Since the middle of May the battle had come to a deadlock. Now, half-way through July, its formless shape still rolled over the low ground between Fleury village and Fort Souville, bloated and beyond all human compass, a swaying, heaving mass of explosions, swaths of acrid smoke, clouds of dust, pulverized earth, and shattered stone and brick-work, riddled through and through by steel splinters and whistling bullets. At night, cloven by the flash and roar of gunfire, the rattle of machine-guns, the crash of hand-grenades, the shouts and cries of lost and stricken men; by day, the dust of the bayonet attack, the sweat of the attackers clambering out of their trenches, the ever-increasing hordes of dead and wounded swelled the turmoil…
Erziehung Vor Verdun (Education Before Verdun) is one of several books by German author Arnold Zweig. Published in 1935, it is part of a series of semi-autobiographical novels set during WWI, primarily on the Western Front. As one might expect from the title, the events of the book occur in and around the Battle of Verdun in 1916. That “battle”, which by today’s standards could be termed a campaign, began in February and lasted the rest of the year.
Cover photo: German infantry assaulting a French position called Le Mort Homme with flamethrowers and hand grenades.
The author was born a Prussian Jew at the close of the 19th century, when Germany qua Germany as we understand it now was still very much a new concept. Zweig saw action as an infantryman in Serbia, Hungary, and France. His experiences in combat, and with antisemitism, turned him from ardent German Jewish patriot to anti-war, anti-fascism activist. In fact, after WWI he wrote for World Stage, an anti-Nazi newspaper, describing Adolf Hitler as “Charlie Chaplain, but without the talent.”
Incessantly, by day and night, the Germans hurled their grey masses forward to the attack; like an elastic band, the French gave ground and then sprang forward once again; and when they yielded, they always left a number of their men wounded or prisoners in the hands of the attackers…
Although this is actually the second book in the series (following The Case of Sergeant Grischa, which came out in 1927), I believe this volume can easily be read and enjoyed on its own.
If you do decide to read it, and you should, there will be much to chew on. The first person accounts of the war, of enduring endless artillery bombardments, physical misery, and privation are compelling, but take care not to miss the political commentary – and know that all of the significant military-political figures in the tale have a real-life analog. Zweig’s General von Lychow, for instance, is actually Field Marshal Hermann Emil Gottfried von Eichhorn. There are other “fictional” counterparts, for Gen. Ludendorff, Gen. Hoffmann, and others.
Here is another excerpt:
The war had reached its peak; all the omens, hitherto favourable to the Germans, were imperceptibly reversed. For a nation so recently welded into a state, the Germans did wonders. With his left arm the Teutonic giant held off the Russian, already bleeding from a thousand wounds; with his right, he struck at the two sternest warriors of the last century, the British, before whom Napoleon went down, and the French, who under that same Napoleon had been the terror of the armies of their day. His right foot had crushed the warlike race of the Serbs into apparent impotence; with his left he had kicked the Rumanians out of action. The masses went their way in patience, the ruling class in utter unconcern; to the German race, the terror of the Romans in the Teutoburg forest, belonged, so they believed, the future, which they were now forcibly transforming into the present. Hardly a dozen men on earth knew that this giant carried a feeble brain beneath his iron helmet, incapable of grasping the present; and that, as always happened in the fairy tale, he was so greedy that he let go what was in his reach for the sake of some tremendous treasure that he wanted to stuff into his sack and carry away with him.
Verdun is less than 200 miles east-northeast of Paris. The fighting during the Battle of Verdun campaign covered an area that was, in very loose terms, approximately 135 miles wide and 20 deep. The bulk of it was concentrated into an area of roughly 6 square miles. Over the course of nearly a year, 135 divisions rotated in to fight back and forth over that area. At least a third of a million men died and another half million were wounded there. Tens of thousands more went missing, most physically destroyed by millions of artillery shells.
The earth lay like a yellow-stained, blood-soaked disk, over which the mousetrap of the merciless blue sky, caging humanity in with the torments of its own brutality…
The lovely little villages had first been ruined, then wrecked, until they were finally no more than tumbled heaps of old bricks; the woods, first gashed and tangled, were reduced to battlefields of pallid stumps, and finally to a desert.
Like a piece of diseased skin under a microscope, the earth displayed its cankered and corroded wounds. It looked scorched and porous, threaded by a vein-like network of torn roots. In one shell-hole lay a bundle of spoiled hand grenades, thrown no doubt for safety into the standing water at the bottom. Fragments of stuff fluttered from heaps of barbed wire – a sleeve with no buttons, cartridge cases, the remains of a machine-gun belt – human excrement everywhere, and piles of tin boxes…
To put the Battle of Verdun in context, had it taken place in southern California, the northern and southern boundaries would have been very approximately Santa Clarita and Oceanside. The depth of both sides, from French reserve emplacements to German rear marshaling areas would have been roughly from Long Beach to Buena Park. Now imagine 1/3 to 1/2 a million men fighting in that area at any given time, with nearly a million dead, wounded, or missing concentrated in that same area.
The battlefield was so shattered that the French government purchased 40 square miles from surviving families after the war, declaring it to be permanently off-limits to new construction due to UXOs. Several villages and towns were erased from the map completely, and topographical maps had to be redrawn later to reflect how the combined artillery on both sides had resculpted the area.
Although largely forgotten today, Zweig’s books are inexpensive and absolutely worth reading.
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Here is a last excerpt, and something many of you reading this will understand. This is from the final pages of the novel, as the protagonist prepares to leave the Front.
[He] was amazed to realize that there was something like a lump in his throat. It had been a lousy company; it had plagued him for nearly two years, and treated him with growing harshness and injustice as time went on, but no matter; it was his company, it took the place of father and other, wife and profession, house and university; it had fed and clothed him, it had been a second home, in which his father was the state and his mother was Germania, and now he must leave it and depart into the unknown. It was not surprising that his eyes filled with tears; but he must be careful no one noticed them.
That’s all for now. Go forth and conquer.
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