Monday, February 22, 2016


100 years ago, yesterday as it happened, the Battle of Verdun began. It began with 10 hours of artillery, followed by infantry attacks by the Germans, and it continued for the rest of the year. (And in some form, for most of the rest of the war.) The German's hope was that they could inflict great damage on the French through artillery, and by making modest attacks, that threatened Verdun itself (or more accurately, the ring of forts around Verdun), could draw the French into counterattacks that would exhaust the French reserves. It didn't quite work - the French held up better than the German's hoped, so the Germans were forced to attack more than they wanted, so took more casualties than they'd expected. Casualties ended up being relatively close between the two armies. (About 5 to 4, not 2 to 1 that the Germans had hoped for.) Still, it was a bloodbath, though not the worst of the war - the Somme, the Brusilov offensive on the Eastern front, were both bloodier, as was the fighting in 1914, when both sides were fighting on open ground. Verdun was a battle of forts and artillery - and endless grinding down of both sides. The French army survived, thwarting the Germans' hope that they would collapse; but by the end of 1916, the French army had been ground down fearfully (they lost more men in both 1914 and 1915 than they did in 1916), and were in danger - when another pointless attack failed in 1917, they started to come apart. The Germans, meanwhile, were still strong - though after this, they turned their strategy on the Western Front to pure defense, and set out to win the war in the east first.

And like so much of the fighting of WWI, it was a horrific experience - constant artillery pounding, living underground and in trenches, the whole world turned to churned up mud, full of dead bodies (human and animal), everything else - plants, trees, buildings, leveled and gone - for months at a time. It probably comes closest to our conception of the Great War - endless pounding trench warfare, a constant grind, with no end in sight, and little purpose to be seen. And, like most of WWI, looking back on it, it's hard to figure out what possessed the generals to try it. They really thought that would work? or accomplish anything? I suppose in the long run, this kind of war did accomplish what it hoped to - wore down the combatants to the point where they lacked the men and material to withstand attacks, assuming the other side got a fresh injection of men and material. That happened in both directions in 1918 - the Germans brought men from Russia and launched a very successful attack on the Allies, that wasn't strong enough to win the war. Then the Allies added Americans and their machines to their side and launched an even more successful attack on the even more exhausted Germans. Killing millions of people is a pretty bad way ot getting to that point, though.

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