Saturday, February 8, 2014

Book R & R: Verdun

This Book Review and Recommendation is on "Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War" by Paul Jankowski.

We are quickly approaching the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. I think that, apart from military history aficionados, this benchmark will pass with little examination, even though veterans of WWI lived until just a few years ago. I'm afraid also that even less attention will be paid to the significant events of the "Great War" that occurred prior to the United States' entry into the war in April, 1917.

With the recent release of "Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War," American historian and writer Paul Jankowski has turned his focus to one of these key battles of the war that took place prior to American involvement. Verdun is in northeast France, where the battle between the French and Germans began on February 21, 1918. The ten month battle lasted until December 18, 1916. The battle kicked off with the German Fifth Army launching an offensive against the French Second Army in fixed defenses near the Meuse River. The stubbornness of French commander Marshal Joseph Joffre and German commander General Erich von Falkenhayn turned the extended battle into a war of attrition. One village in the area of operations changed hands sixteen times during the course of the battle. Verdun is noteworthy mostly for the number of casualties compared to the lack of results for either side. Estimates for combined casualties range from over 714,000 to 976,000. The French lost more men, but held their terrain. Verdun became known as one of the longest, and most costly battles in history.

Paul Jankowski is a professor of history at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Appropriately, he has devoted more attention in his book to the cultural and political ramifications of Verdun, rather than the nuances of combat operations. His writing is clear on concise, helping both the military historian and the lay reader to understand the battle, the results, and the influence (or lack there of) on the war as a whole.

Although the French are able to claim victory at Verdun, for the number of casualties and lack of net gains for either side the battle had little influence on the outcome of the First World War as a whole. However, Verdun is a good battle to study in that it speaks to the futility of the war and way it was fought with modern technology and outdated tactics. As Jankowski writes, "Verdun remains the epitome of senseless industrial warfare."

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