Yet perhaps it was the way the war was fought that really did the damage, for it inflicted a psychic wound of the kind from which there is no easy recovery. Above everything else, that war was savage, with an insensate sort of savagery for which there is no good rationalization.
We are used to terrible things in our generation—fire raids on great cities, and the unspeakable hideousness of concentration camps dedicated to mass murder—yet the record of the kind of fighting that took place in the First World War remains one of the most appalling chapters in all history. We can hardly understand our own times without knowing something about the things men were forced to endure from 1914 to 1918.
Consider, for example, the great German attack on the French stronghold of Verdun, which took place in 1916 and which is described by Mr. Alistair Home in The Price of Glory .
The German battle plan here was peculiar. Erich von Falkenhayn, German generalissimo, believed that the French prized Verdun so much that they would defend it to the death regardless of cost. He did not especially want to capture it: he simply wanted to threaten it so much that the French Army would permit itself to be destroyed in its defense. So he proposed to wheel up overpowering artillery to blast a hole in the front line, occupy the gap with infantry, and then use the artillery to pulverize the unending stream of French reinforcements which would be sent in to restore the balance. The French would bleed to death. If it went on long enough, Germany might not win a victory but France would suffer a defeat.
The Price of Glory: Verdun, 1916, by Alistair Home. St Martin’s Press. 371 pp. $5.95.
Verdun, as Mr. Home says, was perhaps the worst battle ever fought. The proportion of casualties to numbers engaged was far higher than for any other battle in the war. Between them, the French and German armies lost more than 700,000 men. (Some estimates run much higher, and no one really knows what the exact figure ought to be. It is recorded that after the war 150,000 corpses, or bits of corpses, were collected from the battlefield and properly laid away; they ought to figure in the statistics somewhere, no doubt.) Nobody won anything, unless you count the “glory” gained by the French defenders. Falkenhayn bled his own army nearly as badly as he bled the French. Mr. Home sums it up as well as need be. Verdun, he says, was “the indecisive battle in an indecisive war; the unnecessary battle in an unnecessary war; the battle that had no victors in a war that had no victors.”
So why study it? Because it is a vital part of the story of the unmitigated savagery that mankind had to endure, and by which man’s spirit was mutilated, in the First World War. Nations do not quickly return to health after an ordeal which can be characterized as Mr. Home characterizes Verdun—as the battle which had “the highest density of dead per square yard that has probably ever been known.” When you have a battlefield containing many square miles and you count the dead by the number per square yard you have unquestionably reached the ultimate in something.
The echoes went a long way. Verdun left France with the Maginot line mentality, which brought disaster in 1940. It also did something to Marshal Philippe Pétain, the soldier who conducted the successful defense. Pétain was a humanitarian, and he seems to have been permanently stunned by what he had to make his soldiers do; in 1940, in another time of crisis, he was unable to be anything more than a receiver in bankruptcy for a beaten nation.