From the author of Occupation (1998), a splendid account of the WWI battle that raged for more than nine months and claimed more than 300,000 lives.
Relying heavily on the published and unpublished words of actual combatants, drawing on novelists and philosophers as well as historians, Ousby (who died in 2001) succeeds in mixing the perceptions of soldiers, scholars, and artists, in the process creating a unique view of a specific battle and of warfare in general. He begins by acknowledging the problems inherent in military history, which strives to produce a coherent narrative out of the chaos of combat, even though, as Ousby writes, “in the very clarity of the result lies a profound falsification.” His own opening pages assess perceptions as well as “facts” as they portray the situation at Verdun before the German artillery opened up on Feb. 21, 1916. The town was surrounded by some 19 French forts, and the nearby territory was occupied by hundreds of thousands of French and German combatants, including France’s future president, Charles de Gaulle. After his description of the initial salvos, Ousby circles back to the 1870 Franco-Prussian War and then launches into a remarkable analysis of the various (and varying) views the French and Germans had of themselves. The French, he says, were proud of their “mongrel” heritage; the Germans, by contrast, were already preaching racial purity. Germany was an industrial powerhouse, while France clung to its cultural preeminence; “the contrast between the two nations,” writes Ousby, “now looked like the contrast between modernity and obsolescence.” The author discusses the role of social theory (especially social Darwinism) in the war and examines the powerful political forces on both sides. But he does not neglect military strategy and tactics (focusing primarily on French maneuvers), nor does he fail to provide horrific accounts of the effects of large shells on frail bodies.
Informed and erudite, lucid and sanguinary. (4 maps and 40 illustrations, not seen)