Saturday, 20 February 2016

The French Army at Verdun

The French Army at Verdun (Images of War series) (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2016; ISBN 9781473856158)

In four and a half years of fighting on the Western Front during the First World War a few battles stand out from the rest. They had a decisive impact on the course of the conflict, and they still define the war for us today. For the French, the Battle of Verdun, fought between February and December 1916, was one of the greatest of these. That is why the selection of contemporary photographs Ian Sumner has brought together for this volume in the Images of War series is so important and revealing. They show the strained, sometimes shocked faces of the soldiers, record the shattered landscape in which they fought, and give us an insight into the sheer intensity of the fighting. At the time, and ever since, the battle has been portrayed as a triumph of French tenacity and heroism that is encapsulated in the famous phrase ‘They shall not pass’. These photographs remind us, in the most graphic way, what that slogan meant in terms of the devastating personal experience of the men on the Verdun battlefield.

Excellent little book of photographs of the Verdun battle of a hundred years ago. The photographs bring the battle alive. Many of the photographs included in the book are ones that I have not seen in other English language books about the battle. If I have one little quibble it is that I would have liked to have seen more photographs of the German army at Verdun, but this is a small point. Alan Robinson -

Wonderful book a must have book.  R. Webb -

… just a gigantic chaos of rubble, food, furniture, clothes and books, lost amid the stones. All that remains is a bell tower in danger of collapse and a cemetery with tombs ripped open and crosses smashed. Such was the skeleton of the village of Fleury, as described by Romain Darchy of the 408th Infantry, on its recapture by the French in August 1916. Looking at the photo of troops organising their defensive positions I found it difficult to see much difference between the supposed trench and the ‘chaos of rubble’ referred to. This image and similar ones on the same page brought home to me the scale of the destructive forces at work. Often when ‘Verdun’ is mentioned my mind tends to picture scenes of small groups of soldiers fighting in dark underground chambers. These photographs in Ian Sumner’s book remind the reader that somehow troops lived (and so many died) amongst a desolate wilderness created by men and their infernal machines. [...]

The series promises ‘copious use of collectors’ graphic and rare contemporary images, supported by authoritative captions and lively text’ in the words of the publisher’s website and The French Army At Verdun delivers on all counts.

[...]  In 1916 the German commander-in-chief General Erich von Falkenhayn launched his plan for a decisive blow to bring an end to the war on the Western Front. His aim was no longer to breakthrough but to break-in at the Verdun salient – forcing the French to counterattack over killing fields dominated by German firepower – causing such an exhaustion of French men, materiel and morale that its government would sue for peace. On 21 February 1916 the German artillery began its bombardment.

Following his short opening chapter Sumner proceeds to group the subsequent action into four sections; Titles such as The Road Must Hold and Sacrifice And Glory are phrases that appeared to me to sum up the nature of the epic struggle that took place. In common with this series of books, each chapter consists of a short description of operations during a particular period of the campaign – followed by a long section of contemporary photographs. The photos are comprehensive in scope, probably owing to their provenance: the collections of the Bibliothèque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine, Nanterre, France.

Each photo is accompanied by detailed captions written by the author. Many of these use the photo as a prompt for further commentary on the fighting or for the use of a quote from a contemporary source, often by a soldier caught up in the maelstrom.

As well as dealing with a particular passage of time during the battle, each chapter also has certain themes within the collection of images used. For instance chapter three, while concentrating on Petain’s time in command of the fortresses’ defences, also provides a series of photos to illustrate the various medical facilities available to the French troops. I was interested to learn of the volunteer ambulance drivers from America and in particular from SSA18, a British Red Cross ambulance unit – and its ambulance which was funded by Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Coal Owners. This chapter also features images of the crucial road transport link to the French defenders, La Voie Sacrée; plus a few pictures of the French poilu enjoying a short period of recreation, either bathing or watching improvised theatre.

One small niggle (and a common complaint from myself) is that there are no footnotes or references, although the sources for quotes and extracts are normally named in the text or captions. I was also disappointed to find no bibliography or suggestions for further reading.

As someone not overfamiliar with Verdun I also would have found more than the single map included useful to follow the progress of the battle and to help locate some of the scenes featured in the photographs.

Overall I found this book to be a useful addition to the Verdun canon, with many photos not previously known to me. There is much to interest the general First World War reader particularly in the dramatic illustration of the soldiers’ experiences. One can feel how small a single man is amidst the shattered ground and blighted landscape. The wealth of images should also appeal to those with a more specialist knowledge of this decisive battle.  Dennis Williams - Trench Lines, the eNewsletter of the Western Front Association

Ian Sumner’s Images: The French Army At Verdun is an excellent overview of the battle from an author with a good track record of books on the French side of the Great War. There are brief chapter introductions but some good photo captions. The photographs themselves are well chosen and show both the French and German side of the battle. The air photos clearly show the destruction the bombardments caused and give an insight into the hell of Verdun: highly recommended. Paul Reed WW1 Centenary 

An intimate and inspirational examination of the greatest of the Great War battles involving the French troops - Verdun. The photographs have an extraordinary clarity that seem to bring the whole thing into a sharper focus. Paul Norman Books Monthly May 2016

