I have finally got around to reading one of my father's favorite books, The Price of Glory: Verdun, 1916 (1962) by Alistair Horne, a prolific British historian and journalist who is still writing at the age of 90.
The book had been on my shelves since my father died in 1985. It is not uncommon to dispense with all but a few of a person's books while cleaning out their possessions, however, this one I could not get rid of. I remember him sitting in his chair in the family room and reading and rereading Horne's book. My father even made his own copy of the map to make following the troop movements easier.
I am not sure what caused me to pick up the book now. Maybe all the current unrest in France or the fact that it is the 100th Anniversary of the 10 month battle. Verdun claimed over a million German and French lives within an area of about 15 square miles. Basically, you think of the Western Front in World War I and you think of scorched earth and men living underground in the mud, but there are additional ghastly details that shouldn't be forgotten either.
The Price of Glory
Your first impression of blood and mud would not be incorrect, but what makes Horne's book an historical classic is attention to the personalities of the French and German commanders and the personalities of the armies. For the French, the directive of surrendering no ground whatever the cost and immediately counterattacking if they did lose territory, dominated their strategy. Horne also delves into the personality of the fighting men on both sides -- sometimes in frank, non-politically-correct prose:
On the extreme left of the (German) 2nd Battalion was a section of Pioneers, commanded by a Sergeant Kunze. Kunze at 24 was a regular soldier of Thuringian peasant stock; from his photography one gets the impression of heavy hands and limited intelligence; from his subsequent action, one gets an impression of complete fearlessness, but perhaps of that variety of boldness that often reflects lack of imagination. Men like Kunze were the backbone of any German Army; they would go forwards in execution of what they held to be their orders unquestioningly and unthinkingly, until at last a bullet dropped them.
Horne is even less kind to the French:
Whether due to lack of organization or lack of material, or both, things usually seemed to be a little worse in the French trenches, and rather better than average in those occupied by the Germans for any length of time. French carelessness about hygiene in the trenches never failed shock visiting Britons; though, perhaps immunized by the rusticity of their normal peacetime sanitary arrangements, it rarely appeared to disturb the French.
Any time I read a book about World War I, I ask myself how did the soldiers endure the conditions and put up with the slaughter. The quotes above explain part of national mentalities and in the beginning of the book, Horne writes about how the Franco-Prussia war of 1870 laid some of the groundwork for 1914. There is another excellent book that even further explains the mindset that led to the Great War -- Modris Eckstein's Rite of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (1989).
Horne's ability to roll in the personalities of the commanders and some of the front line troops (like Kunze) remind me of the historical writings of Rick Atkinson's World War II Liberation Trilogy on the United States military campaigns in North Africa, Italy and Western Europe. Atkinson (like his idol Shelby Foote) has a narrative quality to his historical writing as does Horne. No wonder over a half a century later Horne's book is considered one of the major books about the Western Front.
(Horne also remains relevant as a writer for his book A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, originally published in 1977, and was reprinted in 2006 because historians and policymakers saw stark parallels between the French in Algeria and the United States in Iraq.)
Sitting in my easy chair with my ornery grandpuppy (don't be fooled by his innocent look) and flipping back and forth between battle prose and maps, I guess I have channeled some of my father. Of course, I regret not being able to tell him how much I appreciate one of his favorite books or talking to him about the Atkinson trilogy, but it is rewarding to keep a promise I made to myself 30 years ago.