We visited Verdun in France because (modern) history (the Verdun Battle) interests us.
This Battle is known for the longest single battle of The First World War.
Verdun boasts 30 centuries of history.
But it became world famous for the great defensive battle fought there in 1916.
The river Meuse divides Verdun in a left and right part.
This river played a role in the spread of the local architectural and artistic style over the region.
We traveled on the renowned route the Soleil on our way from our home village to Verdun.
At the Total gas station at HABAY-LA-NEUVE, we left this motorway for the last leg of our journey.
On this day, 27th April 2014, the temperature only just reached 16o Celsius.
Although the sky is filled with clouds, the sun gets its fair share.
We drove over small roads through several sleepy villages.
Through forests and meadows.
Up and down the countryside colored yellow, brown and green.
I find it difficult to imagine that in this peaceful land, a century ago, many young men had to endure hardships of war.
300 days and 300 nights of unbroken fighting.
These combats left more than 300.000 soldiers dead and missing and over 400.000 wounded.
The 1916 Battle of Verdun was the deadliest head-on clash between Germany and France.
In this tranquil countryside, industrial warfare first exposed its ugly face.
Its aim was a total destruction of men and their defenses.
Through an unprecedented use of artillery.
The horror of the Great War was and is hard to imagine.
We are now 100 years further down the road.
Germany and France are now the loyal backbones of a united Europe.
In Verdun, you can even find some German pubs!
In 1966, during the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun, the Book of Peace was inaugurated in the town hall and signed by General De Gaulle.
Verdun became the self-proclaimed “Capital of Peace.”
In the few days, we spent in Verdun we tried to learn more about the impact WW1 had on the city, its people and its surroundings.
Our stay, however, was much too short to scratch far below the surface.
We plan to return with our bicycles one day to take another look.
The Monument To Victory
The ‘Monument To Victory’ in Verdun was built in 1929.
At the top of the stairs (73 steps) of this monument, you will find a crypt.
This vault contains a display of books signed by French and American soldiers who fought in the Meuse.
From the top of the monument, you have a beautiful view of the city.
On top of the crypt a soldier, leaning on his sword, looks over the city.
This soldier has his gaze fixed on the Eastern borders.
He symbolizes the French victories of 1916 (The Battle of Verdun) and 1918 (the Armistice that brought the First World War to an end), as well as the completion of the reconstruction of the town.
More than 85% of which was destroyed during the conflict!
The Douaumont Ossuary.
This monument must be THE symbol of the battlefield.
It contains some 130.000 (one hundred and thirty thousand!) unidentified French and German soldiers.
You can visit the crypt, the chapel, and the tower.
From the tower, you have a panoramic view of the battlefields and the endless rows of graves.
In front of the ossuary, more than 16.000 French soldiers have their last resting place.
Located beside Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Bishop’s Palace was built in the 18th century.
Bombarded during the First World War, it reverted to being the Bishops’residence in the 1920s.
Especially relevant, it has been the site of the World Peace Centre since 1993.
Verdun – Palais Epicopal – Centre Mondial de la Paix
The Palace hosts an annual program of exhibitions, talks, and conferences on contemporary global problems.
Near the main entrance, you can read letters written by French soldiers and German soldiers to their family.
Several large plates contain these inscribed texts.
In the experiences of dealing with war, there is no difference between the people who are directly involved.
Every combatant suffers.
So do their families.
Personally, I think they should lose the car parking in the interior courtyard.
And put a brush of paint on the Venetian blinds to give the building a better appeal from the outside and make the palace gardens more inviting.
Although the Palace is a historical monument in its own right, I found this “Palace” a bit disappointing.
Somehow the French don’t seem to have the money or want to spend money, or maybe they don’t care that much about their heritage. (Outside Paris).
The construction of the citadel began in 1623. Verdun belonged to the Kingdom of France and required defenses against the claims of its large Germanic neighbor.
After the Franco-Prussian War, which ended in a French defeat in 1871, Verdun became a front-line garrison.
Only a few kilometers from the border.
Underground galleries were then dug, under 16 meters of rock, to store arms, and to provide barracks if there were to be a new conflict with Germany.
It quickly became the French logistical headquarters in 1916.
At the height of the Verdun Battle, on 13th September 1916, a ceremony was held in one of the galleries, where French and foreign medals were presented by president Poincare.
They chose the French Unknown Soldier there on 10th November 1920.
His body buried in Paris at the Arc The Triomphe to mark the sacrifice of all the French soldiers who were unidentified or who disappeared.
The Underground Citadel was the logistics center during the battle of Verdun.
You can visit this citadel by taking a 30-minute audio-visual tour in a little train that will drive you through several corridors.
This reconstruction trail depicts everyday life for the French soldiers (known as “poilus”) in 1916 inside the galleries, as well as the timeline of events from mobilization in 1914 to the choosing of the Unknown Soldier in 1920.
Doaumont, the keystone of Verdun’s system of fortifications, was captured by the German Army at the start of the battle.
It was not retaken for another eight months, after particularly bitter fighting.
Today, the French and German flags fly side by side on the fort as a reminder of the tragedy and the death of soldiers from both armies in this place.
Inside the Fort, you can go for a good walk about through the passageways.
An audio/video device in several languages will guide you through the various passages.
It’s full of information and astonishing stories, complemented by photographs and videos from that era.
The maps show you the progress of troops around the fortress. It’s rather impressive to inspect rooms and to see what happened there almost a century ago.
You could undoubtedly spend hours exploring this fortification and its many damp passages, storages, and rooms. It is just like a small underground city with roads.
You do not have to go inside if you want to see the huge craters (the result of massive artillery barrages), gun turrets as well as other defensive armaments.
Trench of Bayonets
This monument, built by an American sponsor, is a reminder of a legend – the legend of French soldiers, all in a row, buried upright in their trench by fierce bombardments.
I liked this monument.
Thought it was both tasteful and respectful.
One of the many poignant symbolic sites on the Verdun battlefield.
I am not sure, but the current walkway to the monument might once have been part of the trench system.
American Tower in Montfaucon-d’Argonne
A statue of Liberty tops this impressive 58-meter tower in the form of a Doric column.
The names of the divisions that took part in the battle are engraved on the walls at the base of the monument.
You can reach the top of the tower by climbing 234 steps.
Believe me, that are many steps!
From it, there is a breathtaking panoramic view of the entire region. On clear days you can see as far as the Ossuary of Douaumont.
The village of Montfaucon where the tower was built was one of the German Army’s main observation platforms.
It was recaptured by General Pershing’s troops on the 27th September 1918.
American Cemetery in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon
The largest American graveyard in Europe, with each of its 14.246 graves marked by a white marble cross, lies in 40 hectares of landscaped grounds across two sloping sides of a valley.
The graves include 486 belonging to unidentified soldiers.
At the top are the chapel and the Wall of the Disappeared (in the Memorial Loggia) on which the names are engraved of the 954 American soldiers whose bodies were never found.
The Chapel occupies the center of the memorial.
The altar is backed by a semi-circle of flags of the US and the principal Allied nations in World War 1.
The French government allows the land on which it rests for free use as a permanent burial ground in perpetuity without charge or taxation.
This is such a beautiful and sad place to visit. Beautiful, because the gardens and graves are beautifully designed and cared for.
Sad because so many, often very young people died and were buried here for fighting in a war started by kings, emperors, and tsars and politicians.
Battle Of Verdun. The Destroyed Villages
Nine villages were utterly destroyed during the Battle of Verdun, swept away by the fearsome might of the battle.
All that remains are markers symbolizing the outlines of the houses and public buildings.
They serve as a reminder of the trades and work of these old village communities and have never been rebuilt.
They are ghost villages, villages that laid down their lives for France, and they are a moving memorial thanks to the chapels and commemorative monuments erected after the end of the war.
