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

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Walking in the Footsteps of the Fallen: Verdun 1916

by Christina Holstein.
Pen & Sword Books, 2019
James Thomas, Reviewer

Memorial to Emile Driant, First French Hero of Verdun

Walking in the Footsteps of the Fallen is a tour guide. However, this is an understatement and is like saying World War I's Battle of Verdun was just a battle or that Christina Holstein is simply a docent. This is the latest in Holstein's collection of studies of that horrific battle that stretched from February until December of 1916. Of all her books, this is the most moving and perhaps the one that would be most approved of by Jean Norton Cru, veteran of the battle and critic of all things written about the war.

Author Christin Holstein
Christina Holstein is generally—and quite accurately—considered the leading expert on all things regarding the Battle of Verdun. Her books represent a lifetime of study, exploration, and guiding others through the intricacies of the story and the grounds where it played out. Each book tells the story, as in the first, Walking Verdun, or part of the story, such as Fort Vaux. By describing the battle in relation to the places where it happened, Holstein is in fact giving tours, but there is so much more than that. By packing each volume with photographs both contemporary and recent, the reader—or visitor—gets more than just a tour of the battlefield. Instead, the reader gets the best sort of history lesson, and that lesson is thorough and since the lessons are about Verdun, disturbing.

Walking in the Footsteps of the Fallen is the most disturbing and most impressive of her collection because in this one she leaves the main tourist paths and takes the visitor on four tours to the lesser-known and less-traveled trails to learn about the experiences of many of those thousands who died in that ten-month slaughter-fest. Scattered throughout the area there are small cemeteries, individual markers, some simply in fragments and others restored. Holstein has tracked down the stories of many of these men and recounts those stories to the reader.

I visited Verdun once, a lifetime ago, in 1980. Memories of the place are certainly vivid, especially of Fort Douaumont and the Ossuary, but the walking tours in those days were straightforward and, while moving, did not have the overwhelming power brought by Holstein's specific human stories. If her books had been available in those pre-PhD days, my already present love of history would certainly have been fueled into the professional fire that developed later. (Looking back at that visit with the regrets of hindsight, I realize how nice it would have been to stop and speak—even in very amateurish French—with the elderly men with canes and ribbons who shuffled along the trails revisiting the scenes of their own youth..

Unlike the brochures and pamphlets that visitors generally pick up at battlefields and other historical sites, and which usually only make sense holding them in hand while walking the site, Holstein's books are as useful reading at home as they are while walking the battlefield. This is particularly true of her most recent volume,Walking in the Footsteps of the Fallen, which takes the reader deeper into the walkable areas of the battle and deeper into the lives lost in that battle, which, in fact, makes the visitor more than just another tourist.

James Thomas

1 comment:

  1. Yes, the ossuary... THAT was my first introduction to battlefields and warfare in 1955. I was 3 1/2 years old. It gives one a whole new perspective on the 'tomb of the unknown soldier'. I have never forgotten it.