"Just as a portrait suggests the sitter's destiny, so the map of France tells our fortune. The main body of our country has as its centre a citadel, a rugged mass of ancient mountains, flanked by the plateaux of Languedoc, the Limousin and Burgundy; all around stretches a broad glacis, for the most part difficult of access for any invader, protected by the trenches of the Saône, the Rhône and the Garonne, barred by plunging, in the distance, down to the Channel, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. But in the north-east there is a terrible breach that links German territory to the crucial basins of the Seine and the Loire. ...
... This breach in its ramparts is France's age-old weakness. Through it Roman Gaul saw the barbarians rush in on its riches. It was there that the monarchy struggled with difficulty against the power of the Holy Roman Empire. There Louis XIV defended his power against the European coalition. The Revolution almost perished there. Napoleon succumbed there. In 1870 disaster and disgrace took no other road. In this fatal avenue we have just buried one third of our youth".
So wrote Charles de Gaulle in 1934 - six years later France would suffer another invasion through the same breach.
Fatal Avenue tells the story of France at war from the Hundred Years War until the end of the Second World War, how the need to protect her borders from enemies both internal and external, perceived and actual have shaped both the history of France and of Europe across six centuries.
Richard Holmes is probably the best-known military historian today and writes in a style that is informative, accessible and readable. The subject of the French-at-arms is treated expertly and sympathetically, with an understanding that is seldom comprehended this side of the Channel.
As the publisher says, Fatal Avenue is both a history and a guide - a unique study of a region that has witnessed more bitter military conflict than any other area of its size on earth.
It reads like a Who's who of military history - within its pages are Foch, Haig, Henry V, Marlborough, Napoleon, Patton, Rommel, Turenne, Vauban, Villars and Wellington. It also reads like a dictionary of military history, From Agincourt and Crécy to Verdun, Waterloo and Ypres.
The book begins with an outline military history of France during the period, broken down into the various conflicts (i.e. Hundred Year's War, Wars of Religion, Thirty Years War etc.). It then looks at the battles, sieges and fortifications region by region (Flanders, Artois and Picardy, Lorraine, Sambre and Meuse, Champagne and finally Normandy). What can be seen today and directions (and often cafes, bars and restaurants) are also contained with the text.
Whilst it is illustrated with both photographs and maps, my only (minor) criticism is that the quality (and number) of the maps could be improved. But this does not take away from the fact that this is really an excellent book.
The Observer called it "utterly fascinating... a shaking, appalling, irresistible read". I have no hesitation in recommending this book, especially (but not only) if you are venturing to this part of Europe.
Fascinating book on a piece of land that is closer to England than I have to travel to work each day. The readable style that Richard Holmes applies to all his books (and I have them all) brings history into picture with clarity and enthusiasm. If you have not read Richard Holmes before, start here. But be careful, it's quite addictive.