At 3 a.m. on Feb. 24, 1916, a lone French officer burst into the lobby of the Hôtel Terminus in Paris and loudly called for the night clerk. The elderly woman who owned the hotel appeared, none too pleased at being roused at that hour. She demanded to know his business. He explained that he was Lt. Col. Bernard Serrigny, aide-de-camp to General Philippe Pétain, commander of the French 2nd Army, and he had urgent business with the general. To preserve Pétain’s confidentiality, she denied he was a guest, but Serrigny interrupted, saying, “Madame, the life of France is at stake.” At that she led the officer up a flight of stairs and pointed to the general’s room.
Serrigny pounded on the door until a tall, powerfully built balding man with a large blonde moustache appeared. Behind him, a woman discreetly covered herself with a blanket. Serrigny apologized profusely to Pétain for intruding on his leave, then presented orders from General Joseph Joffre, commander in chief of the French army, directing Pétain to report to supreme headquarters at 8 that morning. Pétain knew that a German offensive had begun at Verdun a few days earlier, and he took the summons to mean that things were going badly and that he would soon enter the battle. Unflappable as always, Pétain thanked Serrigny for his efforts, then instructed his flustered aide to obtain a room and get some rest, as they would leave in a few hours. Pétain then returned to his lover and enjoyed the remainder of what he later fondly recalled as a “memorable evening.”
At the outbreak of World War I, the fortified town of Verdun had stood for two millennia as a bulwark against invasion from the east. Its heroic resistance to German invaders during the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War had become legendary. After that disastrous conflict, the French built concentric fortified rings around Verdun and made it the centerpiece of a defensive system intended to stop any future German invasion. The région fortifiée de Verdun (RFV), as the French army designated the Verdun sector, saw only limited fighting during the first two years of the war, but German advances elsewhere left the city in a vulnerable salient of the Western Front.
General Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of the German General Staff, knew the value of Verdun to France in terms of its defensive works, as well as its image as an impregnable fortress. Where better, then, to draw the French army into a battle of attrition? Falkenhayn dubbed his plan Operation Gericht (“Place of Judgment”) and intended it to be the decisive battle that would destroy France and lead to ultimate German victory.
That battle began on Feb. 21, 1916, when more than 3,500 German guns, the largest concentration of artillery yet seen in war, opened fire on the thinly held French lines in the Verdun salient. After a 36-hour deluge of steel and poison gas, the German Fifth Army, commanded by the Kaiser’s eldest son, Crown Prince Wilhelm, surged to the attack. General Frédéric Herr, commanding general of the RFV, knew his command was hopelessly overmatched and ordered a tactical withdrawal to concentrate his troops along the high ground east of the Meuse. Joffre was not pleased when he learned of the move and ordered Herr to hold his ground and make no further withdrawals. Joffre told him help was on the way and then ordered Pétain’s Second Army into the battle.
Henri-Philippe Benoni Omer Pétain was born in 1856. He decided on a military career at age 14 after witnessing the destruction of his nation by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War. In 1877 Pétain graduated from the prestigious French military academy at St. Cyr, and for the next 37 years he served with elite Chasseur Alpin (mountain infantry) regiments and taught at the French army’s infantry school, as well as the École Militaire (War College) in Paris.
In the late 19th century, the French army had become enamored with the cult of the offensive and its doctrine that élan and the bayonet would carry the day. Scoffing at such notions, Pétain insisted that firepower, generated by closely coordinated infantry and artillery, was the key to modern warfare. Pétain’s unfashionable theories and bluntness resulted in his being denied general officer rank, so in 1914 he was a lieutenant colonel, just one year short of mandatory retirement. Then came the Great War, and Pétain went from heretic to prophet. His long-advocated doctrine of firepower proved correct on the battlefield, and he made a dizzying ascent from brigade commander to commanding general of the French Second Army in less than six months. In the bloody battles of 1914–15 he achieved numerous victories, notably at the Marne and Champagne, and became known as one of the French army’s best generals.
