11 JANUARY 1963, Page 18



By ROBERT CONQUEST THE great pacifist moods of the Thirties were retrospectively motivated by the First World War. In turn they imposed on our idea of it attitudes which were scarcely present at the time: in particular that it had been, essentially and unrelievedly, a total waste. A certain mis- representation was involved. It was forgotten that even D. H. Lawrence had expressed his horror at the idea of a German victory. The last sentence of Wilfred Owen's 'Poetry is in the Pity' preface, in which he expressed the hope that his poetry would 'survive Prussia,' was often

omitted. And various leftist Elders-of-Vickers . • theories blamed everything on sinister unseen forces. (The Lenin version, by which the banks, representing 'Monopoly Capitalism: had the sole • responsibility ,for militarism and expansionism, had been put forward in the form that the Berlin Big Five banks 'were supporting German annexa- tion in Africa at precisely the time when those banks were urging their Government, in a secret memorandum, to avoid just that.)

It was not in any such trivial and schematic sense that the folly of aggressive expansionist nationalism was heavy on Europe, just as, re- gardless of social systems, it is today on the Himalayas. And if war is ever justified, Some sort of fight by t4e French was justified in 1914. Mr. Alistair Home's book,* with admirable clarity and scope, gives us the realities of that fight, and its context. As he reminds us, Jean Dutourd was to write in The Taxis of the Marne, 'the choice is always between Verdun and Dachau,' and the only fault of this diagnosis is one of degree—with all its faults a victorious Germany in 1916 would not have brought• Dachau. In fact it is not so much that a fight was unjustified as a matter of the extreme and de- structive nature of that fight. The losses and sufferings incurred by many allied generals out of incompetence, and by Falkenhayn out of de- liberate policy, were out of proportion to any conceivable gain.

For it is to the weak, stubborn and miscal- culating Falkenhayn, more than anyone else, that the blame for the near-collapie, indeed the par- tial collapse, of Western civilisation must go. Haig at least wanted the breakthrough he was unable to secure. But Falkenhayn actually sought the battle of attrition in which, whatever the outcome, massive slaughter on both sides was inevitable. And like all such generals, be was lured on into persisting at Verdun by false esti- mates of enemy casualties; eschewing Cannae, he got Cold Harbor.

Meanwhile, in the five-mile stretch to the north of that city, the 700,000 casualties were falling. In that narrow compass thirty-seven million shells had been fired between February and July, 1916, alone. The ground of the 'death ravines had long been nothing but a churned-up compound of mud and fragments of corpses and

* THE PRICE OF GLORY. By Alistair Horne. (Macmillan, 35s.)

metal. Upon it, and beneath it, as Mr. Horne says, 'the folly, the waste, and the stupendous courage' of that generation were expended. For though it was in one sense the most highly or- ganised battle that had ever been fought, at the same time the barrages were so intense that communication grew impossible and Verdun be- came 'the epitome of a "soldiers' battle."' On the Mort Homme one regiment lost twenty-one runners in three hours; and 'the situation where one French machine-gun section found itself holding a hole in the front two hundred yards wide with its two machine-guns for several days in complete detachment from the rest of the army was by no means unique.' So it is in the service of perspective as well as of drama that Mr. Horne illustrates his story with episodes at battalion, company and individual level, from Colonel Driant's unbelievable battle at the start of the offensive, to the thirst-racked men fighting in the stinking bowels of Fort Vaux, in a dark- ness broken only by the shrivelling jets of the flame-throwers.

