Verdun - and the surrounding WW1 sites
Updated: Feb 12, 2019
The beginning of November and we pull into Verdun, a city known most for the battle of Verdun, the longest of all the battles of World War 1. This is a city that we've visited several times before, and because of the amount of sites to see we hadn't even made a dent into the total amount of possible sites to visit.
A hundred and two years after the battle of Verdun, a hundred years after the end of the war, and the landscape still shows the scars of the fighting that took place over the eleven months and then was held in a still often contested stalemate for two years.
This is why we came to France, this is why we wanted to have 3-4 weeks in October/November, to get back out to the battlefields, the forts, the ruins and remnants of the old front lines, to reflect and soak in the hell that happened a century ago. To throw some thoughts back to the past, to try once again to understand the meaning behind the inhumane slaughter of a generation of young men.
It's a somewhat somber way of tourist travel, definitely not for everyone, but historical travel is gaining in popularity and, for us, is it encouraging to see with every year more people coming to the sites. I'd say it's a mixed blessing, great to see so many people out and learning about history but then we also liked it when we could visit, especially the cemeteries, and take them in with a quiet solitude. We do wonder what it will be like in a year or two when we return to mark more sites off of the long list and the hoopla of the the last four years of centenary observations have come to an end.
So off we go - a cold, damp day with some occasional bits of rain.
One of the things that we still find somewhat amazing when touring these cemeteries is the amount of visitors that they still get on a daily basis, here in the Flirey Cemetery someone had tucked remembrance poppies between the graves of some of the French soldiers. We always check both the name logs and visitor books when we visit. The name logs to see if there is a soldier with one of our last names interred there (possibly a long lost relative), and the visitor books to leave our names and the date with a simple note just stating the we're still thinking of them and their sacrifice. One thing we are always amazed at is that, unless we are at a small cemetery far out of the way from the major battle sites, almost always they already have a note from another visitor earlier that day or at most within the last 2-3 days. These sites still get a lot of visitors, and we always wonder what percentage of those are there to visit a grandparent of great uncle.,..
As we wander we do spend some time to look at the names and ranks of those buried, and as you do sometimes one will stumble on these surprising, or just out of place graves. The two above an unknown Russian prisoner of war and a civilian prisoner from Belgium. Just wondering what stories those men could have told you as to how they ended up just outside of Verdun is one of those mysteries that drives you to look up more information about the war and keeps you intrigued and wanting to learn more.
From the cemetery we hiked into the woods, where one can still see some of the more heavily fortified trenches. The years have slowly softened the landscape, filling in the hard cut trenched and leaving gently rolling cuts through the woods, but the hard concrete walls are something that will take more time for nature to breakdown and hide from sight.
One of the stops that we made it to while staying in Verdun was the drive south to the American Cemetery at Saint Mihiel. The battle of Saint Mihiel was the only offensive launched solely by the Americans during the war. The difference in the American cemeteries is that they are fully staffed and they close. Any other cemetery you can visit any day of the year at any hour, the Americans have visiting hours for their dead.
We pulled into the St. Mihiel Cemetery at about quarter to five, just before closing time. We walked in as the guard and caretaker were walking back from locking up the chapel and pulling down the flags for the evening. They let us know they we were short on time and to stop in before leaving to sign the visitor book and see if we had any questions.
We stopped and chatted with the woman in charge of the site for a short while before we left, talking about the increase in visitors as the date of the Armistice came closer. One surprise bonus that we received was that she gave us a booklet on all of the American sites that are in Europe commemorating WW1 - it is a well put together booklet that details out battles, sites, cemeteries - and we were very glad to have received it.
Another major battle site, Les Eparges, which is more of a park with multiple memorial monuments. We spent the better part of a day touring around here, just about a 30 minute drive south of Verdun. As the French do, they don't understate the loss of life or the graving that you should experience when visiting the sites.
The massive craters are from mines that were blown from below the trenches, the amount of tunneling that was done during the war to undercut the opposing side is incredible. It's hard to capture the size of these craters, but luckily for us another tourist decided that he could run down to the base of one of the smaller ones at this site. The man in the picture below is at least 6' tall, if that helps to give one some idea as to the size of these craters.
The above photos are of old German cemeteries and steps to one of their old officier's dugout. The earlier pictures are where the Germans originally buried their dead, and they carved out their own detailed gravestones - later when the war was over the bodies were moved to larger German cemeteries and the fancy headstones replaced with the clean, stark, black crosses that you see at all of the German WW1 sites now. You can still see the indentations in the ground where the bodies were exhumed and moved.
Closer to Verdun, a full day was spent touring Fort Vaux and making a repeat visit to the Douaumont Ossuary. We didn't return to Fort Douaumont this trip, and with our touring we also found that we ran out of time to visit the Memorial de Verdun - their museum to the war. Three weeks in Verdun and the surrounding area would maybe allow one to cover 30-40% of the sites, and to do that you would get burnt out just on the amount of everything that you are seeing and processing - to do these type of tours you do need to also schedule in some non war stops.
Fort Vaux above, the Douaumont Ossuary below.
Our final day in Verdun we stopped over to Fort Troyon, this is one that you need to plan for a little more then some of the other forts, as the opening hours here are a less then the forts of Douaumont and Vaux, as it is run only by volunteers.
That's the end of this bit of our time in Verdun, and if it seems like a lot in the post it is because we packed in a lot of stops in the short 3 days that we were in Verdun. This is a city that we felt we only needed a short stop in, we have been several times before and seen many of the sites. We were wrong with that thinking, and the more we spend touring old front lines and seeing memorials, the more we hear and learn about other things that we want to stop and visit. Verdun, as it always has, left us leaving the city too soon and saying that we will return once again.