- Christina Holstein
- ARRSE Rating
- 5 Mushroom Heads
Firstly, a confession – I have had a deep interest in the Battle of Verdun for many years, personally, I would call it a War in its own right, given the scale and purpose Von Falkenhayn had for the campaign. I could ramble on for pages, so forgive me if this book review seems a little too long!.
Back to the book – actually, it’s two books in one, a total of two hundred and sixty-eight pages, only the first one hundred and four are given to the history of the battle and only a few of those are given over to the to-and-fro events of 1916. Clearly, theres relatively few pages to give any depth of the history, additionally, there are many period photographs and maps interspersed in the text, further reducing the space for details. There is little mention of, for example, the ‘Vie Sacree’, the French command failures (and successes) in 1916, the political appointment of Nivelle – and his replacement by Petain – ‘The Lion of Verdun’ nor the overruling of Von Falkenhayn once his plan to ‘Bleed France dry’ purely by attrition, expecting a 5:2 French : German kill ratio.
None of this matters though, the point of the book is not to give a detailed, granular chronology of the battle, but to give a broad brush overview to pique interest in the subject – there are many points in the text where quotes from letters, regimental texts and diaries give welcome meat on the bones, some of which of which I have not seen before. There are also fairly detailed descriptions of the battles for Cote 304, Mort Homme and the Gallwitz & Kronprinz tunnels
What is inescapable from reading the first part of the book is the sheer scale of the destruction and death, the preparations on both sides – some going back to the 1870s in the case of the French forts. Both sides suffered over 360,000 casualties, with at least a third of that number killed.
The second part of the book is concerned with ‘The Tours’. This is where the detail starts to be revealed, each suggested tour – and there are four, start with the distance, rough time and the IGN maps required along with the standard health and safety warnings for wandering around what is still, for the most part, an area where old, unstable munitions are still to be found.
There are also some suggestions of where to stay and eat, personally, I’ve used Gites / B&B’s in small villages where the owners have been more than happy to talk about the war(s) and their family history, especially in the Meuse area.
Each tour is well put together and is a mine of information, not only on the history but also gives travel tips to ensure you stay on route if the signposting is less than ideal… The tours also take in some of the rear areas which can be just as interesting as the combat areas. I would also suggest that you allow much more time to visit the Forts than the book allows for, not just in case of queues but to allow yourself to take in the still-visible destruction around them.
There are a lot of personal histories detailed in the tour pages which is a nice touch, these are generally related to graves, many Frenchmen have been left where they were buried (many more on both sides have no known grave) and are still tended by family. There are also German War Graves although these tend to be in formal graveyards.
There is also a list of useful addresses including websites for some of the places mentioned in the tours and also of other places of interest, along with a list of Regimental war diaries & histories for both the French & German forces together with some suggested further reading.
As an introductory book to Verdun, I think it is superb and a real eye-opener, the photographs, maps, personal accounts and histories bring it to life, it’s certainly one I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone with a growing interest – with the caveat that you really need to be aware of the significance of Verdun to both sides prior to 1916 and to read up on the events of 1916 for the subject of this book to be fully appreciated. I have certainly enjoyed reading it, as a ‘refresher’, it has jogged my memory to the many trips I have made to the area and I will certainly be taking this book with me when I revisit.