Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Verdun Project: "The Price of Glory" by Sir Alistair Horne


The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916” is Sir Alistair Horne’s magisterial account of the battle of Verdun in 1916. Published in 1962 it remains one of the leading English language books on the battle and campaign, being widely read and almost invariably cited extensively in Verdun-related bibliographies. It was the first book I read which covered the battle of Verdun in any detail, and may also have been yours.


Having re-read it over the past few weeks, I’ve also found it a more difficult book to review than I first thought it would be. Hopefully the reasons for this will become clear in this post. But first, let me start with what is excellent about Sir Alistair’s book.

I mentioned in the first sentence that “The Price of Glory” is a “magisterial account”. It’s hard to think of another book on the Great War which reads quite as well, and certainly (at least to my mind) none which were published in the 1960s. Sir Alistair’s style is effortlessly readable. It’s intelligent and thoughtful without being overly academic. The book is meticulously organized and comprehensive and wears its considerable scholarship lightly. The text benefits from the author’s clearly excellent linguistic skills, enabling him to create a cogent and consistent narrative of the critical events of the battle throughout 1916.



 There is also a quite definite and deliberate flourish about the book. “The Price of Glory” forms Sir Alistair’s central pillar of his fine trilogy of books about modern France, preceded by his account of the Paris Commune (“The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, 1870-1”) and followed by his account of the fall of France in 1940 (“To Lose a Battle: France 1940”). Its been a while since I read the other two books in the trilogy, but my recollection is that, taken together, they are a deeply impressive achievement, and one of which any writer would be justifiably proud. The sheer scale of the historical events being confronted does not overwhelm Horne. His written style and command of his material is deployed in a vivid, striking style. This is history as grand theatre, with France as the stage and her survival against terrible circumstances as the main act.


Being aware of the context of “The Price of Glory” as a historical account is important. It is impossible to read the book and not be impressed by the scale of the history Horne has created. The fine and careful balance between a broad sweep of strategy, grand-operational details and human stories create the feel that the battle has been explored in all of its features.

And, taken on its own terms, as history and historiography, I think the book is terrific. If you are at all interested in the battle of Verdun, the fairly modest cover price of the book is well worth paying.

So, you might be wondering why this is a difficult book to review.  

A lot has happened in Great War studies since the book was written in 1962. Revisionist accounts have been published of many Great War battles. It’s now possible to advance many arguments surrounding the course of the fighting in titanic battles such as Passchendaele which are far removed from the “Lions led by Donkeys” approach taken by authors such as Alan Clark and Bill Laffin in the 1970s. Of course, the revisionist accounts do not, taken by themselves, automatically negate all earlier works. But the historical revisionism focused on the Great War of the past 15 years or so does force a reader to think about the content, scope and depth of earlier works, and encourages the reader to view earlier historical works critically, while remaining respectful regarding the achievements of earlier writers. Once this approach is adopted, re-reading “The Price of Glory” starts to be a difficult process.  

I found myself on most pages, and in every chapter, finding a sentence, an example or an argument which I suspect may be ripe for reappraisal or further research. The context in which these examples arise seemed difficult to reconcile with other circumstances I’d read in other, more recent, French and English-language accounts. Taking Horne’s history at face value lead a reader to thinking that the command, operational and tactical problems in the French army of 1916 were uniquely pronounced. And that seems, at least to me, to be unlikely.

As an example, take the descriptions of the fighting around Le Mort Homme and Cote 304 in April 1916 in Chapter Fourteen of “The Price of Glory”. This was a critical part of the battle, and was by any judgment a battlefield environment which both sides struggled to maintain control of their forces and achieve their operational objectives.



There are some very brief references in the book to the careful siting of defensive machine gun sections, and of the importance of French batteries located to the rear of the Cote 304 ridge line. But the details of micro-terrain, and the tactical developments which both sides used to try and achieve success in the fighting on and around them, is not clearly set out. While heavily wooded today, Cote 304 is deceptively steep, with its sides set at a steeper angle than comes across in many photographs of the terrain in 1916 or later years before re-forestation. Stripped of cover by constant artillery barrages, any attack to take Cote 304 had limited cover and advancing troops were exposed under heavy fire. Siting of defensive positions and machine guns in this environment was therefore essential. None of these details of the micro-terrain (which are invaluable to wargamers) really flow from Sir Alistair’s book.

