on 18 May 2014
IT has been said that the Battle of Verdun was a battle of superlatives; never was an area so thoroughly ploughed with shells and so many casualties suffered fighting over its ground than during this titanic struggle.
Christina Holstein has written an excellent and most-welcome account of the bitter struggle over Fort Vaux during that battle which joins an already stellar cast of Battleground Europe guides from publishers Pen and Sword.
In 1916, Verdun was a city astride the banks of the meandering River Meuse surrounded by a ring of forts.
Fort Vaux was one of the key positions in an outer ring of fortifications built on a ridge overlooking Verdun to protect the city against German aggression.
Holstein takes the reader through the planning, building and subsequent re-modification of the fort in the years be leading up to 1914.
But the book's primary focus is on the German offensive against the city from February 1916, which aimed to bring France to its knees and the Allies to the negotiation table.
While the assault had been initially successful, any further advance meant the Germans would need to take the French stronghold of Fort Vaux.
In March, German men made it onto the fort's superstructure leading to unfounded claims the position had fallen. It hadn't, and it would take another three months of bitter fighting before it did.
Under the command of the French Major Sylvain-Eugene Raynal, Fort Vaux was prepped to repel whatever the Germans could muster, including gas and flamethrowers when their assault was renewed at the start of June.
As the Germans edged their way forward, bitter hand-to-hand fighting broke out in the foreboding darkness of the fort's tunnels. The French would man a barricade, the Germans would attack with flamethrowers and advance 20 yards before losing the position to a French counterattack.
Today it is difficult to comprehend the conditions under which these men fought, but Holstein really brings the savage fighting to life with meticulous use of private and unit war diaries.
By June 7, with their water gone, French men resorted to licking moisture of the walls and drinking their own urine. To Raynal it was obvious that the end was near, the fort had long been surrounded and there was no prospect of relief.
He negotiated its surrender, though he told his captures it was thirst, not the enemy which had defeated his men.
Holstein also tells the story of the French recapture of the Fort in November; a feat which lacked the bloodshed of the fighting earlier in the year.
There are also four excellent guides around the Fort Vaux battlefield, which today lies among dense woodland.
It has to be said that Verdun is off the beaten track for many British tourists to the Western Front. But it is impossible to fully understand the battle, and its place in the gargantuan struggle between Britain, France and Germany in the war without visiting it.
For those who do decide to venture that way, you can do a lot worse than to take Holstein's guide with you. I say from experience, they are indispensable.
on 31 July 2012
This is the third Christina Holstein book I have purchased and used as a guide to visiting Verdun. There are very few good books in English about this part of the Great War. This is a well written and excellent book giving the history of the battle and a selection of walks including a guide to the fort itself. The structure of the book give you a good idea of the events leading up to, during and after the great battles that took place around this Fort. It also brings to life just what the soldiers on both sides went through and the courage they gave and horror they endured. I strongly recommend this and Christina's other books as invaluable guide when visiting the area or even to find out more about the Battle of Verdun