The longest battle in the history of humanity took place between February and December of 1916 near the French city of Verdun. It’s only fitting that Word War I, possibly the dumbest war in the history of forever, has as its centerpiece one of the dumbest battles ever fought.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “You’re just going to make fun of the French some more, aren’t you?” And, well, you’re right. I know, it’s cheap and easy to make fun of French military blunders. But the best part about the Battle of Verdun is that the French were arguably being less dumb than the Germans who were attacking them. Any time you have a situation where someone fucks up harder than the French while fighting a battle, you know you’ve got an all-time blunder on your hands.
Here’s the situation. World War I started in late summer 1914, and by early fall the western front had stagnated. The two sides (Britain and France on one side, Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other) settled down into a network of trenches and didn’t move much for the next four years. Throughout 1915 both sides attempted to achieve the elusive breakthrough that would end the stagnation and bring victory for their side. Alas, all this achieved was minuscule movements of the trench lines and lots and lots and lots of casualties.
In 1916, the Germans decided to try a different tactic. They reasoned that a breakthrough was no longer possible in the current situation, and instead they would pick a spot on the French lines that the French Army could not afford to abandon, and attack it endlessly, forcing the French to bring more and more men into the fray. They sought to “bleed them white”, to inflict such great casualties on the French that they would either lose the will to fight or would be unable to defend other parts of the line effectively.
They picked the fortifications in and around the city of Verdun. Verdun had played a major role in several previous French wars; it had withstood an assault by Attila the Hun in the fifth century, and had been built up after the Franco-Prussian war specifically to bolster French defenses against future German aggression. The German plan was to attack, and bait the French into an all-out defense of the city and forts.
Well, it worked… sort of. The Germans attacked, and the French took the bait and committed to hold the city at any cost. It became not just a matter of military importance, but of French national pride. Before the battle was finally over, 70% of the French army had been through “the wringer of Verdun”. However, this might have been to France’s ultimate advantage–the French army had a policy of rotating troops out of the battle every 2-3 weeks, which is why such a high percentage of the army eventually saw action at Verdun. By comparison, only 25% of the German army saw action at Verdun, so the French troops were comparatively fresh at any given time.
The Germans spilled a lot of French blood at Verdun, but at a price that was far too high. The French casualties from the battle (approximately 371,000 killed, missing, or wounded) were only slightly higher than the German casualties (337,000). By the time all was said and done, the entire thing was a wash–the Germans made small advances, but were eventually turned back by French counter attacks. The Germans had managed to do nothing other than reduce the number of available fighting men on both sides by approximately the same amount, and also to blast the shit out of small portion of the French countryside.
The French, in turn, took their successful (if highly costly) defense of Verdun as a sign that fixed fortifications were a good idea, now and forever, and this led to the creation of the Maginot Line after the war. And we all know how well that worked for them. Also, the demoralizing effect of the war, and the Battle of Verdun in particular, is often credited with contributing to the French collapse at the start of World War II–they just didn’t have the heart to go through it all again.
So there you have it. The Germans failed to either take Verdun or kill enough Frenchmen to change the course of the war, and they lost nearly as many men as they killed. The French in turn held a line that probably didn’t need to be held, at such a huge cost that the effects were still being felt decades later.
Dumbest battle ever? It’s in the running, for sure.