Written by Iztok Golob
Nov 04th 2014
I took my family to France this year. Paris was our main destination for obvious reasons, but personally, it was a good excuse to add a few places along the way, among which I just had to visit Verdun.
I am one of those fascinated by battles and soldiers since the young age, so I was well aware of WW1 centenary and a famous, bloody and tragic showdown in 1916. Verdun isn't just a synonym for the most famous WW1 battle, but for the futility of the war itself.
The Battle of Verdun was the longest and one of the most costly battles in human history.
- Fought from February to December 1916
- 2,5 million soldiers on both sides, Germany, and France, participated
- The number of casualties estimated from 600,000 to a million
- 300 hundred thousand killed
- no strategic gain,
- the war lasted for another two years
- there an American memorial and war cemetery for the Argonne-Meuse battle fought in 1918
Still visible are scars on the landscape. Remnants of villages destroyed, famous forts, trenches, cemetery and, of course, the Ossuary speak a thousand words.
No wonder even my kids were left speechless on more than one occasion.
Where is Verdun
Verdun was an easy choice really. It is situated in the North Eastern part of France, between Paris and Mets, close to Paris - Mets highway. So if nothing else, it's a good stop on the way through France.
- from Paris 261 km, approximately 2:30 min
- from Metz 87 km, approximately 60 min
- from Luxembourg City 87 km, approximately 1:25 min
Things to do in Verdun
Verdun means strong fort in Latin but for such a huge reputation it is actually somewhat small. A bit anxious to get to the memorial site as fast as possible I am afraid I don't have much to say about the city centre itself. As it turned out remnants of the battle were actually a few kilometres away.
Gradually as we left the town, drove up the hill and entered the wooded area, signs started to emerge. You don't have to be French to realize the place is not only special but sacred.
There is this eerie feeling like some hidden force is slowly but surely taking a firm grip over you. Your voice weakens as if you sense there is a horrible ghost of the past waiting to be awakened. Even my kids that hardly even knew anything about the great war felt there were forces not to be disturbed.
Fleury village - vanished but not forgotten
There are many monuments along the way to the Verdun memorial, but it was actually a good bunch of parked vehicles next to the road that drew my attention. There seemed to be nothing there but a wooded area.
We decided to follow everybody else and just as soon realized we were on the ground of the lost village of Fleury, one of the many totally destroyed in the fighting.
Fleury was never rebuilt. The area was just too contaminated by corpses, explosives, and poisonous gases.
I tried to imagine what it was really like hundred years ago. Old pictures show devasted ground. Nature superficially healed the surface but even after all this time it was unable to hide numerous scars. Bomb craters still remain and the way they are sowed across the land on top of each other one wonders how anyone actually survived. It is a vivid testimony of a fierce fighting for one of the crucial positions that changed hands sixteen times.
Several other villages suffered the same fate as Fleury.
Fleury memorial site is not far from Verdun Ossuary. I'd seen it on photos before, but I was still overwhelmed by its size. It is a resting place for skeletal remains of more than 130 thousand soldiers. Many more thousand buried at the war cemetery just below the Ossuary only add to the sacred feeling of the place.
Trench of the Bayonets
Not far below from the Ossuary is another testament to the vicious battle. A memorial site was erected to what we know now as Trenches of the bayonets in the memory of the men from 137th Infantry Regiment.
After the battle, some 39 bayonets were found protruding from the ground where a small part of trenches once was. Believed to be a mass grave of soldiers buried alive by an extensive artillery barrage, the ground was protected by a concrete structure and preserved for generations to come.
From Ossuary, we continued to Douamont, the largest and highest of nineteen Verdun forts.
The road to it crosses the supply trench at one point. The time has taken its toll, but the concrete poles that once reinforced the walls are still clearly visible. I couldn't help but imagine what the thoughts of many men coming up were and how they felt coming down that hill. Many never did.
They shared the faith of destroyed bunkers, strong points which formed the defensive line that stretches along the way to the fort.
Don't expect typical walls at Fort Douamont. Much of the former layout is hidden by trees and undergrowth, but the main structure still remains.
It is mostly built below the ground.
What stands out is gun turrets, designed to be erected for oncoming attackers and lowered during a bombardment. The landscape is a manifest to the extent of shelling, with bomb craters literally on top of each other.
Without an inch of ground intact one can only wonder how anyone survived such an onslaught.
We ended our stay at Verdun with the tour inside the fort. We weren't disappointed for the sheer construction effort.
One can't help to be in awe and feel sorry at the same time for people who existed there during the height of the battle. Even without a constant feeling of death and relentless roaring of artillery, it is a wet, eerie and claustrophobic place.
We were well aware there was more to see around Verdun area and the city itself. After all, it was a starting point of another The Meuse-Argonne offensive done by Americans in 1918.
But by the late afternoon, we were not just physically but psychologically exhausted.
I was proud of my kids for the respect they showed for the past and patience for my desire to pay my dues to men I read so much about.
It was the least I could have done.
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