The 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I has long been anticipated, judging by the publication of dozens of new books on what was called, until World War II, the Great War, although the Ghastly War might be more appropriate. Paul Jankowski, a professor of history at Brandeis University, has made a scholarly and valuable addition to that literature. He doesn’t shy away from the battlefield carnage, but his principal contribution may be his efforts to look at the Battle of Verdun from both French and German perspectives and to contextualize the battle in the larger scheme and meaning of war.
Jankowski’s Verdun is not strictly a military history. If it were, I’d have to consider it only moderately successful. Moreover, I wouldn’t recommend it for a reader’s first look at Verdun. For that I think Alistair Horne’s The Price of Glory is incomparable, although I haven’t ever attempted to wade through the dozens of reportedly excellent works on Verdun by French authors en français.
It’s said that Verdun is the most written-about battle of World War I. That may come as a surprise because it was not decisive on the battlefield, and it wrought no political changes in the capitals of either Germany or France. Nor was it the war’s bloodiest battle. However, it was the war’s longest battle, beginning in February 1916 and not ending until December. It was also a battle fought by the French alone against the Germans—the British were occupied elsewhere, and the United States was not yet in the war—and that has clearly made it a special focus for French writers. For most historians it is also representative of the futile slaughter on a mind-numbing scale that was World War I.
During the first several months of the battle, the Germans captured Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux, and by late June were on the verge of taking Verdun. Then French resistance, which had appeared ready to collapse, stiffened, and the German advance was halted. In October, the French retook Fort Douaumont, and in November Fort Vaux. By the middle of December the French had retaken most of the territory the Germans had captured. In the meantime, by recent calculations, 156,000 Frenchmen had been killed, and another 300,000 wounded, while the Germans had lost 143,000 killed and 290,000 wounded. Roughly 900,000 casualties, and back to go.
How the soldiers endured the butchery of Verdun escapes an easy explanation. Jankowski rises above many narratives of the battle to reveal the great complexity of motive and inspiration, much of it seemingly contradictory. For the French, Jankowski argues that while mutiny was not an ever-present threat, insubordination was. A general malaise gripped many units, and they fought simply to hold ground and survive. Enthusiasm and aggression was reserved for highly trained, well-fed, and well-rested units. French prisoners taken by the Germans during June and July appeared war-weary and on the verge of desertion. Some regretted being exchanged for German prisoners after only a month in captivity. They considered their time as prisoners restful. At the same time, there were those captured French, especially the officers, who seemed confident of victory and didn’t think the Germans could long sustain further casualties.
Jankowski sees morale as a consequence of many factors, including food, leaves, weather, weaponry, rest, training, leadership, the courage of conviction, and anticipation of victory. Not by accident, he puts food at the top of the list. “The efforts of the Army in the field,” wrote German general Erich Ludendorff, “depend to a high degree on their rations. That, next to leave, has the most decisive effect on the morale of the troops.” The French knew this well. It was Napoleon who said, “An army marches on its stomach.” Yet, more than anything else, the French complained about their food, both quantity and quality. “We’re shamefully fed,” wrote one soldier. Most also complained that they didn’t get enough wine. German troops complained most about the monotony of their diet. (I couldn’t help but wonder how the French and German troops would do on C-rats and Tabasco sauce.)
Weather seemed to have as much an effect on the troops as food. A Catholic chaplain in a Bavarian regiment said he could chart the mood of the troops by the weather. Day upon day of dark, overcast skies and rain not only left the ground a sea of mud but dramatically lowered morale. Similar observations were made across the lines. “As for the shelling, we’re used to it, but our worst enemy is the bad weather, the raging rain,” said a Frenchman. Men were soaked to the bone and miserable. When the clouds broke in May, a soldier exclaimed, “Sun has killed our gloom!”
Jankowski devotes a short but valuable chapter to a discussion of the various ways the Battle of Verdun has been portrayed, something that most authors ignore. While not a comprehensive historiographical analysis, the chapter outlines some of the broader themes and perspectives that have gained currency at different times since 1916. The battle seems to lend itself to an endless chain of contradictory interpretations: It was an epic struggle of good and evil; an ugly 300 days of slaughter for no good reason; a prestigious battle for national survival; a manifestation of the power and efficiency of the modern state to force its citizens into a mindless battle of attrition; the triumph of virtue, courage, and devotion to duty over selfishness, cowardice, and indifference.
The most cynical use of the Battle of Verdun has come from politicians, who have used the battle for whatever political purpose was needed at any particular moment. In November 1938, French President Albert Lebrun, not especially sanguine after the Munich accords and worried that his people had lost faith in their nation, spoke of Verdun as an example of sacrifice and strength. In 1956, President René Coty, himself a veteran of Verdun, spoke to a crowd of 40,000 at the Monument aux Morts on the 40th anniversary of the battle. France was troubled by the Cold War, the Algerian revolt, and public scandals, but, said Coty, similar problems had confronted France when World War I erupted, and yet the nation united and triumphed at Verdun. In 1986, President François Mitterrand, facing a hostile parliament and prime minister, spoke of the unity that led to victory at Verdun. In 1996, the Verdun unity theme was again emphasized, this time by President Jacques Chirac. Industrial worker and farmer, republican and monarchist, believer and nonbeliever, Jew and Muslim had all come together at Verdun. Chirac even used the 80th anniversary of the battle to dedicate a monument to the Muslims who fought there. Vive multiracial and multicultural France!
Through all those years, others used Verdun as a symbol of senseless slaughter and the futility of war. In 1936, Le Petit Journal contrasted the government’s eloquent and glorious proclamations about the battle with the mountains of human remains in the ossuary at Verdun. In 1964, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou declared Verdun a reminder of the absurdity of war. During the battle’s 50th commemoration in 1966, Le Monde lamented all the heroic declarations and argued that France and Germany should instead be emphasizing the industrial scale of slaughter at Verdun and talking about nuclear disarmament. Now, in the 21st century, French politicians are saying that Verdun should stand not for national pride but for European unity and become the “world capital of peace.”
The Great War’s longest battle, and one of the bloodiest, not only of that war but of any, remains with us, and especially with France. Although a great variety of interpretations abound concerning the motives and the goals of both Germany and France, Jankowski sums it all up brilliantly:
At Verdun French and German men and their machines fought each other according to the logic and the conventions of the day, without either sinister design or noble purpose, bred by nation-states that enjoyed unprecedented powers over them. Most were neither chauvinists nor pacifists. They were journeymen doing their jobs without enthusiasm, so well and so doggedly that they left behind lasting testimony to the destructive capacities of two of the most creative national cultures in history.
[Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War, by Paul Jankowski (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 324 pp., $22.95]