Wednesday, October 9, 2013

John Mosier's "Verdun"

John Mosier is a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he teaches courses in film, modern European literature, and the eighteenth-century novel. His books include The Myth of the Great War (nominated for a Pulitzer Prize), The Blitzkrieg Myth, The Generalship of U. S. Grant, and Cross of Iron.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Verdun: The Lost History of the Most Important Battle of World War I, 1914-1918, and reported the following:
Page 99 finds us deep into the first battle for Verdun. By early September, 1914, the Germans had the great forts almost completely surrounded and were trying to close the gap by crossing the Meuse some twenty kilometers upstream. That’s right: they were way south, on the verge of pinching off the entire complex of forts, and unlocking the shortest and easiest route into France.

Their way was blocked by one of the older forts, Troyon, commanded by a lowly captain named Heym. “The Austrians kept on shelling, and by 12 September the fort recorded ten separate barrages. But by this time, the relief column was arriving. Their approach coincided with the general order to retreat. But Heym was still holding out in the rubble.”
It is not much of an exaggeration to say that this obscure officer played the role of the proverbial Dutch boy who put his finger in the dike. If Troyon had fallen, most of the French defenders on the left bank would have been trapped, and it is quite possible that this, the first battle for Verdun, would have then become the last and only. Sadly, Heym, a true hero of the first weeks of the war, did not live long enough to see his feat recognized. He was killed a few weeks later, in the desperate French attempts to defend Marchéville, in the Woëvre, and few remember his name, even among specialists.
Explaining to readers what actually happened (there were Austrians on the Western Front?), and how it was carefully hidden by the French High Command (and generations of dutiful historians), is the heart of my book. The coverups, the bland dismissals, the transformation of defeats and bloody checks into military triumphs, went on right down to the very end of the war, culminating in scornful assessments of the American troops who actually freed Verdun from the German stranglehold in fall 1918.

This final battle for Verdun was the only decisive victory won by either side, which probably explains why the French dismissed it and the British refused to admit it even happened. But anyone who reads all the way through my book will understand both how impressive the American accomplishment was, and why it was so important to minimize it.

Just as the hidden stories of men like Captain Heym show the costs of true heroism, the massive attempts an rewriting history make us aware of how fragile the truth is, and how difficult it is to recover. Field Marshal von Hindenburg, supreme commander of the German army, said very plainly and unambiguously in November 1914, that it was the American troops in this sector that won the war for the Allies. His summary was promptly buried, and, when brought up, was blandly dismissed: “Oh he just said that.” An actual quote, and an interesting way to fabricate history. But then, as Voltaire observed: That’s what happens when you entrust it to intellectuals.
Learn more about Verdun at the publisher's website, and visit John Mosier's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue