The German Chief of Staff, Field Marshal von Moltke the Younger was replaced by his rival FM Erich von Falkenhayn after the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in the autumn of 1914. In 1915, von Falkenhayn chose to solidify the trench lines stretching from the Swiss border to the North Sea and focus on defeating the Russians. After vast gains in the East that year, von Falkenhayn decided to focus back on the West and defeat the French in 1916.
His plan was to “bleed the French white” in a battle of attrition for the emotionally significant city of Verdun. Von Falkenhayn knew the French would never allow the Germans to keep Verdun, so he planned to destroy the counterattacking French with a concentration of artillery unseen in history. Moreover, the terrain around Verdun favored the Germans: the area was littered with natural choke points that could be exploited. The most significant being the single road the French had to use to supply their armies, and the location of Verdun on the east bank of the Meuse river, forcing the French to rely on just seven bridges, all within range of German artillery. Finally the French forts protecting the city, robust and built after the French loss in 1870, were criminally undermanned after being stripped for fighting in Flanders the year before. The centerpiece of which were the massive twin forts of Vaux and Douaumont.
At 0715, 21 February 1916, Unternehmen Gericht (Operation Execution Place) began with a 10-hour artillery bombardment by 808 guns. The German artillery fired over a million shells along a front just 19 miles long by 3 miles wide. Twenty-six super-heavy, long-range guns, up to 420 mm (16.5 in), fired on the forts and the city of Verdun; a rumble could be heard 99 miles away. The bombardment was paused at midday, as a ruse to prompt French survivors to reveal themselves. The main German attack was launched that afternoon. The Germans used flamethrowers for the first time and the infantry followed closely with rifles slung, to use hand grenades to kill the remaining defenders. The battle would eventually last ten months and cause almost a million casualties on both sides throughout the year.
1916 was one of those seminal years in Western history, comparing only to 440 BCE, 34 CE, 410, 843, 1066, 1096, 1492, 1648, and 1776. It can be argued (convincingly imo) that the culmination of 2500 years of recorded history occurred at the Battle of Verdun, and it’s two incestuous offspring: the Battle of the Somme and Brusilov’s Offensive. These battles pitted the four great Christian, rational, progressive, technologically advanced (all by the standards of the time) Westphalian states in an irrational, emotionally driven, nationalist, suicidal, industrial slaughter the effects of which our great great great grandchildren will still deal with.
Everything before Verdun led to it, and everything after Verdun was because of it. If Western civilization continues its slow slide back into barbarism, historians in the far distant future will look at 0715, 21 February 1916, as the moment the descent began.