One hundred years ago this past Sunday, in the early morning hours, hundreds of German artillery pieces, ranging in size from field guns to enormous siege guns, cut loose on the forts protecting the French town of Verdun.
The objective of the German army was, in the words of the chief of the General Staff, to “bleed France white.” In other words, as originally conceived, it wasn’t really so much designed to capture the town of Verdun – the Germans really had no pressing need for it – as to draw as many French soldiers as possible into a massive killing zone. Because Verdun was much more important to the French not to lose than it was to the Germans to take, it introduced a fundamental asymmetry into each side’s calculations. At least that was Falkenhayn’s plan originally.
Without boring Gentle Reader with a recitation of all the back-and-forth which reduced the landscape around Verdun to a pock-marked wasteland where the very soil itself was poisoned by the chemical residue of all the explosives, to say nothing of being an enormous bone yard, let us just say that Falkenhayn lost sight of his initial strategic insight, which was to break one of two Western Front opponents, by inflicting on it casualties it was unable to bear, enabling him then to defeat the other. Had he stuck to his original concept of the battle he might well have accomplished just that. The French were willing to squander any amount of their soldiers’ lives to hold that place, and had the Germans sat back and shelled them into oblivion while keeping just enough ground pressure to bear to make sure the French remained engaged, they might well have inflicted the kind of grossly disproportionate casualties necessary to make it all work. Recall that while Germany outnumbered the British or the French separately, they never between fall 1914 and March 1918 had overall numeric superiority over both together. Hence the idea of crushing one and then the other (this wasn’t especially original; Napoleon tried the same gambit in the Waterloo campaign, Jackson illustrated it masterfully in the Valley Campaign in 1862, and Ludendorff tried it in the spring, 1918 offensives).
But Falkenhayn, encouraged by the amount of ground and the number of forts his troops in fact did capture in the battle’s early phases, changed his objective. Instead of contenting himself with slaughtering Frenchmen at a highly disproportionate rate, he decided he’d grasp the territory. He of course managed to kill enough Frenchmen that, by the time the battle was over in late 1916, the French army had only one offensive left in it (the Nivelle offensive of 1917), after which time it mutinied and was more or less finished as an offensive force. But he also managed to slaughter a vast number of his own troops trying to take a place he’d initially had enough sense to realize he didn’t need to take. And in doing so he finished the German army in the west as an offensive weapon until it was reinforced with the troops from the Eastern front released by the Soviet surrender in 1918. The difference, as we now know, was that the horrific French losses, and the terrible British losses on the Somme in 1916 (which offensive was launched in no small measure precisely to take the pressure off of Verdun) were to be made good by hordes of American doughboys. Germany’s every loss was a soldier who wasn’t going to get replaced.
Put a bit metaphorically, Falkenhayn originally conceived the notion of tossing a hand grenade between his enemy’s legs from a distance, but then decided he’d just as well hand-carry the same to its target. With predictable results. The battle blunted the offensive power of the western Germany armies and cost Falkenhayn his job. As his replacement the kaiser ushered in the team of Ludendorff and Hindenburg to the top of the German command structure. Once there they dug themselves in, so to speak, and so consolidated their control over Germany and its war effort that by the end of the war the kaiser was no more than a cipher, rubber-stamping decisions handed to him, passing out medals to the survivors, and going for rides in the countryside around headquarters.
With Hindenburg and Ludendorff in place, the last chance for a conclusion of the war other than one through collapse (by one side or the other) vanished. Those two were true believers in ultimate victory; they believed their army could do anything. It was the army which assured the kaiser that it could win the war before American troops arrived in large enough numbers to make a difference, leading directly to the approval for resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February, 1917. It was the army which propped up Austria-Hungary as that nation collapsed in on itself after the Brusilov offensive in summer 1916. And in the end it was Hindenburg’s statement that he could no longer guarantee the loyalty of the army which induced the kaiser to slip across the border to the Netherlands on November 9, 1918.
On the French side, the “victory” at Verdun became one of the — I’m tempted to say “founding myths,” but really it wasn’t a myth — loci of inter-war French politics and society. It’s no accident that it was the victor of Verdun, Marshall Petain, who was dragged out of retirement to head the Vichy government. For a good treatment of the battle and what it meant to the France of 1916 and the France that survived the war, you can do much worse than this.
So the failure of Germany at Verdun has a claim to be among the most momentous results of the Great War, not so much for the tactical decision obtained (the French kept the town and what was left of the surrounding forts) as for the changes it wrought in the overall complexion of the war.
Verdun is now firmly established as part of that infamous group of battles in which the commanders blindly fed men into a meat grinder on the supposition that if they stuffed enough in, fast enough, eventually they’d jam the works and bring it to a stop. Loos, the Somme, Passchendaele, Verdun, Gallipoli, the Nivelle offensive: Their very names have become bywords for callous disregard of the human lives entrusted to one. The commanders who kept those offensives going for weeks and months after it was abundantly clear that there was no prospect of victory on any basis justifying the slaughter have rightly been damned by posterity.
