Alistair Horne is an incredible historian and writer, testament to the possibility of combining brilliant history and excellent literary qualities. Few subjects, admittedly, form a more perfect canvas than Verdun, the blood-soaked nightmare of the Great War, where a generation of French and German men entered the fires of hell, under the hammers of Satan, choking to death in storms of poisoned gas, ripped to shreds by machine guns, throats parched until extirpation without even a drop of the evil, corpse-smelling and tasting water, a place of unfathomable courage and pitiless murder. Horne shows the full tragedy of this battle and its horrific course and consequences on the history of France in his still stunning 1958 book “The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916,” the first book of this three-part series on the Franco-German rivalry from 1870 to 1945.
It is hard to read the scenes of heroism and courage without tears, and this is without doubt Horne’s greatest talent, his ability to capture both the soldier and general’s view. He is able to show how operations evolved, with Pétain’s Noria system, artillery tactics, the vicious fighting around côté 304 and Mort homme or Fort Vaux, the offensives and planning, the development of modern air battles, and the logistics of the voie scrée, but seamlessly shifts to Pétain’s voyage through Dante’s hell of what was a lost battle at Verdun during the full fury of the initial German attack, seeing the horrible signs of defeat all around him with the scattered wounded and broken formations, the cars pushed off to the side of the road, belching flame, the hours to traverse a few miles, or the fighting itself with the heroic fight of French soldiers defending Fort Vaux, and the surrender from another era, the sword rendered and returned, the key to the fort handed over, the garrison, dying of thirst, coming otu and lapping desperately at the nearest puddle of filthy water in the trenches and shell holes. And Horne has such a talent of portraits of men: Falkenhayn, cold, cunning, but with the indecisive, intelligent mouth, of Crown Prince Wilhelm, half-finished, greyhound looking, but with his canny, cunning sense of the right course of action, who realized what a futile tragedy Verdun was. Or the hosts of fighter pilots of the Escadrille Lafayette, or the Cignonne, of above all else, the towering figure of the battle: Marshal Pétain, the man who saved France, with his cold aura of command, his concern for his men, his realism turned to pessimism, as the stress of the battle left its physical indentation on him in a dreadful nervous tick, as it ground him down in horror. Pétain’s depiction in the book is almost hagiographic, even of his Second World War experience, akin to the depiction of him as the shield that protected France which has received tremendous scholarly assault since the book was written, in the further hardening of views against Vichy France. This isn’t the only aspect which has received much challenge since, as Horne is also very positive about Conrad, chief of staff of the Austrian army, while now the consensus is that Conrad was a disastrous commander of the Austro-Hungarian military. Regardless of one’s perspective of Pétain later, on, General Pétain of the First World War emerges in shining light. Verdun is a deeply human book, one which brings it and its actors to the stage, the largest theater of tragedy in the world.
This Western-front business couldn’t be done again, not forca long time. The young men think they could do it again but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne against but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and the Italians weren't any good on this front/ You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, the 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 going to the Derby, and your grandfather's whiskers... this was a love-battle -there was a century of middle-class love spent here... All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love...
Horne’s use of literary resources and direct quotes is vital for this. Those who have read Horne’s books before will be familar with the quotes that open chapters, but throughout each there is a wonderful assortment of quotes from French and German soldiers, and a mining of stories and books about Verdun and the war, from Barbusse to the quote above from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who spoke of a century of middle class love consumed in the fire of massacre. Or after the battle, the scenes that Horne must have witnessed himself, with the old veteran still on duty in the Ossuaire de Verdun, or the feel of the lunar landscape, still scarred so long after, or the French officers who went on tour at Verdun. Verdun was more than a battle: Verdun became a symbol, a scar that never really healed in France, and it is this investigation of it on the soul of France which Horne is so exemplary at. It is to pry at the soul that one reads this book, and this is why makes it so irreplaceable: other books might cover it with more detail, more operations, more technical figures, but none will ever match Horne for his way to bring it to life, to bring its horror and tragedy, courage and heroism to the pages.
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