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Book Title: Price of Glory|
Date of issue: December 1st 1962
ISBN 13: 9780333083000
The author of the book: Alistair Horne
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 863 KB
Read full description of the books Price of Glory:I have a Sick Child right now, which means I'm currently running on less than three hours' sleep. This feels to me like total exhaustion. Still, things could be a lot worse. It's been instructive to remind myself that French soldiers in the line at Verdun not uncommonly went eleven days without any rest at all. Although when I cheerfully reminded my wife of this fact at 4 a.m. she didn't seem to find it very reassuring.
Eleven days though! Imagine trying to confront an armed Brandenburger with that level of sleep-deprivation. Luckily, such an eventuality rarely came up: one of the most striking things about Verdun was the fact that you were unlikely ever to face up to the enemy, or even see him. All you had to do was wait until your turn in the front-line trenches, and then endure as much shelling as you could before you were eviscerated.
This perhaps sounds like some grimly comic exaggeration, but in fact the French commanders were quite explicit about the pointless deaths they expected from their men. General Nivelle's orders were to ‘Ne pas se rendre, ne pas reculer d'un pouce, se faire tuer sur place’, while one colonel told his troops: ‘On the day they want to, they will massacre you to the last man, and it is your duty to fall.’
As pep-talks go, that's not exactly the St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V. In fact it's only a couple of rungs up from ‘Men, why don't all of you fuck off and die.’
What was it all about? Well, the Germans guessed rightly that France would never surrender Verdun, which was a key fortress-town near the front lines. They therefore reckoned that by attacking it continually, they would force the French to sacrifice themselves in order to prevent its loss: ‘the forces of France will bleed to death,’ in the words of the famous German memo, ‘whether we reach our goal or not.’
This subtle plan had, as Captain E. Blackadder would later put it, just one tiny flaw: it was bollocks. The problem was that the Germans attacking Verdun were compelled to haemorrhage troops almost as fast as the French. So you had both armies hurling great bodies of men at each other, both sides constantly decimated by extremely heavy artillery fire, all over an objective that the Germans never even seriously expected to win.
It was very quickly obvious that the whole affair was pointless; but, because of astonishingly limp leadership on both sides, it went on for fully ten months. At the end of which, the front line was in roughly the same place it had been at the beginning and three hundred thousand boys were dead.
As Paul Fussell has pointed out elsewhere, to call Verdun a ‘battle’ – as though this relentless endurance of shelling were remotely similar to Blenheim or Waterloo – is to give entirely the wrong impression. Men did not fight men at Verdun, or very rarely; instead, men were pitted against heavy artillery. They heard little but screaming shells and lived – if they were lucky – half-underground in trenches where the water was often waist-high. The ground had been churned up so many times that corpses were (to borrow a cooking term) folded in throughout, and body-parts protruded from the trench walls or confounded your spade when you tried to dig in.
The psychological effect of this on the soldiers is…well, it can hardly be imagined. One priest, Sergeant Dubrelle, wrote home with some decidedly un-Catholic feelings:
Having despaired of living amid such horror, we begged God not to have us killed – the transition is too atrocious – but just to let us be dead. We had but one desire; the end!
Alistair Horne – rising to the peaks of desperate irony that Verdun demands – comments: ‘At least this part of Dubrelle's prayers was answered the following year.’ Horne's tone and command of his material really is excellent throughout; he is very good on the political side, he offers outstanding character sketches of the major players, but he is also determined to make clear the experience of the regular soldiers who, amidst the horror, enacted ‘countless, unrecorded Thermopylaes’.
Many of the peripheral details here are fascinating. I knew of course that cavalry was still considered a strong tactic at the start of the war, but I had not previously appreciated how proportionally undeveloped was the use of motor-cars. In 1914, there were only 170 vehicles in the entire French army, and the Senegalese troops brought in to the service depots at first ate the grease.
One of the most riveting aspects of learning about the First World War, for me, has been the extent to which it is inseparable from the Second, so that whole period of 1914-1945 can be understood (as one historian said) almost as another Thirty Years War. This element comes across strongly in Horne as well, in unexpectedly tragic ways. It was Verdun that convinced French commanders of the vital necessity of strong forts, leading to their later over-dependence on the Maginot Line; indeed, ‘more than any isolated event of the First War, Verdun led to France's defeat in 1940’. While on the other side of the lines, it created ‘a vacuum of leadership in Germany into which rushed the riff-raff of the Himmlers and Goebbels’.
The most prominent symbol of this trajectory is poor Pétain, who emerges here as one of the great tragic figures of the century. Deeply protective of his troops, by far the most humanitarian French general, he would almost certainly have evacuated the whole Verdun salient if he'd been allowed; instead, he was forced to preside over a protracted slaughter. His resulting defeatism and pessimism were the first steps on the road that led inexorably to Vichy France.
In terms of raw numbers, there were probably more outrageous encounters; 20,000 British alone were killed on just the first day of the Somme, for instance. But what made Verdun uniquely horrific was how long it went on for. Even academic, judicious Horne finds himself concluding that ‘It is probably no exaggeration to call Verdun the “worst” battle in history’, and a microcosm of the wider conflagration:
It was the indecisive battle in an indecisive war; the unnecessary battle in an unnecessary war; the battle that had no victors in a war that had no victors.
One feels deeply that what happened from February to December 1916 was a ghastly mistake for the species as a whole. Then again, perhaps the most appalling thing is the possibility that this is not so. ‘War is less costly than servitude,’ writes the French novelist Jean Dutourd, in a comment that Horne quotes twice and that I found utterly chilling: ‘the choice is always between Verdun and Dachau.’ Now there's a choice to keep you up at night.
Read information about the authorAlistair Horne is a preeminent historian, journalist and Oxford fellow who has written seventeen books, many of them on the military history of France.He has won the following awards: Hawthornden Prize, 1963, for The Price of Glory; Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Prize and Wolfson Literary Award, both 1978, both for A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962; French Légion d'Honneur, 1993, for work on French history;and Commander of the British Empire (CBE), 2003.
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