 
Horne addresses the tactical elements of the fighting in outline only. By contrast, he is far more interested in reflecting the dramatic elements of the fighting. He references a contemporary cartoon entitled “Verdun: Storming the Mort Homme” depicting the Kaiser and Crown Prince flogging German soldiers into the arms of Death. He describes the exhaustion of the German troops in the area, which he ascribes to the “German command’s ruthless system of keeping divisions in the line over lengthy periods” (page 164). And he recites the accounts of Le Mort Homme and Cote 304 smoking like volcanos, obscured by clouds of dust and smoke churned by constant bombardment. Reading his account becomes at times an assault on your own senses as a reader. It is certainly magisterial, but there’s an overload of the dramatic sense of the battle. At times it becomes history as grand-guignol; an element of the cold forensic analysis of the revisionist military historian is lacking.


Of course, all of this is my very subjective view. At all times Horne is an entrancing writer. You simply want to read to the next page, and the narrative carried me away to the end of the book pretty much effortlessly. But time and again I was hoping for more detail, more analysis and more depth, not least regarding the French command system and French tactical and operational doctrines at the key stages of the battle.

These absences do not impair the pleasure of reading “The Price of Glory”, or diminish the respect I have for what Sir Alistair achieved in his account. They do, however, possibly leave the book as less authoritative than it might first appear, although another way of interpreting this would be to consider the book as the starting point for further reading.

I also thought about how helpful the book was to me as a wargamer. As with other books I’ve reviewed, the scale of Horne’s history is strategic and operational. Tactical themes are subordinated into the narrative, and perhaps this is indicative of the historical approach of a generation of historians from the 1960s who interpreted the Great War in the context of grand strategic themes, nationalism and anonymous social and industrial forces. In this regard, Horne was not alone, but the absence of tactical details in the book, of how the German and French infantry fought in detail at different stages of the battle, and how their tactics evolved, is a notable omission. For these details, you have to look to other books.


In summary then, I would strongly recommend “The Price of Glory”. It’s accessible, comprehensive and deeply impressive. It has some significant problems, and these make it difficult to see the book as being the single authoritative text on the battle. However, in my view these are problems which have been exposed through the course of time and through the development of further historical studies after the book was written.

For the general wargaming reader, five out of five star shells and a strong recommendation. For the wargamer looking for platoon-level tactical details on the battle, perhaps only three out of five star shells, with the caveat that the focus of the book is on higher-command levels, regardless of the battle being a classic “soldier’s battle”.

15 comments:

  1. He is certainly an impressive scholar - though I've only read his 1870 work.

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    1. Conrad, I completely agree. He's a fine historian in the classic mould.

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  2. That is a comprehensive review Sidney. Your research shows through in your work.
    Cheers,
    Pat.

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  3. A well presented review there, when I see it on my shelf I often think about reading it again having really enjoyed it for the reasons you have stated, but perhaps it is better if I don't, it is like many good things in the past "of its time", but like you would recommend it to new readers.

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    1. I pretty much agree with that perfectly, Phil. I don't often re-read history books, but on this occasion when I did I noticed a lot more I'd missed first time around.

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  4. A fantastic review Sidney. I think you've hit the nail on the head, here. Alistair's generation of historians, with the notable exception of John Terraine, tended to focus on the immensity of the conflict. It wouldn't surprise me if they felt that the war was just too vast to be able to do any more than convey the grand scale of it to the reader. The specialisation of history and the work of people dedicated to the study of tactics and their evolution has radically altered our perception from the ground up. It cannot be denied that there is a magisterial sweep in Horne's work, but this is the middle volume of a trilogy that is intended to help us understand modern French history, from tragedy, to tragic triumph and back to tragedy again, and his treatment of Verdun certainly comes across as such. He wants us to know that you can't understand the stubborn defence of Verdun without examining the humiliation of 1870-71, nor understand the capitulation of 1940 without reference to the cost of the First World War. The problem becomes that when you know the eventual fate of your subject, do you downplay the triumph and overplay the tragedy? Do you lose sight of the small picture to sweep it all together into the big picture? Maybe I'm rambling now, but thanks for another great review!

