First published in 1962, Alistair Horne’s book The Price Of Glory tells the story of the German attack, and French defense, of the city of Verdun, France from February to December of 1916.
The battle for Verdun was one of the longest and costliest battles in history, lasting 9 months, 3 weeks and 6 days. Constant artillery bombardments firing shells numbering into the millions, and the first use of Phosgene gas, one of the deadliest used during World War I, would lead to an estimated 420,000 dead and 800,000 gassed or wounded. In the words of the German commander, the goal of the offensive was to cause the French forces to, “bleed to death.” It was a battle of attrition during a war of attrition.
I’ve read a number of firsthand accounts of World War I (there are many available for free on Kindle and Project Gutenberg), and they often downplay, to some degree, the brutality of trench warfare. Whether written during the war and censored, or intentionally dialed down a bit for some other purpose, this book literally gets deeper into the mud than those others do.
“You found the dead embedded in the walls of the trenches, heads, legs and half-bodies, just as they had been shovelled out of the way by the picks and shovels of the working party.”
The book does an excellent job of telling the story of the battle while not getting bogged down on long descriptions of troop movements and unit designations. Time is spent on the characters of the leadership of both sides, as well as the politics that played into their actions, and the individual soldier is represented through brief mentions of letters home and diary entries. The Price Of Glory is as much about the people who fought the battle as it is the tactics that ended so many of their lives.
It’s hard to imagine, even a little, what living/fighting/dying like that must have been like. I suppose I read these books to try and understand, but I get the sense that’s never really going to happen. It’s difficult to completely visualize and fully empathize with someone undergoing something so alien to “normal” life as huddling in a trench during an artillery bombardment with nowhere to go and nothing to do but hope and pray the next shell exploded far enough away to not kill you. It makes the worries of “normal” life seem silly in comparison. But that is exactly what those men were there to do.
Instructions to new officers of one regiment:
“You have a mission of sacrifice; here is a post of honour where they want to attack. Every day you will have casualties, because they will disturb your work. On the day they want to, they will massacre you to the last man, and it is your duty to fall.”
The First World War was the father of the Second World War, and yet so little of it is as revisited and remembered. We live with its repercussions even to this day, especially with its reshaping of the Middle East. If the subject interests you, I definitely recommend this book.