As far back as I can remember I have had a morbid fascination with war. I think it has always been an inability to comprehend the magnitude and propensity of man’s inhumanity to man. As a young teenager, while others my age were watching Gilligan’s Island or Get Smart, I was tuned into the Knowledge Network watching the World at War series over and over again. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like war or find it glorifying; as a matter of fact, the reality of it terrifies me. That is why I ascribe to the “lest we forget” school of thought. Today I have the entire series of World at War on videotape and a bookshelf full of WWII history books. I feel pretty well read in regards to Second World War historiography but I have had little inclination to delve into any of humanities other violent conflicts to a similar degree.
While visiting a friend last summer, the subject of war was broached. When he learned that I was not very familiar with First World War history, he insisted that I borrow and read Alistair Horne’s classic account of WWI’s most infamous battle”?the Battle of Verdun. The book which I borrowed is entitled The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 and it is the second book of a historiographical trilogy on Franco-German conflicts. The first book in the series is The Fall of Paris: 1870-71, and the third is To Lose a Battle: France 1940. I knew that conditions for the troops fighting on all sides of the Great War were deplorable, but I had no idea how bad it was until enlightened by Horne’s writing.
The battle of Verdun was widely recognized as the decisive battle of WWI; it lasted 10 tortuous months and has been called the “worst” battle in history. It was fought on a battlefield barely five miles wide and in that small area was left the corpses of approximately 420,000 French and German solders. In addition to those killed in action, 800,000 solders were gassed or wounded. The bombardments from heavy artillery on both sides were such that every living thing was swept clean from the battle area and the landscape became an alternately muddy and frozen moonscape of blast-craters, sporadically inhabited by troops. As the explosive shells fell upon the unprotected men, new corpses were added to the death toll and those previously killed were repeatedly buried, disinterred, and buried again by the ceaseless kneading of the ground. Shell-shocked troops either learned to cope with the carnage around them or went mad. It was common at the beginning of the battle, before all of the foliage was pulverized into mulch, to see parts of human bodies imbedded into tree trunks or unidentifiable entrails draped across the high branches of trees like a macabre Christmas decoration. Later in the battle, as solders dug the trenches that became synonymous with the Great War, they would be excavating through arms, legs, heads, and all manner of other human remains that had been buried by the shelling. The stench of death was such that the battlefield reeked of rotting flesh for years after the war’s end.
To add to the suffering of the men on both sides, there was a constant shortage of water and food. Many thirst-crazed solders drank from the fetid, sickening puddles that gathered at the bottom of shell-craters, often with bloated corpses or body parts laying in the water inches from their lapping mouths. Also missing from the front was an effective means of evacuating the wounded. Haunting the minds of veterans of the Battle of Verdun until their dieing days were the tortured screams and agonized moans of mangled and disembowelled solders strewn across the battlefield for hours or days until blessed death brought release from their torment.
Given these inhuman conditions, it is little wonder why desertions were frequent and numerous. If caught, these unfortunates were summarily executed by their own forces. Often troops rushing toward enemy lines with their hands in the air for surrender were shot in the back as cowardly deserters by their own troops to their rear. Those not killed by the never-ending bombardments, had to face “going over the top” as they were forced to rush the enemy positions into the deadly oncoming gale of machine gun projectiles mowing them down by the thousands like lemmings falling into the sea.
Horne examines the Battle of Verdun through many points of view: outside observers; political leaders; battle commanders”?both inept and brilliant; and the rank-and-file troops who died by the thousands as pawns in a game of human-madness. This review cannot do proper justice to The Price of Glory any more than Horne’s superb work can do justice to the Battle of Verdun itself. However, I humbly urge you to acquire this book which has been in continuous print since its initial publication in 1962. Lest we forget:
In regards to last week’s article by Wayne Benedict, the review of the out-of-print book The Privatization Putsch by author Herschel Hardin, we would like to make our readers aware that stock copies are still available directly from the author for $25.00 including mailing and GST (the price is set by The Institute for Research on Public Policy at the going rate for academic levels). Anybody who wants a copy needs to send a cheque for $25 to Herschel Hardin Associates, 3498 Marine Drive, West Vancouver BC V7V 1N2, with a memo on the cheque or in a separate note.
Wayne E. Benedict is a Locomotive Engineer at BC Rail and President of the Canadian Union of Transportation Employees Local 1. He is working toward his Bachelor of Administration in Industrial Relations and Human Resources at Athabasca University.