Both the German and French war plans for the western theater of World War I, the Schlieffen Plan and the Plan XVII respectively, had failed within the first few months of the war. Each side had planned to take the western theater of war in a quick swoop and be done with it in only a matter of months. With the failure of the offensive battle a defensive battle took its place. Wave after wave of offensives could be cut down with new military advances like the machine gun and new recoilless artillery, making it impossible to dislodge an enemy from his entrenchment. With this, warfare had to change on the front lines. Instead of direct assaults in hope that an army could score a decisive tactical victory as in prior wars, armies would now have to engage in a “battle of attrition,” or attacking an enemy’s resources and civilians in an attempt to exhaust them into submission. Such a war was seen on a smaller scale during “Sherman’s March to the Sea” in the American Civil War, where William T. Sherman tore up the land and its resources while terrorizing the civilians as he marched.
With a drastic shift in war from the offensive battle to a defensive one, commanding officers were generally perplexed and slow to adapt to this new style of war, costing millions of lives just through the first months of fighting. The new weapons of war were highly destructive as defensive weapons, but they could be just as destructive if they could be used on the offensive. When used properly, such as German General Erich von Falkenhayn was able to do, an army could have a significant advantage over its enemy. Believing that the Russian army could be persuaded to surrender with decisive victories, he moved his concentration to the West to attempt to knock out France. Falkenhayn moved to surround numerous French forts in early February, 1916, and he began to shell the entire area to draw out the French army. He was successful in only days and was able to take Fort Douaumont, one of many forts surrounded Verdun, a city in northeastern France near Belgium.
Verdun was a significant area to the French, and the forces there were now led by French General Philippe Petain. The German artillery continued to attack the French supply lines in an attempt to exhaust the army at Verdun, and after 10 months of fighting the Germans had still not been able to capture Verdun. The attack was significant because of the casualties. Though the casualties were, as other battles, extremely high (made worse for the time fought), it was the defensive French force that took a larger hit than the invading Germans. The war of attrition had drawn many French troops out to be attacked, and by the end of the battle the French, so devastated by casualties, would be unable to go back on the offensive. The area around Verdun is, to this day, lined with dangerous shells that did not go off during the attack, and because of the long length of the attack, the number of shells numbers in the millions.
Though more successful than other offensives had been, the German offensive in Verdun ultimately ended in a failure. While French troops were recalled to defend Verdun, the British army was largely alone in other offensives it would carry out through much of the war. As is expected, the offensives were ineffective even through the small use of tanks. Tanks often got stuck in the mud or were not used in enough numbers to be effective against the enemy. Even the small German success did not bring an end to the stalemate that had formed in Western Europe. Instead of gaining any territory, massive casualties and deaths were racked up and sacrificed for merely a few hundred feet every couple of months, at best.
John Keegan: “The First World War”