When the Germans failed in the Battle of Verdun, they failed to achieve their objective, to defeat the French and break the spirit of the French. In fact, it had a contrary effect. For this battle, the Germans exhausted a great percentage of their best troops and much of their supplies which could have been diverted to other areas more profitably.
The German Staff would perhaps have preferred to cut off the conflict much earlier. It realized that its sacrifices were crippling their war-machine, but the prestige of Prussian militarism was at stake before its own people, and relinquishing the attack would have been a confession of defeat to the whole world. In the hopes of carrying out General Von Falkenhayn's plan, they poured in the equivalent of 82 1/2 divisions during the first year-more than a million and a half men. Two hundred eighty-two thousand men, 18% of German losses in World War I, died here in what became one of history's greatest slaughters. What had been planned as a major victory and turning point of the war had developed into a battle of attrition through which they lost the initiative, and ultimately, the war.
On the other hand, the Battle of Verdun crowned the French with victory and prestige. The French spirit, although strained at times, rebounded in strength as expressed in their rallying cry "On ne passe pas" (They shall not pass).
The French, not well prepared, pressed back to a point less than three kilometers from the city of Verdun by an incredible leviathan, a war-machine unprecedented in history either in size or organization, must be envied for their fantastic will to resist under the most terrifying and enervating conditions. They poured sixty-six divisions into the battle. Three hundred-seventeen thousand were killed or died there-23% of the total French losses for the entire war. They fired twelve million artillery shells during the eighteen months of fighting, an average of more than twenty-two thousand each day.
This holocaust had been a battle of annihilation, mutual annihilation. One of every twelve men lost by all sixteen countries engaged in all four years of the struggle reached his destiny in this ten square mile area. The method of fighting had been to concentrate the fire of all guns, not over a line but on a zone, and not only on the position to be captured, but also as far as possible in the rear on everything that could support the position. Old territorials, working far behind the lines, ran almost as great a risk as men in the attacking waves had run in other battles. During the shelling, no supply party ever went far without losses-a jug of water often meant the difference between life and death to a man, the wounded in deep-dug aid post went mad from lack of air. The fringes around the shelled zones were usually spared by the opposing artilleries because the infantry were fighting there hand-to-hand with knives, bayonets, grenades, guns and flame throwers, until every square yard of earth became hotly disputed.
Hindenburg wrote later, "The Battle of Verdun exhausted our forces like a wound that never heals". Mr Gillet, Historian of the Battle of Verdun, wrote, "At Verdun, France learned to know herself. The Marne was not enough to show France what she really was. A day of inspiration, a few hours of frenzy, a burst of enthusiasm, a sudden glow of rage and passion with the Marseillaise sounding on all sides, the world knew us to be capable of flashes like these. But the world did not know-nor did we ourselves-our own sterling values.
"We were the country of improvisation, the country of laughing nonchalance, varied with attacks of fever; we had forgotten our strength of continuity. Thanks to the length of the battle, France was able to measure her reserves of endurance in this continuous struggle which brought, one after another, men of every village to the same tragic scene, inspired with the determination to do at least as well as those who had preceded him. Then, when their turn had come to be relieved, after unheard of ordeals, they read again and again, in the communiques, the names of the same hills and woods where they had held the line, and learned others in their turn kept holding on. Instead of a succession of isolated deeds of valor, Verdun was for the whole French Army a heroic exploit in which all shared alike. France bled something solemn, sacred and unanimous, like the spirit of a religious crusade".