On this day in 1916 the battle of Verdun begun. It was the longest in the war. And the deadliest.
Victory slipping away
The battle was largely initiated because the German army saw their chances slip away to end the war victorious as the Entente was increasing their numbers and thus limiting the Kaiser’s chance to win. At the end of 1916 the United States sent 2 million men; there was nothing the Germans could have put up against these numbers. Yet, surrender was no option. The battle of Verdun became the longest during the war. Afterwards, it became clear that the German Empire would be defeated or at least that neither side would come out of the conflict as winners. Though it took another two years before the war was finally over in November 1918.
A French observer wrote about what he saw in a quite detailed manner:
Shells disinter the bodies, then reinter them, chop them to pieces, play with them as a cat plays with a mouse.
The Price of Glory
Surely, this was not only true for Verdun but for any battle field during the Great War and subsequent conflicts. One of the best accounts of the conflicts was written over 20 years ago by Alistair Horne ‘The Price of Glory’. It is an account of the battle looking at the personnel on either side of the battle field as well as the prelude of the conflict itself, The French-German War of 1870/71 which ended with humiliation for France. As a result, both sides undertook great strides to armament; France to prevent another debacle, Germany to underline its position. A lot depended on planning but the German attack in late February did not calculate one important factor: the weather. For days the attack was delayed due to heavy snow. Once the German army moved forwards, France had managed to reinforce its position. it turned out that the delay saved France and prevented the war to have a very different outcome.
Horne sketches a detailed image of the battle by pointing out the successes and defeats on both sides. The battle was a machine grinding down men by the thousands the longer it lasted. Moreover, it became split up in many small battles which became more and more futile. The text becomes lively by integrating quotes from soldiers describing the scenes that they have witnessed. One Sergeant-Major César Méléra wrote:
Filthy night, shells.
Later he added:
Think of that nightmare room of Edgar Allan Poe, in which the walls closed in one after the other.
Verdun is terrible … because man is fighting against material , with the sensation of striking out at empty air …
The book is written as though it was a historical crime novel making this book a page turner of the highest order. It is not a simple and dull reciting of events but each action has its background, either from the persons involved or has its causes in previous actions in the battle which Horne tells his readers. It makes The Price of Glory a worthwhile read for anyone interested in recent history but also required reading for undergraduate and postgraduate students alike.