MAY 11, 2014
ON MARCH 19, a bomb exploded at a construction site in the Belgian town of Ypres, killing two workers and injuring two others. An act of terrorism? In a way, but not the sort committed by religious or ideological fanatics. Instead, it was the terror that century-old events can still unleash in this part of the world: striking a World War I shell buried at the work site, the workers — one Turkish, the other Bulgarian — joined a dismal postwar body count: in the vicinity of Ypres alone, more than 350 civilians have been killed since 1918 by unexploded ordnance, and almost 100 years later, some 200 tons of shells and grenades are collected each year by French and Belgian police. For foreign workers and tourists, not to mention locals, the war is not yet over.
Nor is it for historians, as Paul Jankowski’s brilliant new book reveals. Few historical events have been written about more than World War I, and few events during the war have been written about more than the Battle of Verdun. In part, this is due to statistics that still beggar the imagination. Verdun was the war’s longest battle, lasting from February to December 1916 — though Jankowski suggests the battle really stretched well into 1917 — over the course of which German and French casualties topped 700,000, with over 100,000 dead on each side. (No precise figure exists, however, for obvious reasons, and Jankowski parses the various estimates in an appendix.) Both sides fired more than 40 million shells, but — as the construction workers at Ypres discovered — tens of thousands did not explode. Instead, they drove deep into the molasses-like mud of the battlefield where, like metallic cicadas, they emerge with deadly éclat from time to time. As Alistair Horne, author of the classic The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, concluded: it was the worst battle in a war that teems with candidates for this horrific distinction.
Yet was it? Here, as elsewhere, Jankowski undoes, with great care and intelligence in his use of archival sources, our popular understanding of the battle for this dismal swath of devastated earth. There is, for example, Verdun’s strategic importance: it had none. Since 1914, the French commander in chief, Joseph Joffre, had cannibalized its troops and material for other positions he deemed more important. As the Germans under Erich von Falkenhayn launched their offensive at the end of February, the French general staff were ready to abandon Verdun for a more defensible line several miles behind the fort. As the commanding officers were packing their bags (and preparing to dynamite the fort and bridges), the French government ordered them to hold the fort regardless of cost. Why? A glance at a map reveals that France would not have fallen even if Verdun had. But something nearly as important would have: public morale. After 18 months of war, during which France had so little to show for so many dead, the public was not ready for such a defeat. For the government, as Jankowski neatly concludes, “the politician’s interest married the patriot’s conscience.”
Falkenhayn’s rationale to double down at Verdun is even more elusive than the French decision to meet his challenge. Many historians, including Horne, have argued that Falkenhayn selected Verdun because it was a national symbol the French would defend to the last man. And that this was precisely his aim: reduce the French army to its last man. Falkenhayn’s strategy was summed up in a single and sinister German word: Ausblutung. He sought, in his own words, to “bleed to death the French forces.” Such an interpretation strikes us as compelling because its heart-chilling logic seems equal to the war’s infernal nature.
As Jankowski notes, though, this simply doesn’t hold water. First, Verdun became a national symbol only after the battle was engaged. Had Falkenhayn really wanted to target a symbolic site, far better to have attacked nearby Saint Denis and its historic cathedral, the Baroque morgue for France’s kings. (Tellingly, not a single French general made mention of the fort’s iconic significance until the government made it so.)
After the war, Falkenhayn insisted that Ausblutung had always been his goal — and one he met, moreover, given the dizzying number of casualties. And yet, try as they might, historians have never found archival evidence for Falkenhayn’s claim. Nor did any of his fellow officers ever recall Falkenhayn making such a claim in the months leading up to the battle. Moreover, when one considers the amount of material and men Falkenhayn grudgingly committed, Verdun appears to have been little more than a preliminary operation, launched in order to create bigger opportunities elsewhere on the front.
