Book Review: Verdun
by John Mosier
NAL Caliber, 2013
Something like a brief standard account of the First World War Battle of Verdun can be found in Philip Parker’s World History, produced as a handy (and of course visually stunning) paperback by Dorling Kindersley in 2010:
In 1916, Erich von Falkenhayn, the German Chief of Staff, devised a new strategy of attrition – to “bleed France white’ by drawing its armies into a defense of the hugely strategic fortress-city of Verdun. The battle, which pitted an initial 500,000 French defenders against a million Germans, began on February 21 and lasted for 10 months. The Germans made initial advances, but by December they had lost them all, at the cost of 700,000 casualties on both sides.
John Mosier, in his new book Verdun: The Lost History of the Most Important Battle of World War I, 1914-1918, takes issue with many of the presuppositions of that standard account, but he’s after considerably bigger game than Philip Parker. In setting out to dispel the pernicious myths clinging to the iconic battle, Mosier tells us: “To begin with, it is a serious mistake to think there there was only one battle for Verdun, that battle being the 1916 struggle described so eloquently and misleadingly by Alistair Horne in his classic study, The Price of Victory.”
The millions of readers of Horne’s justly-venerated 1962 classic will promptly commence sputtering, although the offhand acknowledgement of its eloquence is accurate. There is nothing in Mosier’s entire impassioned book to match the rolling grandeur of The Price of Victory:
The slopes of Mort Homme are covered with a forest of young firs, planted in the 1930s when all other attempts at cultivation had failed. The wind whistles through the trees and the birds sing, and that is all. It is the nearest thing to a desert in Europe. Nobody seems ever to visit it. Even lovers eschew the unchallenged privacy of its glades. The ghosts abound; it is one of the eeriest places in this world. A grown man will not willingly repeat the experience of getting lost in the labyrinth of firecuts that crisscross the deserted plantations.
It’s not the eloquence Mosier is attempting to undo in any case, it’s the misleading. Horne and virtually all other WWI historians, he argues, relate some variation on that opening Philip Parker synopsis, the picture of a long and slogging 10-month battle on the right bank of Meuse River in which there were enormous casualties but no victory. In his new book, Mosier seeks to broaden and complicate that easy description on almost every one of its points, and through a very pleasing pugnacity and an impressive command of the vast archival material involved, he succeeds again and again. This Verdun may lack the rhetorical eloquence of its great predecessor, but it’s certainly the definitive book in English on the battle.
Or rather battles, plural, since one of Mosier’s main complications is to assert that the Battle of Verdun was actually many battles, fought not over months but over years, and not just on the right bank of the Meuse but over a wide swath of the Lorraine region of north-east France. And even when his sources all agree on the bitter pointlessness of it all, Mosier has expert and insightful clarifications to make. When he relates the outraged report given by infantry lieutenant Abel Ferry to the Chamber of Deputies in June of 1915, in which Ferry rails against the folly of a “war of attrition,” Mosier digs beneath the surface of the sentiments in a way that’s both informative and invigorating:
No translation can capture the compressed and eloquent fury of this passage, and the phrases Ferry uses are much more sinister and disturbing than their English counterparts. Guerre d’usure, with its connotations of usury, is much more brutal than the idea of attrition, and the word gaspillage, with its subtext of profligate squandering, is rhetorically much more effective than wastage. But, lacking access to the numbers, Ferry had no choice but to use rhetoric to make his point.
Ultimately, the urge to over-simplify Verdun is natural, Mosier contends:
We are all conditioned to look for Waterloo or Gettysburg or Hastings. Faced with a bewilderingly complex battle that began in geographical obscurity, ended in confusion, and did not in any way resolve the struggle between France and Germany, it is only natural to try to find something there to give it meaning, and thus the origins of a horrific struggle with millions of dead, all to no purpose whatsoever.
“For all the people who firmly believe that war never solves anything,” he goes on, “Verdun is therefore a wonderful symbol.” He does more than any other recent author to enrich that ‘wonderful symbol’ with a complexity that tolerates no easy answers. And if in the end he still comes up with a long slogging fight in which there were enormous casualties but no real victory, well, there’s only so much even eye-opening revisionist history can do in the mud of the French countryside.