World War I: Battle of Verdun

soldiers on horses
French train horses resting in a river on their way to Verdun. (National Geographic Magazine/Wikimedia Commons)

The Battle of Verdun was fought during World War I (1914-1918) and lasted from February 21, 1916 until December 18, 1916. The longest and largest battle fought on the Western Front during the conflict, Verdun saw German forces attempt to gain the high ground around the city while drawing the French reserves into a battle of annihilation. Striking on February 21, the Germans made early gains until increasing French resistance and the arrival of reinforcements turned the battle into a grinding, bloody affair.

Fighting continued through the summer and saw the French commence counterattacks in August. This was followed by a major counteroffensive on October which ultimately reclaimed much of the ground lost earlier in the year to the Germans. Ending in December, the Battle of Verdun soon became an iconic symbol of French resolve to defend their country.


By 1915, the Western Front had become a stalemate as both sides engaged in trench warfare. Unable to achieve a decisive breakthrough, offensives simply resulted in heavy casualties with little gain. Seeking to shatter the Anglo-French lines, the German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn began planning a massive assault on the French city of Verdun. A fortress town on the Meuse River, Verdun protected the plains of Champagne and the approaches to Paris. Surrounded by rings of forts and batteries, Verdun's defenses had been weakened in 1915, as artillery was shifted to other sections of the line (Map).

Despite its reputation as a fortress, Verdun was selected as it was located in a salient in German lines and could only be supplied by a single road, the Voie Sacrée, from a railhead located at Bar-le-Duc. Conversely, the Germans would be able to attack the city from three sides while enjoying a much stronger logistical network. With these advantages in hand, von Falkenhayn believed that Verdun would only be able to hold out for a few weeks. Shifting forces to the Verdun area, the Germans planned to launch the offensive on February 12, 1916 (Map).

The Late Offensive

Due to poor weather, the attack was postponed until February 21. This delay, coupled with accurate intelligence reports, allowed the French to shift two divisions of the XXXth Corps to the Verdun area prior to the German assault. At 7:15 AM on February 21, the Germans commenced a ten-hour bombardment of the French lines around the city. Attacking with three army corps, the Germans moved forward utilizing storm troopers and flamethrowers. Staggered by the weight of the German attack, the French were forced to fall back three miles on the first day of fighting.

On the 24th, troops of XXX Corps were compelled to abandon their second line of defense but were buoyed by the arrival of the French XX Corps. That night the decision was made to shift General Philippe Petain's Second Army to the Verdun sector. Bad news for the French continued the next day as Fort Douaumont, northeast of the city, was lost to German troops. Taking command at Verdun, Petain reinforced the city's fortifications and laid out new defensive lines. On the final day of the month, French resistance near the village of Douaumont slowed the enemy advance, allowing the city's garrison to be reinforced.

Changing Strategies

Pushing forward, the Germans began to lose the protection of their own artillery, while coming under fire from French guns on the west bank of the Meuse. Pounding German columns, French artillery badly bled the Germans at Douaumont and ultimately forced them to abandon the frontal assault on Verdun. Changing strategies, the Germans began assaults on the flanks of the city in March. On the west bank of the Meuse, their advance focused on the hills of Le Mort Homme and Cote (Hill) 304. In a series of brutal battles, they succeeded in capturing both. This accomplished, they began assaults east of the city.

Focusing their attention on Fort Vaux, the Germans shelled the French fortification around the clock. Storming forward, German troops captured the fort's superstructure, but a savage battle continued in its underground tunnels until early June. As the fighting raged, Petain was promoted to lead the Centre Army Group on May 1, while General Robert Nivelle was given command of the front at Verdun. Having secured Fort Vaux, the Germans pushed southwest against Fort Souville. On June 22, they shelled the area with poison diphosgene gas shells before launching a massive assault the next day.



  • Erich von Falkenhayn
  • Crown Prince Wilhelm
  • 150,000 men (Feb. 21, 1916)


  • Germany - 336,000-434,000
  • France - 377,000 (161,000 killed, 216,000 wounded)

French Moving Ahead

Over several days of fighting, the Germans initially had success but met increasing French resistance. While some German troops reached the top of Fort Souville on July 12, they were forced to withdraw by French artillery. The battles around Souville marked farthest German advance during the campaign. With the opening of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, some German troops were withdrawn from Verdun to meet the new threat. With the tide stemmed, Nivelle began planning a counter-offensive for the sector. For his failure, von Falkenhayn was replaced by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg in August.

On October 24, Nivelle began attacking the German lines around the city. Making heavy use of artillery, his infantry was able to push the Germans back on the east bank of the river. Forts Douaumont and Vaux were recaptured on October 24 and November 2, respectively, and by December, the Germans had been nearly forced back to their original lines. The hills on the west bank of the Meuse were retaken in a localized offensive in August 1917.


The Battle of Verdun was one of the longest and bloodiest battles of World War I. A brutal battle of attrition, Verdun cost the French an estimated 161,000 dead, 101,000 missing, and 216,000 wounded. German losses were approximately 142,000 killed and 187,000 wounded. After the war, von Falkenhayn claimed that his intention at Verdun was not to win a decisive battle but rather to "bleed the French white" by forcing them to make a stand at a place from which they could not retreat. Recent scholarship has discredited these statements as von Falkenhayn attempting to justify the campaign's failure. The Battle of Verdun has assumed an iconic place in French military history as a symbol of the nation's determination to defend its soil at all costs.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Battle of Verdun." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War I: Battle of Verdun. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Battle of Verdun." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).