On February 25, 1916, German troops seize Fort Douaumont, the most formidable of the forts guarding the walled city of Verdun, France, four days after launching their initial attack. The Battle of Verdun will become the longest and bloodiest conflict of World War I, lasting 10 months and resulting in over 700,000 total casualties.
In February 1916, the walls of Verdun were defended by some 500,000 men stationed in two principal fortresses, Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux. The Germans, commanded by Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, sent 1 million men against the city, hoping for a decisive victory on the Western Front that would push the Allies towards an armistice. The first shot was fired on the morning of February 21. By the end of that first day, the Germans had captured only the front-line trenches, much less progress than they had hoped to make. They pushed on, however, and by February 23 had advanced two miles and captured 3,000 French soldiers with the help of a lethal new weapon, the flammenwerfer, or flamethrower. By February 24, the Germans had overrun the second line of French trenches and taken another 10,000 prisoners, forcing the French defenders to within eight kilometers of the city itself. Forts Douaumont and Vaux, however, had managed to hold out.
Douaumont was a massive structure, protected by two layers of concrete over a meter thick, and surrounded by a seven-meter-deep moat and 30 meters of barbed wire. When it fell on February 25 to the German 24th Brandenburg Infantry Regiment with the kaiser on hand to deliver his personal congratulations, German jubilation was matched only by the French army’s shock and sadness.
From that point on, Verdun became a cause the French command could not abandon: public sentiment demanded the recapture of the symbolic stronghold. If the German army under Falkenhayn was committed to “bleed the French white,” with little thought to minimizing its own losses, the French army, under Phillipe Petain, was equally determined that the enemy would not pass at Verdun.
The battle stretched on and on, with devastating casualties on both sides. As German resources were diverted to fight the British at the Somme and the Russians on the Eastern Front, French forces gradually regained much of the ground they had lost. Fort Douaumont was recaptured on October 24, 1916; Fort Vaux on November 2. Barely six weeks later, on December 18, German commander Paul von Hindenburg (who had replaced Falkenhayn in July) finally called a halt to the German attacks, ending the Battle of Verdun after 10 months and a total of over 200,000 lives lost.