Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War
Oxford University Press, 2014
336 pp., $34.95
The centennial of World War I means that that conflict is now attracting a degree of public interest unprecedented since the 1930s. Yet for all the events that historians are now presenting to a new generation, one above all stands out in popular memory for its sheer destructive impact, and for what it revealed about the frailty of Western civilization. In February 1916, a German offensive began the Battle of Verdun, at three hundred days perhaps the longest battle in history. In Alistair Horne's words, it also created "the battlefield with the highest density of dead per square yard that has probably ever been known." So overwhelmingly significant is the struggle in Western memory that no excuse is needed for yet another detailed study, and Jankowski's revisionist book is a major achievement.
So many of the statistics of Verdun still astonish. The battles were focused on a narrow front of 15 miles, where the intensity of destruction beggared belief. In five months, the two sides fired a combined total of 23 million shells. At least two and a half million fought there, and by the time the battle ended in December, it had inflicted 800,000 French and German casualties.
Making matters worse, that immense carnage was far from unexpected. The principal German goal was to capture the key fortress that was the centerpiece in one of the world's most powerful networks of military fortifications. However, their additional aim—such at least has long been maintained by historians of the battle—was not so much to win any piece of ground as to force the French to defend the place at all costs, to begin a battle of attrition that would kill countless legions of France's best and strongest young citizens. They also knew that this goal must of necessity involve sacrificing hundreds of thousands of their own soldiers, who became pawns on the blood-drenched chessboard. This was massacre by design.
Much of the story is reasonably well known, not least from Alistair Horne's classic The Price of Glory (1962). Jankowski, though, 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—what is now dismissed as "left flank/right flank" storytelling. At every stage, Jankowski integrates the military narrative with broader political and cultural dimensions. He also integrates the older, top-down approach—how General X made great decisions with his key staff officers—with the more contemporary emphasis on the ordinary soldiers in the trenches, how they lived and died, and how—most mysteriously—they resolutely continued fighting despite their inconceivable losses. Jankowski's book offers a model history of warfare, even if not every argument convinces.
Jankowski is particularly good on what we might call issues of myth and memory. Verdun was a fertile source of mythology, not least over its fundamental aims. Whatever both sides later claimed, did the Germans really set out from the beginning to wage an ultimate battle aimed at bleeding the French white, at inflicting Ausblutung? General Falkenhayn claimed that he intended this, citing a cold-blooded memorandum he allegedly wrote the previous Christmas. But that document has never turned up, and some historians have questioned whether the battle was indeed intended as the ultimate clash of rival civilizations, or if it somehow morphed into such a cosmic conflict. Jankowski's conclusion: "A secondary battle, begun tentatively by one side and accepted reluctantly by another, became in this way a battle for national survival, centering on a place whose millennial historical significance acquired a retroactive glow it had never enjoyed in its lifetime." In the end, that issue of intent does not matter greatly, but the debate allows Jankowski to present a convincing picture of the complex dilemmas facing the German regime.
Repeatedly, he shows how writers on both sides, at the time and subsequently, elevated the struggle to mythological significance, making the Verdun fortress almost a national idol—for the French, "the Atlantic Thermopylae of the West." The more they lauded the site and consecrated its very name, the harder it became simply to abandon an aged fort and re-establish a new defensive line. Far better to carry on pouring new consignments of ordinary conscripts into the front line's ever-efficient mincing machines. National honor was at stake! Both sides fell into what Jankowski aptly calls the Prestige Trap. So central are such themes of image and self-delusion that I wonder if, in its earliest incarnations, Jankowski might have toyed with the title The Myth of Verdun.