Even now the slopes of the Mort Homine, Mr. Horne tells us, are 'the nearest thing to a desert in Europe.' But where even the vegetation perished, men survived through the long weeks of the superbattle—surviving, though, under ex- tremes of horror which marked their minds, and the European mind as a whole, with indelible scar-tissue. And yet, even so, the scars were not past healing, the corruption of sensibility, though terrifying, was not total. Mr. Philip Toynbee wrote the other day that, in spite of appearances, he believed that we were more humane than our ancestors. I am sure he is right. In this century, in Europe, it- requires the lunacy of ideologies and societies so organised as to give police power to the psychopathic sadist before massacre and torture can become institu- tionalised. Even then, excuses are advanced, con- cealments practised. Pyramids of skulls, public executions, are no longer openly enjoyed for their own sake. At Verdun, as the death-mill ground incessantly on, it was only as a deplorable possibility that a French officer feared, 'perhaps we shall soon all reach the degree of brutishness and indifference of the soldiers of the First Em- pire'—the horrible figures of Goya. (We might even see some advance from 1914-18 till now, but for the more than countervailing effect of the Hitler-Stalin-Rakosi type of rule. The Ger- man Soldiers in Belgium in 1940 behaved better than their predecessors in 1914, except when under political orders to the contrary.)

I have not dealt with Mr. Home's treatment of the peacetime background of pre-war France —the vie douce, the prosperity and class peace; or of the military tradition which had, in 1914, translated the (often tactically overwhelming) furore francese into suicidal dogma; or with his careful account of the strategic choices before the two commands; or with his masterly and fascinating handling of the main figures—of Main, de Castelnau, ,Mangin, Niyelle and their German opposite numbers; or with his analysis of the Union Sacr6e which so surprisingly united France through the war (apart from a few spies and the lone pro-Lenin Socialist Pierre Laval); or with his vivid chapter on the air fighting, ending with the view that it was the Verdun fighting of the Escadrille Lafayette which brought the US to its first true emotional in- volvement, an important crux; or with his con- sideration of the effect of Verdun on French and German minds in the years since—in the latter cases dramatically illustrated by von Stiilp- nagel's attempt at suicide in his old battalion's lines, on his way back to execution in the Reich after his coup against the Gestapo in Paris in 1944.

On these, as on a wealth of lesser themes, one must be content to, say that he illuminates all he touches, and concentrate on his central lesson—that, in the words of Scott Fitzgerald he 'uses for epigraph, 'This Western-front business couldn't be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it again, but they couldn't. They could fight the first Marne again, but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and.tremendous -sureties . you had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember.' It was not so much the death-rate as such: France in fact suffered heavier casualties in the first year of the war ,than thereafter. It was the face of death—or rather of obscenely flayed or suffocated dying—under long-drawn-out, de- humanising pressures. Only now do the reserves of strength which Falkenhayn and the others squandered so cruelly seem gradually to be building up again, in spite of—or perhaps in part because of—an interlude of barbarism, of totalitarianism and its wars.

Not that totalitarianism is extinct by any means —and but for its persistence the potential horrors facing our own generation would not arise. Still, at least the tide seems to have tUrned against The prospect of any very long survival of the criminal and fanatical bureaucracies which re- main. Meanwhile, come what may, the story of the Falkenhayns is a timely reminder of the catastrophe always awaiting the State which allows strategy to become the master, instead of the servant, of political aims.

There have been many war books lately, and especially ones about the First World War, and

many of them have been good of their kind. So there is some danger that the transcendent quality of Mr. Home's may go comparativelY unremarked. It has the formal excellences of a work of art. And, as with the very best works of art, this is so unobtrusive as to appear no more than the natural development of narrative.

It is only on rereading, in retrospect as it were, that one appreciates the skill with which Mr.

Home illustrates the detail, the human realitY

of the actual fighting, and then shifts to the strategic perspectives, and to the larger histori-

cal standpoint, and back again. Though differ' ences of approach are inevitable, I was reminded in a way of War and Peace. And we should anY"

how be jolted out of that quite unthinking habit of our culture—the taking of fiction as auto- matically comprehending the best books of the time. The excellence of Mr. Home's method and of its execution is matched by the maturity of his actual judgments, even when these are corn- paratively unorthodox—as with his high estimate of the Austrian command. And his basic jug' ment—the taking of Verdun as the key, the focus, and the epitome of the war—juStifies itsch in a masterpiece. This is, to my mind, un- Ay,til?,tsclly the Book of _the Year just past.