This Day In History: October 24

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On October 24, 1916, French troops rejoice after recapturing Fort Douaumont, the preeminent fortress guarding the city of Verdun, under siege by the German army since the previous February.

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, and the Germans proceeded quickly from there, overrunning two lines of French trenches and pushing the defenders back to the walls of the city itself.

Fort 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. Its fall to the Germans on February 25 became an early turning point in the struggle at Verdun. From then on, Verdun became a symbolic cause the French command could not abandon: public sentiment demanded the recapture of the fortress.

If the German army sought to “bleed the French white,” in Falkenhayn’s words, the French army, under Phillipe Petain, was equally determined that the enemy would not pass at Verdun. The battle soon settled into a bloody stalemate, and over the next 10 months, the city would see some of the fiercest and costliest fighting of World War I, with a total of over 700,000 casualties. By the summer of 1916, German resources had been 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 implemented a counter-attacking strategy that enabled the French to recapture of much of their lost territory by the late fall.

Chief among these French gains was the recapture of Fort Douaumont. Under a cover of fog, French forces attacked the German-occupied fort from atop nearby Souville Hill, swarming down and taking some 6,000 German prisoners by the end of that day. “Douaumont is ours,” wrote a French staff officer who participated in the action that day. “The formidable Douaumont, which dominates with its mass, its observation points, the two shores of the Meuse, is again French.” Fort Vaux likewise fell back into French hands barely a week later. Though German commanders such as Erich Ludendorff played down the impact of such “local” French victories, the German momentum at Verdun was indeed winding down. On December 18, 1916, Hindenburg finally called a halt to his army’s attacks at Verdun, after the French captured 11,000 German soldiers over the last three days of battle.