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A Most Misunderstood Battle,
This review is from: Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War (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.
The attack on the Verdun region was only part of the German strategy. The other key components were: a blockade of Britain plus submarine assaults on our shipping. The whole was a package of which Verdun was a part, a controversial part at that for many in the German High Command favoured placing more effort on the Eastern front. The Verdun campaign was a direct outcome of the failure of the so-called Schlieffen Plan. That failure, not expected, caused a massive reappraisal of strategy by the German High Command that included the Kaiser.
Frequent analogies with Stalingrad and Berlin are misplaced. Verdun was not about the capture/destruction of a major city. It was if anything an attempt to draw French troops into a trap. If you walk the area the trap set is very evident; perhaps not in 1916. Likewise, archeological evidence has long exposed many of the exaggerated claims by both sides of successes. The French ensured only the official account saw the light of day during the war. Every journalist had to be accompanied by an officer, accounts had to be written in French, and all reports were heavily censored. Martial law applied. As Charles Repington, the Times war correspondent wrote: 'The ignorance of the (French) people concerning the war, owing to censorship, is unbelievable'. Of course, the use of chloroform to mask the truth is in wide use today as witness reports on Iraq and Afghanistan.
Disinformation about the Verdun campaign was deliberately fostered by governments on all sides. Much of the propaganda was very skillful often based on actual facts. The whole strategy was a perfect example of the quip by the great historian Thomas Babington Macaulay; 'It is possible to write a history in which all the details were true, but the history itself was a falsehood'.
For the French, Verdun on the Meuse and surrounded by forest had only legendary and symbolic value. That is why prior to the German attack on 21 Feb 1916 the forts had been denuded of many troops and artillery. The French knew Verdun had no strategic value. The 8 feet thick walls and steel turrets of the forts plus deep trenches were (like those of the Maginot Line after 1919) mainly symbolic. Only later were the forts strengthened in an attempt to demonstrate to the nation that 'they shall not pass'. During the campaign three of the forts changed hands three times giving neither side an advantage.
Another myth is that the battles around Verdun were the most murderous of the war. Wrong. The 'movement' battles in the Ardennes and the frontiers of 1914 were far more costly to both sides. In 1917 the French losses on the Aisne were greater. What is so often forgotten is that in any case the French contribution to the war on the Western front was 80%, the British and her allies 20%. In 1916 the latter was responsible for only 50 miles of a 455 mile front. One would never glean this from accounts of the war on this front.
The battles saw the use of a number of weapon innovations by the Germans, for example, flame throwers (at this stage often more dangerous to the user) and infiltration tactics together with concrete pill boxes. The Germans used Phosgene gas for the first time and 'storm troopers'. The Germans had the advantage of interior lines and a first rate rail system that brought up each day thousands of shells for their guns. Over 29000 horses were also used, many dying in the carnage-6500 in one day. The French were mainly dependent on one road for supplies. This 40 mile road-the 'Sacred Road' as it came to be called-was open to shelling. On an average day 1700 trucks traveled this road with vital supplies. After the war it achieved mythical and symbolic status. One French lady told me she still heard the trucks in her dreams although she was much to young to have been alive in 1916.
After Verdun and the Somme with which it became linked (day 1 of the Somme was day 132 of the opening assault on Verdun). France and Britain were never the same again. The 'confident morning' had reached a sunset. By November 1916, the total casualties for that year alone, in the French, British and German Armies amounted to a minimum of 1,300.000, while the front lines had barely shifted. Attrition, a doctrine of the shadows, had become, reluctantly, the only way to bring the war to a conclusion. What commenced was seen by the Germans as a zero sum war.
The concentration on Verdun and the Somme is understandable given the massive casualties suffered by all involved. Seldom however are the events of 1916 considered in total, hence the confusion and misunderstanding.
This cannot be because there is nothing else to write about. !916 is a very remarkable year for incidents. For example, Sir John French was sacked, Haig was put in charge of the British Armies in Dec 1915, Kitchener died, Joffre departed, Petain came to the fore, as did General Nivelle, Falkenhayn was sacked, there were major events on the Eastern Front, we left Gallipoli, Kut was under siege, there was a battle at Jutland, an Easter Rising in Dublin, the advent of the tank, Lloyd replaced Asquith, and so on.
Of course, concentrating on murderous events permits the mud, blood, rats and incompetent generals school to have their day irrespective of facts (always bothersome).
A well-written book but one that adds very little to previous knowledge. A book also that does very little to expose the real truths about Verdun. Two more accounts are due to be published by June.
Anyone contemplating a visit to the site could do no better than read the two books by Christina Holstein. They are a mine of information about the geography of the area without which one cannot begin to understand this prime example of industrialised warfare.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 25 Apr 2014 21:36:14 BDT
K. N. Crosby says:
Pity that, I want something to go with Foley's exposition of German strategy and operations.
Posted on 6 Aug 2014 14:34:05 BDT
Mel B says:
'Dr.' Clayton's critique would, for me, have more credence if it was not replete with grammatical errors.
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