Verdun was the epicentre of the very worst of the fighting between the French and the Germans during the First World War and we felt there was much to see and learn here.
The countries of Europe seem to have been ripe for war when the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914 but it takes a leap of imagination greater than we are capable of making to comprehend exactly how that act resulted in the living hell of the battles that took place in northern France over the following years. We are though, becoming all too aware of just how appalling it was for the soldiers on all sides fighting here. Essentially, in this area it was between the French and the Germans with the Americans joining the French towards the end of the conflict. British involvement was centred on the Somme.
This afternoon we drove through the battlefields north of Verdun. The area is now a huge memorial forest that has been allowed to grow over the site. The quiet little roads passing through it have monuments, graves, batteries, destroyed villages, small museums and cratered and pitted areas of land where the most intense fighting took place. We stopped at the former village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont, which woke up one snowy February morning in 1916 to discover it was right on the front line of battle with German troops entering the village. They were ordered to evacuate and as they did they passed the French troops coming up to the front line to engage with the Germans. Over the following twenty months control of the village changed hands sixteen times, sometimes on a daily basis. Not a building remained and the human carnage is incalculable. The overall death toll for the fighting around Verdun up to October 1917 is 800,000! Today the site of the village is covered by grass and woodland, the ground upturned, broken and pitted with pieces of wall and rubble showing through the grassy covering. The layout of the streets has been retained and signs indicate where the individual shops and houses once stood. There are hollows in the ground that were either shell craters, filled with rain water, or the remains of cellars beneath the original houses. Although it no longer exists, France still recognises it, ninety years on, and it has its own mayor and all its civic rights. There are a total of nine such villages in the area of the battlefields that found themselves on the front line of the fighting and have ceased to exist
It was getting late and we were freezing cold walking around the woods. We were also overawed by it all, frustrated at understanding so little about the causes of the war and horrified to imagine the incredible deprivation, misery, pain and loss of life on both sides. We decided there was no point in rushing to see everything this evening so found a nearby campsite for the night and we will return in the morning to see the rest of the battlefields and the cemetery.
It has been really cold and unpleasant today and it is hard to believe it is late June. We are far enough north in Europe now to pick up the BBC and have gathered from the news that there has been serious flooding in parts of Britain, so it seems others are having it far worse than we are. We have actually been grateful for Modestine's heater as we travelled today and it is hard to remember just how unbelievably hot we were down in Dubrovnik just a few weeks ago.
Wednesday 27th June 2007, Châlons-en-Champagne
Our campsite last night was cheap and basic but very conveniently situated for returning to the battlefields this morning. So early in the morning there were few people around and for once the rain was not falling so we could walk peacefully through the woods and clearings, now full of butterflies, wild flowers and grasses, the ground beneath pitted by shells and mortar fire, the craters filled with clear rainwater and bulrushes rather than the mud, blood and carnage of 1916. Millions of rounds of ammunition fell here during the battle, thousands were killed and many thousands more injured. The noise of battle was continuous, day and night. For us today though, this was one of the most peaceful and in some ways beautiful scenes imaginable. The only sounds were of birds and the humming of the bees amongst the clover, vetch and coltsfoot that cover the mounds where the guns, bunkers and observation towers of Fort Thiaumont can still be traced from pieces of jagged metal, reinforced iron bars, broken concrete, gun turrets and even the barrel of a canon sticking up from the earth. Throughout the day the single question we kept asking was "why"?
In the Tranchée des Baïonettes is a memorial to a group of soldiers, their bayonets fixed to their rifles, waiting in the trench for the command to advance. They were hit by mortar fire and died where they stood, buried upright as the trench caved in, leaving only the tops of a few bayonets protruding through the earth. They have been left there with just a few crosses and a concrete canopy to form the memorial.
After the war, the bones of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers were gathered from the battlefields and placed in a huge concrete ossuary with a high tower shaped like an artillery shell while around it were placed the bodies of a further 15,000 young French soldiers, each grave marked by a white cross and a red rose bush. We climbed to the top of the tower from where we could look out over the rolling countryside of Lorraine and down onto the open page of death, where each paragraph was spelled out with crosses.
There is only so much we felt we could cope with, though there are many more sites we could have visited. Returning down to Verdun we passed a monument to André Maginot, a hero of Verdun and later Minister of War, who proposed the construction of the Maginot line, a series of defences along the border with Germany in the 1930s. It was intended to hold back a possible German attack but in the 2nd World War Germany simply went round it.
Verdun is a heavily fortified town with a massive citadel. After the annexation of Alsace and part of Lorraine in the 1870s Verdun became a frontier town and the citadel was constructed as France's front line defence. Germany determined to take the strategic centre of Verdun at any cost. Had it succeeded it would have broken the morale of France but, thanks in great part to the intervention of America on the side of the French, Germany's advance was eventually halted and driven back.
Everywhere in Verdun are statues and constant reminders of the past. It cannot be a very cheerful place in which to live but it is none the less rather a pleasant town on the banks of the River Meuse. Above the town stands the imposing cathedral dating from the 10th century with later alterations which was very badly damaged in the fighting. It has been restored almost exactly as it was though it is strange when looking at the capitals of some of the ancient columns to suddenly see, instead of angels, a soldier in a trench or a gun carriage. Near the cathedral stands the 18th century Episcopal Palace now housing the World Centre for Peace.
We moved on from Verdun around 4pm, travelling along the Voie Sacrée, the route between Bar-le-Duc and Verdun where it entered the town through the imposing medieval Porte Chausée. This road was the umbilical cord for the French at the front line, bringing in supplies of food, medicines, ammunition and fresh consignments of soldiers, while in the other direction the survivors, shell shocked and wounded, were carried away from the field of conflict.
Gradually the countryside changed as we drove west. It became empty and flatter with fields stretching to the far horizon without a single building in sight. Soon we reached Châlons-en-Champagne and the campsite we were seeking. It's not very nice but the only one around. It claims to offer everything and charges accordingly, whether we want to use the facilities or not.