Early on 21 February in the midst of severe, cold weather, the German Army opened up its offensive on Verdun by concentrating the heaviest artillery bombardment known in history up to that time. On a twenty mile front from Bois d'Avocourt to Etain, German artillery poured heavy shells incessantly for nine hours, which, to all indications, should have wiped out the French fortifications and trench system.
About 1615 hours, after lifting the artillery fire, the German Army launched amid snow flurries, the first infantry attack. Not being sure of the effect of the artillery barrage, the Crown Prince sent in the first attack, strong reconnoitering parties to test the effectiveness and results of the German artillery preparations and to seize whatever trenches had been destroyed or evacuated. By grasping these forward trenches, the Crown Prince sought to put the German Infantry in a favorable position for launching the big offensive on the following day.
The Prince employed the following tactics: "Each German troop was given a specific limited objective. Before the attack, the German Artillery fired barrages that were concentrated to weaken the defenses. Upon lifting the artillery fire, a wave of scouts went forward to test the results of the artillery fire and to report its effectiveness. After the scouts, the pioneers and soldiers armed with grenades moved forward. Then came the main body in single file. Finally, the reserves brought up the rear, carrying with them ammunition, tools, sandbags and serviced the main body. The second offensive line was composed as the first and was used in support of or as a replacement for the first to exploit its gains. The scheme of attack employed was to proceed by small enveloping movements, utilizing cover and ravines, forcing the small centers of resistance to fall one by one. In each instance, artillery fire supported the advance continually and was responsible for the breakdown of the resistance of the strong points before the units attempted the assault and moved on their objectives."
The French front line of defense met the fierce German onslaught along the line of the village Brabant, Bois des Caures, Bois de Ville and Herbebois. While defending this line, the French hurried to strengthen the redoubts at Bois de la Wavrille and the Village of Beaumont to the south. On 21 February, the resistance at Herbebois, the first to fall to the German forces, slowed the German advances. Part of Herbebois was retaken by the French forces in a counterattack during the night. Later in the day, Bois d'Haumont was captured by a French counterattack at 1600, 22 February, failed to retake it.
At the end of the second day, the French command relieved with fresh troops the two divisions in the line which bore the brunt of the attacks by the five German divisions. The new French division troops, thrown at night into doubtful positions in the open country, were quickly annihilated. On the third day, the French lost the last two positions in the first defense line.
The situation was grave. General Langle de Cary, commanding the center group of armies, ordered II Corps, closely engaged in the Woevre area, to fall back on the heights of the Meuse. This movement was carried out during the night.
The same evening, Marshal Joffre, alarmed for the first time about the actions at Verdun, assigned General Petain to the Second Army and the defense of Verdun. He also ordered the withdrawal of the French Army and to concentrate the forces in the west sector to be effective 25 February. At midnight of 24 February, he gave full power to General Castelnau, Chief of the French General Staff who set out for Verdun, to act on his behalf. When Castelnau reached General Langle de Cary's headquarters at Avize (near Epernay) at 0545, he countermanded Joffre's order, and telephoned General Herr to hold the line at all costs east of the Meuse River facing north between the Meuse and Douaumont, and on the heights of the Meuse facing east. At midnight of 25 February, Petain arrived to assume command replacing General Herr.
During the same day, German forces advanced south of Samogneux to the hill of Cotelettes on the west, and captured Bezonvaux and Bois de la Vauche on the east. These advances by the Germans made General de Bonneval, commanding the 37th Division on Talou and Poivre Hills, order a withdrawal to the Belleville Hill since he feared the envelopment of his troops. Fortunately, the order was only partially carried out, since the Zouave troops, west of Poivre Hill, defended and held their position, and the 39th Division of II Corps, going up the line, passed the 37th and organized a defense along the Bras?Hardaumont line.
In the center, Fort Douaumont fell into the hands of the Germans. The German's desire to capture Douaumont is apparent when one realizes how the fort occupies the dominant position overlooking the northern terrain and substantial barricades defended it.
The advancing German units in the assault toward Douaumont were ordered to halt about 800 meters from the barbed wire entanglements of the fort. A German lieutenant, who ventured to take his company under cover of a patrol, made a break in the entanglements. Discovering the side casemates and seeing no one, he had his unit slide down into the moats and then climbed the wall of the fort to gain entry. The German unit caught the few turret artillerymen and engineers completely by surprise and rendered the French helpless.
According to reports, the French commander of the fort had, during the snow storm, mistaken the invaders for Frenchmen who were falling back, and consequently, made no effort to stop them. The small number of troops available to defend the fort resulted from a high command decision to limit the numbers in garrisons and merge the excess with field troops.
On 25 February 1916, Verdun came under constant and continuous bombardments which required the last of the residents to be evacuated by the Army.
On 26 February, at his Souilly Headquarters, 18 kilometers southwest of Verdun on the Sacred Way, General Petain decided to revise his plans. He divided the defensive area into four sectors, giving the first to General Duschene at Woevre; the second to General Balfourier from Woevre to Douaumont; the third to General Guillaumat astride the Meuse and the fourth to General Bazelaire on the extreme left of the defensive positions. He ordered the 59th Division to establish two defensive positions that he selected on 27 February, and two additional lines on 2 March. At his request, territorials repaired and widened the "Sacred Way". Within four days after his arrival and assumption of Command, he had received the following reinforcements: I, III, XIII, XIV and XXI Corps.
The fresh French forces under disposition of the new plans slowed the German forward movement and finally halted the German assault at Hardaumont and Bois de la Caillette on 29 February.
The German assault and drive from Verdun was stopped due to their exhausted forces and the nonavailability of adequate reserves. The German High Command had failed to gain its objective, Verdun, and a speedy victory. The Kaiser, who had been on hand and prepared to march through Verdun in a victory parade, departed for Germany never to return.
A German 38cm gun fires the first shot at Fort Douaumont in the battle of Verdun.