The major development in February 1916 was the commencement of the Battle of Verdun, perhaps the most horrific slaughter of the war, certainly for the French and Germans. (Later in the year the British – well, British generals – would show their own mettle in the face of mega-casualties with the Somme offensive.) Meanwhile, less catastrophic battles went on around the periphery of the war.
On 9 February the British finally gained control of Lake Tanganyika when the German gunboat Hedwig von Wissman was sunk by the Mimi and Fifi. But that was not going to stop Colonel Lettow-Vorbeck from leading a merry chase for the next three years. On 17 February the last German troops in South Cameroon headed for internment in Spanish territory, and the following day the last German garrison (in Mora) surrendered, ending the thirty-two year German occupation of the colony; other white people would take their place for the next half century. The allies also continued picking apart German East Africa.
To the east the Russian Caucasus offensive begun in October of the previous year plowed on, and on 16 February Cossacks entered the strategically important city of Erzurum. Compared to what was about to begin in the west, this was a trivial battle: the Russians suffered 9000 casualties, the Turks 15,000. The Russian commander, incidentally, was Nikolai Yudenich, who would be one of the major counterrevolutionary White generals in the Russian Civil War.
And in northern Italy General Cadorna, his army reorganized and under pressure to draw German troops away from the Western Front, launched the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo on 15 February. The offensive would last a month and result in nothing but more dead Italians and Austrians. Nevertheless, the Isonzo Follies would go on.
Things were popping on the diplomatic and administrative fronts. On 10 February the new British Military Service Act kicked in, and soon a growing wave of conscripted Tommies would be sucked into the maelstrom of the Somme. The nickname “Tommy,” incidentally, came from a War Office instructional publication of 1815, in which the fictional trooper was named Tommy Atkins. The name caught on as the universal designation of a British soldier, as epitomized in Kipling’s poem Tommy:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, go away’;
But it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play –
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play.
On this same day the last of the Serbian army moved to Corfu, followed the next day by an Italian force. On 16 February the Montenegrin army began its sojourn on the Isle of the Defeated. Life there was not good.
While these Balkan troops were finding new accommodations, London decided the War Office rather than the India Office should henceforth direct the Mesopotamian campaign, which was now confined to attempting to rescue the army at Kut. On 23 February a British Ministry of Blockade was created, a sign that the Allies were realizing – finally – that this would be war of attrition and the Central Powers must be deprived of supplies, including food. This of course would cause problems with the neutral states in Europe.
The Germans were already attempting to starve Britain with their submarine warfare, which had certainly caused difficulties with the neutrals, especially the United States. On 10 February Berlin notified Washington that armed merchant ships would be treated as hostiles, and on the last day of the month reminded the Americans that an extended submarine campaign would not be delayed.
And of far more importance to the next war rather than the present one, on 28 February Britain began creating the core of a strategic bomber squadron, which would be able to directly attack enemy industry.
Finally, the big one. On 21 February the Germans launched an offensive towards the Verdun salient on the Meuse River. Capturing this area would be strategically valuable, but the Chief of the German General Staff, von Falkenhayn, having concluded that Germany could not compete with Allied resources in a war of exhaustion, determined to bleed the French army white and force a separate peace. Verdun was chosen as the target not so much because of strategy as its immense importance to French pride and as a symbol of national resistance. The idea was that the French would do anything to defend Verdun and consequently throw endless numbers of poilus into the meat grinder. (Poilu means “hairy one” and stemmed from the plethora of beards and mustaches sported by the troops.)
The citadel of Verdun itself had been fortified in the seventeenth century by the famous military architect the Marquis de Vauban, and the town was surrounded by two rings of 28 forts, modernized before the outbreak of the war. The most important was Douaumont, occupying high ground to the northeast and thus in the direct line of the German attack. Unfortunately for the French, seeing how easily the Germans had taken the Belgian forts in 1914, Joffre had decided traditional fortifications could not withstand German siege guns, and in 1915 the forts had been stripped of most of their guns and garrisons. A more linear trench and wire line had been begun. Joffre knew in January 1916 that the Germans were planning an assault on the Verdun front, but he assumed it was a diversion.
But the Germans were indeed serious. They laid railway lines and brought up 1201 guns, two thirds of them heavy or super-heavy, such as the 420mm (16.5 in.) howitzer. The plan envisaged firing 4,000,000 shells in eighteen days, which would require an average of thirty-three munitions trains a day. One million Germans would assault a French garrison of some 200,000.
By 25 February German troops had moved forward almost two miles (employing flamethrowers for the first time), and a party of about 100 actually reached the northeast corner of Fort Douaumont, seeking cover from their own artillery fire. They did not know the fort had been essentially abandoned, but encountering no resistance and fearing French artillery fire, they found a way inside and ultimately captured a warrant officer and twenty-five troops, most of the garrison.
The advance then bogged down, literally, as a brief thaw turned the ground to mud, making it extremely difficult to move the guns (one is reminded of Operation Barbarossa), which had been outrun by the infantry. Meanwhile, by the end of the month the French had brought up 90,000 reinforcements, an impressive achievement given the inadequacy of their rail links to the Verdun region.
The serious slaughter was just beginning, but the battle would go on until December, the longest of the war.