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    1. Thanks Nate for that excellent comment. Reading the books together you do have the feeling of an arc of history. Historians always love to try and create a feeling that things just "fit" together somehow, explaining a course of history in cogent and related steps. I definitely got that when I read Sir Alastair Horne's books.

      And I agree that, when a historian is writing in that context, they emphasise some points more than others. Tragedy, triumph, dislocation, reconstruction, confusion and organisation. The less visible (perhaps contradictory) elements which buck the trend get explained away, or de-emphasised. I'm sure any historian would say that's simply what happens in any argument.

      What has interested me about Verdun is that there are a lot of contradictions in the battle, on both sides. The overwhelming feeling I've got from what I've read is of the unpredictability of the battle, and the struggle of both sides to effectively manage, shape and control its course. Where the battle fits into a consistent arc of history is more difficult to determine. How the battle gets appropriated by both sides during and after the War is part of that story.

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  5. A very good review of a book I read very often. For me, the book is well suited because I'm not a wargamer. I think personal experience reports of participants will complete this work quite well.

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    1. Thanks Bruno. Funny you should say that, but one of the next books I'll review has far more of the Poilu's eye-view....

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  6. I have three of Sir Alistair Allan Horne's French-German war books; The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, 1870-1; The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, and To Lose a Battle: France 1940. The Price of Glory is a book that I can go back to year after year and reread. A truly marvellous writer and engaging historian. You would not be wasting your time, reading any of these books

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    1. Thanks Robert! I completely agree. Reading Sir Alastair's books is always time well spent!

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  7. I am working my way through this book at the moment, and find your review overly generous.

    After three pages I was forced to go and check if Mr Horne was American because his historical perspectives are so skewed, and dripping with the kind of half truths and cliches one sees in the Pragmatist approach.

    For instance on page 46 in his description of the town of Verdun, he states that despite two years of war and it's proximity to the front line the town had changed very little from pre-war days. He then goes on to describe how 4/5ths of the population have left and those who remain have given up their previous jobs and professions to make a living selling victuals to the garrison. Which by any objective measure demonstrates that the town has greatly changed from it's pre-war situation.

    He also has an unfortunate tone, sneering at those he does not like - the senior commanders in particular. This combined with quoting Liddell Hart not only dates the book terribly, but also gives it a very clear agenda.

    Which is not to say that there is not history contained both within the narrative and also escaping from around the edges of Mr Horne's style and artful facade. But to find the latter one often has to work backwards.

    Referring back to the state of Verdun at the time of the battle. He uses his claim of the town not changing to support his arguments for why Verdun was a weak point, and unprepared. And brings in Driant and Gallieni, plays up Joffre's orders not to defend the forts, and the previous disobedience of Sarreil. And while he is keen to talk about Hindenburg and Ludendorff in the east, Horne makes no mention of the pre-war and subsequent agonies the Russians, and to some extend the Austrians, had been through with regard to just this topic, i.e the role and usage of fortifications. Though more pertinently this does offer valuable insight into a matter that Horne claims is without precedence in history and utterly unfathomable, namely the Falkenhayn memo.

    For Horne to claim that never before in history had a commander devised a plan to draw in the enemy and destroy them is insulting the reader.

    And more importantly the memo states "as there can be no possibility of a voluntary withdrawl", which is precisely what Joffre is proposing and has attempted. Which in turn pretty much explains the plan, if the French stand Falkenhayn intends to massacre them, and if they withdraw the objective becomes the capture of Verdun with the resulting damage to national prestige: and in the perfect world both.

    As you have said, whilst this is an interesting read, it is also a very annoying book to anyone with a wider and deeper understanding of the period.

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