“Verdun 1916” by Malcolm Brown, published in 1999, is a slightly surprising book. It’s been on my bookshelf for a while, sitting alongside other, better known, volumes on Verdun.
At first sight it seems to offer little new regarding the history of the long battle at Verdun between February and December 1916. In many ways, it doesn’t really take the history of the battle much further forward than Sir Alistair Horne’s magisterial “The Price of Glory”. While Mr Brown mentions in his foreword that, while paying great respect to Sir Alistair’s classic account, his own book offers insights into the battle from historical sources which were not available when “The Price of Glory” was first published in 1962. However, reading through the contents page and the early chapters, its difficult to see where the additional information is located.
The book is generally arranged chronologically, with three chapters at the end of the book dealing with the experience and legacy of the fighting at Verdun.
On the positive side, there are lengthy and very helpful passages from contemporaries present at the battle. Many of these are remarkable and pay testament to the uniqueness of the experiences of the fighting at Verdun. The passages are lengthier than in Horne’s “The Price of Glory” and Ian Ousby’s “The Road to Verdun”. Copying some of these passages and handing them around a table before a wargame is perhaps one of the easiest ways of setting the scene for any wargame based on the battle.
Here’s a frequently quoted passage from Lieutenant Alfred Joubaire of the French 124th Infantry Regiment, no less grim for all its familiarity:
“But for how long is it going to carry on? You wonder with anguish when and how this unprecedented struggle will end. There is no solution in sight. I wonder if it will end simply for lack of fighting men. It is no longer a case of one nation struggling with another. It is two blocks of nations which are fighting, two civilizations which are in conflict with each other. People are suffering from the madness of death and destruction. Yes, humanity has gone mad. We must be mad to do what we are doing. What massacres! What scenes of horror and carnage!. I cannot find words to express my feelings. Hell cannot be so terrible. Mankind has gone mad”.
There are a number of useful references to terrain (Mort-Homme being “originally partly wooded but now no more than a few blackened trunks are left visible, and there isn’t a green leaf or a blade of grass”, from the account of Leutnant Christian Bordeching). To James Rogers McConnell, one of the American airmen of the Lafayette Escadrille, the battlefield was reduced to a “sinister brown belt, a strip of murdered nature…The woods and roads have vanished like chalk wiped from a blackboard; of the villages nothing remains but grey smears” (page 240). Unfortunately, these graphic images stop short of describing the micro-terrain features which both sides exploited vigorously throughout the fighting.
Also on the positive side, the book is elegantly written in a very professional manner. Mr Brown is clearly a fine writer and organizes his material carefully, albeit with an eye on the general reader.
But there are few revelations in the main part of the book.
The chronological stages of the battle, the opposing generals, their strategy and their forces are covered in a professional and workmanlike manner. As with Horne and Ousby (and some of the other Verdun-themed books to be reviewed here shortly), there is next to nothing about small unit tactics or a description of exactly what the junior and brigade commanders thought they were doing in the battle. While the predominant artillery conflict is well documented, almost no attention is given to how attacks were arranged, mounted and consolidated by either side. This is not really a criticism – the book is pitched at a general level, and that type of detail (useful to wargamers) isn’t the author’s focus.
I felt that the book did not really stand out and grab my attention for most of the chapters. At least, that is, until near the end. Chapters 18 (The Closedown), 19 (The Experience) and 20 (The Legacy) are the best in the book in my view by a long way. With extensive extracts from contemporaries, Mr Brown positions Verdun as a battle set apart – a war within the larger War. There’s less focus on the symbolism of the battle for France than in Ian Ousby’s “The Road to Verdun”, and more focus on the nature of the battle as an experience - horrific, dehumanizing and, ultimately, totally alienating.
Brown’s argument, cogently threaded through his narrative, is that neither the Germans nor the French fully recovered from Verdun before the end of the War owing to the uniqueness of the battle’s intensity and heavy casualties. “One element that marked out Verdun as being exceptional was the sense of impotence felt by the soldiers out in the mud and squalor under the endless fury of the guns” (page 238). The nature of Verdun is explored as a perverse baptism (“He who has not seen Verdun has not seen this War”, Soldat Jean Ayon, 119th Regiment of Infantry) with religious anointing being replaced with expiatory suffering and sacrifice. Brown memorably concludes one chapter saying “It could be said that this was not so much a battle between victors and vanquished – such terms rapidly lost all meaning in so attritional an encounter – as between victims”(233).
Thoughtfully and calmly deployed, these insights were, for me, worth the price of the book itself. I am not sure I agree with the author’s overall arguments regarding the place of the battle of Verdun in the Great War, which fuse almost too conveniently with positioning Verdun as a colossal sacrifice devoid of any real achievement. To my mind, the fighting at Verdun was far too complex, intricate and militarily important to be reduced to a mere symbol of two nations’ sacrifice. But I felt that my coming to a different view on the battle did nothing to lessen the calm elegance of Mr Brown’s writing.
So, another difficult book to assign a rating to. There’s not much here for the wargamer interested in tactical developments – perhaps 2 star-shells out of 5. For a general reader, the book is accessible, well-written and thoughtful – so 3 star-shells out of 5.
In summary, an enjoyable read overall and it is hard not to be moved by the closing chapters of the book, which linger a long time in the memory.