La Batalla de Verdun (The Battle of Verdun) by Gerorges Blond – A Review

La Batalla de Verdun (The Battle of Verdun)
Gerorges Blond
Inedita Editores, 2008, pg 337
translator Jose Patricio Montojo
Language: Spanish

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.

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War by Paul Jankowski – A Review

9780199316892_450Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War
Paul Jankowski
2014, pg 336

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.