43 facts about the Battle of Verdun you need to know

Today we are presenting the most important statistics and facts about the Battle of Verdun, the longest battle of WWI.

What was initially planned by Falkenhayn, German Chief of General Staff, as a decisive breakthrough by “bleeding France white”, quickly backfired and turned into a meat grinder for both the French and the Germans. 

The Battle of Verdun was a hard-fought victory for the French army during the First World War.

It became a symbol of the French Resistance and an icon for a new form of patriotism.

If you’re interested in military history, and particularly WWI history, then you’ll find these 43 facts about the Battle of Verdun interesting:

1. During the first 4 days, 60% of the initial French divisions were crushed by the Germans.

German Howitzer at the Battle of Verdun
German Howitzer at the Battle of Verdun

2. Charles Nungesser, a famous French fighter ace, won 10 aerial victories during the Battle of Verdun(total aerial victories: 43)

Charles Nungesser posing with his plane
Charles Nungesser posing with his plane

3. From the total number of casualties(800.000 soldiers from both sides), it is estimated that 70% were caused by artillery.

4. Despite the heavy artillery bombardment, the German forces still suffered 600 casualties on the first day of the battle. 

5. On 8 May 1916, 679 German soldiers were killed because of an accidental explosion of the ammunition depot in Fort Douaumont. According to some rumors, the explosion was triggered by soldiers who brewed a pot of coffee on a box with hand grenades. 

Aerial view of Fort Douaumont before Verdun
Aerial view of Fort Douaumont before Verdun

6. During the peak of the German bombardment on June 01, 1916, it was estimated that 2000 shells were dropped on Fort Vaux every hour.

7. In total, during the Battle of Verdun, the French artillery fired 23 million shells against the German positions.

French ammo depot near Verdun, 1916
French ammo depot near Verdun, 1916

8. In the initial phase of the offensive, the German advance can be best described as steadily, around 1-2 miles in the first three days.

9. In February 1916, the German mobilized 168 planes, 14 observation balloons, and 4 Zeppelins. By comparison, the French only had 70 planes at the beginning of the Battle of Verdun. 

10. Though the Germans had the initial air superiority over Verdun, they failed to utilize it to cut down all French Supply routes to the battlefield.

11. The first aerial victory of “Escadrille Lafayette” was obtained on May 18, 1916. The name of the pilot was Kiffin Rockwell, an American from North Carolina.

12. Fort Douaumont was captured by a small German unit of 19 officers and 79 soldiers without a fight. It happened on February 25, 1916, just 3 days after the official start of the battle.

13. During their last major assault against Verdun, 22-23 June, the Germans bombarded the French defenses with 110.000 shells filled with phosgene gas.

14. After a surprise artillery bombardment, in which 2000 tear gas shells were used, the Germans captured 2.400 French soldiers.  

French soldiers leaving their trenches for an assault, Verdun 1916
French soldiers leaving their trenches for an assault, Verdun 1916

15. Before the Battle of Verdun, the French intelligence services lost the informational war. An important spy network of 60 agents, under the command of Louise de Bettignies, a brave French woman was discovered and destroyed by the Germans.

16. Verdun was only on paper the best-defended sector of the French Frontline. Joseph Joffre, Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, ordered the removal of the heavy artillery guns(in august 1915 only: 54 artillery batteries and 128.000 ammo rounds) from the forts around Verdun in 1915. His excuse was that Verdun was a very quiet sector of the Front.

17. The Fate of the Battle was literally decided by the poor weather conditions, which delayed the German offensive by 9 days. This bought precious time for the French who anticipated the German plans. 

18. Nine villages around Verdun were completely obliterated during the battle. These villages were never rebuilt and the inhabitants never returned.

19. There was a real possibility that the Battle of Verdun could’ve been avoided. 

In September 1914, the Germans were so close to capturing Verdun, that the supply routes were cut off and the city was surrounded. Even Joffre ordered the commander of the French garrison to evacuate Verdun. 

Luckily for the French Army, the commander of the Verdun garrison, choose to disobey Joffre’s orders. 

20. Though the French received 85 heavy guns before the battle, the heaviest artillery gun still had only 305 mm, by comparison, the Germans brought many more howitzers of 380 to 405 mm calibers.

21. 75% of the artillery shells fired by the French Army during the Battle of Verdun came from the famous 75 mm field guns. (French Name: Matériel de 75mm Mle 1897.)

