“The Road to Verdun: France, Nationalism and the First World War” focuses more on why French and German armies fought at Verdun, and why the battle continued so relentlessly for so long, rather than how it was fought. The book deepens the reader’s understanding of the social and political situation in France before the Great War, and characterises the determination of the French army to hold on at Verdun as being closely associated with the pain felt in France through the humiliations of the Franco-Prussian War. It’s a beautifully written book and the late Mr Ousby has a style which is perceptive and at times entrancing. But it’s also a book which is far from straightforward and in which the arguments deployed can be complex and sometimes unwieldy.
“The Road to Verdun” is divided into three parts. The first part, “Friction at Verdun, February 1916” was probably the most use to me as a wargamer. The initial German assault of February 1916, the iconic fighting in the Bois des Caures and the fall of Fort Douaumont are thoughtfully covered. There is very little detail on the military tactics employed, at least nothing which isn’t well known from other more operationally-focused books. There are, however, a plenty of details about the intensity of the fighting, with the perspective being mainly that of soldiers and junior officers. This is history from the Poilu’s viewpoint. The emerging themes are skilfully set out: devastation, endurance and sacrifice. The sections I enjoyed most in this part were the references Mr Ousby made to the importance of ground and earth (as sacred ground) at Verdun and his insights into the religious symbolism used by French propagandists relating to the battle. These were very insightful, but sadly short, passages.
The second part, “The Endless Crisis, 1870 – 1914” is the most thematic section of the book. It is very difficult to reduce Mr Ousby’s detailed and thoughtful arguments to a single summary sentence. His arguments weave through sociology, politics, nationalism, racism, Aryanism, anthropology and religion. Its heavyweight material. Some of the arguments, especially those in the chapter entitled “What is a Nation”, are theoretical and, to my mind, perhaps even convoluted. There are times when the focus of the book, the battle of Verdun, appear to be diminishing into discussions of precisely what is France. It’s entrancing, fascinating and, for the most part, readable. But this section it is not easy going. Temptations emerge about page 160 to turn to another book, the television or paintbrushes.
Assuming you stick with it, the main thesis emerging is that France was, in the late 19th century, not just a nation but a collection of ideas and principles and symbolized in the minds of the leading French thinkers of the time as a person: “a living being with a head and a heart, a temperament and a character. As such it could be at odds with itself without ceasing to be one” (page 148). For this symbolic person, the loss of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871 was not just the loss of land and people, but a wound – la plaie saignante, the wound that always bleeds. The author’s argument is that the dislocation, pain and shock of that loss formed a context to the determination of the French army not to yield at Verdun.
The third part of the book, and the shortest, is “The Mill on the Meuse, March – December 1916”. This section brings us back to Verdun, but remains far from a study of how the battle was fought. There is no detailed description of tactics, or logistics. What Mr Ousby does set out are a number of vivid, and utterly horrifying, eye-witness accounts of the battle. The psychological shock of the battle is addressed. “What Verdun did to men was a masonic rite, fierce and exclusive” he states, in one memorable sentence (page 205). The quotations Mr Ousby gives from French soldiers present at Verdun – of the battle being a furnace, a slaughterhouse, a holocaust – are as moving as they are dramatic. The sheer determination and resilience of the French army to hang on to Verdun is well covered, focusing on Verdun as as symbol of, and for, France.
The sections in which comparisons are drawn between Verdun, and Fort Douaumont in particular, and the occupied provinces of Alsace and Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War are well judged. “Sullen lump of concrete and metal and earth though it might be, Douaumont was spoken of as if it were a living thing: a hostage, a captive taken by the enemy and suffering at their hands. Above all, Douaumont was a woman: a beautiful French woman, another Daughter of France, abused and defiled” (p. 213).
In short, I very much enjoyed the book, despite it being a difficult and sometimes frustrating read. I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about France in the late 19th Century, and about why the French army fought at Verdun so hard and for so long. As military history, while there are some very good passages, there are also many sections which (in the light of French scholarship since 2001) look slightly outdated – although the same can be said of other books I want to review on Verdun in the coming months. As a historical thesis, I think the book is compelling but without being, ultimately, completely persuasive.
While it’s difficult to give a book like this a rating, I’d give it 4 out of 5 star-shells as a history text, but probably 3 out of 4 star-shells if you’re looking for an operational-level study of the battle.