What I find remarkable is the fact that in 1919, a law allowed each community a council and a president having similar powers to that of a mayor.
What an impressive way to celebrate life.
Les 4 Cheminées
The bunker at “Les 4 Cheminées.”
Set on the hillside overlooking a deep ravine Les Quatre Cheminées underground bunker found itself right in the heart of the area fought over by French and German troops for ten months. It then became one of the stopping facts on the route followed by relief troops and equipment.
It was originally built in 1890 to accommodate 300 reserve troops, but its long gallery dug out beneath eight meters of rock, was requisitioned for the staff officers and for use as a field hospital.
At the height of the fighting in this area during June 1916, a young lieutenant witnessed the indescribable human misery of those who were stationed here:
“For seven days, we had no sleep at all.. and day and night was a hellish, ceaseless rumble…the bank of earth in front of the bunker was holed, ploughed up, ripped apart a hundred times, changing its appearance with each hour that passed.”
The dying and the wounded who could not be evacuated existed cheek by jowl, beneath the constantly trembling vaulted roof, with exhausted runners, survivors with horrorstruck expressions, and staff officers undermined by weariness, all of them dependent on the outcome of the battles being fought by units pinned down in their positions, only a few hundred yards outside the bunker.
It was here that the battle reached a turning point, on 22nd and 23rd June, two of the most tragic days in the war.
The Germans determined to force their way through the key position of Froideterre and win a victory before the Franco-English offensive was launched on the Somme.
They brought into play unequaled resources regarding men and equipment, in one last decisive assault.
On 20th June, the hill at Froideterre was subjected to an intensive bombardment that brought metal and fire ranging down onto its slopes, crushing the garrison at Thiaumont.
More than 100.000 poison gas shells were fired into the sector, on the evening of 23rd June, paralyzing the French defenses. Inside the bunker, the gas brought death to many:
“The seriously wounded lying in the bunker were all poisoned.
Many of them, because they did not have effective gas marks, died in terrible agony, their faces mottled, their bodies twisted in exasperated convulsions while their fingers clutched and tore at their chests.”
On 23rd June at 6 a.m. 50.000 German troops entered the fray along a wide front.
In addition, they were equipped with smoke bombs and flamethrowers.
They forced their way through the defenses that the methodical bombardment finally crushed.
Froideterre was reached a7 9.30 a.m.
The top of the bunker cut off from its lines of retreat, was besieged and gunfire strafed the access bays.
Grenades were thrown down the ventilation shafts, creating panic below.
Just as the front was about to yield and after three hours of uncertainty, the tip of the German offensive, exhausted, finally retreated in the face of a counter- attack, leaving behind a bunker that was totally devastated.
In Fort Douaumont in front of the spot that served as a grave for many killed Germans, I found this statue (see the picture above). Unfortunately, the photo didn’t come out that well.
I added the description belonging to that statue because I think it is rather moving.
War- an ordinary family – somewhere – has to say goodbye.
The two sons have been called up to serve in the military.
For the first time in their lives, they have to leave the family familiar environment and their mother and father – the family is torn apart.
From now on concerns about the sons will determine the life of the parents who stay left behind.
The sons hold each other’s hand and look into the distance – into the unknown.
They don’t know what to expect.
They are not excited.
They don’t like to go, but there innocently believe they have to carry out their duty.
The father is standing behind them, numb.
He feels helpless.
He can see the misery, but he is not allowed to hold his son’s back.
He has to give them away.
The mother is affectionately touching one of the sons on his shoulder and hand.
She wants to protect him, but she knows that she can’t anymore.
She is desperate.
She gave birth to her beloved sons so they can live.
She senses that suffering and mourning are about to come.
World War 1 Battlefields. Battle Of Verdun. Sources
Meuse, The most significant battlefields, Meuse Tourist Board
30 Centuries of History, Tourist Office of Verdun
Carte Touristique. Verdun et son Champ de Bataille
Meuse-Argonne America Cemetery and Memorial, American Battle Monuments Commission
Tourist Information Verdun