This article examines the incredible WWI clash at Verdun.
Early on, things went very well for the Germans. By the second day of the assault, they had advanced over two solid miles, and had taken over 3,000 French soldiers prisoner. Then without any warning whatsoever, the Germans unleashed a brand new weapon of terror. It was called the flame thrower. The French were completely petrified of this new device. So much so, they began to break and run from the battlefield.
As a result, on February 25, the Germans seized Fort Douaumont. This was a shattering blow to the French. But, it made the German Kaiser, who had been observing the battle with the aid of a telescope, pump his chest theatrically upon receiving the news. In response, he decorated two German officers with the Pour le Merite.
When Douaumont fell, panic ensued in the streets of Verdun. At that moment, it appeared that nothing whatsoever, could prevent the Germans from completely overrunning the city and possibly winning the war. It was a very, very tense moment.
Then, just when it seemed that all was lost, the commanding general of the French Second Army, Marshall Henri Philippe Petain, took command in Verdun, and proceeded to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Petain ordered all French units, no matter how small or battered, to “Hold Fast”. Simultaneously, he dispatched a message to Paris stating the following, “They Shall Not Pass”. These words became part of French military lore.
They, [the Germans], never did. Petain was true to his word. So were his troops. Moving only at night, and utilizing a single route for supply, which was popularly referred to as, “Voie Sacree”, or, “The Sacred Road”, the French were able to funnel 190,000 troops, 12,000 trucks, and 23,000 tons of ammunition into Verdun over a two week period.
Completely frustrated by French tenacity, the Germans responded by massing their forces for a mammoth assault on Fort Vaux. All throughout the month of March, the battle for the heights surrounding the fort raged back and forth with intense fury. Thirteen times, the Germans smashed their way into the south end of the fort. Thirteen times, they were repulsed by determined and well coordinated French counterattacks. Incredibly, the French held. Eventually, they forced the Germans to retreat all the way back to their starting lines.
Verdun was one of the most savage and brutal battles in the history of warfare. It was also one of the proudest moments in French military history. On the verge of defeat, they closed ranks, banded together, and in the process, turned a seemingly certain defeat into a stunning victory.
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