The Great War ate men, machines, and money without mercy or remission. At the end of 1915, the German army chief of staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, believed he knew how to finally kill the beast and win the war.
On Christmas day, 1915, Falkenhayn sent a letter to Kaiser Wilhelm II proposing a campaign to demoralize Britain, whose industrial might and maritime power were the foundation of the alliance against Germany, while also knocking France out of the war. He wrote that the “strain on France has reached breaking point …. If we succeed in opening the eyes of her people to the fact that in a military sense they have nothing more to hope for, that breaking point would be reached and England’s best sword knocked out of her hand.”
His plan was to attack a single point the French perceived as so vital that they would be compelled “to throw in every man they have.” Falkenhayn concluded: “If they do so, the forces of France will bleed to death” or, as he put it later, the “French army would be bled white.”
Falkenhayn’s target of choice was Verdun, a place that, throughout virtually all of the history of Europe, had been a fortress. Located within a loop of the Meuse River, it occupied a strategic blocking position in the Meuse River valley. As recently as the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, Verdun had been the last of the French fortified cities to hold out against the German onslaught. After that war, it had been vastly augmented, so that it was now a circle of detached forts surrounding a central citadel. The town of Verdun itself, also fortified, was likewise encircled by forts distributed in a five-mile radius. The combined massive complex guarded not only passage through the river valley region, but also dominated a key railroad junction leading to points south, southwest, west, and north in France.
Along with the related, but separate, Battle of the Somme, Verdun was among the most deadly battles in history. To understand this struggle is to understand all of World War I, including the principal stated motive of Woodrow Wilson for bringing the United States into the “European War” in April 1917. For him, Verdun proved both France’s determination to win at all costs and the likelihood that, without help, it would be defeated nevertheless. The unparalleled barbarity of Verdun, a product of the Old World, convinced the American president that only the principal nation of the New World could finally alter the grim course of human destiny. While many, both in 1916 and in the decades that followed, saw Verdun as a bloody monument to the inescapable futility of war, Wilson saw in it a hope for fighting what he would call a “war to end all wars.”
Alan Axelrod is the author of many books on leadership, management, history, military history, corporate history, career, general business, and other nonfiction. As founder and president of The Ian Samuel Group creative services firm, he has also ghostwritten, collaborated on, or edited many more and has provided consulting services to SourceClear LLC, McKinsey and Company (New York), Takatech (New Hope, PA), David Morey Group, LLC (Washington, DC), Core Strategy Group, LLC (Atlanta), AVG Technologies USA (San Mateo, CA), and many others. Through his firm, Axelrod is currently consulting for NewsRx, the world’s largest producer of health news, as its Senior Digital Strategist, to build three publishing subsidiaries, ScholarlyEditions (an eBook reference publisher), Pubz.Me (a digital content provider), and iPaperz (a digital research provider).
After receiving his Ph.D. in English (specializing in early American literature and culture) from the University of Iowa in 1979, Axelrod taught early American literature and culture at Lake Forest College (Lake Forest, Illinois) and at Furman University (Greenville, South Carolina). He then entered scholarly publishing in 1982 as associate editor and scholar with the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum (Winterthur, Delaware), an institution specializing in the history and material culture of America prior to 1832. Axelrod is former associate editor at Van Nostrand Reinhold (New York), senior editor at Abbeville Press (New York), and vice president of Zenda, Inc. (New York and Nashville), a consulting firm to museums and cultural institutions. In 1994, he became director of development (senior acquisitions editor) for Turner Publishing, Inc. (Atlanta), a subsidiary of Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., and in 1997, he founded The Ian Samuel Group, Inc., a consulting, creative services, editing, and online content provider in Atlanta.