This wonderful book is crammed with an eclectic collection of imagery depicting the French Army during the battle.  The author’s impressive background in French military matters helps the thing along. The photography does all we could expect, showing the mindboggling scale of the fighting at Verdun. The destruction was off the scale and I suppose in WW2 terms it would be up there with Stalingrad. But it is wrong to place Verdun above events elsewhere on the Western Front. The Somme and Third Ypres were fought on very different terrain.  It is the ground that marks out the singularity of these battles. Flanders was a bog, the Somme was on chalky downs and Verdun took place in a steep river valley where the topography was dominated by ridges and spurs. Having seen the Gallipoli battlefield, I can say Verdun is similar in many ways, especially inland of Anzac. Verdun is characterised by the many fortresses and fortified places ringing the old city. That many of them featured so heavily in the battle is clearly seen in Mr. Sumner’s book. Douaumont and Vaux may top the list in terms of reputation and scale, but there was bitter fighting for others and the scale of destruction caused by artillery of all shapes and sizes was immense. It is all captured in this book; along with a stream of images depicting the ordinary French soldier, Poilu or Bon Homme, the choice is yours. Great stuff. Mark Barnes, War History Online

This selection of contemporary photographs brought together by Ian Sumner for this volume is both important and highly revealing. They show the strained, sometimes shocked faces of soldiers, record the shattered landscape in which they fought, and give us an insight into the sheer intensity of the fighting. As well as being important images of this battle, these photographs are also invaluable prime source material for the collector, modeller, military historian and re-enactor. The battle has always been portrayed as a triumph of French tenacity and heroism that is encapsulated in the famous phrase 'They shall not pass.' These photographs remind us, in the most graphic way, what that slogan meant in terms of the devastating personal experience of the men of the Verdun battlefield. Bill Harriman, Classic Arms and Militaria June/July 2016

The ‘Images of War’ book by Ian Sumner is extremely compelling and a worthy addition to the Images of War series, it would be interesting to see an Images of War book about Verdun from the German perspective to compliment this. Both books are essential for any reader with an interest in Verdun. Steve Earles, Destructive Music

Very good. Mark R. Johnson - (but five stars)

This addition to the Images of War series from Pen and Sword covers what was the longest single battle to be fought during WW1.  It started on 21 February 1916 and di not end until December of the same year.  It was a German attack on a city defended by a double ring of forts, and which would have been a crushing defeat to French morale if it had succeeded.  The Germans intended it to be a heavy attack which would bleed French manpower reserves dry after two years of war.  A huge artillery bombardment started things off and after just a few days, one of the most powerful forts, Douaumont, with a garrison of just 56 men was easily taken by the advancing German army.  In the early stages the number of troops involved were about 30,000 French, and they were to be attacked by about 140,000 Germans.  Despite some German success early on, they never did get to take Verdun, the defence was successful though a high percentage of the French Army found their units rotated through the battle at some point.  Eventually the German army could not maintain the pressure when they were face with the British offensive on the Somme in July 1916.  The cost to both sides however had been huge.  The exact number of casualties has not been established, but it is estimated to be in excess of 300,000 on both sides over the course of the year.
With this background in mind, the author has put together an excellent set of archive photographs which illustrate the conditions and devastation that was the battlefield of Verdun. The book is split into 5 chapters.  The first is called 'No Longer a Role to Play' which examines the potential effectiveness of the ring of forts that surrounded Verdun.  Three pages of informative text set the scene for the first batch of photos, and introduce some of the personalities involved on both sides.  Chapter 2 is 'Stopping the Enemy at All Costs' and as well as the explanatory text the photos illustrate Fort Douaumont having fallen into German hands, and the shattered surroundings and dazed French troops after a heavy artillery bombardment of High Explosive and Gas shells on the Bois des Caures.  It also shows the use of aircraft, aerial photographs and both Field and Heavy artillery.  Chapter 3 tackles the issues of logistics for the French defenders.  The two supply routes that remained open, without being subjected to enemy artillery fire were a narrow gauge railway, never built for military use, which was enhanced so instead of a daily capacity of 400 tons of freight saw that rise to a capacity of 1600 tons a day.  With that there was one road that was also free from artillery fire, and the (appropriately numbered)  D1916 road that became known as the 'Voie Sacree'.  Huge volumes of supplies including troops, food, water and all the other requirements for thousands of men in battle and, using just one example, their 75mm guns went through about 77,000 rounds every day!
Chapter 4 is 'We are Gaining the Upper Hand'.  It got to a pint where the attacking German army still achieved some successes but by the summer were finding Verdun was a drain on their manpower resources as much as it had been intended to be for the French.   The photos in this section illustrate a number of the forts in particular, and show the devastation caused to them in the fighting and artillery bombardments.  The final chapter 5 is 'Sacrifice and Glory'.  These photos cover the final stages of the battle, where photos show the shell torn landscape, a landscape in which men lived, fought and died.  The casualties incurred during the battle on both sides are almost unimaginable in modern terms.
To help with an understanding of the Battle of Verdun, then Petain gained his reputation for saving France, this is a helpful and informative addition to the Images of War series, and with archive photos that make a good job of illustrating the blasted landscape which today is peaceful, covered with grassland and forest and forts such as Douaumont and Vaux are opened as museums for the public to visit while the National Ossuary and the huge graveyard in front of it symbolize the number of soldiers killed in the battle. Robin Buckland Military Modelling

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