I finally finished this book! “The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916” by Alistair Horne provides an in-depth historical view of this lengthy, and often labeled the bloodiest, battle of World War I.
The reader will need a couple of things prior to reading this book. First, you must either be fluent in French and German or have a great translator app. I have the Google Translator and I found it was decent enough to at least help me get there. The author will translate some things but throws in quotes in French and German with reckless abandon that until I downloaded the app, I was lost. For instance, in talking about deserters, Horne states, “Nivelle ordered all his officers to adopt the sternest measures, reiterating at the same time the well-worn exhortation: ‘Ne pas se rendre, ne pas reculer d’un pouce, se faire tuer sur place.’ These measures soon had to be invoked in an arbitrary and tragic fashion.” (p 271). Except the reader (unless fluent in French) has no idea what ‘the well-worn exhortation’ is and the wording around the quote does not provide enough context. For those of you who are curious, it means “Not rendering, not giving an inch, killed on the spot” according to Google Translator.
Second, on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being similar to thinking “There was a World War I??” and 5 being you’ve been recruited as a subject matter expert on all things related to WWI), the reader will need a level 2 to 3 knowledge of WWI and at a minimum, a level 2 of French military history. The author throws references into other battles in WWI and calls up history of French-involved wars pretty thickly. For instance, did you know that there was a mutiny of the French Army in 1917, shortly after the hardest fighting at Verdun ended? Neither did I and the author didn’t cover it in enough detail until chapter 27! Needless to say, I spent a great deal of time not reading but researching the references named.
Third, the reader will need a map handy of France. I used this book as an excuse to purchase used “The Historical Atlas of World War I” by Anthony Livesey (I’m a huge fan of atlas’ covering wars!). The writer assumes to some extent the reader has a basic understanding of where forts are after he gives a description at the beginning of each step in the battle. The problem is the whole book is about the battle so I won’t necessarily remember where in relation to Fleury the Fort Veux is located 100 pages later.
That being said, overall I would say this is a decent book. Horne goes into great detail from the highest level down to the infantry level and back again. He flips between both France and Germany sides so the reader understands where both sides are coming from and where they are heading. And this is where Horne excels! His vast and in-depth knowledge of both sides is clearly from heavy research and while I spent a great deal of time looking at maps and the translator app in addition to reading, I definitely feel like I learned an enormous amount.
I can see why Verdun is labeled frequently as the bloodiest battle in history. Both sides had to not only fight each other but the elements seemed stacked against them as well. While certain trench warfare was enacted during this 10 month battle, severe flooding during the spring and fall wrecked its own havoc on both sides. Add to that the inability to get needed supplies including water (they couldn’t drink the flood waters owing to the fact that so many dead bodies were strewn across the trenches and battle site) and especially artillery and man-power, it’s a wonder this battle lasted as long as it did. Of course, with both sides thinking the other was suffering two to four times more losses than they (which was not true – leadership tended to greatly exaggerate and not take the time to get actual estimates), they kept pushing back and convincing themselves that one more great push would take care of it all together. The problem was it never really happened until October through December 1916 and only because France finally got it right by putting the right leaders in place and getting much-needed supplies and planning completed.
Overall, I’m going to place this book on the 3rd shelf (3 of 5 stars) with the option for a possible upgrade after I have learned everything I can about WWI.
Have you read this book? Do you agree? Are there other, better books on this topic?
At bat: “The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses S Grant in War and Peace” by H. W. Brands. I’m going to see if the man they call the greatest U.S. General but worst U.S. President really was both. This is lengthy (approx. 855 pages) so I wouldn’t look for this to be reviewed in February.
On deck: “A History of Warfare” by John Keegan. This is one of two books by this author that I have and I have heard excellent reviews about him so I’m excited to read this book.
In the bullpen: “The Crimean War: A History” by Orlando Figes. This will be my first foray into this war so any suggestions on books covering this topic are greatly appreciated.