Pétain had chosen the town of Souilly, about 9 miles south of Verdun, as the headquarters of the Second Army. On February 25 he traveled there by car through a foul winter storm. Joffre’s deputy, General Nöel de Castelnau, greeted Pétain. Though de Castelnau had reconnoitered the battlefield, he could provide Pétain with only sketchy progress reports. Dissatisfied, Pétain journeyed on to Herr’s headquarters to assess the situation himself and found a scene of desolation: A crestfallen Herr told him that Fort Douaumont, bulwark of the French defenses at Verdun, had fallen earlier that day. The Germans held most of the high ground east of the Meuse, and Herr had begun preparations for a general withdrawal across the river, which essentially meant abandoning Verdun.
Pétain returned to Souilly and reported Herr’s plans to de Castelnau. Barely containing his anger, de Castelnau explained that Joffre had already decided Herr must go, and this merely confirmed it. De Castelnau wrote out a terse order in Joffre’s name, placing Pétain in command of all French forces in the Verdun sector.
Although he had not slept in the last 24 hours, Pétain ignored requests from his staff to rest. The Souilly town hall was requisitioned for use as his headquarters, and his staff transformed the old building into a modern command post. Pétain placed a large map of the RFV on the wall of his office, and as he studied it, he began to realize the immensity of the task before him. There was little room for maneuver on the east bank of the Meuse, yet to lose it was to lose Verdun. Pétain therefore decided to establish his main line of resistance east of the Meuse while deploying the bulk of his artillery on the heights west of the river, where it would be relatively safe but still able to pour down fire on the attacking Germans. Pétain spent most of the night marking out defensive positions for each corps and issuing orders for deployment of the reinforcements scheduled to arrive over the next few days.
Pétain finally collapsed on a cot in his office just before dawn only to awaken a few hours later with a high fever and a ferocious cough. He was diagnosed with double pneumonia. The physician summoned by his staff said it could be fatal and prescribed medication and rest. Pétain downed a variety of medicines and home remedies, shrugged off the dire warnings and went back to work. He wrapped blankets around his fever-wracked body and placed a potbellied stove next to his cot along with a small writing desk and telephone. There, perched on the edge of his sickbed and hovering at death’s door, Pétain took command of French military operations at Verdun.
Telephoning each of the corps and division headquarters in the RFV, he announced: “This is General Pétain speaking. I am taking over command. Inform your troops. Keep up your courage. I know I can depend on you.” Under his steady direction the French defenders regained their footing and fought back savagely against the surprised Germans, who had thought the battle already won. Although Fort Douaumont had fallen, all other fortresses in the sector remained in French hands. Pétain countermanded Herr’s earlier instructions for the demolition of these forts and instead ordered them reinforced and resupplied. The forts were to become the main centers of resistance on which his defensive line would be based. Still heavily outgunned and outnumbered, the French doggedly clung to their forts and defensive works along the east bank of the Meuse and repulsed numerous German assaults. Within a few days the German offensive began to lose momentum.
With the immediate crisis controlled, Pétain focused his attention on the precarious supply situation at Verdun. Before the war there had been two major rail lines into Verdun, but the German advance of 1914 had cut one, while the other ran precariously close to German lines and was easily interdicted by their fire. This left the nearest usable railhead at Bar-le-Duc, some 45 miles south of Verdun. It was tenuously connected to the fortress city by a 20-foot-wide dirt road and the Meusien, a small, barely operational railway.
Pétain used the Meusien to transport food, but the line was otherwise insufficient. He ordered construction of a proper rail line to Verdun but knew this would take months. Until then his reinforcements, replacements and ammunition would have to be transported by truck from the railhead at Bar-le-Duc to Verdun. So Pétain brought in the Service automobile de l’armée française for what would become the largest use of motorized vehicles in warfare up to that point. He divided the road from Bar-le-Duc to Verdun into six sections, each with repair shops, refueling stations, its own commanding officer and a contingent of military police to direct traffic. Administering the supply convoys were the Service automobile and the specially created traffic commission of Bar-le-Duc, together comprising 9,000 officers and men with 3,900 vehicles. This force was responsible for moving reinforcements, replacements, ammunition and supplies for an entire army, as well as evacuating wounded from the battlefield to hospitals at the rear. The road was christened la Voie Sacrée (“the Sacred Way”), and along it the lifeblood of France poured into the furnace of Verdun.
