Verdun fortress, located at a distance of about 300 km from Paris, was considered first-class before the war. However, the rapid decline of large fortresses during the 1914-1915 campaigns. on the Western and Eastern fronts, the military has undermined faith in the strength of long-term fortifications. It became obvious that it was impossible to conduct the defense of the fortresses separately from the field troops. In addition, the serf artillery was needed for offensive operations, for the destruction of enemy defenses. Therefore, the decree of the French government of 5 August 1915. Verdun, Belfort and other fortresses were abolished. It was allowed to disarm the fortresses, and use their garrisons and artillery to reinforce the field troops.
However, the instructions to the commanders of the groups of the French armies of 9 August 1915, on the basis of the fortresses created fortified areas as an integral part of the defense field armies. According to the instructions, the garrison troops were to be "organized into field formations and fully assimilated with other military units of the front." Fortifications were created - Belfort, Verdunsky and Dunkirk. Verdensky fortified area to the beginning of February 1916 was part of the central army group.
Despite the contradictory information about the German offensive, the French command, given the strategic importance of Verdun, gradually turned it into a fortified area, which combined long-term fortifications (fortresses) with field fortifications. But before the start of the German offensive, the work had not yet been completed.
The main fortifications of the Verdun Fortress were forts, the outer belt of which was located in 7-8 km from the center. The perimeter line extended to 45 km. The defense front of the entire fortified area (Verdun ledge) reached 112 km. The fortified area of the river Meuse was divided into two sections - the eastern (right bank) and the western (left bank).
In total, there were four defensive positions in the fortified area. Three of them (field) were prepared since 1914. The first position was held in 6 - 7 km from the outer belt of the fortifications of the fortress in a forested area. The second took place at a distance of 2-3 km from the first, and the third - at the same distance from the second, both along the northern and northeastern spurs of Maas Heights.
The first position was best prepared for defense. It consisted of separate centers of resistance, designed for garrisons of up to the battalion, and had three lines of defense: forward, line of support and line of reduits (from fr. Reduit, small fortifications, strong points inside the main ones to oppose the enemy with a secondary barrier). There were few concrete structures, the wire netting was up to 10-15 meters wide, in some places up to 40 m. The first position was located in 5-7 km from the first line of the forts to prevent the Germans from firing into the core of the fortress with field artillery. True, this removal was insufficient, and the German artillery 10- and 15-cm caliber successfully crushed the core of the fortress, the city, the bridges, the railway station and the barracks with heavy guns and howitzers, and high-power artillery (21-cm mortars and 38- and 42- see heavy guns and howitzers) smashed concrete and armor installations of long-term fortifications and forts.
The second position was partially equipped. Only some of its sections and settlements with stone buildings were turned into strong points of support and defended by garrisons. The third defensive position just started to cook. Her equipment was held during the battle of Verdun.
The fourth position consisted of two belts of forts and intermediate long-term fortifications of Verdun fortress, separated from each other by 2-3 km. The most powerful of the forts of the outer belt was Fort Duomon. The most important among the forts of the second line was the fort of Suvil. In total, 12 forts and 30 intermediate long-term fortifications, covered with moats, escarpments, and wire barriers, were in fourth position. All the structures of the fourth position were located at commanding heights and were a good target for the German artillery.
True, forts and long-term fortifications were almost disarmed. From August to January 1915, the bulk of artillery (up to 1000 guns, including 350 heavy) and most of the machine guns were removed and transferred to field troops of other sectors of the front, taken out of the fortress and to 100 thousand shells. In the forts and fortifications, some of which were prepared for liquidation, only guard units remained. Thus, the protection of the largest fort Duomon (400 m on the front and 300 m in depth), which dominates the whole area, consisted of only a few dozen people. Two armor towers with 75-mm and 155-mm guns remained in the fort. Disarmament of the bulk of the long-term structures of the Verdun fortress reduced the value of the fourth position in the system of the fortified area. However, this position had every opportunity to quickly recover with the help of field troops.
Thus, the presence of long-term and field defense in the Verdun area played a huge role in this battle. Verdun fortress became the base of the field army. Field defenses consisted of wide and deep belts of fortifications — trenches, batteries, and barbed wire fences. The fortress, enclosed by a wide belt of forts, armored shelters and batteries, in the general system of army defense greatly increased its defense power and importance. The stronghold had echeloned defense (up to 15 km) and a close connection with the rear. The combination of fortress forts with field-type fortifications, the transfer of the severity of the enemy’s attacks to troops holding several fortified positions, which were advanced far beyond the line of long-term structures and, if necessary, were supported by the fire of the forts, all played a role in repelling the German strike. In addition, the position of the fortified area successfully located on a wooded, highly rugged terrain, replete with deep ravines and hills.
Source: Zayonchkovsky AM World War I
The head of the Verdunskoe fortified area was General Err. Initially, the 112 kilometer front defended the 53 field and 34 territorial battalions (from the 7, 30, and 2 corps) with 130 field and 140 heavy guns. The guns were mostly old samples.