In a word, Verdun was an accident. On the morning of the German offensive, Jankowski observes, nothing “could have been further from the minds of Joffre and Falkenhayn […] than protecting or redeeming some uniquely sacred site of national memory.” Significance came only after the fact, and destiny was grasped only in retrospect. As the battle, like Philoctetes’ wound, refused to close over the days, weeks, and months that followed, as casualties mounted in the French army’s effort to hold on to a swath of blasted and blackened soil, the government and press were obliged to find, or invent, reasons for the madness. As a result, though Verdun had little true strategic value, it was transformed into the war’s hinge, a new kind of Thermopylae in which the French soldiers, defending the ideals of 1789, were holding back the Teutonic hordes.
This particular horde brandished vast artillery: 1,400 guns of various calibers that heaved nearly a million shells along a 40 kilometer front during the opening phase of the battle. As one French poilu, or soldier, wrote: “Imagine if you can, a steadily growing storm raining only paving stones, only building blocks.” The violence of the artillery barrage was unprecedented — followed by several more waves of steel delivered by both sides over the battle’s course. Though it first appears paradoxical, battles of attrition like Verdun were less costly than the traditional battles of movement that marked the war’s first year. More remarkably, Verdun appears positively humane when compared to 19th-century military set pieces: the loss rate at Waterloo was nearly 60 percent, dwarfing Verdun’s rate of 16 percent. (And Waterloo lasted just a day, while Verdun stretched nearly a year.) Verdun was not the war’s deadliest event — the Champagne and Somme offensives proved more fatal — but it became the war’s black hole in the imagination of the French. Its symbolic mass sucked toward its center — toward its singularity — the war’s significance.
Historians are hard-pressed to represent the horror of Verdun. How, precisely, does one recreate, or relive, a situation in which several tons of steel pound relentlessly into every square yard of muck, slaughtering troops and then mutilating their corpses? Jankowski does an excellent job conveying the battle’s assault on the senses. During the shelling, soldiers were unable to hear one another as they curled at the bottom of lice- and rat-ridden trenches cut into the porridge-like “glaise” — the thick, glutinous mud particular to Verdun. The air sagged under the sickening odor of rotting bodies, feces, and fear — fear of decimation, fear of poison gas, fear of being buried alive — all of which made for an especially intense sense of isolation and solitude, perhaps unique to Verdun.
Why, though, did the soldiers accept this world? Why did they accept being fodder for cannons when they saw through the official justifications for the hecatomb, when there seemed no end in sight, when the only winner was the battle itself? The reasons were complex. First, French soldiers did not always accept their lot during the war. Soon after Verdun slouched to an end, the horrendous failure of the Chemin des Dames offensive led to a wave of mutinies. As historians like Leonard Smith and Annette Becker have argued, the great majority of the 40,000 or so French mutineers were not protesting the war, however, but the asymmetry between gains and sacrifices. Their outrage was exacerbated when they were also forced to sacrifice their material wellbeing: the absence of hot food and steady rations of wine, or long rotations. Only then did the soldiers rebel, and once the army met these demands — as well as shot a few dozen leaders pour encourager les autres — the mutinies largely evaporated.
In the end, it was neither military constraint nor fear of punishment that kept men in the trenches. Nor was it patriotism or republicanism, even though Jankowski suggests that many soldiers absorbed the dehumanizing propaganda aimed at “les boches.” Instead, what mostly kept the men going — the fuel to a Beckettian “I can’t go on, I will go on” — were the bonds to family and fellow poilus. Perhaps the most astonishing statistic of the war, and not just Verdun, is that more than 10 billion letters were sent to and from the home front and front lines. As Paul Fussell pointed out long ago, it was a literary war, one in which the literature of letter writing reminded soldiers why they were fighting. This sense of duty was deepened by the presence of fellow soldiers to either side of them in their shared hell. It was, Jankowski concludes, a kind of duty that “sprang from within themselves, from allegiance rather than enmity and attachment rather than antipathy.”
Verdun became “Verdun” even before the battle ended. Ever since, politicians and writers, intellectuals and veterans have hitched the heroism incarnated by “Verdun” to their own often less than heroic goals. In an era of edgy nationalism and saber rattling between peoples, we can only wonder how this year’s commemoration will unfold. Still, it is of some comfort, at least to the historian, that interpretations come and go, but the battle itself remains.