In the midst of Pétain’s work to organize his supply lines, the frigid temperatures that had dominated the first days of battle unexpectedly rose. The moderate weather transformed la Voie Sacrée into an impassable morass, and French supply columns slithered to a halt in the mud. Pétain met this challenge by conscripting the local populace into labor battalions. He established a number of rock quarries and set up relay teams of civilian workers to move the gravel produced there to the road. Labor battalions of colonial troops from Africa and Asia worked feverishly to shovel the gravel into the mud and firm up the road. These extraordinary efforts solidified the road, and trucks once more began rolling toward Verdun.
The motorized convoys moved men and materiel to the battle zone around the clock. The performance of the Service automobile in the critical opening stages of the Battle of Verdun was stupendous, especially considering the terrible weather and primitive vehicles. In the first two weeks of the battle, French trucks carried 190,000 men, 22,500 tons of munitions and 2,500 tons of various other materiel up la Voie Sacrée to Verdun.
With his logistical lifeline in place, Pétain’s next priority was to establish French fire supremacy. He reorganized the guns at his disposal and sent urgent requests for additional batteries and ammunition. Pétain later recalled: “I unremittingly urged the activity of the artillery. When the liaison officers of the various army corps, meeting at Souilly for their daily report, began to explain to me in detail the course of fighting on their several fronts, I never failed to interrupt them with the question: ‘What have your batteries been doing? We will discuss other points later.’” Pétain issued a directive that artillery fire should be concentrated and ordered observers to report each barrage to him in detail, down to the type of projectile fired by each gun. With these reports he coordinated the fire of every battery in the Second Army.
In 1916 aircraft and observation balloons were the eyes of the artillery. The Germans had established air superiority in the early stages of battle, but the French general was determined to win it back so his guns would have adequate fire direction. He summoned the pioneering French fighter pilot Charles Tricornot de Rose to his headquarters and exclaimed, “Rose, I am blind! Clean the skies for me!”
In the following weeks, Commandant de Rose assembled the best pilots of the Aéronautique militaire, including Jean Navarre, Georges Guynemer and Charles Nungesser. De Rose organized these elite pilots into escadrilles de chasse, the first true fighter squadrons in aviation history, and sent them into battle against the Germans.
The new fighter squadrons scored numerous victories. At Pétain’s urging, they grew dramatically in strength over the course of the battle and upgraded repeatedly with new and better models of aircraft. Eventually there were 15 squadrons, including the famed Escadrille américaine (later rechristened the Escadrille de Lafayette), composed of volunteer American pilots who first experienced air combat in the skies over Verdun. By the summer of 1916 the Allied aviators had gained the upper hand. “Verdun was the crucible where French aviation was forged,” Pétain later wrote. His ability to incorporate the nascent technology of military aviation into his operations at Verdun was a key component in the ultimate French victory.
After the German onslaught of February and March 1916, the battle settled into a grim struggle of attrition in which the French were at a decided disadvantage. Crammed into a narrow bridgehead on the east bank of the Meuse, they were ringed by German artillery that both outnumbered and outgunned their own. The one advantage the French claimed was their forts, which by Pétain’s orders had been transformed into powerful centers of resistance. The central citadel of Verdun served as the main command post. Its massive earth-covered walls and subterranean galleries made it an ideal headquarters, hospital and supply depot. The tactical command center for French operations on the east bank of the Meuse was Fort Souville, one of the more modern forts in the sector. It, too, was well built, with multiple steel-reinforced concrete machine-gun positions that rose hydra-like from the subterranean fortress and spat fire at any who dared approach. This fortress withstood numerous attacks, barring every attempt by the Germans to advance from their ridgeline and take Verdun. The older forts in the sector proved very useful as shelters for reserve formations, supplies and field hospitals.
Pétain, unlike many other commanders of the era, had a sincere concern for the well-being of his men and understood the sacrifice being asked of the soldiers he sent into battle. He instituted a rotational system, whereby after three days at the front a division would be withdrawn and spend a week recovering before returning to battle. This allowed the men just enough respite to keep themselves physically and psychologically strong for the fight. In stark contrast, the German practice was to keep frontline divisions in action until they were virtually destroyed.
General Joffre was pleased by Pétain’s defense of Verdun but grew impatient with the battle. He urged Pétain to launch an immediate counteroffensive, but Pétain refused, insisting that the Germans were still too strong. Joffre was also annoyed by Pétain’s constant demands for more men, guns and supplies; the Battle of Verdun was consuming reserves Joffre had earmarked for a joint French-British offensive along the Somme that summer.
Joffre believed that Pétain’s obsession with Verdun had blinded him to the overall Allied strategy. The French commander in chief argued that the best way to halt German attacks on Verdun was for the Allies to launch their own offensive in a different sector. For his part, Pétain was frustrated by a high command that didn’t recognize that the climactic battle of the war had arrived. Pétain believed that if Verdun fell, France itself would not survive.
In April 1916, fed up with Pétain’s intransigence, Joffre kicked him upstairs, naming him commander of the Central Army Group, which included the RFV. He assigned General Robert Nivelle to command the Second Army. Joffre believed this new command arrangement would offer the best of both worlds: Pétain would have the resources of an entire army group at his disposal, and that would enable Joffre to resume stockpiling resources for the Somme Offensive. Joffre also believed Nivelle would be more inclined toward launching the Verdun counteroffensive he had long sought.
On May 22, 1916, soon after this shake-up, Nivelle launched the counteroffensive. The objective was the recapture of Fort Douaumont, with its commanding position on the east bank of the Meuse and its political value as a symbol of Germany’s early success. The French attack made good initial progress, but the Germans, as Pétain had feared, were still too strong. The assault force managed to broach the fortress but was driven off within hours by a strong counterattack.
In the wake of this failed counteroffensive, Pétain reasserted his authority over military operations at Verdun. In theory the new command structure designed by Joffre had relieved Pétain of his tactical responsibilities in the sector, but in actuality Pétain retained control, and he kept Nivelle on a very short leash.
In June the Germans launched a new attack aimed at driving French forces from the east bank of the Meuse. The Germans quickly overran outlying French positions and headed toward Fort Vaux. Commandant Sylvain-Eugène Raynal defended the fort with a force of about 600 men, including many wounded soldiers who had sought shelter there as the German offensive swept forward. Heavy artillery pounded the fort, softening it up for attack by an entire German corps. Raynal and his gallant force managed to turn aside the German assaults for almost a week before succumbing to thirst when their water supplies ran out. Although the fort fell, Raynal’s defensive stand had bogged down the Germans. The engagement had also proved once again the defensive power of the French forts. During the entire 10-month campaign, the Germans only captured Douaumont and Vaux.
The Franco-British Somme Offensive kicked off at long last on July 1, placing tremendous demands on German forces on the Western Front. On July 12, Crown Prince Wilhelm’s Fifth Army made one final effort to capture Verdun, but the French inflicted heavy losses and turned it back after days of intense combat. His plan for victory at Verdun wrecked, Falkenhayn shifted his forces to the Somme to meet the new Allied offensive.
The German failure to capture Verdun had dramatic repercussions: In August 1916 Kaiser Wilhelm II replaced Falkenhayn with Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. Hindenburg and his brilliant chief of staff, General Erich Ludendorff, had achieved a series of great victories over the Russians on the Eastern Front.
Shortly after assuming their new positions, Hindenburg and Ludendorff inspected the Verdun sector and described it as “a regular hell.” The new chief of the General Staff informed Kaiser Wilhelm that “the battles there exhaust our army like an open wound.” Hindenburg later wrote: “To a large extent, the flower of our best fighting troops had been sacrificed in the enterprise. The public at home still anticipated a glorious issue to the offensive. It would be only too easy to produce the impression that all these sacrifices had been in vain.” Hindenburg halted offensive operations at Verdun and directed Crown Prince Wilhelm to consolidate his forces into defensive positions. As far as the German high command was concerned, the Battle of Verdun was over, and they hoped that the French would see it the same way.
Pétain had no such intention. He knew that before victory could be claimed, Fort Douaumont would have to be retaken. Perched atop the highest point east of the Meuse, its armored turrets commanded the battlefield, raining German artillery fire on French forces and Verdun itself. Pétain planned a major counteroffensive for the autumn of 1916 to recapture Forts Douaumont and Vaux, as well as the entire ridgeline east of the river.
He worked closely with Nivelle to assemble guns and munitions for the attack and to refine Nivelle’s concept of a “rolling barrage,” in which a curtain of artillery fire was dropped directly in front of the assault formations and then shifted forward at timed intervals to provide fire support as the infantry advanced. The two men agreed that General Charles Mangin should lead the attack. Nicknamed “the Butcher” by his detractors, Mangin was a skilled tactician who personally led his troops into battle. Pétain saw to it that Mangin’s battalions were brought up to full strength and equipped with the latest weapons, including grenade launchers, automatic rifles and flamethrowers.
The counteroffensive began on October 19. Pétain had amassed more than 700 heavy guns—including a battery of new “super heavy” 400mm railway guns—and a like number of light and medium pieces. He made counterbattery fire a top priority, and in just three days the French artillery, directed by observation balloons and aircraft, knocked out more than half of the German batteries in the Douaumont sector.
To keep the Germans off balance, Mangin did not attack at dawn as usual but remained in position through the morning. Then, at 2 p.m., battle cries rang through the cool autumnal air. Mangin’s lead assault battalions succeeded in surprising the German defenders and quickly overran their front lines. A heavy artillery shell penetrated Fort Douaumont during the bombardment and started a fire that forced out the Germans. The fire was brought under control, but not before the French infantry had overrun the German positions. An hour after the attack started, signal rockets rose over Fort Douaumont, cueing the French artillery to shift its fire. The assault troops used mirrors to flash a one-word message back to the tactical command post at Fort Souville: Victoire. Cheers resounded at the news that after eight months Fort Douaumont was back in French hands.The Germans suffered heavy losses during the counteroffensive, and by November 1 the steady advance of French infantry forced Crown Prince Wilhelm to abandon Fort Vaux, his other great prize. Ludendorff later lamented, “The loss [of the forts] was grievous, but still more grievous was the totally unexpected decimation of some of our divisions.”
Pétain persisted with his offensive. After consolidating his positions around Douaumont, he moved to push the Germans farther back, to ensure the safety of the fort. On December 14 the French attacked, inflicting heavy losses on the Germans. As the Battle of Verdun drew to a close in the midst of a snowstorm on December 16, the Germans had fallen back almost to their February starting point. This final attack sealed the French victory. Ludendorff conceded: “We not only suffered heavy casualties, but also lost important positions. The strain during this year had proved too great….We were completely exhausted on the Western Front.”
The Battle of Verdun was one of history’s longest and bloodiest battles, lasting almost 10 months and costing more than half a million French and German casualties. The French victory marked Germany’s descent into the abyss. While many individuals contributed to the triumph, Pétain towered above them all. General Joffre later wrote: “What saved Verdun was [Pétain’s] highly developed tactical sense, his continual perfecting of the methods of defense, and the constant improvement he effected in the organization of the command of the higher units. General Pétain was the heart and soul of the action.”
Robert B. Bruce is the author of Pétain: Verdun to Vichy. For further reading, he also recommends: Verdun, by Henri-Philippe Pétain, and The Price of Glory, by Alistair Horne.