Stalingrad 1916-style – on the Meuse
An aerial view of the ouvrage de Froidterre taken in 1914, probably from a French Army dirigible based at Verdun. Clearly visible are the infantry rampart and the barbed wire entanglements in the depression surrounding the work. Note the rampart cut away on the left to allow the two 75s in the Casemate de Bourges to fire to the west, to cover the river and cross their fire with the ouvrage de Charny on the opposite bank. The lack of a deep stone-lined ditch in this modest fortification is obvious. (The presence or lack of this ditch was the technical differentiation between a fort and an ouvrage).The rampart and the barbed wire would be completely obliterated in the furious German bombardment when they tried to capture the ouvrage.
And what if they had succeeded? What if the runner sent in desperation to zigzag across the courtyard had been shot by the Germans on the roof? And the twin 75 turret would have stayed retracted, the Germans would have continued to drop explosive charges down the ventilator shafts of the barrack block, and the ouvrage might have fallen.
The Kronprinz was under orders to capture Verdun. No-one had let him in on the real reason for the battle, not to capture Verdun – of what use would it have been except as a symbolic victory – but to lure the French Army into a place it could not afford to lose, only to fall into a trap and be ground down by the massed German artillery ranged around the stronghold.
If only the Kronprinz had stopped and reflected, he might have decided instead to throw his large army with their massive artillery support against the French lines to either side of what was even in 1916 a very hard nut to crack.
But now, with the fall of Froidterre, victory would seem to be within the Kronprinz’s grasp… By moving down the bank of the Meuse his men would meet the only remaining obstacle to their advance, the earth and masonry fort of Belleville, which would not have resisted for long. Then the Germans would have stormed into Verdun town centre and its ruined streets. And then? What next?
They would have been completely unable to make any impression against the Citadel, with its miles of underground tunnels impervious to artillery shells, housing a large and well- supplied French garrison. The Germans would also now find themselves targeted by all the remaining forts in the ring around Verdun, turning their turret guns towards the town centre. A breakout through this untouched ring of modernised forts would be virtually impossible.
In fact the Germans of 1916 would be facing the same kind of scenario that Von Paulus’ 6th Army was to face in Stalingrad just 26 years later.
An astute Pétain might just have decided to limit the defensive capabilities of the Verdun garrison, ordering them to hold out at all costs, while preparing twin pincer movements to the east and west to cut off the surrounded Germans. Not so easy to do on the Meuse in 1916 as the Russians would effect on the Volga in 1942.
But the Germans in Verdun would certainly have suffered enormous casualties in this most futile of offensives.
Food for thought?