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Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War [Hardcover]

Paul Jankowski
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

24 April 2014
At seven o'clock in the morning on February 21, 1916, the ground in northern France began to shake. For the next ten hours, twelve hundred German guns showered shells on a salient in French lines. The massive weight of explosives collapsed dugouts, obliterated trenches, severed communication wires, and drove men mad. As the barrage lifted, German troops moved forward, darting from shell crater to shell crater. The battle of Verdun had begun. In Verdun, historian Paul Jankowski provides the definitive account of the iconic battle of World War I. A leading expert on the French past, Jankowski combines the best of traditional military history-its emphasis on leaders, plans, technology, and the contingency of combat-with the newer social and cultural approach, stressing the soldier's experience, the institutional structures of the military, and the impact of war on national memory. Unusually, this book draws on deep research in French and German archives; this mastery of sources in both languages gives Verdun unprecedented authority and scope. In many ways, Jankowski writes, the battle represents a conundrum. It has an almost unique status among the battles of the Great War; and yet, he argues, it was not decisive, sparked no political changes, and was not even the bloodiest episode of the conflict. It is said that Verdun made France, he writes; but the question should be, What did France make of Verdun? Over time, it proved to be the last great victory of French arms, standing on their own. And, for France and Germany, the battle would symbolize the terror of industrialized warfare, "a technocratic Moloch devouring its children," where no advance or retreat was possible, yet national resources poured in ceaselessly, perpetuating slaughter indefinitely.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA (24 April 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199316899
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199316892
  • Product Dimensions: 23.8 x 16.2 x 3.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 240,691 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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A scholarly but readable account of something quite extraordinary. A valuable and valued addition to the growing library of WW1 literature. Books Monthly Impressive. Max Hastings, The Sunday Times Jankowski is abundantly qualified to present a new standard work on the subject. A well-respected scholar of French politics and culture, he has delved deeply into the contemporary sources from that nation, but he is no less at home in the copious German archives. The writing throughout is of the highest order, to a degree that may startle any reader with a dated stereotype of military history as a mechanical recounting of military formations. Books & Culture The first major study of the battle to appear in English for many years, and the first to draw fully on archival research on both sides... A thoughtful, original, and moving account, full of insights into the course of the fighting and its subsequent commemoration and impact. David Stevenson, author of Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy Jankowski has written a superb, definitive popular account of Verdun through the eyes of soldiers, military leaders, and citizens of the two nations. Publishers Weekly

About the Author

Paul Jankowski is Raymond Ginger Professor of History at Brandeis University. His many books include Stavinksy: A Confidence Man in the Republic of Virtue and Shades of Indignation: Political Scandals in France, Past and Present.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 9 July 2014
By Frankie
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Was present but understand it was brilliant read
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Most Misunderstood Battle 14 April 2014
By Dr Barry Clayton TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition
Accounts of the Great War are replete with myth, errors and downright lies. Verdun has them all and more.

The vast Ossuary at Douaumont contains the remains of 130,000 unamed casualties of the Verdun campaign, an assault in 1916 by highly trained German troops against a salient, always a very dangerous place to be in. Nearby are destroyed villages deliberately left as they were in 1918. New forest growth makes it hard to distinguish the trenches and defences that were used in the 10 month series of battles.
All casualties are estimates. Also Germany calculated her casualties quite differently from France or Britain. Bearing this in mind, French and German casualties amounted to an estimated total of 1 million. An estimated total of 32 million shells were fired during the period of fighting.

In the 10 months of fighting De Gaulle was captured and imprisoned as was Von Paulus, in WW2 he was the General who surrendered to the Soviets at Stalingrad.

This is the latest book in a long line of books on Verdun. It adds very little to previous accounts including the flawed book by Horne. The best and most accurate accounts are are still those written by French scholars.

