle, recommended withdrawal from the western Meuse line, but Joffre refused.

The French Attack

Joffre was soon vindicated in his refusal. The Germans were once again losing steam. A Russian offensive in the East put a sudden demand on the forces hammering Verdun. Fifteen divisions had to be withdrawn for duty on the Eastern Front.

 Voices of Battle “Cowardice, as distinguished from panic, is almost always simply a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination.” —Ernest Hemingway, Men at War (1942)

Erich von Falkenhayn had staged Verdun to bleed the French army white. In the process, he was doing the very same to his own army. As its casualties approached 400,000 men, Falkenhayn was relieved of command, on August 29, 1916, to be replaced by the team that had been so successful in the East: Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg.

By fall, the French also had a new commander, Charles Mangin. In October, he took his army on the offensive, managing to retake Fort Douaumont on October 24 and Fort Vaux on November 2. Both sides rested for a time; then Mangin renewed the offensive, pushing his lines forward, very nearly to the position the French had held at the beginning of the battle in February. During December 15–18, Mangin took 11,000 German prisoners and acquired 115 big German guns. This was the last action of the Verdun campaign. The French had held their ground at the staggering cost of 542,000 killed and wounded. Hindenburg and Ludendorff did not have as much invested in Verdun as Falkenhayn had, and they decided to break off the ill-fated assault and, once again, assume the defensive all across the Western Front. German losses for the period totaled 434,000 killed and wounded.

 Words of War A holding attack is designed to hold the enemy in its present position to prevent it from reinforcing elements opposing the main attack.

Offensive on the Somme

For their part, the French were gratified to be on the offensive at last. Joffre had long planned a big push along the Somme River in northwestern France, but he had had to delay it to defend Verdun. As it is, the First Battle of the Somme commenced on June 24, while Verdun still raged. Because of the demands of Verdun, the French were able to provide only 16 divisions instead of the 40 they had planned to commit to the attack. It was, then, the British, not the French, who took the lead, beginning with a monumentally destructive seven-day artillery preparation.

Following the long barrage, the British Fourth Army, under General Henry S. Rawlinson, made the principal thrust north of the Somme, while General Edmund Allenby led the Third Army in a supporting action to the north of Rawlinson. Simultaneously, south of the Somme, Ferdinand Foch’s French Army Group of the North made a holding attack.

At last, on July 1, the British infantry, in coordination with a rolling barrage, was hurled against the strongly defended German Second Army. The Germans yielded an inconsequential amount of ground, purchased at the cost of 60,000 British casualties, including 19,000 dead.

 Words of War In the context of a planned offensive, a rolling barrage is an artillery bombardment in which a “curtain” of artillery fire moves toward the enemy ahead of the advancing troops and at the same speed as the troops.

Despite losses that should have stopped any army, the British pressed their meager gains with smaller, limited attacks. Falkenhayn was forced to transfer reinforcements from Verdun to counter the tenacious British—and, in this respect, Sir Douglas Haig did achieve an important objective: The Somme offensive relieved pressure on Verdun. (Yet Haig would go down in history as the commander who ordered more British soldiers to their deaths than any other.)

Action on the Somme continued to grind on for some two weeks until, on July 14, a British nighttime attack directed by Sir Henry Rawlinson broke through the German second line. The breakthrough bogged down and failed, however, because of poor communications. Rawlinson’s cavalry were, for the most part, too far back to be brought up in time to exploit the breach. Nine hours elapsed before the cavalry joined the battle-weary 7th Infantry Division. By this time, the Germans had managed to rally their reserves. The German defenders mowed down horses and horsemen in a hail of heavy machine gun fire. Following this, massive German counterattacks engulfed the poorly coordinated British advance. British casualties were heavy, and the German second line was resealed.

 From the Front British losses at the Somme on July 1—41,000 wounded, 19,000 dead—still stand as the heaviest in Britain’s military history. Consider that, during the World War II “D-Day” landings at Normandy, the largest assault operation of that or any war, the combined Anglo-American armies fought 20 days before sustaining 60,000 casualties.

Through the rest of the summer, the Somme degenerated into a series of smaller but still costly actions. At last, on September 15, Haig unleashed another major offensive, southwest of the village of Bapaume. The offensive employed for the first time the tank, the British innovation discussed in Chapter 12. The new weapon caused shock and panic where it was used, but there were hardly enough of these as-yet slow, underpowered, and unreliable (early models suffered from poorly designed gear systems) machines to make a significant impact on the battle as a whole. Moreover, the British made the mistake of employing their new weapon as a machine gun carrier to support infantry rather than as a shock weapon to force a breakthrough.

The First Battle of the Somme spanned June 24 to November 13, 1916, and ultimately resulted in measurable gains of ground for the British and French. Substantially, however, the German lines held. Yet in this war of attrition, the Germans were being most thoroughly ground down. While the British lost 420,000 men killed and wounded and the French 195,000, German losses numbered about 650,000.

The Germans did remain on the defensive at the Somme and were forced into a constant series of desperate defensive actions to keep the British from forcing a breakthrough. It was a type of warfare in which both sides were “bled white.” What caused heavy German casualties on the Somme was a determination not to give up ground. When Ludendorff visited the Somme Front, he reported that the German defenders “fought too doggedly, clinging too resolutely to the mere holding of ground, with the result that the losses were heavy.” True, everything about trench warfare favored the defenders, and, likewise true, the Germans had made themselves masters of defensive tactics. Yet the desire to produce something more than merely defensive results drove the Germans at Verdun, even as it drove the French and the British.

German offensives cost the Germans far more than the Allied offensives did. Particularly hard hit were experienced junior officers, who fell in disproportionate numbers. The First Battle of the Somme, therefore, had a major impact not just on numbers in the German army, but on the command structure of that army. The loss of so many veteran officers would never be fully made up. As for the stalemate on the Western Front, it remained unbroken, the flood of Allied and German blood notwithstanding.

The Least You Need to Know
  • Verdun was a complex of French fortresses targeted by the Germans in the belief that the French would defend them ultimately to the point of sacrificing much of their army.
  • The defense of Verdun did prove inordinately costly—but to the Germans as well as the French.
  • The British-led offensive in the First Battle of the Somme resulted in the heaviest losses in British military history, but it also exacted a crippling toll on the German army, which lost huge numbers of men and a significant proportion of its junior- and middle-level officer corps.
  • The defense of Verdun and the First Battle of the Somme were Allied victories achieved at great cost and with negligible gains in territory.