And this gets me to a quibble about what I suggest is the historical revisionism of General Grant’s talents as a strategist and/or a tactician. Once upon a time Grant was viewed as a plodding butcher, a Douglas Haig with a cigar sticking out of his face. That view arose chiefly as a result of his campaign in Virginia from 1864 through the end of the war. That’s not the fashionable view of him, these days. More recent books tend towards a much more hagiographical approach to his conduct of the war in the East. I freely concede his resolution of the Vicksburg campaign was every bit as audaciously brilliant as it has ever been made out to be. But of his signal victories other than Vicksburg – Ft. Donelson, Shiloh, and Chattanooga – the first was a siege where he was ferried to within a few miles of his objective by the navy; the second was a “victory” only in the sense that he didn’t get his ass run backwards into the Tennessee River by the end of the first day, and then when he was reinforced overnight outnumbered the Confederates by a sufficient margin that they weren’t able to remain on the field; the third wasn’t really his doing anyway (or any other general’s, for that matter), but rather that of the private soldiers in the Army of the Cumberland (which hadn’t been Grant’s army in any event) who, at Missionary Ridge, decided they’d had enough of looking at the Rebels on that damned ridge and took matters into their own hands, driving them from the field in disarray. [N.b. The only two times in the entire war that a Confederate army was driven from the field in disorder – Chattanooga and Nashville – it was the Army of the Cumberland both times, under the command of General George Thomas, whose talents Grant apparently went out of his way to disparage, unfairly in the opinion of at least one biographer of Thomas.]
I will also give Grant full credit for understanding that the war was not so much about conquering territory as it was about destroying the South’s ability to continue resistance. This was an insight which seems largely to have escaped the powers running the war in the East. I won’t excoriate the commanding generals alone, because they were working under the intrusive gaze of the entire Washington power establishment. It might well be that, although any one or the other of them had it figured out, the geo-political reality of the relative situations of Richmond and Washington effectively prevented any such general from transforming that strategic insight into operational plans. Or maybe not. Sherman in the West also understood the war in that sense, but he then took that comprehension to the next level after Atlanta. Neutralizing Atlanta as a transportation, supply, and communications hub effectively destroyed the Confederacy as a going concern west of the mountains. Sherman’s sequel, the March to the Sea, was nothing else than a conclusive demonstration to the people of the South, in the most immediate manner possible, that their country had lost the ability to keep a massive army from strolling across an entire state, taking its sweet time to do so, and burning and plundering everything in its path. Any Southerner who did not, by the time Sherman reached Savannah at Christmas 1864, understand the war was lost had to have been singularly obtuse.
So how did Grant go about realizing his strategic insight on the battlefield? Well, at some point during the year, more or less, that Grant was in the East, someone pointed out to him that his army and Lee’s were like the Kilkenny Cats, who fought so viciously that each ate the other up. Grant famously observed, “My cat has the longer tail,” meaning, of course, that he could consume Lee’s army and still have some of his at the end of the day. And that is exactly what he set out to do. He was entirely willing to accept horrendous casualties (by spring, 1865 the Army of the Potomac had suffered over a 100% casualty rate) on the only condition that his soldiers in dying kept killing Confederates. Which they did.
And in the end, the longer tail of Grant’s army won out.
Were there other ways to have accomplished the destruction of Lee’s army without grinding his own into a bloody pulp? There must have been; there almost always is. Grant’s preferred method to keep Lee too busy hemorrhaging soldiers to get up to mischief was to keep him engaged, day after day, week after week. Sure, that works. But you can tear an army to pieces by keeping it on the move and denying it any opportunity of rest and re-supply.
Much of Lee’s strategic maneuvering in 1862 and 1863 had been a direct response to his inability to supply his army without continual fresh territory to plunder. He couldn’t stay in one place more than a brief spell because his men would strip the countryside bare, and the Confederate government had no way to provide him the supplies which would have permitted him to live other than off the immediate vicinity. By 1864 nearly all Virginia was stripped bare. Grant had the men to move on sufficiently broad and widely dispersed fronts that there is no way Lee could have responded to all of them and protected his supply base at Richmond (which was, in addition to being the capital, a major center of what little industrial capacity the South enjoyed). Grant also had the massive transport and supply systems of the North at his back. Is it so unthinkable that by launching offensives on enough different fronts he could have leveraged Lee out, away from the Richmond-Petersburg line, and forced him so to divide his forces that, even with Lee’s famous defensive capacities, his army would have collapsed by division, and all the while trying to live off land that had repeatedly been plucked clean during the war up until then?
Such a strategy of maneuver would have taken a great deal of shoe-leather, and not a few trains and wagons. But by that time the North was cranking out such things in quantities never before seen in human history. No. Grant chose the simple method of making Lee out-bleed him. In contrast, after Kennesaw Mountain (for a good working description of what that fight was like, read Ambrose Bierce’s description), Sherman never again launched his men in a frontal assault.
All of which is to say that I don’t buy the recent praise for Grant’s abilities as a field commander. As a strategist, yes. As an organizer of the movement of some of the largest field forces in history (I think Napoleon’s Grand Army that invaded Russia in 1812 may have been larger than the U.S. Army in the East, but not by much), certainly. But as a commander who understood how to accomplish his purposes by other means than drowning his opponent in his own men’s blood, not so much.
A good friend of mine went, a number of years ago, to the battlefield at Verdun. Large areas of the countryside are still pock-marked by interlocking shell craters. It’s grown up now, but there are still places where the soil is too contaminated to till. My friend went to the ossuary they built. As you might imagine in a battle in which so much of the action consisted of massive artillery bombardment, huge numbers of the dead were so blow to shreds that there is no way ever to sort them out. In many case of course there wouldn’t even have been enough for a burial. So they brought all the miscellaneous bones together and built a large hall over them. There are windows, through which you can peer at the remains of some 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers. As more bones are discovered each year, they are added to the pile.
My friend described the ossuary at Verdun as being the most eery place he’d ever been. I can image; it is not in many places in the world, or at many times, that such massive collective evidence in presented of the horrors of which mankind is capable. The liberated Nazi concentration camps would have been such places. The killing fields in Cambodia might have been. Verdun is another.
And so we pass another grim anniversary date.