Authors: Alistair Horne
Our generation knew better.
Through the finely tuned balance of terror between the two superpowers that later became known as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), and was perhaps not so mad after all, the Verduns and Sommes continued unthinkable. Perhaps in our self-satisfaction we chose to suppress the unpalatable truth that World War II had not really been won by tanks and aircraft, but by the Verduns fought out of sight of our Western eyes in the East, at Stalingrad and before Leningrad; where hundreds of thousands of Soviet and German infantrymen had died, in appalling battles of attrition, just as they had a quarter of a century previously. The reality is that, between two equally powerful modern industrial states, total war costs lives.
From the recent release of records in Havana and Moscow, we now discover that during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 – the very month that
The Price of Glory
was first published – the world had actually come closer to a nuclear
than we, or even our enlightened leaders, had ever understood at the time; the deaths from which would have made Verdun look like a little local skirmish. Since then, apart from a series of quick but indecisive wars in the Middle East, we have had the prolonged nightmare of Vietnam, so demoralising to a generation of Americans, and with it the attendant horrors of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, a holocaust every bit as bloodily evil as anything seen at Verdun. We have seen the seven-year-long war of attrition between Iraq and Iran, with its static battles that were miniatures of the Western Front. And then, barely was the Cold War won than, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the disappearance of MAD, there was war, murderously vicious, in Europe once again; in those very same Balkan provinces of old Austro-Hungary where the ineluctable descent to Verdun had all begun in 1914.
Have we learnt anything?
The genesis of
The Price of Glory
dates back to the 1950s, when – as a young foreign correspondent in Germany – I lived amid the visible legacy of that last bout of Franco-German hostility, which was then still all too tangible. Now that relations between France and Germany, the root of evil in the world I had grown up in, had already taken such a miraculous turn, I began thinking of a book (it ended as a trilogy) which might trace the lethal course of these relations over the preceding century. A first visit to the sinister hills of Verdun engendered emotions that were never quite to leave me alone – fascinated by the story, and its profound historic consequences, admiring of the staggering courage of those, on both sides, who fought there, but appalled by the waste and sheer stupidity.
No other book I have ever written affected me quite so deeply; the tears came again and again. It was, unashamedly, an
Over the past thirty years, gratifyingly, the letters have flowed in from all over the world (perhaps most, curiously enough, from the United States), with the powerful reactions of readers to the battlefield, old photographs, the reminiscences of survivors and descendants, and sometimes deeply moving verses. Earlier, there were the ghosts, the reappearance of those long-assumed dead – like Lieutenant Eugen Radtke, the first German officer into ‘impregnable’ Fort Douaumont (see
), making, in the 1960s, his first appearance in Paris from East Germany, the only time in his seventy years that he had travelled further west than Douaumont (He died shortly afterwards.)
Surprisingly, in all the volume of correspondence, little caused me to want to change more than a line or two in successive editions. There was the elderly Frenchman, ex-Lieutenant Kléber Dupuy, a hero of both wars, and very probably the last officer to stand in the way of the final German, last-gasp, effort to take Verdun, atop Fort Souville on 12 July 1916. He complained that – in the (not very immaculate) French translation – I had suggested that he had taken refuge within the fort (see
). Unhesitatingly, I altered the record; we became firm pen pals. Otherwise, there was virtually nothing. The record seemed to stand on its own.
At Verdun today, one of the forts, Troyon, has been sold off (for a mere 100,000 francs) as a mushroom farm; the sad little plaque on Fort Vaux, once placed there by an unknown French mother, ‘To my son, since your eyes were closed mine have never ceased to cry’, has disappeared, vandalised. The pine forests that were once planted to hide, mercifully, the tormented soil of the Mort Homme have now been felled and replanted. But the hard core of Verdun will, one feels, survive as long as the French nation itself. In the wilderness, battered and crumbling, there still lie concealed, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, half-forgotten monuments to the folly, pride and heroism that epitomised what we still call ‘the Great War’. They continue to take their toll, at regular intervals, from the foolhardy tourist rashly questing for trophies or the ruins of deserted forts, and stumbling up against a still lethal shell. The busloads of Germans continue to flow up to Fort Douaumont, seeking the place where a grandfather or great-grandfather fell.
In the half-dozen or more times that I have been there since writing
The Price of Glory,
I never fail to be haunted by the majesty of the place – and the sadness. In 1966, at the sombre fiftieth anniversary commemorations, I found myself within a few feet of General de Gaulle. Erect as a ramrod he stood until the lengthy
Son et Lumière
presentation reached the date when he, de Gaulle, had fallen wounded in the battle and had been captured. Then he turned on his heel and left. Perhaps it was too much to bear, even for that icy titan. (Nearly two decades later it was also to Verdun that de Gaulle’s successor, François Mitterrand, came solemnly to seal the end of Franco-German enmity by shaking hands with Chancellor Kohl on that savage battlefield.
When I was last there, lecturing to a battalion of Grenadier Guards, the young officers were reduced in short order to respectful silence by the tragedy of the place, for all its distance in history. One remarked to me, ‘Do you know, there are no birds here.’ Until that moment, I had thought that I was the only person to have experienced that peculiar sense of utter desolation.
One of the most dread aspects of Verdun was how, after the first three months, the battle seemed somehow to have rid itself of all human direction and to have taken over. One German thought there could be no end to it
until the last German and the last French hobbled out of the trenches on crutches to exterminate each other with pocket knives …
Strangely, Scott Fitzgerald called Verdun ‘a love-battle’. Between the simple, slaughtered infantrymen on opposing sides, there was indeed a special kind of compassion, almost amounting to love. But there was too much hatred at the top which kept the battle going. For 1916 would, in a rational world, have been a good year to have ended the war, along lines of exhaustion. That courageous old nobleman, Lord Lansdowne, tried, but was shouted down as little better than a traitor.
As civil war rages in the Balkans and old animosities between Britain and Germany seem to be bursting forth anew, one realizes with alarm just what a frightening amount of hatred there is loose in today’s world. Could a Verdun ever happen again? There were moments during the Cold War – perhaps some would conclude that October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis, was one of them – when, for the West to survive, it had to show itself at least morally prepared to fight a Verdun. Of all the thousands of epitaphs written on the Battle of Verdun, the one that remains ever in my mind is that written by a Frenchman, Jean Dutourd, deploring the moral debility of his countrymen in 1940: ‘War is less costly than servitude,’ he declared;
‘The choice is always between Verdun and Dachau.
’ Perhaps it still is; but it would be hard to find a more terrible choice for the human race.
‘… car la Revanche doit venir lente peut-être
Mais en tout cas fatale et terrible à coup sûr
La Haine est déjà née, et la force va naitre
C’est un faucheur à voir si le champ n’est pas mûr.’
and a half years elapsed between the First Battle of the Marne, when the Kaiser’s armies reached the gates of Paris, and Ludendorff’s last-gasp offensive that so nearly succeeded in the Spring of 1918. During this time the Germans remained on the defensive behind a brilliantly prepared and almost impregnable line, while the French and British wasted themselves against it in vain, at an unimaginable cost in human lives.
Only once did the Germans deviate from this strategy that paid so handsomely. In February 1916, they attacked in the Verdun sector, catching the French there thoroughly by surprise. Compared with the seven German armies that marched into France in 1914 and Ludendorff’s sixty-three divisions that struck at Haig in 1918, this assault on Verdun with only nine divisions was but a small affair. A small affair; yet out of it grew what those who took part in it considered to be the grimmest battle in all that grim war, perhaps in History itself. Certainly it was the longest battle of all time, and during the ten months it lasted nearly three-quarters of the French Army were drawn through it. Though other battles of the First War exacted a higher toll, Verdun came to gain the unenviable reputation of being the battlefield with the highest density of dead per square yard that has probably ever been known. Above all, the battle was a watershed of prime importance in the First War. Before it, Germany still had a reasonable chance of winning the war; in the course of those ten months this chance dwindled away. Beyond it, neither the French nor the German army would be quite the same again; Verdun marked the point at which, among the Allies, the main burden of the war passed from France to Britain, and its influence upon America’s eventual entry into the war cannot be overlooked.
