Saturday, September 5, 2009


Nothing symbolizes the horror and brutality of World War I for the French more than Verdun.

During the 10-month battle in 1916, French los
ses were estimated at about 400,000 killed, wounded and missing. German losses were less, at about 350,000, though estimates vary.

The soldiers lived like rats in trenches, constantly enduring enemy artillery fire and attacks. Even sending messages was dangerous, as couriers had an extremely short life expectancy. If they weren't killed by enemy artillery, poison gas, sniper fire or bayonets, the soldiers suffered from illnesses, fatigue and what we would today call shell shock.

Despite how horrific a place Verdun was, I still wanted to visit the battlefield. Understanding the French experience in World War I makes it clear why the country fell so fast in World War II, when much of the population thought that living under German occupation would be a far smaller price to pay than another war, since World War I left one in three French men between 17 and 33 dead.

The town itself is easy to find and is relatively close to Nancy. If you are, like me, interested in history, then Verdun is a must. The town has always been
a fortress city, and the Germans and French have fought over it several times.

One interesting aspect of Verdun's history revolves around two French soldiers who served there - Charles de Gaulle and Philippe Pet
ain. Petain was considered the hero of Verdun, and he commanded the French forces there for much of the battle. De Gaulle, who was inspired by Petain long before the battle, was captured at Verdun. Petain would later collaborate with the Germans in World War II and be a figurehead for the Vichy French government while de Gaulle would lead the Free French forces during World War II and emerge a hero, famously marching down the main boulevards of Paris when the city was liberated in 1944 before German snipers had been cleared out.

When I arrived in Verdun, it was cloudy, and the recent rain had stopped. After passing through the fortified gate that guards one end of a bridge over the Meuse River, I came to the visitor center, which was unfortunately closed.

A map near the visitor center showed the way to many of the sites, and after looking at statues and memorials in the center of town, I hopped in my car and drove to Fort Vaux, Fort Douaumont and the iconic Ossuaire.

Forts Vaux and Douaumont played key roles in the battle, and both were taken by the Germans, then retaken by the French. Each is worth a post in its own right, so I'll save that for later.

Wandering the battlefield is possible, but signs warn visitors to stay on the paths. Essentially, they all sum up the same thing: The weapons used in 1916 are still in the ground, and they can kill you just as
easily today as they could 90 years ago.

What was once a war-torn moonscape dotted with shattered tree stumps is once again peppered with woods. Between the tree trunks, the reminders of the war are still visible - earth cratered from artillery shells, half-filled-in trenches where men used to live and concrete gun positions that have long since had their weapons removed.

Reaching the Ossuaire, in front of which about 15,000 French soldiers are buried, I was struck by the fact that this plays such an important role in French history, and I don't even remember it being mentioned in my history classes in America - and I have a minor in history from a university.

In the National World War One Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, there is a section on Verdun. Two quotes from the combatants stood out to me when I was there.

"Shells of all caliber kept raining in our sector. The trenches had disappeared, filled with earth. The air was unbreathabl
e. Our blinded, wounded, crawling and shouting soldiers kept falling on top of us and died splashing us with their blood. It was living hell." - A French infantryman.

The second quote is from a German soldier at Verdun: "Verdun transformed men's souls. Whoever floundered through this mass full of the shrieking and dying had passed the last frontier of life and thus bore deep within him the leaden memory of a place that lies between life and death."

The soldiers of both sides experienced hell at Verdun, and the huge Ossuaire, though open to the public and containing displays, is the final resting place of some 130,000 soldiers from both sides who were unable to be identified.

A tower rising from the middle of the Ossuaire is styled in the shape of an artillery shell, and on the way to the top, visitors can see mannequins dressed in period uniforms as well as some of the weaponry used.

The top of the tower affords a view of the battlefield that can't be had anywhere else. At the base of the tower, visitors can watch a short film that explains the reason for the war and the battle itself along with the stupidity - and there's really no other word for it - of that particular conflict.

The last place I stopped was at one of the communication trenches. With its moss-covered, rotting timbers still in place, I could just imagine the hundreds of men who must have passed through it. Communication trenches connected the various trench lines and allowed men to move between them without as much risk of being spotted by the enemy. They almost always moved at night, and the only guidance a man had was to stay close to the man in front of him. There were countless instances of units getting lost, then finding themselves on exposed ground at dawn, where alert artillery observers saw them. Within minutes, they would be shelled and killed.

Verdun, or any battlefield, for that matter, is not the place to go if you want to experience the joie de vivre for which France is so famous. If you want to understand France, and especially its role in the 20th century, however, I think Verdun is a place that must be visited, or at least understood.

A soldier killed Nov. 9, 1918.
For him, the armistice came two days too late.

If you're interested about the battle of Verdun, I recommend Alistair Horne's "The Price of Glory: Verdun, 1916." Written in the 1960s, Horne - a British historian - tends to editorialize a little bit, but the book provides a good explanation for the battle without expecting a lot of prior knowledge of the war.

No comments: