The Price of Glory is the second in Alistair Horne’s trilogy of books examining the three major French/German conflicts from 1870 to 1940, the first being The Fall of Paris about the Franco-Prussian war and Paris Commune which I reviewed back in April of last year. The Price of Glory moves on to World War I and carefully examines the battle of Verdun.
Few names have been etched into the annals of Western Civilization as those of Verdun and Somme, and both of these horrific battles occurred in 1916 as part of the pivotal year on the Western Front of World War I. Roughly 1.7 million men perished in these two battles which marked the beginning of the end of the Central Powers war effort.
At the start of 1916 things were looking bright for Imperial Germany for the first time since the bitter defeat of it’s initial drive into France in 1914. A series of Allied offensives launched in 1915 had collapsed with heavy casualties, while the British landing in Gallipoli had become an expensive failure. The Russians were reeling from a series of defeats and for a brief period Germany had the opportunity to take the offensive on the Western Front, the only front where the war could truly be decisively won.
This led the supreme German military commander, General Falkenhayn, to devise a fairly radical strategy: an offensive intended to bleed the French army white in a death struggle over a strategic city that the French High Command would refuse to give up. Horne claims a battle of attrition on this scale was a new and unheard of concept at this time and I’m inclined to think he’s correct.
The area selected, the traditional fortress city of Verdun, was symbolically important but had by 1916 largely been stripped of its artillery and was fairly lightly defended. Ironically, the carefully planned and orchestrated German opening offensive was almost too successful as the German’s gained so much ground initially that they were in danger of capturing the city before drawing large French forces in to defend it. Horne proposes that an opportunity was present for a great and unexpected German victory but Falkenhayn withheld critical reinforcements out of caution and calculation. The French were able to rush reinforcements to defend the city and slow the German attack but not before the Germans captured the huge and imposing fortress of Douaumont in a fascinating episode that is recounted in detail in the book.
The battle then devolved into a series of costly German offensives and French counter-attacks that saw the front line inch closer and closer to Verdun. Meanwhile the artillery of both sides wrought a horrific carnage on the masses of infantry continually fed into the fight and transformed the landscape into a lunar wasteland the shape of which is still visible today almost 100 years later. Then, just as the French appeared near the breaking point and the Germans again seemed on the verge of a significant victory, the British opened their long-awaited massive offensive on the Somme while the Russians launched the initially brilliantly successful Brusilov offensive against the hapless Austrians. Both battles drew German forces away from Verdun and formally ended the German offensive. The last chapter of the battle saw a well executed French counter-attack that managed to take most of the ground back from the demoralized and over-extended German troops remaining in the area.
In another irony, the final French counter-offensive was led by French General Nivelle. Its resounding success saw him vaulted to high command of the French army which led to the disastrous Nivelle offensive bearing his name in 1917, the defeat of which actually did bring about the near collapse of the French army which never truly recovered. Unfortunately for the Germans, the brief opportunity had passed and Falkenhayn’s caution ultimately prevented the success of one of Germany’s few opportunities to win a decisive battle. Despite a last gasp in 1918, Germany’s eventual defeat by the superior manpower and economies of the Allied powers was sealed.
Once again, Alistair Horne’s writing on a somewhat obscure subject is masterful. The French mindset leading up to World War I is carefully explored and linked to the early French actions of the war. Horne also links the French defense of Verdun to many of the strategic decisions made prior to World War II, such as the massive investment in underground forts along the Maginot line that had been so critical to the defense at Verdun.
Somehow Horne’s writing is able to bring out the humanity of the story and avoid it becoming either a tale of numbers and strategic icons or a stereotypical sappy WW1 Western Front tragedy. The horrible details of the battle are fully discussed but as part of a larger narrative and with the key decision-makers motives examined in detail. Though the cast of characters is somewhat smaller than in The Fall of Paris, the key characters of Joffre, Petain, The Crown Prince, Falkenhayn, and others are explored in great depth to try to understand the rationale behind many of the decisions made. The narrative never slows and includes a nice balance of character study, strategic/operational level discussion, and gritty tactical details. The book is not a reference by any means and lacks detailed information on equipment and orders of battle, focusing instead on the battle as a narrative and another chapter in a larger struggle.
I will offer three minor criticisms of the book. First, I was very disappointed by the single relatively poor map of the battlefield provided. I found myself constantly referring to it and overall I felt like it was insufficient for the detail provided in the text. Secondly, Horne has an odd habit of inserting French quotes and phrases without any translation; it’s not a big detail but it is a minor annoyance. Lastly, the book is not an absolute reference on the battle and will probably not satisfy a true military historian looking to investigate the battle in great detail. This not being the author’s intention anyways, I think the book is nonetheless of immense value.
One other note is that in this book, as in his others, Horne’s primary emphasis is on the French viewpoint which some have criticized. I think it reflects the author’s true passion and, as Horne’s narrative comes across as remarkably fair and equal in its tone of both sides, I didn’t find it affected my view of the book.
In summary, The Price of Glory is a relatively shorter and more approachable read than The Fall of Paris and is highly recommended for anyone interested in learning more about Verdun in particular or the Western Front of WW1 in general.