There was no battle of Verdun, there were 8 in all beginning in 1914 (similarly there were 13 battles on or near the Ironzo in Italy, not one) but these are largely unknown, mainly for political reasons. Verdun the small town of 13000 was never the German objective neither were the ring of forts that were constructed after the Franco-Prussian war of 1970-1. The aim was to 'bleed the French army' in the hope France would give up thereby leaving Britain without 'its sword'. However, this long-held view, again stated in this book, is now questioned by recent research.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.5 out of 5 stars  44 reviews
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Tale of Three Books 25 Feb 2014
By Te Bada - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There are a number of ways to analyze a battle, especially if it is the most written about engagement of World War I. There are three current books on the subject, and the approach of each is strikingly different. One is McNab’s VERDUN 1916, BATTLE STORY, smaller and more economically priced than its competition, it is rather direct in giving the reader coverage of the battle and recommended. Then there is the most popular of the new books, Mosier’s THE LOST HISTORY OF THE MOST IMPORTANT BATTLE OF WORLD WAR I: VERDUN. The author has lost sight of his claim the “most important” while going off on tangents and producing a “Gee Wiz” type of book in which he points some interesting items (some incorrect) with which the average history buff may impress his friends. Then there is Jankowski’s VERDUN: The Longest Battle of the Great War. Unlike Mosier, he does not claim the battle lasted from 1914 to 1918, but actually covered the actual battle of 1916. Both Mosier and Jankowski include a long detail bibliography, but it is clear that only the latter actually read all those books and documents. Both have a good writing style, but that does not necessarily make a good history books. Jankowski does not provide the detail of the battle found in McNab’s book (Verdun, a Battle History), but if that is what you want Alstair Horne’s book (The Price of Glory) from the 1960s still provides a decent history.
Jankowski does an excellent job in assimilating all his sources to give the reader who already knows something about the battle a better picture of the various aspects of battle including tactics, leaders, and events. The various chapters attempt to tackle such things as the French and German point of view, how the battle affected the public, moral, medical services, desertion, losses and so on. For those who have read Joffre’s and Petain’s accounts, you may have noticed something is missing. These, and other generals, as the author points out, came from the rear depending on reports, and messages, while sending out their life and death orders without actually knowing or even caring what the soldiers at the front experienced. Their front line inspections amounted to little, although Petain seemed to have a much better understanding of what was happening to his men. Meanwhile, generals like Mangin led suicidal charges from behind a desk including a desperate attempt to retake Fort Douaumont. Other officers would refuse to carry some of the directives and on the German side things were no better. The troops in Feldgrau had also become distraught by being slaughtered by French 75s and machine-guns not destroyed in the massive bombardments. Even the German Crown Prince commanding the German 5th Army questioned the leadership and strategy of his commander, General Falkenhayn. Falkenhayn only tried to explain the battle after the war when he decided to claim it was to “bleed the French white.” Unlike the other two books mentioned, this one provides some interesting evidence of how morale rose and fell on both sides, the contribution of the battle to larger mutinies the following year, and even how both sides tried to turn the results of the battle into a victory. This book is for those who already know a little about the battle of Verdun and have sufficient grey matter to want to know how this battle played out and was not a battle of attrition, but one that defined the war.
Final Rating:
Verdun by McNab - Recommend for description of the actual battle *****
Verdun by Mosier - Only recommend if your just wanting some facts to impress your friends, but not improve your understanding
of the battle. Better selection of maps than the other two books, but rather simple. Remember it includes a
number of errors and the author thinks the battle lasted 4 years. **
Verdun by Janowski - Recommend for an understanding of the various aspects of the battle and its significance. Maps not
much better than Mosier book and more needed. *****
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent analysis 28 Feb 2014
By Phelps Gates - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This is not a blow-by-blow description of the events at Verdun with the order of battle on each side and a detailed account of the fighting. There are other books for that, and you can get the details of what happened from the wikipedia article. What we do have here is an in-depth analysis of the meaning of Verdun, considered from several different angles. How did it fit in with Falkenhayn's overall plan for the western front? How did the French generals, especially Joffre and Pétain, react to the German attack? What were the goals of the French and the Germans? What were the conditions under which the soldiers fought and what was the state of their morale? And (perhaps most interesting) how did Verdun come to be such an iconic battle after the war, and to this day, especially for the French? Jankowski discusses these and other questions in detail and gives answers as far as can be known, without engaging in undue speculation. The book isn't perfect: the maps leave much to be desired, and the discussion of the topography is sometimes unclear. But this is an excellent book and one which will appeal both to those with a special interest in WWI and those with an interest in military history in general.
21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Why Verdun? 19 Feb 2014
By Ron Titus - Published on
Many books are written about individual battles in World War I, especially Verdun. For a variety of reasons, Verdun is emblematic of the fighting on the Western Front in the Great War. However, Paul Jankowski has not written a normal battle history in Verdun, but rather a meditation on what many consider the longest battle of World War I. Rather than a detailed description of the action tracing units involved, personalities, terrain, etc., he opens with a discussion on the place the battle holds in the memories of Frenchmen, Germans and historians. He explores why the German forces attacked at Verdun, then why the French decided to make a hold-at-all-cost defense there. He examines the evidence regarding what part the concept of offensive tactics and rates of attrition played in the battle and how prestige (French and German) controlled the length of the battle. He looked at what French and German troops thought of the battle and how they viewed each other. The other major area he covered is why the forces involved continued fighting this battle.

If you are looking for action, consider other titles on Verdun. But if you want a revisionist synthesis on why the battle happened, read on.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best books on the battle 8 Mar 2014
By James W. Durney - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
For sheer murder, World War One is very high on the list with the Western Front the worst place to be.
Defensive technology was far superior to what an attacker possessed rendering trench lines almost impregnable.
The continuous line of entrenchments prevented maneuvers and there is no flank. Combatants found themselves forced into frontal assaults that do little more than kill their men. The war destroyed a generation and scared all who lived through it.

Verdun is one of the most horrific battles in history.
The French and Germans murdered each other in a sea of mud for almost a year.
During this time, they established a level of bloodshed that is unusual even for this war. “Verdun” became a code denoting unspeakable privation and death.

This book looks at Verdun in many ways.
First, this is a military history but not a detailed one. The two area maps are sufficient for the book but not for anyone trying to follow the battle closely.
Second, this is a history of how an event can take on a life of its’ own forcing the participants down paths they never intended to walk.
Third, the book is a look at how the battle was remembered by the participates and is remembered by history.
Fourth, this is a remembrance detailing the conditions during the battle. This is some of the best work I’ve read on the war. The author skillfully mixes direct quotes with observations to produce a graphic narrative of serving in the war.

While a serious history, this reads like a novel.
The book is both an introduction to the battle while being able to extend the knowledge of the experience reader.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Definitely worth reading, but a perplexing, non-military military history - 3.5 stars 4 April 2014
By chefdevergue - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
If you are hoping for a detailed analysis of the tactics and strategies of Verdun, then this is in no way to the book to be reading. It is a non-linear account which only occasionally deals with the fighting itself, but instead dwells on what the battle meant to people --- those who did the planning, the soldiers who did the actual fighting, and the collective survivors of the war who struggled to come to some sort of understanding about what it all meant.

And struggling to understand what it all meant just as accurately describes my experience with this book. Anyone without a decent knowledge of the Great War will be thoroughly confused by this account, and even those who know the subject will be, at times, challenged to apply Jankowski's cerebral ruminations to the battle itself. I suspect that an account of (for example) the Battle of the Somme would not differ drastically, so it leads to the question (asked by another reviewer), "Why Verdun?" I don't really feel that Jankowski truly answers that question.
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