Book Review: Verdun 1916 by William F. Buckingham.


Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 Jan. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1445641089

If insanity really is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different results, then the combat decisions of allot of ww1 generals just became much clearer.
Yet with each throw of the dice they really felt that throwing slight variations of the exact same ingredients, in ever increasing numbers into exactly the same pot they would break the deadlock. The Verdun campaign was the German High Command’s recipe to break through the allied frontline on the western front by bleeding France dry, and ideally take Verdun and then Paris.
To do this they utilised an array of innovations, such as flame throwers, mines, ridiculously large calibre guns and storm troopers, but deployed them with a distinct lack of imagination.
Meanwhile the entire French strategy was unintentionally designed to allow the Germans to cause maximum casualties. France had never gotten over being defeated in the Franco Prussian War. And most of the time between 1871 and 1914 was spent making sure it never happened again. Modern Artillery was invested in, modern forts built along the eastern frontier and a new tactical doctrine adopted.
Bamboozled by supposedly stolid Prussians attacking audaciously in 1870, the French drilled into their officers and men a reliance on bold, offensive attacks. No matter how small the unit, once it found itself in contact with the enemy they were to attack it. Old Rosalie, the nickname for the French bayonet, and their famed red trousers would do for the Germans this time around.

Having planned to win a war in 1870, rather than one in 1914, the French were instantly taking monstrous casualties. And in 1916 the Germans unleashed a nightmare. Three Korps worth attacking a front held by just one, concentrating a record number of guns on sectors sometimes not in excess of one mile in length, the first engagements of the battle of Verdun saw the French on the verge of utter collapse. And indeed the French were willing to bleed themselves dry to stop it. And under the weight of hundred of thousands of French corpses, the attack faltered before Verdun. New French generals, like Petain were assigned to stabilise the situation and slowly but surely France dug in her heels and the battle became an almighty slogging match with a life of its own.
In the end though, for all her courage and ability to sustain punishment, France was probably saved by events in Eastern Europe. As the Brusilov offensive crumpled the Austrians in the most decisive and successful offensive of the First World War, turning German eyes east.

Books in English about foreign subjects aren’t all that common. There aren’t that many people with the requisite academic and linguistic skills to present a book about France and Germany. That’s why William Buckingham’s book is good, there’s hardly a mention of the British in this book. And it provides an engrossing, if harrowing overview of the costliest battle of the First World War. Highlighting the French effort to the final victory over Germany, while not ignoring the Germans either.
In 19th century the Battle of Verdun would not have been called classified as just one battle, and indeed as with all ww1 actions it isn’t. Rather it was a conglomeration of battles and accordingly, each collision was costing casualties of sometimes of over 10,000 men. This is what was so sickening about the Great War. That battles rivalling the cost of some of the largest, most brutal clashes of the previous century were going on, again and again with little more than three days sometimes in between, merging together into one ghastly horror story. And worst of all nobody was asking to stop.

This well thought out and straightforward book gives a very good idea of what a World War One battle was, and why it was so terrible. Starting with an insightful summary of French tactical doctrine between 1871 and 1914, the book moves on to inspect most every aspect of what brought this battle about. Then delves into the different phases of the cataclysm, and shows us the different strategies that the two sides put into play to try and gain victory. The battle was a battle of firsts in a war that broke allot of records. Not least the amount of suffering two sides could dish out and take.

Yet as the author shows this horrific bloodbath really changed attitudes to war in France. Not to the generals, but to the men, who called the frontline the abattoir and bleated as sheep to the slaughter as they marched. By 1917 full scale mutiny was in the air, and who could blame them, as general after General sacrificed them in their thousands for seemingly no purpose. Enough was enough.

Verdun is an excellent book for showing why to paraphrase Shakespeare, “first they should have shot all the generals.”