However, gradually accumulating reserves and strengthening the garrison of Verdun with artillery, the French deployed considerable forces at the beginning of the German offensive, at first practically leveling the number of troops with the Germans, and in March already having almost one-and-a-half superiority in manpower. A significant predominance of the German troops was created only at the turn of the alleged breakthrough and at the very beginning of the Battle of Verdun.
The French have deployed:
- On the left bank from Avokur to r. Basel Maas Group (commander of the 7 Corps) as part of the 29 Infantry and 67 Territorial Divisions, supported by 202 light and 92 heavy weapons.
- On the right bank: a) Chretien Group (30 Corps): 72 Division - from p. Maas to Cor Forest on the 10-kilometer stretch, 51 Division - from Cor Forest through Orne to La-Tavan on the 9-kilometer front; The 30 Corps had the 14 Division in reserve; b) the Duchene group (2 th army corps) on the eastern sector from La Tavan to the forest at Fort Paroche in the 132 th, 3 th and 4 th divisions. The forces of the right bank were supported by 186 light and 152 heavy weapons.
- In the general reserve in the Verdun area were: 37-I division - at Swilly and 48-I division - at Chaumont on the river. Er. In addition, at the beginning of February, 1916, the French commander Joffre, brought 20, 1 and 13 corps to the reserve and concentrated them in Bar-le-Duc and S.-Meneuld areas for operations in the Champagne or Verdun area.
Thus, by the beginning of the operation, the French had an 3 corps in the Verdun area. On the left bank they deployed two infantry divisions (67 and 29) of the 7 Army Corps; on the right bank of the Meuse, three infantry divisions (4, 3, 132) of the 2 Army Corps, two infantry divisions (51 and 72) and one in reserve (14) of the 30 army corps; having in reserve 37-th, 48-th and suitable 16-th division. Altogether, the French could have attracted 11 fortified divisions and 632 guns (388 light and 244 heavy) to the defense of the Verdunskiy fortified area. In addition, in the interests of the defense of the area, reserves of the high command — the 1, 13, and 20 army corps — could also be used.
The German command planned to launch operation 12 in February of 1916. But due to bad weather, the attack was postponed several times. As a result, the German army was unable to completely eliminate the leakage of information about the preparation of the enemy offensive. The offensive was prejudiced by the agents of France and Russia, the information came to the French through deserters and prisoners of war. The French were aware of the location of the German first-line corps and heavy artillery batteries. On the basis of these data, the French command only in the period from 11 to 16 in February strengthened the forces of the Verdunsky fortified with six infantry divisions and six artillery regiments. True, until February 21, French commander Joffre believed that not Verdun, but Champagne would be the site of a new large German offensive, and only demonstrative attacks would follow in the Verdun area. The French were unable to determine the plot chosen for the breakthrough: it was camouflaged by the Germans even during artillery preparation that covered the entire 40-kilometer front.
French troops near Verdun
The beginning of the battle
February 1 7 hours 15 minutes began artillery preparation, continued 9 hours. The training was carried out on the front in 40 km, from Avokur to Ethen. The Germans have never used such a large number of large mortars and howitzers. Preparation was carried out by consistently concentrating fire on individual targets and groups of targets of the first and second positions and was combined with strikes on the squares. Counter-battery groups fired chemical shells. A significant effect gave fire mortars, which were used to destroy the trenches and trenches. Railway stations were subjected to air strikes. Command and observation posts, locations of batteries and reserves, shelters, forts and other fortifications of Verdun were shelled with the most powerful artillery. The artillery preparation effect was serious: the defense system of the first and second positions was destroyed, and other positions were also significantly damaged.
An hour before the attack, the fire was moved to the first position and to the detected batteries and brought to maximum voltage. “The Germans,” noted Peten, “tried to create such a“ death zone ”in which not a single part could hold out. Clouds of steel, iron, shrapnel and poisonous gases opened up over our forests, ravines, trenches and shelters, destroying literally everything ... A narrow triangle between Braban, Orn and Verdun was concentrated devastating more than 2 million projectiles. ”
In 16 hours 15 minutes, the German infantry went on the attack, wave after wave. The advancing divisions had two regiments in the first line and one regiment in the second, the regiments of the first line — two battalions in the first and one in the second echelon. The battalions in the regiments attacked in three waves at the 400-500 sections of meters and were built in depth. Each battalion created three chains moving at a distance of 80-100 meters from each other. The advanced chains of the attackers relied on special assault groups, from one to three infantry units formed from the best-trained soldiers, reinforced by machine-gun, mortar and fire-throwing calculations. The first and second waves were infantry companies, and the third - a machine-gun company. The assault groups were to destroy the obstacles, reconnoiter the results of artillery preparation and ensure the advance of their infantry. According to the experience of the Anglo-French troops in Champagne and Artois and the Gorlitsky breakthrough in the East, it was planned to carry out the breakthrough of the French defense in such a battle order, consistently seizing one line after another.
