It is estimated that on February 21, 1916, the first day of the battle of Verdun, one million artillery shells fell. The fighting would go on, a war within a war, for 10 more months. The casualties were staggering. Limbs avulsed, bodies sprayed, bones pounded to mud. Those that survived the mortars often went mad from the ceaseless explosions. An ambulance driver called Verdun the slaughterhouse of the world. A writer likened his time at the front to a rainstorm of paving stones and building blocks.
At Verdun advance was impossible and likewise withdrawal. The way a fire makes its own wind, Verdun sustained itself, a blood-letting that demanded only more blood to let. This was, for the first time on this scale, mechanized warfare, the materiel of industry. Machine guns, flame throwers, poison gas, artillery shells weighing as much as a horse. The machine gun alone made for rates of death previously unimaginable and gave a certain edge to the defender. The battle and the war were waged like this: shelling, advance, resistance over and over again. The Germans took ground in the early weeks but they lost as many men as the French in doing so. When momentum of the German attaque brusquee petered, they slowly surrendered their gains and more lives. 300,000 died. That number, however, swelled—in the minds of the partisans, in the estimation of historians and memories of the cultures—as if the facts weren’t grand enough to express the horror. The massive ossuary over which a cold monument was erected in the town contains a mountain of human remains, yet merely a third of all the French and German soldiers who died in the battle. Most soldiers in most tombs go unknown.
Verdun was without decision. It led to no political changes, no significant re-drawing of maps or even battle lines. What was won was dear and unable to be held. What was lost was clawed back at the expense of exterminated souls and rubbled townships. Verdun was an infernal equilibrium. Pointlessness seemed to be its point.
But our psyches abhor life and especially death without meaning. Apologies for and mythologies of the battle began even before it was over. To the commanders, the western front presented the inescapable logic of stalemate. The Germans had little reason to attack at Verdun; the French still less reason to defend it. Yet the armies were massed, the trenches dug. The butchery therefore commenced. And continued for almost a calendar year. To the soldiers in the trenches the battle was a miserable existence of mud, artillery roulette, little contact with command or comrades, and little explanation of what the hell was going on. But to Politicians, journalists and novelists as well as filmmakers and musicians on both sides, Verdun was so terrible that it easily “lent itself to symbolic and allegorical overload.”
It is on this point—the battle as it was and the battle as it has been memorialized—that Paul Jankowski’s book Verdun is particularly useful. Scholarly yet readable analyses of the realities and myths of Verdun are the highest achievements in his enlightening study of the battle. The book properly begins with an examination of the general facts of warfare at the time, but also of the daily, indeed, weekly and monthly, particulars of this very battle. Here is the stuff of traditional military history: the plans, the tactics, the strategies and contingency of battle. With this material Jankowski is adept, but not much will be revelatory to anyone who read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school. The industrialized savagery of World War One rearranged humanity’s psychic furniture, causing great crises of faith that would lead to modernism itself.
Jankowski intends more than fife and drum military history or beginner’s social theory. He offers understanding of war and ourselves: the way they are fought and the way we remember them. Battles and wars, Jankowski suggests, often define cultures, but just as often cultures define battles, transfigure them. These constructions can depart quite far from actual events. Both fact and legend have realities we must understand. We make narratives of our war-making, narratives that flatter, apotheosize, vilify, dehumanize, excuse and defend. Jankowski makes his case refreshingly with a wide array of source materials: Of course official transcripts, reports and documents, but also newspapers, magazines, soldiers’ letters home as well as mail plucked by military censors, movies, novels, memoir, music. He uses the flotsam and jetsam of culture to make a cultural argument. Humans wage war but war also wages humanity. Ignoring the chiasmus we remain stupid.
But ten months. How did it drag on so long?
Here, too, Jankowski delivers the goods and his answer is keystone to his larger thesis. War is a snare built to trap the fowler. The German general Erich von Falkenhayn, claimed in memoirs written shortly after Verdun that his intention all along, was ausblutung, bleeding the enemy, intentionally waging a war of attrition. Jankowski calls the strategy either paradoxical at best—an attack with no design to conquer, or mendacious at worst. In the memoirs, Falkenhayn referenced certain memos to the Kaiser outlining his strategic thinking to bleed the French with or without victory—”proof” of his aim from the outset—yet no memo has ever been produced and Falkenhayn’s account has had to bear little scrutiny since. In truth, Falkenhayn likely thought little of Verdun beyond suspecting France would defend it. His larger aim was almost certainly to breakthrough the French line and create a war of movement that would favor his superior numbers and better mechanization, but there were better targets along the Muse for this tactic. Falkenhayn chose poorly. Joffre, the French commander, all but ignored fortifications around Verdun suspecting a Falkenhayn would feint at Verdun and attempt a true piercing move above or below. Once engaged, both men had committed their men to quicksand. The armies were trapped, by strategy and tactic, by their leaders’ pride and vanity, by their very own bravery.
After ten months without taking Verdun Falkenhayn insisted that ausblutung was his goal all along. Post hoc rationalizations are propagated, believed and even though disputed they live a life in the common understanding. The plot is familiar to even casual students of America’s recent wars. War goes on because men are brave, proud, craven and vain.
Verdun became the battle that “made France,” France’s Thermopylae, a testament to its union, its people, a high point to generations hence. But Verdun became these things only gradually as the transmitters of culture—artists, politicians, novelists— appropriated the battle for their own purposes. The Germans too molded Verdun, from a town valuable only because it held value for the enemy into a cautionary tale about the dangers of abandoning the noble field soldier. For the British and Americans, Verdun is mostly an emblem of the Great War, the war not to end all wars, as it was said, but the war to really show what war could do.
Watching a Federal charge at Fredericksburg fail, Lee famously said to Longstreet, “It is well that war is so terrible otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” In his analysis of Verdun, Jankowski shows us just how fond we have grown despite, or perhaps because of, how terrible war is.
VERDUN The Longest Battle of the Great War
Oxford University Press 2014