Book Reviews: Massacre of a City; the War Walk: A Journey along the Western Front, by Nigel Jones, Cassell, Pounds 7.99

Article excerpt

Byline: Richard McComb

The ancient French city of Verdun, protected by a ring of forts and surrounded by hilly, wooded countryside, seemed an unlikely place for the German army to strike.

But it was here that Germany's Minister of War, General Erich von Falkenhayn, chose to launch the First World War's most calculated act of sadistic aggression.

His aim was simple: to 'bleed France white'.

Verdun was of huge psychological importance to the French and had acted as an historic buttress to invasion, being a Gallic fort before Roman times.

Falkenhayn calculated that the French would throw every last man into defending the city, and having annihilated the French he believed Germany would move on to defeat the British.

As plans were drawn up to send the Fifth Army into action, France's senior Allied commander General Joseph Joffre and his British counterpart General Sir Douglas Haig devised their own plan to break the stalemate on the Western Front with a mass assault on the River Somme. Every year of the 1914-18 conflict is marked by cataclysmic events, but 1916, with the dual battles of Verdun and the Somme continues to hold a particular resonance today for the French and British respectively.

The description 'bloodbath' does not come close to capturing the misery.

The prelude to both of the battles, and the gut-rending outcomes, figure prominently in Nigel Jones' The War Walk, a hugely enjoyable military travelogue that plots the major campaigns of the First World War. The events are retold with the help of interviews with veterans, diaries and letters and the narrative is imbued with personal poignancy.

Both Jones' father Frank and uncle Ernest served in the war but what the author has called a genetic accident - short-sightedness - spared onebrother's life while the keen eyes of the second condemned him to death.

Frank Jones became a shorthand writer in the Army Service Corps because a sight impairment disqualified him from trench duty. He worked on Haig's staff.

Ernest, however, got into the 1st London Rifle Brigade and was posted to the mud and slime of Flanders. He died at Boesinghe, near Ypres, in July 1915 at the age of 18.

The Canadian medical officer Lieut-Col John McRae immortalised the area in his famous poem: 'In Flanders fields the poppies grow/Between the crosses, row on row.'

Frank Jones later took his son on a pilgrimage to Uncle Ernest's grave and The War Walk, now available in paperback, extends that journey as Nigel Jones walks the 400 miles of the Western Front, stopping off to examine at first-hand the scenes of the battles, explore the surviving trenches and visit the graves and memorials dedicated to the fallen. …