German troops easily occupied the first line, but they had an order to move forward only after reconnaissance of the second line. The commander of the 18 Army Corps asked the army commander for permission to move forward the units that had stopped after the capture of the first line. However, time has already been lost, the continuity of movement is broken, suddenness is lost.
February 22 part of the artillery reassigned divisions. German infantry received direct artillery support. Separate guns and batteries appear in the advancing infantry chains and shoot machine-gun nests that hinder the movement of soldiers. Mortars and flamethrowers attached to the German infantry seriously increased its attacking capabilities. The French began to go on the counter. However, the attacks of the 30 of the French Corps were repulsed.
February 24 onslaught of German troops intensified. After the powerful new artillery preparation and the introduction of the third echelon of the regiments into battle, the Germans seized the second position. The French clung to every stretch of terrain, went on counterattacks, but suffered heavy losses. Communication field troops with artillery and fortifications of forts was broken. The near reserves of the French were exhausted. Taking advantage of this, the German troops on the move, February 25, took Fort Duomon and thus achieved major tactical success. The commander of the central group of the French armies, General Langl de Kari, was forced to order the withdrawal of the divisions of the 2 corps from the Vevry valley to the Maassan heights. February 25 launched the 5 th reserve and 15 th army corps of the German 5 th army. Following the retreating French troops, they occupied the Vevr valley by the end of February 27. The capture of Fort Duomon and the withdrawal of the 2 French Corps allowed the Germans to push their artillery forward, and by February 29, standing on the line of Samonier, Luvémon, Fort Duomon, Bezonvo, were preparing to attack Fort Vaunt and develop an attack on the flanks.
As a result, in four days of fighting the Germans captured the first and second positions. However, as the German forces moved forward, the flanking fire of the French artillery located on the left bank of the Meuse became more and more powerful. The narrowness of the front of the offensive of the German corps did not allow to escape the disastrous fire of the French artillery - even those German units that were far enough from the front line, now suffered noticeable losses. The German command did not organize a simultaneous attack on the flanks of the attack, especially in the area of the 6 corps; on the flanks of the breakthrough the fire of the German artillery was relatively small.
Meanwhile, the French commanders, who decided to stay on the right bank of the Meuse by all means, from the very beginning of the operation, threw considerable forces into the fortified area, and in February 25 formed the 2 Army, which was assigned the defense of Verdun. Joffre gives a categorical order "to detain the enemy at any cost" on the right bank of the r. Maas. To help Verdun in a hurry order reserves are transferred to the high command. Already on February 24, the 20-i reserve corps is being put into action. February 25 General Peten arrives in Verdun with the headquarters of the 2 Army. February 26 threw 1 th Army Corps and new reinforcements in artillery. Hastily brought to Verdun 13 th and 21 th corps.
General Petain and his headquarters established a "single position of resistance" for the troops on the outer line of the forts and obliged it to defend with all available means. The forts were turned into strongholds of the position, provided with garrisons and supplied with ammunition and food. The garrison received the right to leave the fort only when it was completely surrounded by the enemy. After regrouping and replenishing the reserves, the field forces were divided into four groups: General Duchesne (4,5 divisions), General Balfourier (4,5 divisions) and General Guillaume (2 divisions) on the right bank and General Baseler (2,5 divisions) on the left bank. The 3 French army, which was defending from the left (near Argonne), was also subordinate to General Petain on the spot.
In addition, the French successfully organized the supply of the army with the help of cars. The traffic on the Bar-le-Duc - Verdun highway was called the "sacred path" or "road to paradise." The 65-kilometer highway was divided into 6 sections, and road transport was divided into 200 sections for 20 vehicles. At the end of February, the Automotive Service had 300 officers, 8500 soldiers and 3900 vehicles that were combined into 175 automotive platoons. From February 22 to March 7, the automotive service transferred to the front 190 thousands of people, 22250 tons of ammunition and 2500 tons of various materials. In March, the highway carrying capacity reached 6 thousand vehicles per day.
Thus, by the beginning of March the French had significantly strengthened their forces in the Verdun area. And the German corps, having lost their surprise and the possibility of a breakthrough, after the capture of the largest Verdun fort, did not have the strength to develop success, tied up in the French defense. For all this time, they have advanced only 5-6 kilometers. A hard and exhausting struggle began, which was accompanied by heavy losses on both sides.
Falkenhain’s calculation that the French would throw all their reserves and free troops from other directions to close the gap, and the French would fall under the devastating fire of the German artillery, did not justify itself. The French command redeployed reserves, but did not hurry with the counteroffensive. However, the French with fanatical perseverance defended the remaining positions in their hands. A terrible "meat grinder" was formed, which began methodically to destroy the color of the German and French nations.
Germanic artillery fires on Verdun
To be continued ...