Verdun, The Left bank – Christina Holstein

Verdun – The Left Bank combines history with battlefield tour and covers the 4 months the Battle of Verdun unfolded along River Meuse. The author, Christina Holstein has written a series of battlefield tour books including Walking Verdun, Fort Douamont and Fort Vaux so is clearly familiar with the battlefield.

The book comes in two main parts, the initial section (comprising some 128 pages) is a history of the battles on the left bank of the river whilst the rest of the book covers three walking tours that give a route to allow the reader to walk the ground. Illustrations abound with black and white photos showing both sides of the battle. There is a good mix of pictures of the ground as it looks today and of period pictures showing the fortifications as they stood.

Holstein write her history well with plenty of empathy for the many thousands of men caught up in the terrible events of 1916. She successfully shows the scale of the events and how far beyond the capacity of any individual to affect the path of history these battles were; we are truly in the arena of industrialised warfare here.

Holstein uses official and regimental histories alongside eye-witness accounts and personal diaries and accounts to reconstruct events. One is left with a feeling of helplessness from some of the accounts; imagine being one of the Bavarians who told by their General to “put aside all negative thoughts and anxiety” as they were moved forward for an attack over heavily contested ground.

The Battle of Verdun is justly famous as the place where Ludendorff threatened to bleed the French army dry, however, the Left Bank tends to receive less attention. In this book, Holstein covers the battles for Cote 304, Mort-Homme, Haucout, Cumières and Bethincourt, avoiding the well trodden stories of Forts Vaux and Douamont. The book necessarily covers smaller operations but these are no less interesting or worthy or proper documentation.

One of the strengths of this book is conveying the relatively small scope of the operations along the Left Bank. The low hills, well portrayed in panoramic photographs, show the importance of the ground as a part of the layered fortification around Verdun. Here, as a prelude of the same issues found by the British in 1917 at Passchendaele the minor Forges stream becomes a significant impediment to progress as artillery churned the ground into marshland.

Holstein is strong on relating the terrain and its tactical significance with the historical “who did what and where”. She is good at drawing the significance of the lie of the land and bringing it to the attention of the reader. The interlocking nature of the Verdun defences is laid bare, showing how each feature became a part of the key to unlocking the whole position. For example, she lays out the logic of taking the outlying villages in order to unlock the low lying foothills which, in turn had to be taken in order to unlock the higher ground. It was the high ground of Cote 304 and Mort-Homme that could be used to observe even more of the defences on the other side of the river.

Simple maps and drawings of the terrain are used, alongside the photos, to show the battleground. Here, perhaps, an opportunity to set the individual maps in their wider context has been missed. Where larger scale maps have been used, they tend to be of the overall Verdun area and relegate the area under discussion to the North West of the map’s area.

Beyond the pure history of the first part of the book, Holstein includes maps, instructions and GPS references for three walking tours that explore the battleground. Here the extensive nature of the battle and the damage caused is clear as the author has included stark warnings about the dangers posed by abandoned munitions and of falling into unexcavated dugouts.

The battlefield tours are more than simple walking tours, they include additional historical notes and often drawn attention to personal memorials to the fallen that scatter the landscape. These notes help to show from the perspective of the soldier on the ground how the terrain was fought over.

Holstein’s book is readable for anyone interested in this Battle of Verdun and would be a worthy companion if one was walking the ground. A little light Googling confirms the general accuracy of the GPS coordinates which is reassuring! In summary if the Battle of Verdun is of interest or if you are thinking of visiting this iconic battlefield then Holstein’s book provides a valuable guide to the operations along the left bank of the Meuse.