Primary Documents - Lord Northcliffe on the Battle of Verdun, 4 March 1916

Lord Northcliffe Reproduced below is British newspaper baron Lord Northcliffe's despatch during the early days of the German offensive launched against French-held Verdun on 21 February 1916.

Often described as the greatest battle of the war, casualties on both sides were immense.  German Army Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn's stated intention was to "bleed France white" in the latter's defence of Verdun.

Such virtually proved to be the case - although the scale of German losses brought Falkenhayn much criticism.  Indeed the failure to capture Verdun ultimately resulted in Falkenhayn's removal as Chief of Staff and Paul von Hindenburg's installation (together with Erich Ludendorff).

Click here to read Falkenhayn's justification for the offensive.  Click here to read Crown Prince Wilhelm's summary; he was given the task by Falkenhayn of overseeing the battle.  Click here to read Wilhelm's summary of its abandonment.  Click here to read von Hindenburg's decision to call off the offensive.  Click here to read Erich Ludendorff's dismissive view.  Click here to read Joseph Joffre's August 1916 summary of the battle.  Click here to read a French memoir of the German attack on Le Mort Homme in May 1916.  Click here for a memoir of the struggle for Fort Douaumont the same month.  Click here for a memoir of the German assault upon Fort Vaux in June 1916.  Click here to read General Millerand's official account of the see-saw fighting at Thiaumont in July and August 1916.  Click here to read a semi-official German historian's account of the end of the battle.  Click here to read General von Zwehl's memorandum issued immediately before the French recapture of Forts Vaux and Douaumont.  Click here to read Ludendorff's statement regarding the loss of Forts Vaux and Douaumont.  Click here to read French General Pierre Dubois's view of the German approach at Verdun.  Click here to read a French staff officer's account of the recapture of Fort Douaumont in October 1916.

Lord Northcliffe on the Battle of Verdun

4th March 1916, French Headquarters

What is the secret motive underlying the German attempt to break the French line at Verdun, in which the Crown Prince's Army is incurring such appalling losses?

Is it financial, in view of the coming war loan?  Is it dynastic?  Or is it intended to influence doubting neutrals?

From the evidence of German deserters it is known that the attack was originally intended to take place a month or two hence, when the ground was dry.  Premature spring caused the Germans to accelerate their plans.  There were two final delays owing to bad weather, and then came the colossal onslaught of February 21st.

The Germans made a good many of the mistakes we made at Gallipoli.  They announced that something large was pending by closing the Swiss frontier.  The French, who were not ready, were also warned by their own astute Intelligence Department.

Their avions were not idle, and, if confirmation were needed it was given by deserters, who, surmising the horrors that were to come, crept out of the trenches at night, lay down by the edge of the Meuse till the morning, and then gave themselves up, together with information that has since proved to be accurate.

The district of Verdun lies in one of the coldest and also the most misty sectors in the long line between Nieuport and Switzerland. C hanges of temperature, too, are somewhat more frequent here than elsewhere; and so sudden are these changes that not long ago here occurred, on a part of the front, one of nature's furious and romantic reminders of her power to impose her will.

The opposing French and German trenches, their parapets hard frozen, were so close that they were actually within hearing of each other.  Towards dawn a rapid thaw set in.  The parapets melted and subsided, and two long lines of men stood up naked, as it were, before each other, face to face with only two possibilities - wholesale murder on the one side or the other, or a temporary unofficial peace for the making of fresh parapet protections.

The situation was astounding and unique in the history of trench warfare.  The French and German officers, without conferring and unwilling to negotiate, turned their backs so that they might not see officially so unwarlike a scene, and the men on each side rebuilt their parapets without the firing of a single shot.

This instance serves to illustrate the precarious weather in which the Germans undertook an adventure in the quick success of which the elements play such a part.  That the attack would certainly prove more costly to them than to the French the German Staff must have known.

That the sufferings of the wounded lying out through the long nights of icy wind in the No Man's Land between the lines would be great did not probably disturb the Crown Prince.  It is one of the most gruesome facts in the history of the War that the French, peering through the moonlight at what they thought to be stealthily crawling Germans, found them to be wounded men frozen to death.

During the War, in France and in Flanders, in camps and in hospitals, I have conserved with at least 100 Germans.  Prisoners' talk is always to he accepted with great reserve, but the prisoners of the Verdun campaign have so plainly horror and misery depicted upon their countenances that I need no other evidence as to the tragedy through which they have passed.

The town is being made into a second Ypres by the Germans.  Yet, as it stands out in the sunlight, it is difficult to realize that it is a place whose people have all gone, save a few of the faithful who live below ground.

The tall tower of Verdun still stands.  Close by us is a hidden French battery, and it is pretty to see the promptitude with which it sends its screaming shells back to the Germans within a few seconds of the dispatch of a missive from the Huns.  One speedily grows accustomed to the sound and the scene, and can follow the position of the villages about which the Germans endeavour to mislead the world by wireless every morning.

We journey farther afield, and the famous fort of Douaumont is pointed out.  The storming of Fort Douaumont, gunless and unmanned, was a military operation of little value.  A number of the Brandenburgers climbed into the gunless fort, and some of them were still there on March 6th, supplied precariously with food by their comrades at night.

They were practically surrounded by the French, whose Headquarters Staff regarded the whole incident as a simple episode in the give-and-take of war.  The announcement of the fall of Fort Douaumont to the world evinces the great anxiety of the Germans to magnify anything concerning Verdun into a great event.  It should also cause people to apply a grain of salt to German official communiqués before swallowing them.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

'White Star' was a German mixture of chlorine and phosgene gas, so-named on account of the identification marking painted on the delivery shell casing.

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