It’s a shame I only discovered Alistair Horne’s work only a few weeks before he died. There’s much I would have liked to tell him, had I the chance.
My wife was a few pages into his history of the Battle of Verdun,The Price of Glory,when she turned to me, “I see why you liked this book.” It wasn't a straight-head retelling of the battle, it was something more, she said.
She was right, of course. Horne’s 1962 book on the French experience in the First World War is so much more than an accounting of Verdun. What makes it so special, is how uncommon the approach seems in the stacks of military history.
At the heart of the book is the idea this battle, or any battle, is more than just troop movements and bayonet charges.
Military history is an odd thing. In the popular mind, it's a summation of battles on the march to victory, or defeat. Tales of gaudy heroism and noble sacrifice, maps filled with arrows, marking the way across some far-away battlefield. The type of history read, perhaps, by the type of guys who might do some light reenactment on the weekends. War porn, if you will.
So, I’m a bit embarrassed to say on a recent rip to Europe, my wife and I drove down a large part of the Western Front, visiting shell-pocked fields, ruined forts, and war graves too numerous to count. Travelling like that, to all those old and quiet battlefields, gives off a certain signal, a flashing neon sign screaming “WAR BUFF, COMING THROUGH.”
If you've watched any of the few remaining history programs on the History channel, you probably have an image of the type of history buff—why is it always “buff”?—I’m not.
The type of history I’m talking about is best exemplified, in my experience, by war historian John Keegan. Over the winter I picked up his single-volume pass at the First World War, the aptly titled The First World War. It took me a couple tries to finally plow though, for a variety of reasons. Most of those being it was an overly dense book, packed with minute details about manoeuvres, but light on, even disdainful of, political analysis. And what is war, if not a political act?
Perhaps I’ve not read enough military history to appreciate the genre. But my foray into Keegan’s work left me rather dissatisfied. The First World War is an unending dirge of tactical analysis, at the expense of a readable narrative.* So often, sentences would fold in on themselves with endless lists of which division of which army was where commanded by who on what stretch of trench, my brain would stop registering pages at a time. Kegan’s book overloads you with facts figures and details that seem important, but add little to your understanding.
But Horne's history of Verdun doesn’t fall into this same mould. The Price of Glory is a book about one of the most consequential and bloody battles of the First World War. But to start the book, he sets the scene in the 1870s during the Franco-Prussian War. Showing how and why the French army was defeated then, made clear why the French fought the way they did 40 years later. The French penchant for headlong attacks and their unwillingness to cede ground, or even dig in any permanent sense, is traced by Horne back to the earlier war where their reliance on stoic defence, and stout fortresses seemed to this later generation of French warriors to spell their doom.
(That this would all circle around once more in the next conflict, in the form of the infamous Maginot Line, would be one of the tragic consequences of Verdun. But, I’m getting ahead of things here.)
Now, this isn’t to say that Horne’s book is without references to battalions and pincer movements and so on. But these things have a sense of place within a narrative. The story isn’t that X Corps marched three miles before encountering pockets of machine-gun resistance and being forced to retreat. It’s about why X Corps might have marched those miles, and what it meant that they were turned back.
Perhaps I'm being unfair to Keegan. Horne is in many ways trying to explain the whys and hows of Verdun, Keegan seems instead to describe the war in its totality. But the contrast is I think useful in illustrating what made Horne’s book so special, so much more worth your time.
The Price of Glory sees the battle, and by extension the war, as so much more than suffering and slaughter, infantry tactics and artillery barrages.
Horne captures how Verdun shaped a generation of the French. Maginot, Pétain, De Gaulle; all these men passed through the battle. But more than the names of historic importance, something like four-fifths of the army would pass through Verdun through the 10 months of the battle. The blasted hills and hammered forts would mark an entire generation of young men in an indelible and lasting way.
Horne is able to illustrate the weight of that—of the relentless shelling, the back-and-forth bar brawls over miles of blasted mud, the endless misery of nights in the trenches—and how so many men carried that weight forever.
Fifty years after Glory was published, you can still sense the weight. When you go to Verdun today, it’s there all around. In the smashed villages never resettled, little more than monuments nestled in pockmarked corners of forest. In the forts open for tours, where the steps of other visitors make a ghostly echo through the damp corridors.
I would have liked to write to Horne, to tell him how half a century later how moving his book was. How it changed my view of the First World War, and how it inspired my own pilgrimage to Verdun. I’d have written on how essential his book still felt, in style and in substance. And how his approach to Glory has inspired in me a new way of looking at narrative and historical context, and how I want it informs everything I hope to write.
I won’t get that chance, but it’s true all the same.
*I will say, however, Keegan’s dissection of the Schlieffen Plan, and the logistical analysis of armies marching on limited roadworks and train timetables, was a fascinating and lucid read. On the other hand, Keegan devotes but a single paragraph to the Armenian Genocide, of which half of the passage is to suggest the Armenians had it coming. So.
**When in Verdun, we visited the newly opened museum of the battle. One of the most interesting things about it was the near-total absence of Pétain, or any commander on either side, from the museum. His central role in the battle was presumably easier to ignore than deal with his later turn as leader of Vichy France, collaborating under the thumb of the Nazis.
All photos copyright me, Robert Hiltz, because I took them, and I have the negatives.