The more I read military history the more I’m convinced that most books divide into two types: the narrative of action; and the analysis of events. The former reads like a novel, full of action and sweeps the reader along—an exciting read, the stuff of adventure. The latter eschews narrative and picks apart elements of a battle or war, often returning over and again to a moment to look at it from a different angle. The former is easy to read, the latter feels more honest to scholarship asking questions that narrative sweep can obscure. Paul Jankowski’s Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War definitely falls into the latter camp and for that is an excellent account of the events and participants that made Verdun a byword for futility and waste.
Jankowski begins with an investigation of motives for the attack. In particular, he shows the Erich von Falkenhayn’s goal to bleed France white was really something he came up with after the war to justify his attack and his persistence. Jankowski notes that it is hard to know for sure these details because the German archives were destroyed in World War II, and both the French and German official histories have elements of propaganda in them. Given that Falkenhayn was not truthful, what were his reasons for continuing with the attack? And for that mater what were those of the French to hold on to a system of forts they had decided were useless and had virtually abandoned? In each case it seems as if there was a momentum that made it impossible to withdraw. The Germans couldn’t withdraw after committing so much, the French couldn’t afford to loose any more land. For the French, Verdun, as the battle dragged on, became a point of pride and instead of withdrawing to safer and more strategic zone they chose to fight.
Jankowski the battle itself was not as legend has led us to believe. The initial losses of the forts was as much luck on the German side as disinterest on the French side. But once lost they became focal points of the battle. The French were not prepared to fight the battle either. They were short of guns, especially heavy ones, but they did advantages when it came to supplying the troops. He spends considerable time looking at what made the troops continue to fight. On the French side it is a critical question because the next year the French army would see mutinies. He points out, though, that the commitment to the battle was stronger than later events would have us believe. It was when the futility of the battles of 1917 became apparent, the men lost their will to fight. His analysis is a complex picture of competing motives and pressures that kept the men at the front.
Ultimately, the brilliance of Jankowski’s book comes from the way he shows there are no easy answers to why the battle lasted so long, why the men fought it, and how the two sides were able to maintain the intensity. I think anyone reading this will come away from it with the impression that what kept it all going so long was simple momentum. And though it did help sap the French of their will to fight, the post war analysis and legends only served to obscure what really was happening and what the participants thought. Jankowski has added new light to those times.