Friday, August 29, 2014

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War by Paul Jankowski

Many of the reviews on amazon for this book seem to have missed the forest for the trees.  Most were expecting a detailed history of the battle of Verdun.  That is, as per the usual military history of a single, significant battle, a rather limited history leading up to the battle should have been presented, and then the battle itself detailed, studied, and analyzed, followed up by its impact on the war and the lessons derived from it to this day.

However, Jankowski has presented a rather different version of a history of Verdun.  That is, he's created a history of the 'idea' that the Battle of Verdun represented during the war, immediately after, and up to the present.  The author offers no linear narrative going through the beginning, middle, and end of this battle since in reality no such plans existed.  Chapters jump around in regards to time, place, events, etc.  The battle, in some sense, evolved on its own and the chaos that followed had to be put into a narrative of its own by those reporting on it and post-war histories and memoirs.  The creation of that story, the memory/memories of Verdun, is what Jankowski is tracking, in some sense, and expanding on the myths that the battle left in its wake.

Thus, the ever changing narrative about why the battle began, what both sides wanted to achieve through their offensive (the Germans) at Verdun, and their tenacious defense (French) of an area that for all intents and purposes contained no real significance for either party is the core of this monograph.  If the Germans had gained ground it would not have resulted in the war of movement that they were aiming for, and if the French had retreated, another city would have fallen to the Germans with no real change to the overall war effort.  And yet this deadly embrace, mainly between the Germans and French, lasted for close to ten months.  With this text, you can track the various ideas that each side went through when trying to explain what was happening around Verdun to those back home as they tried to put a logical spin on why tens of thousands of soldiers were becoming casualties on a daily basis - there had to be a reason!

So for those interested in a detailed history of the Battle of Verdun, you'd best look elsewhere.  For those who are interested in understanding how a battle with no real significance, aside from casualties sustained and inflicted, became one of the foundations of the history of the First World War, this is the book for you.

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