Unreliable Communication Technology Figures Prominently In the Catastrophic Loss of Life at the Battle of Verdun
By Tom White
It would be no stretch of the imagination to call the Battle of Verdun the worst battle in history, and certainly one of the longest. The battle resulted in estimated causalities of roughly 469,000 for the French and somewhere in the neighborhood of 373,000 for the Germans according to Churchill’s World Crisis. Although the leadership of both the French and German sides played a definitive role for the events leading to the battle, one aspect of technology that contributed to the greatest loss of life was ineffective communication technology. Ineffective communication technology figured prominently in all aspects of the Battle of Verdun, beginning with battle preparations, execution, and response to attack. The historian Alistair Horne even noted in The Price of Glory when present day artillery officers are “sent to Verdun for a lecture in battle…the instructors there freely admit that it had absolutely no relevance to modern warfare”, because technology and tactics have changed.
Communication technology at the time that World War I had begun consisted of a rudimentary telephone system, carrier pigeon, a type of Morse code blinker system and human runners. The telephone system and its accompanying wire which was actually strung along the ground was “no sooner laid than torn up by shellfire.” The carrier pigeon was equally unreliable, as was the blinker system which depended upon a clear line of sight between communicators. Finally what was left when all else failed was the human communication runner, who was often the “sole means of communication at Verdun”, and was considered “an almost suicidal occupation.”
Communication difficulties plagued the Battle of Verdun from the beginning, with early French intelligence being gleaned “largely on their not very reliable listening posts which were occasionally able to pick up fragments of conversation from the enemy’s crude trench telephone system.” Considering that the French received the battle warning so late before zero hour, had it not been for a weather delay, then it is possible that France could have lost the battle and as historian Alistair Horne noted the war itself.
Equally distressing, yet more disastrous, was the toll that poor communication technology took on the combatants once the battle began. As was often the case once an attack was underway and telephone lines were severed, even runners were often not able to get through with communications in time. The consequences were frequently disastrous as was the case for the French at Samogneux. Following a German offensive at Samogneux, rumors began of a French collapse and could not be verified. Acting upon this information, General Herr “ordered the powerful French artillery [at Verdun]” to direct fire upon the supposedly fallen position. The unfortunate result was that for two hours despite the efforts of French troops, who still occupied the Samogneux positions, they were unable to stop the barrage and these defenders were wiped out, all because of ineffective communication.
Unreliable communication technology throughout the Battle of Verdun had the gravest of consequences. Even prior to an attack “last minute upsets [which] occurred so frequently in the First War when runners and word-of-mouth took the place of ‘Walkie-Talkie’” often never found there intended audience. Worse yet military commanders had neither an effective means of monitoring battle conditions or the ability to implement timely change when needed, and once in the heat of battle the ability to communicate quickly became all but non-existent. Unreliable communication technology factored prominently in the greatest loss of life at the Battle of Verdun.
Horne, Alistair. The Price of Glory Verdun 1916.London: Penguin Books, 1993