On 21 February 1916 the German Fifth Army under the command of the German Crown Prince William launched its assault, on the right bank of the Meuse, against the town of Verdun.
The intention, their Commander in Chief, General Erich von Falkenhayn declared, was to force the French to bleed themselves to death defending the position. Taking the stronghold was immaterial, Verdun was the gateway to Paris so the French would defend it to the last man.
Or at least afterwards he would say that was his intention — as the offensive didn’t take Verdun it may have been expedient to say that he had never intended to.
Despite initial successes the Fifth Army failed to push into Verdun. The intense bombardments hurled at the forts and French lines, ferocious beyond all imagining, had so destroyed the land that their own advance began to bog down in the mire they had themselves created.
A new initiative was needed.
A thorn in the side of the Crown Prince throughout his right bank offensive had been the ridge of hills to the north of Verdun on the left bank of the Meuse. Behind these the French artillery had begun to make a comeback against the supposedly all powerful German artillery.
The front line ran almost horizontally just south of the village of Forges westwards before turning south towards Avocourt.
On 6th March a Reserve Corps brought up for an attack against this ridge advanced in the aftermath of a barrage every bit as devastating as that on the opening day in February.
Some gains were swiftly made but the attack on Mort Homme (So named long before the war) broke in the face of a determined defence and deadly counter barrages.
The French fought back, aided by flanking fire from Cote 304 (Hill 304) but the Germans pushed on again and by 9th March the front was almost into Cumières.
Two days later on 11th March Général Joseph Joffre finished his order of the day to the men holding the left bank with the words :
You will be the ones of whom it will be said — they barred the Germans from the road to Verdun.
But it was not over. Day after day the Germans softened the French lines and then hurled their troops forward. Day after day the French tenaciously hung on to their cratered defences.
With each passing day the French line was forced back a few metres towards Cumières and beside it the hill of Mort Homme (Cote 295). A couple of kilometres off to the west, the increasingly important position on Cote 304 continued to provide supporting artillery fire.
The French, like the British labelled hills by their height above sea level. This can be a little misleading if the height of the surrounding ground is not taken into account. These are impressive hills but not rugged mountains.
The Crown Prince realised that whilst Cote 304 was still in French hands continued attacks on Mort Homme would be bloody and costly — and not just to the French. In addition his army also needed to be simultaneously active on the right bank of the Meuse with renewed assaults on the forts still in French hands.
On 9th April the Crown Prince was at last (as far as he was concerned) given the go ahead by von Falkenhayn to launch a simultaneous attack on both sides of the Meuse ; across the entire battlefield.
On the French side, the recently appointed commander of the French 2e Armée, Général Philippe Pétain had suggested to his commander, Joffre that he was happy with the situation on the west bank but the question needed to be asked : where the line should be ? A few tactical withdrawals here and there should not perturb the GQG.
In fact, such an idea did upset Joffre who immediately took himself off to Pétain’s HQ at Souilly, to the south-west of Verdun — just as the Germans launched their latest offensive. Witnessing at first hand the ferocity of the artillery preparation and the stout resistance by the French infantry Joffre was forced to accept that Pétain knew what he was doing.
Instead of the expected breakthrough the French line just about held (though Mort Homme was partially lost) and Pétain was able to utter his famous phrase :
Le 9 avril est une journée glorieuse pour nos armes. Les assauts furieux des soldats du Kronprinz ont été partout brisés…Les Allemands attaqueront sans doute encore. Que chacun travaille et veille pour obtenir le même succès qu’hier… Courage, on les aura !
The 9th April was a glorious day for our forces. The furious assaults by the Crown Prince’s soldiers were broken across the front…The Germans will, no doubt, attack again. Let every man work and watch to achieve the same result as yesterday. Courage, we will beat them !
Mort Homme continued to see fierce fighting on a daily basis. Both sides struggling for control over the heights, and each shell hole now filled with water from incessant rain. On 20th April the French regained their old front lines and the attacks and counter-attacks continued.
On 3rd May the Germans launched a five hundred piece cannonade on Cote 304. For the French defenders it felt like witnessing Judgement Day. For two days and nights the hill was hammered, and then hammered some more. Pilots reported that the debris and smoke was rising to more than 800 metres.
French losses were severe. All the batteries of artillery that had done such a fine job of supporting Mort Homme were smashed to pieces, trenches were levelled with survivors being dug out multiple times.
On 8th May the Germans conquered what remained of the position but under the constant fire from both sides artillery it was no-longer a tenable observation point. However, for the Germans that didn’t matter because Cote 304 had always been the key to Mort Homme — in turn perhaps the key to Verdun.
The writing was on the wall for Mort Homme and by the end of the month the summit had fallen to the Germans. Although they took the small village of Cumières, this was as far as the Germans were ever to reach.
The two summits would remain in German hands until the French offensive of August 1917.