In the aftermath, too, Verdun was to become a sacred national
legend, and universally a household word for fortitude, heroism and suffering; but it was also a modern synonym for a Pyrrhic Victory. Long after the actual war was over, the effects of this one battle lingered on in France. Of the men to arise from the triumph of Verdun, one in particular will be forever associated with the appalling tragedy of a generation later, and today the marks of Verdun upon France and the French have not been eradicated. Behind the scribbles of
‘De Gaulle ne passera pas’
on Algerian walls lies perhaps more than just the adaptation of a famous battle-cry.
‘This Western-front business couldn’t be done again,’ declares Dick Diver in
Tender is the Night.
He was right, as 1940 proved; the nearest the Second World War came to it was at Stalingrad, often referred to as a Russian ‘Verdun’. The explanation of why there was no ‘Western-front business’ in 1940, why the German Panzers went rolling round the Maginot Line with such ease, why there was a Maginot Line at all, cannot be explained without reference to the happenings at Verdun in 1916.
Similarly to see how the German forces came to stand before Verdun in 1916, why they chose to attack what was reputedly the strongest fortress in Europe, and why the French withstood their attack with such incredible steadfastness, one needs to hark back to yet an earlier war — to the fateful year of 1870.
* * *
Six weeks after France had declared war that summer, the last Emperor of the French, his face rouged to conceal the agonies caused by a monstrous bladder stone, was on his way to captivity in Germany. Within another four-and-a-half months, at Versailles in the great palace that bears the inscription ‘
à toutes les Gloires de la France’,
and beneath a painting of Frenchmen chastising Germans, the Prussian King had himself proclaimed Kaiser. When at last the peace was signed, the conquerors insisted that its terms embrace a triumphal march through Paris, and only massed French citizens were able to prevent the Uhlans from perpetrating the ultimate insult of riding through the Arc de Triomphe.
One would have to search diligently through the pages of history to find a more dramatic instance of what the Greeks called peripeteia, or reversal of fortune. Where before has a nation of such grandeur (indeed,
Nation), brimming over with hubris and refulgent with material achievement, been subjected to worse humiliation
within so short a space of time? And when has a military power as assured in traditions of soldierly prowess been more shamefully defeated? In July 1870, Louis Napoleon’s forces had set off, optimistically entitled ‘The Army of the Rhine’, and lavishly equipped with maps of Germany, though none of France. After two minor defeats that were far from decisive, the French Army never ceased retreating. Old crones along the route jeered at the dispirited, bedraggled soldiery. The vigilant Uhlans pursued them; now like a pack of wolves, waiting for stragglers; now like beaters, driving the frightened coveys towards the guns. Finally, half the army under Bazaine was herded into Metz, where it surrendered after doing nothing for two months. Into the trap at Sedan, just forty miles downstream from Verdun, went the other half, under MacMahon and accompanied by the Emperor himself.
‘Nous sommes dans un pot de chambre et nous y serons emmerdés!’
remarked General Ducrot. The words might have applied to the whole bitter sense of total disgrace felt by the French Army after 1870. It was a terrible slur to be faced by the heirs of Henri IV and Condé, Turenne and Saxe, not to mention the great Bonaparte — by soldiers who, down through the ages, had considered themselves to be
warrior race of Europe.
The results of Louis Napoleon’s ill-advised declaration of war were to alter the character of war itself as much as they were to affect the future of all Europe. The employment of mass conscript armies and the merciless sieges where civilians had been indiscriminately blown to pieces by long-range guns introduced a new savagery into warfare, which for some centuries had been a reasonably gentlemanly affair. The harsh Prussian peace terms, requiring the surrender of two of France’s richest provinces and the payment of reparations on an unprecedented scale — so that the war would cost the loser nearly ten times as much as the victors — instilled a new bitterness into European relations. And the French Army would never forget its degradation.