Great Books: Alistair Horne’s The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916

  • Themes: France, Great Books, History, War

This compelling, even-handed narrative of the gruelling ten-month battle puts human experience front and centre. It’s a valuable read in today’s world of renewed conflict.

Barren tree trunks following the bombardment at Verdun, France.
Barren tree trunks following the bombardment at Verdun, France. Credit: GRANGER - Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

There is much to learn from the titanic struggle between France and Germany during the First World War. In 1871 the French had endured the mutilation of their country, and the seizure by Germany of some of their richest and most strategically important regions. When they found themselves fighting the same invader, once again on their own soil, they were determined not to yield another inch of their territory, whatever the cost in blood.

Nowhere was this resolve more renowned, or more tragic, than at Verdun in 1916, the ten-month battle that claimed more than 700,000 French and German lives over a front of fewer than fifteen miles. The French held Verdun, but it was one of history’s pyrrhic victories.

The British historian Alistair Horne’s The Price of Glory, a magisterial account of the battle, first published in 1962, belongs to a school of compelling narrative history that puts the human experiences at its centre and, as a result, is hard to put down.

First, the book introduces the characters and their aims. After a year of stalemate on the Western Front, the plan of Erich von Falkenhayn, the German commander, was not so much to breach the French defences but to concentrate them at Verdun, a tiny, exposed pocket of land, where German artillery could wreak a terrible toll and ‘bleed the French army white’.

Falkenhayn understood the French psychology. He knew they would rather bleed to death there than surrender Verdun. Once the onslaught began Horne helps us to see how both sides shared the pain of Western Europe’s bloodiest killing field. Verdun had long been a mythical place for the French, a fortress guarding the eastern frontier since Roman times, and made legendary by its defence in the war to protect the French Revolution in the 1790s. In 1916 the supremely high cost of taking it made it so for the Germans, too. Hundreds of thousands of the Kaiser’s soldiers were pulled into the titanic struggle, their horrific sacrifices making it impossible to stop even more slaughter. To retreat would be to call their deaths in vain. Thus, the battle raged on, see-sawing over the devastated battlefield, for ten months, until both sides simply couldn’t continue. The front had barely changed since the start of the year.

At one point in the narrative, as one final, desperate German offensive gets close enough to glimpse the spires of Verdun, but not close enough to take the city, it is hard not to cheer them on, then weep for the futility of it all. Such is the power and the empathy of Horne’s even-handed, character-driven prose.

He breaks up the slog of the assault into chapters that capture perfectly the ebb and flow of the ferocious battle for this tiny space, and pulls you along with the elation and despair felt by both sides at various points throughout the year. With cinematic power, you feel the sunburn, the frost, the rain, the mud, the blood, the joy, the thirst, the depression, the camaraderie, the sacrifice, the fear, and the death. Though he livens his account with personal details and moments of humour, he is never callous or trivial. He hammers home just how important the battle was at every turn, arguing that ‘before it, Germany still had a reasonable chance of winning the war’, but that over the ten months of futile morale-sapping losses ‘this chance dwindled away’. None who fought at Verdun ever truly recovered from the horror of fighting for so long in such a confined space, and ‘beyond it, neither the French nor the German army would be quite the same again’.

Horne’s characters are memorable, distinct and given space to breathe. First, we meet the French supreme commander Joseph Joffre — or rather his belly, his most ‘outstanding (in more than one sense) physical feature’. Joffre is part portly, avuncular peasant-general, but like all such men, as Horne reveals, he can be callous, too. On the other side there is the awkward, sensitive, womanising Grand Prince, despised and ignored by his father, the Kaiser, and the other generals due to his apparently unmartial demeanour, but ironically the only German commander to foresee the calamity that Verdun would become. These ‘donkeys’ of the First World War are given depth here. Even Falkenhayn is humanised — Horne recounts how the stress and guilt of Verdun haunted him for the rest of his days, until his premature death in 1922.

Horne’s other great gift is his operatic use of language, which stirs emotions and keeps you engaged with the narrative:

Down plunged the avalanche, sweeping away alike those who had been preparing its descent [to serve their own national, personal, or imperialist aims], as well as those that had feebly tried to prevent it. The wind of its passage snuffed out the age of unrivalled prosperity and unlimited promise, in which even poor medieval Russia was beginning to take part, and Europe descended into a new Dark Age from whose shadows it has yet to emerge. For the next four years, it was to seem as if the avalanche were the sole arbiter in the world, with human leaders, political and military, reduced to impotence in the face of a force infinitely greater than anything they had foreseen and — in the gentle life of Edwardian Europe— had ever been trained to handle.

Horne demonstrates a compelling ability to ‘zoom out’ and offer sweeping insights about the battle’s central position, not only in the First World War, but also in the history of modern France. The book forms the middle part of Horne’s epic trilogy covering the historic rivalry between France and Germany, which starts with The Terrible Year, his account of the fall of Paris in 1871, and ends with To Lose a Battle, which describes France’s second capitulation to Germany in 1940. The Price of Glory is, therefore, the all-important bridge between the two most traumatic episodes in French history, and a sense of tragedy permeates the narrative of this apparent French victory.

At the end of The Price of Glory, looking forwards, he concludes that a desire to re-fight the defensive Battle of Verdun, which had been won at such a terrible psychological cost, was the greatest single cause of French defeat in 1940, and that the generation of commanders who had been brutalised in the 1916 battle were also responsible for the disastrous conduct of the wars in Algeria and Indo-China in the 1950s and 1960s.

Horne, who died in 2017, was a young man of 37 when the book was published, and it shows in the lively fearlessness of his prose. He was able to talk to many of the soldiers whose actions he describes, and that — in part — explains his ability to give them life on the page. He’d also lived in France and Germany and spoke both languages fluently, allowing him to dip directly into thousands upon thousands of pages of war letters and self-serving generals’ memoirs to construct his character portraits. He was a detail-obsessed whirlwind of activity when he was writing. His research assistant in the 1980s, Helen Whitten, recalls how ‘I watched Alistair place into files the relevant newspaper articles, letters, torn-out notes for inclusion in appropriate chapters, ticking off information as it was used,’ and how he would disappear into his old-fashioned typewriter in the conservatory office of his garden, lost to the world.

In a world of renewed conflict, we will need historians with Horne’s gifts for even-handedness, meticulous research, and empathy to make sense of the early twenty-first century. The Price of Glory will leave you thinking, not just about Verdun, but about the nature of human resilience, and of war itself, for months after you’ve finished it.


Laurie Purnell Prynn