The Need for Organisational Resilience - Chapter 2
The Story: Pre-May 10 1940
The Legacy of Victory.
The World War I armistice came into effect at 11:00 on 11th November 1918, in a private
railway carriage at Compiègne – owned by Marshal Foch – the same one that 22 years later
was the scene of the French surrender. The defeat of the German Empire in 1918 came at a
terrible price, especially for the French. Out of around 8,400,000 mobilised soldiers, 44 per
cent of the entire male population, 1,500,000 were killed and 4,200,000 were wounded. One of the costliest battles of World War I occurred at Verdun, from 21 st February to 18 th
December 1916. The city of Verdun and its surrounding forts – most notably Fort de
Douaumont - had a symbolic but also strategic importance. Its national importance was
attributable to close proximity to the old Gallic-Teutonic frontiers, which had seen rivalry
between the French and Germans for centuries. Its strategic value was based on its location
on the river Meuse, yet modern technology made these interlocking forts partially redundant.
When the Germans crossed into Belgium, the massive forts at Liège were literally bypassed,
delaying the German invasion by no more than five days. One of the 12 forts that were
located in the surroundings of Liège − Fort de Loncin – was obliterated by large-calibre
German shells, some of them launched by the German howitzer ‘Big Bertha’.
As a consequence, Fort de Douaumont and other Verdun forts, being judged ineffective,
had been partly stripped of their armaments and left virtually undefended since 1915. On 25 th February 1916, it was captured in a daring raid by a small German party comprising only
19 officers and 79 men.
Once occupied, the French national obsession with Verdun played into German hands,
as they rightly assumed that the French would release their reserves and throw them at the
Verdun front, while German infantry could defend its positions – to ‘bleed France white’. This
attrition took a terrible toll on both sides. The French suffered around 160,000 dead or
missing and the Germans approximately 100,000.
The Battle for Verdun in 1916 reinforced the desire of the French people never again to
allow an invasion by their traditional foe. Any battle should be fought on the border or if
possible in adjacent countries, as the rich agricultural and industrial areas of northern France
needed to be protected in all circumstances. The plan was for a sustained campaign to wear
down any future aggression by Germany.
Similarly, French soldiers should never be sent to the ‘meat-grinder’ of ‘open battle’ −
soldiers leaving the relative safety of their trenches and fortifications to re-capture ‘sacred’
French soil. The conclusions drawn were that a defensive stance must offer more adequate
protection to the defenders and that any offensive measures needed to start beyond the
borders of France.
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