Ian Ousby’s The Road to Verdun: World War I’s Most Momentous Battle and the Folly of Nationalism is an intriguing study of a calamitous battle in which almost three- quarters of a million men became casualties. Ousby died shortly after completing the manuscript for this book. He had devoted his last years to exploring the poisoned relationship between France and Germany during the first half of the twentieth century. In an earlier book, Occupation: The Ordeal of France, 1940-1944 (1997), he described the German occupation of France during World War II. With The Road to Verdun, Ousby tackled a military tragedy that for both sides symbolized the seemingly inveterate hostility between the two peoples. He was not content to write a straightforward narrative of the battle. Ousby’s intentions were more ambitious. He attempted to embed the story of a major military campaign in a rich intellectual and cultural context. In his account, generals and statesmen become the pawns of “collective perceptions”; like flies, they are caught in the enticing amber of an idea. Ousby blames the horrors of Verdun on the “folly” of nationalism. At a time when Europeans are breaking down national barriers and embracing the euro as their single currency, this is a persuasive, perversely comforting thesis. Within the European Union, the French and Germans are living together in what is now a well-established amity. Blaming Verdun on a discredited nationalism seems to consign some troubling questions safely into the past.
However, Ousby was not interested in writing a politically correct history that massaged the bromides of the present day. His critique of old-fashioned nationalism is profoundly disturbing because he illuminates its roots. Doing so, he paints a chilling picture of people willingly surrendering themselves to vague and contradictory theories rooted in raw emotionalism and prejudice. The military madness of Verdun is a terrifying testament to humanity’s propensity for irrational enthusiasms, a tendency that Europe’s new bureaucracy and easily convertible currency are unlikely to correct. Indeed, critics of the New Europe argue that the rapidly emerging Union is just as intellectually dubious and combustible as the nationalisms it is intended to replace. Ousby produced a study of a military catastrophe, and in doing so left his readers a haunting meditation on the human condition.
Verdun is a grim illustration of the law of unintended consequences. The Germans hoped to make Verdun the graveyard of the French army and found themselves equally entrapped in a battle that ordinary soldiers termed the “meat grinder.” The French regarded the Verdun area as an unimportant sector of their front, but once it was threatened, bled their army white to save it. In this brutal irony, Verdun mirrored the experience of the war as a whole. When war came in August, 1914, both sides expected a bloody but short clash of arms. A string of international crises and a small library of imaginary war books had prepared people for a conflict but not for the war that swiftly emerged on the western front. Even the professionals failed to foresee the military conditions that would shape the course of the “Great War.” Rapid- firing rifles, machine guns, and especially high-powered artillery literally swept the contending armies from the field, driving troops into the subterranean world of the trenches. In the years before the outbreak of the war, the French army in particular had refused to acknowledge the effects of modern firepower and cultivated a fanatical cult of the offensive. French poilus paid for this doctrine with their blood during the first two years of the war, as their generals launched them against German machine guns and artillery in a series of gruesomely disastrous attacks. The French military commanders were only a little more obtuse than their British and German peers. Generals on both sides threw a generation into the maelstrom searching vainly for a way out of the technologically imposed stalemate.
Ousby writes scathingly of the bankruptcy of strategy during World War I. Enmeshed in a military struggle that they did not understand and could not control, leaders on both sides fell back on a vilification of the enemy. The chastisement of a villainous foe, rather than any more cogent war aim, became the rationale of the war. Rhetoric became a substitute for strategic thought. Ousby adduces the well-known authority of Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) to demonstrate the absence of a coherent war plan at the seats of power. Clausewitz famously wrote that war is the extension of politics and that it must be waged to win achievable and concrete goals. None of the combatants produced a clear and attainable set of objectives; instead, they spewed out words that poisoned any possibility of a negotiated peace. The frustrated generals masked the impotence and fuzziness of their own thinking by articulating a program of wearing down the enemy by attrition. However, this was a strategy by default. The proponents of attrition failed to explain how this plan could lead to...
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