The Price of Glory

Verdun 1916

There’s so much that has been said about the tragedy that was the Battle of Verdun. It was the battle of attrition within an overarching war of attrition; it was the ultimate symbol of the horrors that the Great War has been known for. For nine gruesome months of 1916, the French and the German forces fought for control of a fortified region, with arguably minimal strategic significance to the war at the time.

The German High Command’s plan to bleed the French to death simply resulted in both sides getting sucked into a vortex of never-ending misery and destruction, in which both sides suffered unimaginable devastation, with neither side gaining any considerable advantage in the end.

Alistair Horne’s acclaimed work, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, is still the authoritative reading on the subject, despite having been first published more than half a century ago. The book seamlessly combines military and political aspects of the battle, with anecdotal narrative of how the ordinary soldiers fought, suffered, and died in Verdun. A short chapter is also devoted to the aerial side of war, as Verdun’s skies was where the so-called “Flying Aces” began to see greater involvement in the ongoing conflict.

Verdun remains a symbol to the French people; countless porminent leaders of France, like Petain and de Gaulle, saw service in Verdun, taking part in the symbolic battle that moved a nation and continued to influence the men who fought there even after the war.

But the tragic legacy of the battle is precisely because it was a “symbol” of valor: the French, somehow, kept on repeating the stubborn defence that they put up in Verdun – most notably in Dien Bien Phu, where they held on even in the face of the already-superior Viet Minh forces under General Vo Nguyen Giap. The French, it seems, learned a different lesson than they should have.

Verdun 1916 isn’t exactly for general readership, however. A knowledge of the First World War is assumed of the reader. Many names and events beyond the Great War are also mentioned in passing, again with the assumption that the reader is already familiar with what is being discussed. The first chapter discusses the history of France since the 1870-71 War; the epilogue goes as far as Indochina and Algeria.

Nonetheless, Verdun 1916 – for the curious mind with sufficient background knowledge, and who wants to know more about the Battle of Verdun – is possibly the best single-volume resource for the specific battle. Even the more recent WW1 books list this book in their bibliographies, an evidence of its great reputation on the subject matter. Definitely a recommended reading for history enthusiasts.