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World War I
On this day in 1915, Italy declares war on Austria-Hungary, entering World War I on the side of the Allies—Britain, France and Russia. When World…
Following the failure of the 1918 German spring offensives and the successful French counterstroke on the Marne in July, the Allies turned to their own offensive on August 8 in the Amiens sector.
Cambrai was famous for two things: it saw the first great tank attack in history and, of equal importance, the first preregistration of artillery for an offensive.
The First Battle of the Marne was fought to the north and east of Paris in early September 1914
For the first time in World War I, the four Canadian divisions attacked together as the Canadian Corps, at Vimy in northern France.
February 21, 1916-December 15, 1916
Only the World War I Western Front could have produced the rationale for the Battle of Verdun. In his so-called Christmas Memo of 1915, Erich von Falkenhayn, the chief of the German General Staff, made a uniquely cynical proposal: not to take territory but to take lives, to cause the French army to "bleed to death" defending the fortress complex around Verdun on the Meuse heights.
On February 21, 1916, more than 1,220 guns around an eight-mile perimeter opened fire. It was the sort of drenching shellstorm that would distinguish the battle. Verdun did act as a "suction cup": three fourths of the French Western Front divisions would eventually serve there. But even from the start, the "Meuse Mill" did not achieve the five-to-two kill ratio Falkenhayn had predicted. The attackers soon forgot this object. Orders went out to take French positions "without regard to casualties." At the end of the first week, the Germans had advanced six miles; a few men walked into an almost undefended Fort Douaumont and took possession. For the French, that marked the low point. Fighting degenerated into isolated struggles for shellholes, forcing the French into an impromptu but successful defense-in-depth. At the beginning of June, the Germans took another key stronghold, Fort Vaux, after hideous subterranean melees. A few of their troops actually reached a point from which the twin towers of Verdun cathedral were visible, two miles away. Then, on July 14, the Germans called off their offensive. Falkenhayn was dismissed shortly after, largely for his failure at Verdun.
Now it was the turn of the French. In the autumn they retook Douaumont and then Vaux. By the time their advance ground to a halt in mid-December, they were close to the line where the battle had started ten months earlier. Casualties for both sides totaled between 600,000 and 700,000 and were roughly equal. (The total casualty figure for the entire war in the Verdun sector approaches 1.25 million.) Even today the skeletons of Verdun still surface, to be added to the towering bone piles in the basement of the Douaumont ossuary.
The Reader's Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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