A substantial fronde at home, led within the army by Hindenburg and Ludendorff but supported also by Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, was calling for Falkenhayn’s removal. Falkenhayn still retained the confidence of a Kaiser who resented this attempt to usurp his authority, and did not waver in his belief that victory could be won only in the west. With good reason he calculated that his main adversary was no longer a France now nearing exhaustion, but Britain.
Britain’s armies were still fresh and largely uncommitted, and her command of the seas was not only maintaining the blockade on Germany but keeping open communications with the United States, on whose supplies the Allies were becoming increasingly dependent. To deal with the latter Falkenhayn urged the waging of unrestrained submarine warfare, which we shall consider in due course. On land, however, he believed that Britain’s principal weapon was still not her own untried armies, but those of her ally France. If France could be struck such a shattering blow that she was compelled to ask for terms, ‘England’s sword’, as Falkenhayn put it, would be struck from her hand. But, given the tried and tested power of the defensive on the Western Front, how could this be done?
For the solution, Falkenhayn turned to the method that he had already used so successfully in the east: attrition. France should be quite literally bled to death, through the destruction of her armies. The French should be compelled to attack in order to regain territory that they could not afford to lose, and the territory in question would be the fortress of Verdun. Verdun had no strategic importance in itself, but it lay at the apex of a vulnerable salient and was a historic site associated with all the great military glories of France. Falkenhayn reckoned that Joffre could not afford not to defend it, or fail to regain it if it were lost. The German armies would inevitably suffer losses in their own attack, but these, he believed, would be minimized by effective use of the techniques used so successfully at Gorlice-Tarnow: surprise, good staff work, and above all massive artillery superiority. So on 21 February 1916, after a nine-hour bombardment with nearly 1,000 guns, the attack began.
Falkenhayn was right. Joffre had regarded Verdun as strategically unimportant and done little to prepare its defence, but political pressure made it impossible for him to abandon it. Under the command of General Philippe Pétain, whose stubborn belief in the power of the defensive had hitherto denied him promotion by his offensively minded superiors, the French troops obeyed their instructions to hang on to every yard of territory, and counter-attack to regain any that was lost. Attrition cut both ways: the French inflicted as many losses as they themselves suffered. Pétain did his best to spare his troops by rotating them, but Falkenhayn had to throw in his men with increasing desperation.
It was guns that dominated the battlefield: by the end of June, when the German attacks finally ceased, the artillery of both sides had created a nightmare landscape such as the world had never before seen. To their horror was added that created by gas and flame-throwers in hand-to-hand war. Between them both sides lost half a million men and how many still lie buried in that charnel soil may never be known. Verdun remained in French hands. For the French it was a magnificent victory, but one that had almost shattered their army. For the Germans it was their first undeniable setback, a heavy blow to the morale of both army and people, and Falkenhayn paid the price. In August he was relieved of his command, and the Kaiser summoned Hindenburg, the faithful Ludendorff at his side, to take his place as Chief of the General Staff.