Battle of Verdun
Right then, here we go. About now, General von Falkenhayn is about to present his plan for an offensive on the Western Front to the Kaiser at a Crown Council meeting. Exactly what he said is one of the more disputed questions of the war, without (at present) being a Matter of Some Debate. The “orthodox” position, if we can call it that, is based on von Falkenhayn’s own post-war memoirs. Both these and the German Official History contain something called the Christmas Memorandum. This is not a contemporary document; it is a reconstruction by von Falkenhayn of what he would have said at the time, had he written a memo outlining his thinking, and presented by him as a contemporary document (more about all this in a moment).
Bleeding France white
This “memorandum” is the source of a number of memorable phrases that many people have tripped over via popular culture. In three words it sums up Falkenhayn’s claimed intentions for the Battle of Verdun. He is convinced, probably correctly, that with the current state of technology and doctrine there is no way to win a classic breakthrough battle. The only option is to exhaust one of Germany’s opponents by attrition, and as I’ve already detailed he’s chosen to attack France at Verdun.
He claims to believe that the French General Staff will feel compelled “to throw in every man they have. If they do so, the French will bleed to death.” (It’s a matter for the translators to decide whether Falkenhayn ever said “bleed France white”.) The plan he apparently laid out was to attack two of the ring of forts around Verdun itself, on the eastern heights; Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux. Capture them, and a number of other important and easily defensible terrain features, then slaughter the French wholesale as they attempt to take the positions back.
And this is, on the face of it, not an unreasonable conclusion to have drawn. Though they couldn’t have known this for sure, they’ve been inflicting casualties on the French through 1915 at a rate of at least two to one, and often three to one or better while defending. von Falkenhayn’s own estimate for Verdun is that they can achieve five-to-two in their favour.
The French government is also demonstrably shaky. Many things can be concealed, but not the fall of Rene Viviani’s government. The natural state of the Third Republic has been insecure, frequently-falling governments. It’s not impossible that continued defeat and slaughter at Verdun might force successive governments to fall until France finally must sue for peace to avoid a complete constitutional breakdown.
The Operation of a Hundred Names
There is perhaps no better demonstration of how little we know for sure about the Battle of Verdun than the plethora of ways that English-speaking writers have chosen to translate its German codename. In German it is known as Operation Gericht. When a translation is offered, there’s a staggering plethora of alternatives. Most popular sources tend towards the overtly dramatic: Wikipedia, for instance, calls it “Operation Judgement” (insert dramatic chords here). Academic sources usually go less sensational, but still nicely ominous. There are a hundred alternatives, including (but not limited to):
“Justice”, “Sentence”, “Execution”, “Death Sentence”, “Execution Sentence”, “Law Court” (with or without space or hyphen), “Court of Justice”, “Place of Judgement”
And every other possible combination of the themes “justice”, “sentence”, “execution”, “judgement”, and “court” that you can possibly imagine. So, why all the hedging and the wriggle room? Simple; von Falkenhayn is obsessed with secrecy. Almost nothing is to be written down; at least, not by him. There are no detailed operational plans or orders to army commanders to be consulted. (It’s also worth mentioning that this appears to be the first example of a battle being officially referred to by an “Operation Foobar”-style codename.) The closest we get is a famous line in a memorandum instructing the German Fifth Army to launch “an offensive in the direction of Verdun”. This is nothing so much as a pinhead large enough to host a full season of Strictly Come Dancing for all the angels in Heaven.
What we do have is a relatively small but tenacious alternative interpretation, again based on the post-war chunterings of senior figures. This time it’s Crown Prince Wilhelm and his chief of staff, the actually-in-charge General von Knobelsdorf (no sniggering at the back). Unsurprisingly, they were in no mood to fall into line with von Falkenhayn’s post-war interpretation, and claimed they were under no illusions; their object was to capture Verdun. In the fullness of time, historians appeared to take their side and claim that von Falkenhayn was merely trying to cover for his own indecisiveness and incompetence.
So, just bear that in mind as we go forward. Currently, if there can be such a thing as a “popular position” in history, it follows the lead of the German historian Holger Afflerbach, who in 1994 produced a biography of von Falkenhayn. He made two conclusions; first, that the Christmas Memorandum was written after the war; but also that it a reasonably accurate reflection of what the General was actually thinking at the time. More about the precise operational details of the offensive to follow.
At Beaudricourt, someone has decided to crack down on the recent mutinous rumblings from Louis Barthas’s 280th Regiment.
At assembly, it was announced that two regiments of the division were being dissolved. They didn’t say which ones, but we all understood that the 280th was condemned. It was no worse or better than any other, but it was from Narbonne, the “red” city of the Midi, and had to pay the price. If the brass hats thought they were afflicting us and humiliating us by dissolving the 280th, they were hugely mistaken. It made no difference to us. Our fate wasn’t changing.
It must be acknowledged that, all the same, they did think carefully about our southern sensitivities. They decided that whole battalions would be kept intact and shifted, ours to the 296th Regiment from Béziers, and the other to the 281st Regiment from Montpellier. Finally, as a supreme favor which, in the minds of our leaders, would console us in our disgrace and alleviate our sadness, they kept our badges of the 280th in place for awhile.
As if that meant anything to us, to have one number or another on our badges!
There are, of course, much worse things to be doing at Christmas than going on parade.
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