La Batalla de Verdun (The Battle of Verdun)
Inedita Editores, 2008, pg 337
translator Jose Patricio Montojo
Gerorges Blond’s 1962 The Battle of Verdun, or in French simply Verdun, is a strange kind of history, at once more interested in the dramatic value of the story and yet an apparent exploration of the first hand experiences of the soldiers who lived France’s iconic battle of World War I. What makes the book a compelling read (it won the Richelieu prize), is his detailed focus on the experience of the soldier in battle. He is quite clear in his interest: what actual combat was like. Reading Verdun you’ll have a general sense of the battles movement of troops, but even that will be incomplete—he doesn’t even recount large sections of the final stages of the battle. Instead, one will understand the fatigue and exhaustion that overtook the soldiers outside Fluery as they drank putrid water from shell craters that gave them dysentery, while the shells landed around them and the fighting was hand to hand. His descriptions of the battle for Fort Vaux is particularly detailed (perhaps graphic is the right word). The men could hardly breathe and the stink of the dead permeated everything. The French held out on the lower sections of the fort while the Germans slowly worked their way in, loosing great numbers to the determined resistance. He’s at his best when he is describing these almost novelist encounters. One has the impression that he had researched the encounters, and his comments towards the end of the book about his conversations with the veterans of the war, all lend credence to his descriptions. Those close in details follow his general style of narration which places heavy emphasis on characters and personalities, even in the abstract or the aggregate. For Blond, the strategic implications of the battle are only important in how they influence the daily life of the participants. In other words, he likes his characters. It is that focus that brings him to write about the men of the Sacred Way, the only supply line into Verdun, or the pilots battling in horrendous situations. In each case he finds in them a heroism that is both stoic and noble, men who are doing what they have to, many who know they’ll never return. It can be a jarring approach at times. His coverage of the air war is particularly odd since he seems to care little about other strategic elements of the war, and he is certainly not trying to do a survey of all the various factors in the battle. He might have done well to stick to the ground war. His search for character also detracts in the liberties he takes that no academic historian would. In the initial parts of the book he was recording thoughts and conversations that Joffre and other generals were having, yet it was unclear how he knew these statements. There was no sourcing and it felt too complete. It wasn’t until late in the book that he remarked that he didn’t have the details of a conversation, I think with Petain, but it must have gone something like this. For one, such as myself, who wants a little more concrete detail it can be a little discerning. Despite those lapses, Blond’s ability to describe the experience of the front line troops was impressive and given what I know of the battles, I would say on target. While not the most rigorous history, it has some impressive passages. In some ways, the best part were the last pages when he began making more references to the soldiers and the evenings he spent with them at campgrounds outside Verdun, reliving the war. In those moments you see a writer full of respect and admiration for the Poilu. It brought his writing into a fuller, less narrative driven, style that served the pointless of the battle.