“Where are they?” I demand of Lieutenant Friess as I move away from the field glasses mounted atop an outcrop of the observation trench within newly captured Fort Douaumont.
“I don’t see any.” He replies while looking through his field glasses less than a meter away.
The French are nowhere to be seen.
Behind me flows a trickle of broken men; Limbs, eyes, jaws, ears, hands, all missing. Instead of reserves coming up, we have casualties heading back.
We should be attacking right now, while the French are in disarray. But how can I attack with this?
“We can take the whole east front of Verdun!” the energetic, yet battle scarred, Lieutenant announces.
If only we had reserves; we could exploit this success.
“Yes,if we had reserves we could attack now, while they are confused, swiping across the whole front; and possibly breaking through behind their lines.” I reply in more of a sad tone, than the lieutenant expected.
His face quickly changes from excitement to that of a man who’s missed an opportunity.
Looking directly at me with a straight face attempting to hide his newly acquired sense of loss, the Lieutenant mumbles, “They’ll come up. They have to come up! We won’t be left here without reserves.”
Turning to my left so that I can survey what’s left of the captured French fort behind me, I let his statement hang in the air.
Too many times in this war have our men shown amazing courage, breaking through the enemy, finding themselves on the cusp of victory, when we’ve lacked the reserves to exploit that sacrifice. Too many times are we sent into battle without a plan for what happens if we’re successful. It’s as if those above us know it will be impossible, but don’t want to admit it, so they don’t supply the necessary forces to exploit success because they don’t expect success. Then, my men sacrifice everything, achieving the impossible, only to be left out in the open alone long enough for the French to get their act together and counterattack.
My men are tired. Without reserves we will not be able to hold this fort for long.
“Captain von Brandis!” a runner approaches from directly in front of me.
I did not see him. I did not see anything.
“Captain, word from Regimental HQ.” He reaches out, handing me a small yellowed piece of thin paper.
My eyes take a moment to focus. When they do I read:
The German people are proud of the whole 7th Corps today. Exploit any opportunity that arises. Well Done!
Without comment I hand the slip of paper to the Lieutenant, who holds back a small smile before returning his look to me.
“We have opportunity right here, Sir!” He says, before adding “but we cannot exploit it without more men.”
“Agreed.” I mumble before a long pause.
He looks at me, starts toward the field glasses again, but stops before his eyes contact the lenses.
“I’ll order the men to begin digging in.” He announces.
“Yes, that would be best.” I reply as I walk away from the Lieutenant.
As I make my way through the shattered fort I look up at the equally shattered men who took it.
Why bother? Why did we even bother?
Behind me I hear a clod of dirt hit the ground. I turn quickly, only to see the Lieutenant has elbowed the side of the trench in frustration.
Turning again, I walk away.
The Battle of Verdun, Operation Judgement, began with initial German successes on February 21, 1916. Within four days German forces had broken through French lines and taken the key Fort Douaumont. Yet, just at the cusp of victory, having routed the remaining French units in front of them, the Germans were forced to slow, then stop because they ran out of men. The offensive ground to a halt just at the point when fresh reserves could have turned the tide of the battle and possibly the war. When the General in charge of German forces in the battle, Crown Prince Wilhelm, realized his men were no longer advancing, he advocated a halt to offensive operations to his commanding officer, Erich von Falkenhayn. Wilhelm was surprised when he was told repeatedly to "Continue to attack." The battle of Verdun would continue until December 20, 1916, eventually claiming more than one-million casualties despite very little ground taken by either side. When envisioned by General Falkenhayn, the Battle of Verdun was not intended as a breakthrough, but rather a bleeding of the French Army dry. Therefore, reserves which would have been useful for a breakthrough were held back. A lack of strategic leadership and foresight on the part of Germany’s leadership led them to prepare a battle plan that prevented quick victory in order to achieve a slow, painful, and utterly costly outcome. This was not the first, nor the last time, leadership in World War I prevented the soldiers who fought bravely from earning the rewards of their sacrifices.