Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916
Reviewed by Bruce Sloan

The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916
by Alistair Horne
Published Originally by Macmillan, 1962

If you want to know about the Battle of Verdun, this is the book to read. It traces the ten months of the conflict, discusses the commanders, their tactics & strategy, and the heroic accounts of individual soldiers.

Maps are few but adequate to explain the strategy and progress of the battle, with most of the locations mentioned in the text noted.

Alistair Horne does a commendable job of setting the stage for the battle and explaining the events leading up to the German attack on the unprepared French. The massive German buildup of troops, equipment, and artillery went almost unnoticed:

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German Machine Gunners, Late Battle Period, Note Surrounding Terrain

Up to the time of the German attack, only seventy gun emplacements had been identified from the air, thus the French were never aware of the full extent of the artillery confronting them. . . over 850 German guns - including some of the heaviest ever used in land warfare — faced a motley collection totaling 270. . . most short of ammunition. Seventy-two battalions of élite, tough storm troops faced 34 battalions in half-completed positions.

Fort Douaumont was lightly manned and taken without a shot fired. It was then garrisoned by the Germans. However, a huge explosion occurred, thought to have been caused by Bavarian soldiers brewing coffee on upturned cordite cases using explosive from hand grenades as fuel. Most of the garrison was immediately killed, and those who manage to escape, uniforms in tatters and black-faced from smoke, were taken as French African troops and massacred by friendly fire.

The defenders of Fort Vaux dispatched their last pigeon, who, badly gassed, managed to reach Verdun, delivered its message, then fell dead. This gallant bird received the Légion d'Honneur, and was stuffed and put on display in a Paris museum.

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The foregoing two anecdotes are about forts, but the forts were strongpoints in a system of trenches, where most of the dying took place. Within ten months, over a relatively small section of earth, there were more dead per square yard than has probably even been known. Most were killed by artillery, while many were simply buried alive by the artillery bombardments or drowned in the craters created. Verdun was a watershed; neither army would be quite the same again.

Poor leadership led to the loss of Germany's last chance for victory in 1916 and the dismissal of the top commanders of both sides, Falkenhayn and Joffre. This was followed by the ascendance of Pétain and Nivelle.

The horror, extent, and lasting effects of the battle are too numerous and numbing to summarize here, so The Price of Glory is one of the few books I will read a second time.

Bruce Sloan


  1. My interest in WW1 is directly attributable to Horne's book, which I was required to read for a course in modern European history in the fall of 1966. I found the book such a compelling read that I practically memorized it. Later, in tactics class at OCS I was able to recall so much detail as to astound the instructors. Coincidentally I have the same copy of 'The Price of Glory' that I read. A friend who had later checked the book out from the university library had never returned it (through carelessness) and gave it to me about 35 years ago.
    The photograph above shows what looks to be an MG 08/15 machine gun, which I believe wasn't issued until 1917? The gunner seems to be using plunging fire, presumably at a distant target, although his partner seems to be about to throw a grenade?

  2. If ever there has been a Hell on Earth, it was at Verdun. Nice review.

  3. While Skiing Squaw Valley, West Face, a heavily mogulled expert run, is renamed "Western Front". I have also nicknamed a nearby deeply mogulled expert run "Verdun".