22. Fort Douaumont was the biggest among the other 19 Major and 40 minor Forts of the Verdun Region.

23. Future French Leader, Charles de Gaulle, was captured by the Germans in March 1916, near Fort Douaumont. 

24. Believing that Charles de Gaulle was killed in battle, Phillipe Petain awarded him the Legion d’Honneur, the highest French order decoration.

25. At the start of the Battle of Verdun, the French artillery was low on ammunition, only 6400 rounds for the 75 mm guns, while the Germans had 6000 rounds for each of their artillery batteries.

26. Because Fort Douaumont was captured so easily, the French accused the Germans of “ruse de guerre”(military deception). According to the French military, the Germans troops wore French uniforms, thus confusing the defenders.

27. According to a German commander, General von Gallwitz, at a rate of advance of only 3 km in 4 months, the German forces would’ve reached Verdun in 1920. 

28. Seven French Aerial Squadrons were specially reserved for the defense of the critical supply road known today as Voie Sacree.

29. The mastermind behind the German offensive at Verdun was Erich von Falkenhayn, the chief of the German General Staff. Unlike Hindenburg and Ludendorf who wanted to prioritize the Eastern Front, Falkenhayn thought that the decisive battle should take place on the Western Front.

30. There is still a debate among historians about Falkenhayn’s real intentions. Did he really want to capture Verdun or just inflict as many French casualties as possible? These are 2 questions many historians are still trying to find answers to.

31. The French achieved artillery parity with the Germans at Verdun in July 1916. 

City of Verdun after heavy artillery bombardment
The city of Verdun after heavy artillery bombardments

32. Due to the rotation system, 75% of the entire French Army participated in the Battle of Verdun.

33. Future German blitzkrieg experts, Heinz Guderian and Erich von Manstein, took part in the Battle of Verdun.

34. Lattre de Tassigny, the most famous French commander of WWII, fought during the Battle of Verdun and lived enough to arrest the Crown Prince of Germany(commander of the German armies at Verdun) at the end of WWII.

35. The famous order “They shall not pass” was issued by the French General, Robert Nivelle, on June 23, 1916. 

36. The village of Fleury changed hands between the French and the Germans 16 times before it was finally secured by the French on August 15, 1916.

37. After being deposed on August 29, 1916; Erich von Falkenhayn took command of the 9th Army in Transilvania, and together with August von Mackensen he will crush the Romanian Army who recently entered the war. 

38. The official ending of any German offensive operations at Verdun was ordered by Paul von Hindenburg on September 2, 1916.

39. For his crucial role in reorganizing the French defenses, Philippe Petain earned the nickname ”The Lion of Verdun”.

40. Falkenhayn’s offensive relied heavily on artillery. For this purpose, the Germans mobilized an impressive number of 1200 artillery pieces of different calibers( 305, 380, 405 mm). 2.7 million artillery shells were also gathered for the initial artillery bombardment.

41. The “Sacred Way”(French: Voie Sacree) was literally the lifeline of the French Resistance at Verdun. 

Voie Sacree
Voie Sacree, Verdun, 1916

The 57 km road between the city of Bar-Le-Duc and Verdun, was the center of the French logistics. For context, here are a few important numbers about the Voie Sacree that saved the French Army at Verdun.

Six hundred trucks moved 48.000 tons of ammo, 6.400 tons of other supplies, and 263.000 soldiers in the first days of the offensive. 

The supply route was so crucial, that in the 10 months of the Battle of Verdun, 16 labour battalions worked continuously to maintain it in good shape.

42. Approximately 10 million unexploded artillery shells are still stuck in the soil of Verdun. 

Annually, bomb squads are still removing 40 tons of unexploded ammo from the fields of Verdun. It is estimated that at this pace, the soil of Verdun will be cleared in centuries.

How the Verdun battlefield looks like today
How the Verdun battlefield looks like today

43. In May 1916, Falkenhayn believed that the French Army had lost 525.000 soldiers and was close to surrendering. In reality, the French losses at this stage were only 130.000 troops.

We hope that these 43 facts about the Battle of Verdun and statistics helped you to understand better the scale and the importance of this iconic battle of WWI.

SOURCES:

1. Alistair Horne, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, Penguin Books.

2. Paul Jankowski, Verdun – The Longest Battle of the Great War, Oxford University Press.

3. Malcolm Brown, Verdun 1916, The History Press.

4. William Martin, Verdun 1916 – They shall not pass’, Osprey Publishing.

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