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

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Verdun: the Left Bank
reviewed by the Editor

Verdun: the Left Bank

by Christina Holstein
Pen & Sword, 2016

Memorial at Malancourt on the Approach to Cote 304

Almost all histories of the 1916 Battle of Verdun emphasize the fighting on the right (or east) bank of the River Meuse. It was the locale of the struggle's opening and end game and also some of the best remembered names: the Forts Douaumont and Vaux and Fleury village. There was, however, a middle period when the main action shifted to the other side of the river, when the German Fifth Army of the Crown Prince tried to break through and take Verdun from the west. This area is known as the Left Bank and it featured some of the most horrendous fighting of the Great War. Verdun expert and friend of this reviewer, Christina Holstein, has filled a big gap for us. In Verdun: the Left Bank she provides us with a combined battlefield guide and history that helps us understand this important sector. It is the fourth in her series on Verdun, and I found it the most helpful for me because it covers territory few other authors cover in any depth. Fortunately, it became available just before I led my spring tour to Verdun, and  I made some last-minute adjustments to the tour itinerary after reading this work. For instance, we spent much more time around the village of Malancourt. This interesting little place was the gateway for the German Army to Cote 304 (to the right of the memorial shown above) and for the U.S. Army's assault on Montfaucon (behind the memorial) in 1918. By the way, both the French defenders of 1916 and the American 79th Division are recognized on the memorial.

The three months of intense fighting on the left bank is covered chronologically in a way that is easy to follow. Key positions like the villages of Malancourt, Cumières, and German-occupied Forges and the strategic hills such as Mort Homme, Cote 304, and the important rear artillery position of Bois-Bourrus Ridge are clearly positioned for the reader with lots of details about the action there. To describe the fighting Christina draws heavily on primary French and German sources. (Her skills as a multi-lingual translator really enhance the battle accounts.) This work is also highly illustrated with over 150 photos and helpful maps.

I mentioned above that this work proved very helpful in planning my recent Verdun trip. Here's a general section I found eye-opening even after visiting the Verdun battlefield a dozen times earlier:

In fact, Verdun was not just defended by walls; it also had formidable natural defenses. The city is surrounded by flat topped limestone hi ills that rise to 390 meters above sea level and offer grandstand views in all directions. Streams have cut the hillsides into deep ravines which provide concealment for both troops and observers, while the valley bottoms, marshy and overgrown in both summer and winter, hinder easy movement and force communication lines to concentrate in the few gateways that remain naturally dry. The winding valley of the River Meuse is dominated by interlocking spurs, which block passage along the valley from any direction and control the river crossings, while frequent floods, which event today fill the valley from side to side, form another natural obstacle to movement of armies. [16]

If you are interested in learning about the Battle of Verdun in-depth, after reading one of the survey histories of the battle like Alistair Horne's classic, The Price of Glory, you can do no better than reading Christina Holstein's studies of Verdun. In addition to Verdun: the Left Bank, she has written similar volumes on Fort Douaumont, Fort Vaux, and a guide, Walking Verdun.

Mike Hanlon

1 comment:

  1. "helpful maps" - yes? Is this one of those rare birds, a WWI book with actually fine maps?