Friday, November 16, 2007
The Price of Glory
Our book today is The Price of Glory by Alistair Horne, his pithy and magnificent history of the 1916 battle of Verdun.
Horne is alive to the horrible uniqueness of his subject, and his rolling prose is equal to the task of describing what he calls “the grimmest battle in all that grim war”:
Certainly it was the longest battle of all time, and during the ten months it lasted nearly three-quarters of the French Army were drawn through it. Though other battles of the First War exacted a higher toll, Verdun came to gain the unenviable reputation of being the battlefield with the highest density of dead per square yard that has probably ever been known.
It began in the mind of German General Falkenhayn, who conceived a plan at the end of 1915 to shake the war out of the shape it was in; in short, he did exactly what commanding generals are supposed to do: he conceived a plan to create victory. The difference was something that would become more obvious in the second World War but that was nevertheless visible even in the tender year of 1915: Falkenhayn was a commanding general, yes, but he was a German commanding general, and therefore evil. So instead of devising a military plan to hoist his country out of a stagnant military situation, he came up with a two-pronged attack designed to do what German military commanders always want to do: destroy dreams and prey on the innocent.
The preying on the innocent part came in the resumption of unlimited submarine warfare, since ‘warfare’ in this case meant U-boats sinking every non-German vessel they could find, regardless of combat status. The dream-crushing came in Falkenhayn’s choice of where to strike in his renewed Western offensive – not any of the strategically superior choices along the French line, but the fortress of Verdun, chosen specifically because the French had from time immemorial considered it impregnable. That this consideration might be TRUE didn’t forestay Falkenhayn for an instant – it was the dream he wished to crush. And so was the debacle of Verdun born – the worst and most eroding of all Pyrrhic victories.
That it WAS a French victory is often forgotten, as in a sense it should be – Verdun should always stand as a stark epitome of the sheer waste of war, regardless of who’s winning and who’s losing. Two sides dug in and sullenly hammered at each other for week after week, month after month, gaining no ground and losing none, winning nothing and losing nothing but life after life in the trenches and on the field.
Horne was born in 1925 and consequently has no personal axe to grind with the Great War. He approaches his subject with a caustic but practiced balance. For him, quite rightly, Verdun is functions not merely as a symbol of all the worst fallacies of World War I but also of wars in general. He cites valor where he finds it, and he’s quick to shine a light on idiocy. His entire book is quotable (although modern American readers will find the fact that he doesn’t translate his French quotes a bit halting), but it’s in his mini-character sketches that he excels. Here, for instance, is a bit of his portrait of Marshal Petain:
Those long years in junior command had given him an intimacy with the poilu denied to most of the other French chiefs, and because of his low rank in 1914 he knew – unlike Haig and Joffre - very well what wounded men looked, like. In his rapid rise to stardom he still retained a measure of the paternalism of the good C.O. He knew how much apparently little things mattered to the fighting soldier. Neglect of them could throw him into a searing rage; as when he discovered that a rest camp for troops out of the line had been placed within the sound of the guns. ‘What an idiot!’ cried Petain, on learning at Verdun that a battalion commander, having received the order of alert just as the rations arrived, had ordered his men to depart forthwith on empty stomachs; ‘He doesn’t deserve to be a corporal.’
Horne’s subject is just about as depressing as one can be, but his wonderful book at least gives us a superb example of military history at its finest. Verdun was a victory, yes, but as Winston Churchill remarked, it was a victory bought at such a price as to be all but indistinguishable from defeat. Horne follows his subject straight through to its grim conclusion and then follows his main actors down the post-war years of their various rises and falls. His book is hugely worth reading and should be mandatory for all American military commanders – too many of whom seem to share the lunatic belief quoted by one of Horne’s sources: that in war, the choice is always between Verdun and Dachau.