The Battle of Verdun has long been regarded as perhaps the sharpest Schwerpunkt of the Great War. In an attempt to bleed the French Army dry, the Germans launched an offensive on the strategic fortress of Verdun. There was no other aim than to lure the French into losing so many men that they could not carry on the war. In fact, the Somme Offensive – another byword for attrition – was launched early in an attempt to relieve the pressure on Verdun. Yet Verdun is almost completely overshadowed by the Somme and Ypres in the British understanding of the First World War.
The title is perhaps slightly misleading, in that the book focuses much more on the general conduct of the Great War than it might suggest. This is not surprising, as it is in fact part of a trilogy of books by Horne focussing on the long rivalry between France and Germany – the Franco-Prussian War, and the 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 Wars. The latter two books cover the wars in general, but choose Verdun in 1916 and Dunkirk in 1940 as the apex of the French experience.
Horne is a master of the close study of the military leader – here, in paticular, he paints lucid and telling pictures of men like Joffre, Falkenhayn and Petain. Horne’s grasp of the big picture, and the personality of command, is clear indeed. Horne also delves into describing contemporary France in detail, a wise move that puts the conduct of the French Army into suitable context. It is very important to immerse yourself in the military culture of a nation if you want to understand the actions of its armies. Here Horne considers the impact of French society on her army, the hstorical legacy of Napoleon and the Franco-Prussian War, the French Army’s belief in the offensive reform, and the effect of the Grand Quartier General.
Criticisms? It does show its age. Having been written in the 1960′s, it is stil couched very much in Great War mythology. Historians of that era were prone to compare the World Wars, and conclude that the First World War was much bloodier. Modern Historians might be more critical, and challenge such assumptions. And given that this is such a masterful study, it is a great shame that it is not referenced properly. Clearly a lot of research went into the writing of this book, and it is a pity indeed that the reader cannot see the sources that went into Horne’s conclusions. This is not to dispute Horne’s integrity – far from it – but a modern book would suffer from a lack of referencing. One other annoying habit is that of including a wealth of French quotes, without a translation – back in the 60′s every Historian might have been fluent in French, but in the twenty-first century it does seem a rather snobby trait.
Between 21 February and 15 July 1916 the French Army suffered over 275,000 men and 6,563 officers as casualties. On the German side, almost a quarter of a million men were lost. But, crucially, the French had sent 70 Divisions into battle at Verdun; the Germans ‘only’ 46. Thus Falkenhayn’s strategy of bleeding the French dry backfired horribly – the French had certainly not ‘won’, but the German’s for their part could not afford anything over than success. Horne calls Verdun the ‘worst’ battle in History, and also the First World War in microcosm – arguments that are hard to dispute.
This is a very enlightening book indeed. It is of its time, but in its time it was a classic, and still stands up remarkably well.Perhaps a reworking – or better still a new book on Verdun – would be interesting to see?