Battle of Verdun begins - HISTORY
Year
1916

Battle of Verdun begins

At 7:12 a.m. on the morning of February 21, 1916, a shot from a German Krupp 38-centimeter long-barreled gun—one of over 1,200 such weapons set to bombard French forces along a 20-kilometer front stretching across the Meuse River—strikes a cathedral in Verdun, France, beginning the Battle of Verdun, which would stretch on for 10 months and become the longest conflict of World War I.

By the beginning of 1916, the war in France, from the Swiss border to the English Channel, had settled into the long slog of trench warfare. Despite the hard conditions in the trenches, Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of staff of the German army, believed that the key to winning the war lay not in confronting Russia in the east but in defeating the French in a major battle on the Western Front. In December 1915, Falkenhayn convinced the kaiser, over the objections of other military leaders such as Paul von Hindenburg, that in combination with unrestricted submarine warfare at sea, a major French loss in battle would push the British—whom Falkenhayn saw as the most potent of the Allies—out of the war.

The chosen mark of Falkenhayn’s offensive was the fortress city of Verdun, on the Meuse River in France. The city was selected because in addition to its symbolic importance—it was the last stronghold to fall in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War—it was possible to attack the fortress city from three sides, which made it a good strategic target.

Ignoring intelligence that warned of a possible German attack in the region, French command had begun in 1915 to strip its forces at Verdun of the heavy artillery essential to defensive warfare, choosing instead to focus on an offensive strategy masterminded by General Ferdinand Foch, the director of the army’s prestigious War College, and dubbed Plan XVII. Thus the German attack of February 21 caught the French relatively unprepared.

From the beginning, the Battle of Verdun resulted in heavy losses on both sides. Falkenhayn famously admitted that he did not aim to take the city quickly and decisively, but to bleed the French white, even if it meant an increased number of German casualties. Within four days of the start of the bombardment on the Meuse, the French forward divisions had suffered over 60 percent casualties; German losses were almost as heavy.

After a few quick German gains of territory, the battle settled into a stalemate, as casualties swiftly mounted on both sides. The newly promoted French commander in the region, Henri-Philippe Petain, was determined to inflict the maximum amount of damage on the German forces, famously pledging to his commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre, that, They shall not pass.

By the latter half of 1917, German resources were stretched thinner by having to confront both a British-led offensive on the Somme River and Russia’s Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front. In July, the kaiser, frustrated by the state of things at Verdun, removed Falkenhayn and sent him to command the 9th Army in Transylvania; Paul von Hindenburg took his place. Petain had been replaced in April by Robert Nivelle, who by early December had managed to lead his forces in the recapture of much of their lost territory. From December 15 to 18, the French took 11,000 German prisoners; on December 18, Hindenburg finally called a stop to the German attacks after ten long months. With a German death toll of 143,000 (out of 337,000 total casualties) and a French one of 162,440 (out of 377,231), Verdun would come to signify, more than any other battle, the grinding, bloody nature of warfare on the Western Front during World War I.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Rockefeller imposter and convicted felon born

On this day in 1961, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a con man who went by the alias Clark Rockefeller and passed himself off as an American blueblood, is born in Germany. Gerhartsreiter gained the public spotlight in 2008, when he kidnapped his young daughter and became the ...read more

Washington Monument dedicated

The Washington Monument, built in honor of America’s revolutionary hero and first president, is dedicated in Washington, D.C.The 555-foot-high marble obelisk was first proposed in 1783, and Pierre L’Enfant left room for it in his designs for the new U.S. capital. After George ...read more

Nixon in China

President Richard M. Nixon arrives in Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China, on the first presidential visit to the world’s most populous nation. Given that the U.S. federal government had formally opposed China’s communist government since it took power in 1949, ...read more

Marx publishes Manifesto

On February 21, 1848, The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx with the assistance of Friedrich Engels, is published in London by a group of German-born revolutionary socialists known as the Communist League. The political pamphlet–arguably the most influential in ...read more

Malcolm X assassinated

In New York City, Malcolm X, an African American nationalist and religious leader, is assassinated by rival Black Muslims while addressing his Organization of Afro-American Unity at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights.Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925, ...read more

Nixon visits China

President Richard Nixon visits the People’s Republic of China. After arriving in Beijing, the president announced that his breakthrough visit to China is “The week that changed the world.” In meeting with Nixon, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai urged early peace in Vietnam, but did ...read more

John Quincy Adams suffers a stroke

On this day in 1848, just as he stands up from his desk in the House of Representatives to defend his no vote on a bill, former President John Quincy Adams suddenly collapses from a cerebral hemorrhage. House members carried him to a bed in the Speaker of the House’s private ...read more

Cherokee receive their first printing press

The first printing press designed to use the newly invented Cherokee alphabet arrives at New Echota, Georgia.The General Council of the Cherokee Nation had purchased the press with the goal of producing a Cherokee-language newspaper. The press itself, however, would have been ...read more

Erma Bombeck is born

On this day in 1927, humorist Erma Bombeck is born in Dayton, Ohio.Bombeck studied English at Ohio University and the University of Dayton and worked part time as a reporter at the Dayton Journal Herald, writing obituaries and features. At age 20, she was diagnosed with a kidney ...read more

Garbo’s first U.S. film opens

The glamorous, husky-voiced Swedish actress Greta Garbo, known for her almost unearthly beauty and intense desire for privacy, makes her U.S. screen debut in The Torrent on this day in 1926.Born Greta Louisa Gustaffson in 1905, Garbo grew up in a poor family in Stockholm. At age ...read more

Tornadoes move across Mississippi River Delta

On this day in 1971, the Mississippi River Delta is pounded by powerful tornadoes that kill more than 100 people. The storm that caused the twisters moved up from the bayous of Louisiana through Mississippi to Tennessee. Hundreds of people were injured across the three states.One ...read more

Double agent Aldrich Ames is arrested

CIA operative Aldrich Ames is arrested for selling secrets to the Soviet Union. Ames had access to the names and identities of all U.S. spies in Russia, and by becoming a double agent he was directly responsible for jeopardizing the lives of CIA agents working in the Eastern ...read more

Battle of Val Verde

On this day in 1862, at the Battle of Valverde, Confederate troops under General Henry Hopkins Sibley attack Union troops commanded by Colonel Edward R. S. Canby near Fort Craig in New Mexico Territory. The first major engagement of the Civil War in the far West, the battle ...read more

Nixon arrives in China for talks

In an amazing turn of events, President Richard Nixon takes a dramatic first step toward normalizing relations with the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) by traveling to Beijing for a week of talks. Nixon’s historic visit began the slow process of the re-establishing ...read more