Review: The Road To Verdun: France, Nationalism And The First World War By Ian Ousby Essay, Research Paper
Shipwreck of a nation The Road to Verdun: France, Nationalism and the First World War by Ian Ousby 324pp, Jonathan Cape Reviewing a book on a subject about which one has written oneself is difficult. When the author of the work has died shortly before publication, the difficulty is doubled. Fortunately, this is an outstanding book, rich in its insights, and written with verve and style. My main regret is that its author is no longer here to be congratulated. The Road to Verdun follows a well-tried formula: Mandalay, Morocco and Wigan Pier have all had their approaching highways celebrated. But Ousby’s title is no old trick to hook the random reader. What is now Route Nationale 35 was the one road connecting Verdun with the rest of France during the great battle that outdid the Somme for length and ferocity in the first world war’s middle year, 1916. Verdun’s umbilical cord, it became known as la Voie Sacrée, the Sacred Way; a name it still bears, as evidenced by the kilometre stones so inscribed marking the road between Bar-le-Duc, capital of the department of the Meuse, and Verdun itself. However, this was not the equivalent of Rome’s Via Sacra. Rather, it was the Via Dolorosa of Christ’s journey to the cross. For the men who trod or were transported up the Sacred Way to Verdun were destined for a Calvary, and they knew it. The mud-caked figures who came back down, more corpses than living men, were those who had somehow avoided crucifixion. Thus this historic road is arguably a potent metaphor of the whole sacrificial encounter. Yet this book travels another road to Verdun. In a piece of bold craftsmanship, the author launches his narrative of the battle, then spools back to explore the psychological and cultural journey that brought France from her nadir in 1815, following the defeat of Napoleon, to her life-and-death struggle in the killing fields of Lorraine 101 years later. Any sense that this is an annoying interruption of a gripping yarn soon yields to the understanding that this section is effectively the heart of the book. For, as it seems to me, Ousby’s real subject is not so much France’s greatest battle as France herself. Powerfully, he quotes Charles de Gaulle’s ringing affirmation in his war memoirs that he had always seen his country “like the princess in the stories or the Madonna in the frescoes, as dedicated to an outstanding and exceptional destiny”. Yet that destiny was perpetually at hazard or, more exactly in the French imagination, prone to shipwreck. Of this there could be no better symbol than Géricault’s stunning masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa, portraying shipwrecked men at the extremity of suffering, seen as an allegory of a nation adrift from the moment it was exhibited in Paris in 1819. When, in 1870, the Emperor Napoleon III launched his futile war against Bismarck’s Prussia, most of the Louvre’s paintings were evacuated to Brest, but the Medusa was too big to move. As the Empress Eugénie departed for an exile that would last 50 years, she stood in front of the canvas as if thunderstruck. “Well she might have done,” writes Ousby, adding that the French “naturally found in shipwreck… an image of their recurring condition since the Revolution, struck by external disaster and torn apart by dissension among themselves.” France’s tenacious defence of Verdun saved the ship of state in 1916 and produced a national hero in the future Marshal Pétain, famous for his rallying cry “On les aura!”: “We’ll get them!” But what Pétain achieved then, at 60, he singularly failed to match when recalled to the helm in 1940, aged 84. This time it was the Germans who did the getting while the saviour of Verdun became the villain of Vichy, prompting de Gaulle to re-use the Géricault metaphor in his famous lament: “Old age is a shipwreck. That we might be spared nothing, the old age of Marshal Pétain was to identify itself with the shipwreck of France.” Fortunately, it was not, in fact, a fatal disaster for France, although Ousby appears to have seen little or no hope for Verdun itself. His verdict is sad: “Despite the dedication to peace it has proclaimed in recent years, it still feels like a garrison town that has died.” Yet it is surely worthy of note that the major scenes of reconciliation between France and Germany, with Kohl and Mitterand in 1984, and Kohl and Chirac in 1996, were staged at Verdun. Thank God, there is no prospect now of Verdun ever becoming a garrison town again. · Malcolm Brown’s books include Verdun 1916 (Tempus).