What was the goal of attacking forces at Verdun and the Somme in 1916? What was accomplished?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In retrospect, it is difficult to figure out the goal of both battles given the high amount of casualties.  In historical analysis, there is much in way of pain and hurt as the net accomplishment of both battles.  The primary goal of attacking forces at both Verdun and the Somme was to establish military control of the elusive "front."  The thought process at the time was that both captures could be decisive for either side, particularly the German forces, in crushing the mental and military will of the other side.

At the same time, the German goal that drove the strategy at both Verdun and the Somme seemed to be one of attrition.  Erich von Falkenhayn was instrumental in carving out the German strategy in both Verdun and Somme. He wanted to develop both battles as examples of attritional warfare. Falkenhayn claimed that the desire to slowly weaken and erode the military and spiritual will of the Allied forces was of vital importance to German success. Falkenhayn believed in this idea as he conceived of "the Blood-Miller of Verdun" and the Somme battles.  In both Verdun and the Somme, Falkenhayn believed that prolonged and protracted conflict would reduce French troops and enable German forces to emerge victorious.  The hope was to have the French "bleed itself white."  

The "mud, blood, and futility" of both battles spoke to how war was seen by those in the position of power.  Soldiers were used as objects to accomplish political goals that were unrealistic, at best.  No clearer is this than in the description of how the Somme was shaping up once Falkenhayn was dismissed from his command:  "Enemy superiority is so great that we are not in a position either to fix their forces in position or to prevent them from launching an offensive elsewhere. We just do not have the troops.... We cannot prevail in a second battle of the Somme with our men; they cannot achieve that any more."  The Germans' goal in the war of attrition was dealt a severe blow at the Somme.  French reinforcements were rotated in at a quick pace, preventing the exhaustion which is instrumental in a war of attrition.  At the same time, as the Somme proved to be such a costly battle in terms of casualties, German troops at Verdun were used as a source of reserves.  The end goal resulted in the tide turning against the Germans, but moreover, the result of both battles reflected the maddeningly futile condition of war.  What the soldiers saw and experienced at both Verdun and the Somme defied logic and redefined the horrors of war:  

Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!

The words of the French lieutenant at Verdun speak to the overall goal of military domination at both Verdun and the Somme. 

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