Christina Holstein, Verdun 1917 (Pen & Sword, 2020)
There are sadly quite a few contenders for the most savage battle of World War I, but for the French, Verdun stands above them all. Most historically aware people will have an understanding of Verdun as the battle in 1916 in which the Germans promised to bleed France dry, and nearly succeeded. Less well-known is the French fightback that took many months to accomplish. Christina Holstein has written two other guidebooks to Verdun, but this one covers the French offensives as part narrative and part tour guide.
Holstein’s book is split into two sections. The first part narrates the battle, beginning with preparations for the planned French counter-offensive in December 1916. That was a staggering success, but the Germans were far from finished, though under their new commander General Ludendorff, they did little but tidy up the lines with minor counter-offensives. Moreover, the French had to endure the fierce winter in their captured positions. In March 1917, the Germans began their offensive to retrieve lost ground. The French barely held on, but their morale was shattered, leading to the infamous mutinies in April. The French were immobilised temporarily but prepared for a new assault. Except, that came from the Germans in June and lasted for a month until the French recovered. Then, in August, the artillery opened up again on both sides before the French launched a new offensive with 420,000 men behind a barrage from 2,000 guns. Of note here was clearing tunnels of German defenders, a grim business indeed even with the hell outside. As with seemingly every battle on the Western Front, the further men pushed at Verdun, the more resistance they met, including some successful German counter-attacks with storm troops in the lead. Nevertheless, the French August Offensive was deemed a remarkable victory
The second part of the book is a guide to the battlefield for the modern tourist. This begins with practical advice suitable for most hikers in that part of France. Then, after some more specific guidance – no lethal souvenirs, please! – we are into four driving and walking tours. Those include the major sites for the battle, hospitals, post-war cemeteries, and some post-war descriptions. Holstein also offers some snippets of information relating to the sites, and more source material to add to the atmosphere. Photographs, maps, and GPS locations complete the guide for each tour.
I’m not that familiar with Pen & Sword’s Battleground series, having no real desire to tour WWI battlefields, but Holstein’s latest volume works as more than just a guidebook. She has written an engaging and assured text sprinkled liberally with observations from the men who fought there. Those first-hand accounts illuminate the action, and in many cases, the horror of Verdun on both sides. Holstein’s book works well even for us stay-at-home readers who just want to know more about Verdun, and I think it would be indispensable for those who would visit the battlefield and surrounding countryside.