Book Review: Verdun: The Lost History of the Most Important Battle of World War I


by Joun Mosier

New York: Dutton, Penguin Random House, 2014. Pp. xii, 384. Maps, notes, index. $16.00 paper. ISBN: 0451414632

The Truth about the Most Iconic Battle of the Great War

The title notwithstanding, this book is a very good preparatory reading for W.W. I. In it, Dr. Mosier covers a number of broad topics; geography and the French ignorance of their countryside, French and German history prior to the war, railroads and their usefulness and limitations, and military preparedness. He explains in detail why French artillery was terribly inadequate and inaccurate, German artillery quite superior and the impact upon tactics and success. The army’s bureaucratic defense of artillery contributes to a discussion of military intransigence and the struggles within the army regarding staffing, training and promotions. French politics are reviewed along with their divisive role in military preparedness and general government.

The “Lost History…” is actually a buried history. The French army controlled all information (disinformation?) including casualties and thus the direction/status of the war. The French extrapolated German casualties from their own and claimed the enemy was being bled white while the reverse was closer to the truth. Further, each layer of command lied to the one above it as to the results of the latest offensive effort. While Joffre claimed that Verdun had three lines of defense, there was only one line of trenches and the others were just scratches in the earth. Many of the forts had been denuded of their artillery, ancient as it was, to make up for losses on other battlefields. The army stripped Fort Douaumont of so many military assets that it was seized by a few German soldiers who walked in and demanded the surrender of the elderly reservists. Yet, the army claimed that a ferocious battle had been fought, with many German casualties. At book’s end, Mosier compares the facts of Verdun to an ossuary, a jumble of buried matter.

Nor were lies limited to the French. David Lloyd George wrote in his memoirs of how the British Army understated casualties and overstated enemy losses, with bad news hidden and good news glorified. Additionally the 1918 contribution of American troops was denigrated by British historians. Yet von Hindenburg attributed the Allied victory to American infantry in the Argonne.

An even more basic misunderstanding is that Verdun was not one battle lasting several months but a series of battles, sometimes irrelevant to each other, and were not even close to Verdun, a small and militarily insignificant city, but were dispersed over a section of France that was geographically understood by very few. Mosier claims that the battle of Verdun began with the 1914 semi-fictional battle of the Marne and lasted through October, 1918, when the Americans crossed the Meuse.

The crux of the book is summed up in a quote from Sir Max Beerbohm, “History, it has been said, does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.” Mosier points out how a post-war travel ad became the basis for the astronomical casualties around Verdun which was repeated by everyone until it became a historical “fact.”

While the book has maps, I found them too small, with tiny print, and thus inadequate. One map did not have a scale and the others were not described as English or metric although the text uses only the metric system. The text is very readable but at times too casual, e.g., “Denial is not only a river in Egypt.” Despite this, the book is worth the read because of its preparatory information, fresh viewpoints, and continual struggles with official “truth.”


Our Reviewer: Ron Drees is an archivist, retired from processing the collection of Dr. Michael DeBakey, the world-famous cardiologist at the Baylor College of Medicine. His interest in history dates back to junior high school with an emphasis on American military history, particularly the Civil and World Wars. He has written several reviews for Michael Hanlon's blog "Roads to the Great War", about the catastrophe that still shapes the world. His favorite WWI book is Margaret MacMillan’s Paris, 1919 which tells how the tragedy was compounded by setting the stage for even greater misery. He lives in Houston with his wife of 42 years, Lin, a retired librarian, and their Sheltie, Hannah. He had a grandfather who was a teamster on the German side in WWI, his first boss had been a Marine at Iwo Jima, virtually the only survivor of his company, and his brother-in-law had been at Inchon. Ron’s previous reviews include Imperial Germany and War, 1871-1918, Beneath the Killing Fields: Exploring the Subterranean Landscapes of the Western Front, Tirpitz and the Imperial German Navy, Between Mutiny and Obedience: The Case of the French Fifth Infantry Division during World War, The Kaiser’s U-Boat Assault on America, This Time Next Year We'll Be Laughing, 1918: Winning the War, Losing the War, After the Ruins: Restoring the Countryside of Northern France After the Great War, and A Mad Catastrophe.




Note: Verdun is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Ron Drees   

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