Saturday, June 6, 2015

Verdun 1916 - a book review

Verdun 1916Verdun 1916 by Malcolm Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad! — Lieutenant Alfred Joubaire (Died for France at Verdun).

Two horrendous battle were fought in 1916: Verdun and the Somme. The latter which lasted from July 1 to November 18, is better known to English speakers as it was fought mainly by troops from Britain and the Empire. The Somme resulted in over 1.1 million casualties on both side with the British losing 58,000 the first day, of which 19,000 were killed. Details complete with excellent full screen maps can be found at

The Battle of Verdun was an attempt by the Germans to bleed France white and force her into an armistice by attacking an area so sacred to France that the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. The strategically located city had a history going back to Attila the Hun, Charlemagne and the Peace of Westphalia. 

Verdun was a series of 28 forts great and small built on high ground (>150 meters) overlooking the valley of the Meuse River. They had been modernized before the war and equipped with heavy artillery. However, under Joffre, fortresses were no longer considered in vogue and they had pretty much been abandoned and disarmed. Further, Verdun was a salient with only one light railroad and one narrow winding highway along which to move troops and supplies. The German CiC, Falkenhayn, expected it to be an easy victory and an on-going bloodbath for the French.

Brown gives only the bare essential military details. For those, go to either The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 or which has full page maps etc. Brown tries to bring to the reader the horror of those engaged in the fighting on both sides. The "mill on the Meuse" ground up 700,000 men (330,000 Germans, 370,000 French) over the course of 300 days, with many of the dead and wounded never having seen an enemy soldier. It was a battle of artillery, with several thousand heavy guns on both sides shelling the trenches.

Brown quotes extensively from letters, memoirs, official documents, written by soldiers, officers, nurses, ambulance drivers, presidents and paupers on both sides. It is not an easy read if one has any imagination. The stench of death was everywhere. A shell would bury the living and the dead while the next one would disinter them again. There were no white flag truces to gather the wounded. Dirt in the wounds made gas gangrene a constant companion. Food and water were all at a premium.

The Germans took a few kilometers but they did not take Verdun. Furthermore they were bled as white as the French. Falkenhayn was replaced by Hindenburg and Ludendorf. Joffre was fired. Petain emerged as the hero of Verdun which came back to haunt France some 20 years later when he would surrender to Hitler instead of turning back the Nazi invasion.

However the effect of the hell of Verdun on the morale of French troops resulted in mutinies the following year, which were never recovered from until into 1918. 

Bravery and belief in duty were never in short supply. The savagery that humans can inflict and endure staggers the mind. 

Maps and photos from Wikipedia.

The battle field 

The Battle of Verdun

The Western Front 1916

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  1. "We're not making a sacrifice. Jesus, you've seen this war. We are the sacrifice."—Unknown Ulsterman, lifted from Kipling.

    1. I had never seen this but it certainly describes the Great War. Lions led by donkeys.

  2. Truly barbaric. My great-uncle fought with the 44th Battalion Canadian Infantry at the Somme and Vimy Ridge. He came back with a medal, which seems ridiculously inadequate. One small piece of metal for enduring such horror...

    1. One of my great uncles was in the war too but he never spoke about it so we know nothing. I can only imagine.Have you read Pierre Burton's "Vimy"? Incredible!

    2. No, I don't have the stomach for it. My imagination is far too good, and I don't want to think about my Uncle Bob living through that hell.

  3. Funny, Diane, I can read about war in all its horror but I could not finish The Gulag Archipelago not The Grapes of Wrath. The just tied my insides in a knot.


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