Verdun is both a small city in France’s Meuse district and an infamous battle fought in 1916. Even Adolf Hitler, who had briefly served there, used the name as an example of frightful sacrifice when he told a Nazi rally in November 1942 Stalingrad would never become a “second Verdun”. It did. Verdun, like Stalingrad, cost hundreds of thousands of combatants their lives – in fact, the bones of many are still being retrieved 90 years later, but unlike that pivotal battle of World War Two, Verdun led to no redeeming result.
Malcolm Brown`s Verdun 1916, is a topical, timely and slim introduction to German General Erich von Falkenhayn`s attempt to bleed France to death. Brown notes that while the French believe he intended to take the key town, “there was, and there still remains, considerable ambiguity as to precisely what it was” the German wanted to achieve.
“The key question to be asked is: what would best serve Falkenhayn`s purpose? The seizure of Verdun would be a great coup, but would that lead to the destruction of the French army? Would it not be better to turn the Verdun sector into a kind of open wound, which the French would keep pouring men and resources into to staunch? In other words, would it not be more productive to make attrition the purpose of the offensive rather than victory? That, however, was not how an offensive could be sold to the soldiers to be involved. There was nothing ‘dulce et decorum` in dying for so arid and ruthless a policy.” Falkenhayn certainly succeeded in bleeding France. He also bled Germany.
Winston Churchill would comment: “Closely locked and battling in huge crater fields and under the same steel storm, German and French infantry fell by scores of thousands. By the end of April (1916) nearly a quarter of a million French and Germans had been killed or wounded in that fatal area, though influencing in no decisive way the balance of the World War.” Brown adds: This, in effect, was attrition at its purest, or rather its most evil form; the brutal cancelling out of opponents unit for unit and man for man.”
Like the Somme battles of later 1916, Verdun produced its poets and writers, though Brown records that most participants were to stupefied by the artillery drum fire and horror of the battle to record much beyond the fact that they were still alive. Second Lieutenant Raymond Jubert, 26, wrote what would later become a classic (Verdun, Mars-Avril-Mai 1916). Reading more like a novel than a memoir, it still showed an earthiness and sense of realism that has withstood the test of time. Ask the ordinary soldier, he wrote, what his thoughts were during and after action and you will receive the following replies:
“‘What sublime sentiment stirred you as you went up into the attack?`
‘I thought of how I could get my feet out of the mud in which they were sinking.`
‘What heroic cry did you utter when you regained the crest?`
‘We tried to resuscitate a comrade who thought he was done for.`
‘What sensation of power did you experience after having mastered the enemy?`
‘We groaned because the food wagon wouldn`t come up and we would have to go several days without our (plonk).`
‘Was your first gesture to embrace each other while giving thanks to God?`
‘Each of us went off on his own to satisfy the call of nature.`
Brown`s Verdun continues at length in this vein, underling several times over its value as arguable the introductory volume on the battle. A concise bibliography and a list of sources provide satisfaction for the more serious student.
Malcolm Brown, in association with the Imperial War Museum
Brimscombe Port Stroud, Gloucestershire, the United Kingdom