Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War

by Paul Jankowski
     
 

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At seven o'clock in the morning on February 21, 1916, the ground in northern France began to shake. For the next ten hours, twelve hundred German guns showered shells on a salient in French lines. The massive weight of explosives collapsed dugouts, obliterated trenches, severed communication wires, and drove men mad. As the barrage lifted, German troops moved

Overview

At seven o'clock in the morning on February 21, 1916, the ground in northern France began to shake. For the next ten hours, twelve hundred German guns showered shells on a salient in French lines. The massive weight of explosives collapsed dugouts, obliterated trenches, severed communication wires, and drove men mad. As the barrage lifted, German troops moved forward, darting from shell crater to shell crater. The battle of Verdun had begun.

In Verdun, historian Paul Jankowski provides the definitive account of the iconic battle of World War I. A leading expert on the French past, Jankowski combines the best of traditional military history-its emphasis on leaders, plans, technology, and the contingency of combat-with the newer social and cultural approach, stressing the soldier's experience, the institutional structures of the military, and the impact of war on national memory. Unusually, this book draws on deep research in French and German archives; this mastery of sources in both languages gives Verdun unprecedented authority and scope. In many ways, Jankowski writes, the battle represents a conundrum. It has an almost unique status among the battles of the Great War; and yet, he argues, it was not decisive, sparked no political changes, and was not even the bloodiest episode of the conflict. It is said that Verdun made France, he writes; but the question should be, What did France make of Verdun? Over time, it proved to be the last great victory of French arms, standing on their own. And, for France and Germany, the battle would symbolize the terror of industrialized warfare, "a technocratic Moloch devouring its children," where no advance or retreat was possible, yet national resources poured in ceaselessly, perpetuating slaughter indefinitely.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
12/02/2013
On February 21, 1916, a million shells descended on the trenches surrounding the French city of Verdun; German troops advanced a few miles until stopped by rain, mud, and resistance. Both nations poured in reinforcements, and months of attacks and counterattacks produced massive casualties but only modest German advances. By December, French forces recovered most of the lost ground. Although France celebrates the Battle of Verdun as a great victory, historians agree it had no political impact and decided little, if anything, in the wider war. Verdun remains the epitome of senseless industrial slaughter, writes Jankowski, professor of history at Brandeis University (Shades of Indignation: Political Scandals in France), in an engrossing history that focuses less on the fighting than its political and cultural background. Most French and German people at the time believed that national survival was at stake, and while some of the suffering soldiers agreed, many dissented as well. Drawing even more heavily on archives, letters, and journals than Alistair Horne in his classic 1962 The Price of Glory, Jankowski has written a superb, definitive popular account of Verdun through the eyes of soldiers, military leaders, and citizens of the two nations. (Feb.)
Library Journal
01/01/2014
Jankowski (history, Brandeis Univ.; Stavisky: A Confidence Man in the Republic of Virtue) examines Verdun as the quintessential battle of World War I. Like the war itself, the Battle of Verdun (February through December 1916) accomplished little while devouring soldiers at a prodigious rate. Rather than telling how the battle was fought, Jankowski tries to answer why it was fought—the most perplexing question for historians, as the town and its fortifications were of limited strategic importance to either France or Germany—and what the battle meant for those engaged in the fighting. Erich von Falkenhayn, the primary German architect of the battle, claimed later that his goal was to bleed France dry so that it was forced to accept a German peace. However, Jankowski makes an excellent case that this was not originally Germany's intention and, in any case, cannot explain why the battle was fought for so long. In addition, he gives substantial attention to the role of the battle in the national memories of Germany and especially France. VERDICT Ultimately, the author has no clear answer to the question "why Verdun?" and has an equally difficult time describing the larger meaning of the war. This is not necessarily a failing: Are there answers? Jankowski's careful analysis of voluminous French and German records should appeal to World War I specialists.—Michael Farrell, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL
From the Publisher
"Brilliant." —Los Angeles Review of Books

"The horrors have been described often and elaborately, but Mr. Jankowski is skillful enough that his accounts still provoke." —Wall Street Journal

"One of its foremost virtues is to brush aside the insistence of modern folklore.... that Verdun imposed on its participants horrors unprecedented in history." —Max Hastings, The Sunday Times

"Jankowski recognizes the significance of the battle that Maurice Genevoix, a French novelist and World War I veteran, was said to have called 'the battle-symbol of the entire 1914-1918 war...' He relies heavily on the memoirs, journals and letters of those who were present during the battle to complete his work." —Army magazine

"Jankowski has written a superb, definitive popular account of Verdun through the eyes of soldiers, military leaders, and citizens of the two nations." —Publishers Weekly

"Jankowski's revisionist book is a major achievement...The writing throughout is of the highest order... At every stage, Jankowski integrates the military narrative with broader political and cultural dimensions... Jankowski's book offers a model history of warfare." —Philip Jenkins, Books & Culture

"Paul Jankowski's Verdun is a great book, truly a masterwork of modern literature. On a much studied event (25 percent of all the many French books on World War I have been about the battle of Verdun), he has given us a work of rare originality and creativity. And he has done it with old fashioned virtues of grace and refinement. This is not only a new interpretation of a major subject. It is also a new model of how history might be written on many subjects." —David Hackett Fischer

"This fine book straddles two generations of writing on the Great War. It is a superb account of the unfolding of the battle from the viewpoint of the commanders, and a moving narrative of the tenacity of small groups of men pushed beyond the limits of human endurance." —Jay Winter, Yale University

"Paul Jankowski provides a balanced, scholarly account of the pivotal Battle of Verdun. Within a smoothly flowing narrative, he highlights critical themes in both traditional military history and the social history of warfare. This book is a first-stop source for students of the First World War, and a superb survey of what arguably stands the greatest battle in human history." —Edward G. Lengel, author of To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918

"Paul Jankowski's Verdun is the first major study of the battle to appear in English for many years, and the first to draw fully on archival research on both sides. Jankowski presents a thoughtful, original, and moving account, full of insights into the course of the fighting and its subsequent commemoration and impact." —David Stevenson, author of Cataclysm:The First World War as Political Tragedy and With our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780199316892
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
Publication date:
02/03/2014
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
700,961
Product dimensions:
10.10(w) x 7.00(h) x 1.60(d)

Meet the Author

Paul Jankowski is Raymond Ginger Professor of History at Brandeis University. His many books include Stavinksy: A Confidence Man in the Republic of Virtue and Shades of Indignation: Political Scandals in France, Past and Present.

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