The Love Battle
AROUND THE TOWN, in an area not much larger than a small college campus, nearly half a million men died. Under the ceaseless shelling, whole companies sometimes disappeared without a trace. Even when the dead were found and buried, it sometimes did little to combat the pervasive smell of rotting human flesh. "The shells disinter the bodies, then re-inter them," a young French soldier wrote, "chop them to pieces, play with them as a cat plays with a mouse."
Verdun was the most destructive and in many ways the most crucial battle of World War I, a war that, as its 50th anniversary nears, is just now beginning to generate in Europe the same post-mortem re-examinations that the U.S. Civil War centennial recently unleashed here. Author Alistair Horne, an ex-Guards officer and British intelligence expert, has stitched together scores of eyewitness accounts by generals and common soldiers to make vivid sense of the battle's indescribable confusion.
The battle came about largely through mischance. Initially, the Germans did not intend to take Verdun. And the French could have abandoned it in the early stages without too great a strategic loss. But soon the possession of the small provincial town on the Meuse came to be a symbol of national resistance. As a result, the fighting crept bloodily on for ten months—from Feb. 21 until late December of 1916. When it was over, Germany had lost its last chance of winning the war. The French army and France itself, Horne argues, may not even today have recovered from Verdun.
Many Villains, One Hero. Even for a generation of readers well conditioned to regard most generals as monsters of stupidity, pride and ignorance, the men on both sides who let this all come about offer a sobering spectacle. The French high command, reacting against the defensive notions that had proved so disastrous in the defeat of 1870, planned to win the war with barehanded courage. They had one formula—attaque à l'outrance. Artillery was neglected. Heavy machine guns were scorned. Portly "Papa" Joffre, the French commander in chief, refused to order steel helmets for his men in 1914 because he was sure the war would be over too soon for them to be of any use.
Germany's commander in chief, Erich von Falkenhayn, conceived of the Verdun battle as a device to draw in the French and "bleed their army white." He systematically refused to release reserve divisions, which on several occasions would have allowed hapless Crown Prince Wilhelm, who commanded the Verdun army, to win the battle and so bring an end to the carnage. Falkenhayn's plan specified that the French would lose three to five men for every German who fell. He died, after the war, still insisting that this is what happened, though the facts, brought to him from the battlefield and borne out by postwar checks, showed that casualties were about even on both sides.
Home reveals the surprising small fact that Henri Philippe Pétain never said, "They shall not pass." Nevertheless, Pétain is Horne's hero. Already 58 when the war began, Pétain was deeply at odds with the attack-at-all-costs careerists in the French GHQ. One of the few generals in France who had realistically studied the uses of firepower and the rudiments of modern war, Pétain was called in by the desperate Joffre when Verdun began to crumble. He stopped bloodily wasteful counterattacks, combed France for artillery to protect his ground forces, and succeeded in stabilizing the battle.
Later, his system of swift troop rotation—to keep the individual French divisions from being ground to pieces—was abandoned. And after a disastrous attack led by another general, half the French army rebelled. Pétain was the only man able to restore discipline to the troops, who believed that he alone, of all France's generals, was concerned for their welfare. But Pétain was a lingering emotional casualty of Verdun. Commenting on Pétain's later dishonor as President of the collaborating Vichy government in 1940, Horne sympathetically quotes the chiding of a friend: "You think too much about the French and not enough about France." It is easy to see why.
Grandfather's Whiskers. Horne's book roves widely in time, is full of tiny, detailed pictures that lodge in the memory—old guides who today preside over the battlefield, collecting snails for supper in rusty German helmets; the pair of dainty feminine shoes that sat coquettishly beside Pétain's field boots outside the hotel door where his staff roused him with word that he had been offered command at Verdun.
The pressing question that Verdun raises in the minds of any reader is: How could the men who fought there have endured it so long? Home effectively answers it with an eloquent quote from a source most military historians would have neither the temerity nor the imagination to make use of. "This Western-front business couldn't be done again," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in Tender Is the Night. "You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden, and weddings at the Mairie . . . and your grandfather's whiskers . . This was a love battle."