Verdun 1917

Verdun 1917


Book Reviewer
Verdun 1917

The French Hit Back

Christina Holstein

Published by Pen & Sword, part of the Battleground series of books.

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...

Click here to read the full review.....


Long story, stay with me.

I spent 15 years living on the First World War battlefields, guiding people in the working week and exploring the fields in my off-time, armed with a flask of tea and a bunch of trench maps and battalion diaries. At Ypres, I remember one beautiful Sunday morning walking south about five files before taking what looked like a treeless farmer’s track between heavily planted fields which ended in what was now a grassy, clumpy area on the edge of woods.

I was there specifically because the battalion diary of a county regiment mentioned being holed up, right there on the front line, in a country mansion. I had photographs too, those lovely, very slightly fuzzy, and very slightly sepia, pictures from the Great War and one of these photos showed a driveway, lined with mature elms, 300 metres long and ending with what was obviously a glorious stately home.

That farmer’s track, between those beet fields, was that driveway. The lumpy grass was the stately home. Everything else had gone.

I sat on the grassy hillocks and read the regimental history... in May 1916 the regiment had sent out a patrol into No Man’s Land, about ten men. Before very long, they hit the enemy wire and a German flare went up. Machine guns opened up and several men were hit (it was unclear whether they were alive or dead when the report was written, presumably the next day). The officer in command, a 2nd Lt, got the rest back safely. Later that day, using the trench maps, I followed that patrol’s path, almost to the inch, certainly to within a couple of feet. And the point is, I could only do this sort of thing because of the accuracy of the historic records, maps and diaries etc. I did this dozens and dozens of times, and was enveloped every time in a sense of history that was indescribable and yet never once did I feel it was depressing (yes, that’s odd, I know). It was obviously sad, but in my reading of all the memoirs there was always humour and piss taking between the troops. And, when I was there, the birds always sang.

Another few years on the Somme, and exactly the same thing. Death on (literally) a monumental scale, and yes there was an atmosphere of sadness, obviously, but also, bizarrely, of hope, and between the troops, of banter and joking.

But....... Verdun.

I only visited once on a family holiday en-route to Switzerland staying in a (the)caravan site. I insisted that we not only stopped there, bet that we stopped there for about four days. I had studied Verdun for a few years and felt I wouldn’t be able to fully understand the First World War without first knowing Verdun.

So. Morning, day one. Kid and wife already bored witless, and I was about to disappear for four days and they had a town about as interesting as Melksham to entertain them.....a bit of historic medieval architecture and.... ummm.... and well.. just more umm.

In the meantime, I was in my element, or so I thought. First day the Forts, and the Ossiary (scary, buy hey, they are French), and then I went into the woods.......

And there was no sound, there was nothing, no sound, no birdsong (really, there was silence).

I poked around for a couple more days, found the obligatory piles of unexploded shells and grenades, visited Les Villages Detruit, (milestone sized memorials amongst the trees, suddenly saying things like “La Famille Benoit, Boulongerie”), pointing out where the family’s home and shop had been, now it had vanished completely with just a flat bit of soil beneath the trees (the trees were also a new addition, making it even harder to imagine this cold, damp and dark place as a French village basking in a warm, open August sunshine a century ago).

All in all, I found Verdun to be a horrible place. When I escaped the forests to return to the somewhat angry bosom of my family who had spent the time in dingy Formica-tabled cafés eating crap food (“no chips??? I’ll have French fries then please”), I wasn’t sure who amongst us was more pleased to meet the other. All I know that it was the ‘darkest’ place I’ve ever visited. The trees seemed to drip with tragedy.

I accept absolutely that this could all be completely subjective and if you went into those woods without any knowledge of the history with a young family you might have a great and fun time, but all I can say is that I’ve spent spent time, sometimes years, on all of the major battlefields of the 20th century in the European theatre and Verdun is the only one that actually scared me.
Last edited: