By Jay Holmes
France has the reputation for being highly uncooperative in the Western community, which has led to the American and European habit of describing the French as being cowardly—a “nation of whores and waiters.” Every nation has whores. Fortunately, every nation also has waiters. And every nation has its cowards, but history indicates that in spite of France’s popular reputation, France’s military has been no less courageous than that of any other nation.
One event in particular that stands out as an example of French courage and as a defining force in the French political psyche is the Battle of Verdun. Like Guadalcanal, Gettysburg, Austerlitz, and Stalingrad, few people outside of Verdun’s immediate neighbors knew about the town or cared about it until a major battle was fought there. In 1916, the word “Verdun” took on a new meaning in France and to the Allied Powers and the Central Powers.
On Ne Passe Pas!
“They shall not pass!”
Poster by Maurice Neumont, public domain
By early 1916, Europe and the European colonies had been involved with a particularly bloody war for nearly two years. France, Germany, and their allies had suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties on the “Western Front.” Given the largely effective naval blockade of the Central Powers, the German war economy was beginning to suffer, and German leaders knew that the long-range prospect of a German victory was dwindling. Without a rapid victory, the effective balance of forces on the Western Front would shift against Germany.
In an effort to secure that victory, German General Erich von Falkenhayn employed a method that Alexander the Great used frequently with great success in the fourth century B.C. Alexander had learned that enemies often least expect an attack at the strongest point of their fortifications, and that if he quickly concentrated his forces at that point, then he could destroy the center of his enemy’s defensive position and the bulk of its forces while it attempted to maneuver into a counterattack or regain defensive positions.
This method works as long as the attacking army has well trained, disciplined forces that can concentrate their firepower, and its leaders at all levels understand the tactics and are prepared to execute follow-up movement after obtaining the breach in the enemy line. General von Falkenhayn’s situation at the Battle at Verdun met those requirements.
In military terms, the area around Verdun constituted the last high ground between the attacking German army and the city of Paris. Von Falkenhayn counted on the French being unable to reinforce against the German advance. He planned that his army would capture the heights around Verdun and march through the grape fields of Champagne to trample Paris along with the grapes. My assumption is that von Falkenhayn and the German government thought that at some point prior to the German army arriving in Paris, France and the UK would agree to peace terms that were favorable to Germany. Germany could then concentrate its efforts in the east against the faltering Russian army and effect a sizeable real estate acquisition in Eastern Europe. While the long-range hopes of the German leadership concerning the attack on Verdun cannot be determined with certainty, it is safe to say they viewed the Battle of Verdun as vital to German victory.
In the winter of 1916, Verdun’s defensive works were depleted. Most of the mobile artillery that was crucial to its defense had been moved to more active sectors of the front, and the French forces in garrison in the area were too few to deal with a major assault. To the Germans, it seemed that von Falkenhayn’s application of Alexander’s favorite tactic would once more prove effective.
Fortunately for the French, their intelligence services succeeded in detecting the German buildup and discovered that the Germans intended to launch a major assault against Verdun. Due to bad weather and good French intelligence analysis, the French were able to move two additional full divisions to Verdun prior to the assault, but the Germans still enjoyed a two-to-one advantage in forces.
Map public domain, wikimedia commons
As a rule of thumb, military planners consider a three-to-one ratio to be optimal for a force attacking prepared defenses. While the Germans realized that they now lacked that preferred ratio, they remained confident because they had a five-to-one advantage in artillery. If we also examine the throw weight/hour and the ranges of the artillery pieces on both sides, it looks more like a twenty-to-one advantage for the Germans.
The Germans were also confident because they already held the land on three sides of the Verdun area. They assumed, quite reasonably, that since they had a major high capacity rail line running to within 20 km of the battle front, and the French had only one narrow road and a low capacity narrow gauge rail line supplying Verdun, that the French would not be able to move ammunition and food to Verdun fast enough to support a battle there. On the map table of the German headquarters, it all looked perfect. From the French side, it had to look like an impending disaster.
At 0715 hours on February 21, 1916, the well-planned German attack started with the world’s first “shock and awe” display. On a scale never seen before, the Germans conducted a massive artillery bombardment against the French defenders. It was heard up to a hundred miles away.
Most of the French soldiers in their defensive trenches were wiped out, and telegraph lines were cut. The massive artillery bombardment was followed up with attacks by specially trained German shock troops equipped with hand grenades and, for the first time, flamethrowers for clearing any enclosed French positions. The Germans quickly gained ground. For the most part, no Frenchmen were alive to defend the ground that the Germans were capturing. The situation was close to desperate for the French.
French reserves crossing a river on the way to Verdun
image public domain, wikimedia commons
Then something interesting happened. Rather than run out of supplies and fall back in retreat as the Germans expected, the French pulled off a near logistical miracle. In spite of the dire conditions and the frequent storms of German artillery shells, they kept supplies and men moving forward. That small, solitary French road leading up to Verdun was filled with supplies and soldiers pushing forward against the flow of wounded Frenchmen being moved to hospitals.
If we try to understand the mindset of the French soldiers that were first sent to reinforce Verdun, it’s difficult to justify thinking of them as cowardly. They had a long walk toward the roaring artillery bombardment of the town on a narrow road jammed with wounded soldiers returning from hell on earth. That previously insignificant road would become known as La Voie Sacrée, the Sacred Path. If those first French troops at Verdun cannot be called cowards, what would we call the men in the last troop of reinforcements? They started up that road knowing that their chances of escaping death or serious injury were less than forty percent. Yet with that knowledge, they marched up that road to face the Germans.
The battle raged until December 16, 1916, and 362,000 French soldiers as well as 332,000 German soldiers died. Depending on how we evaluate injuries, each side also suffered around an additional 100,000 to 200,000 badly wounded soldiers. There were isolated incidents of French and German soldiers refusing to execute suicidal frontal attacks against each other’s positions during the battle, but these were exhausted, malnourished, sleepless men who had suffered long artillery bombardments day after day for weeks on end.
French 87th Regiment Cote 304
image public domain, wikimedia commons
After December of 1916, both sides waged successive attacks and counter attacks until the end of the Great War. That War was indeed “great” in scale, but it was horrific in nature, and the French held their own. Even those few that suffered mental collapse cannot fairly be called cowards.
Given the independent character of Westerners, the French and their fellow Westerners will likely continue hurling insults back and forth. It’s something of an amusement to all who participate. We can keep telling those jokes about the lack of French military courage, but if any of us is ever tempted to believe those jokes, we should remember one simple word that more than any other word disproves the theory of French cowardice.
Mémorial de la Voie Sacrée, Maison Brûlé
image by Gérald Garitan, wikimedia commons