Verdun, France

Verdun, France

Since we were headed in the same direction, towards Luxembourg, we decided we would stop at take a look at the World War I battlefield sites at Verdun in France. One of the big draws for history buffs are the forts built by the French after the war in 1871 with the Prussians (i hope I got my history correct). The tourist office offers a bus tour of four sites and we decided that was the best way to see the sites and learn a bit before heading North. Verdun is not a large place but the people are super friendly, we got ourselves another really nice room for a great price. After dumping our gear we took a stroll around the town, bisected by the Meuse River, and had a tasty meal at one of the quai side restaurants. There are a handful of huge monuments to the war, photos were taken. The next day we headed first to the citadel, a stronghold of the French army in the town itself. Most of the battle actually took place about a dozen km from the town which had been evactuated prior to the fighting. The region had been fortified, due to its location, prior to WWI. In the citadel, which is essentially a deep tunnel system, has an audio visual presentation where you sit on a motorised cart which drives through the tunnels stopping for small film clips of re-enactments shown on full sized screens telling of life in the town and the citadel during the war. Very well done. After the citadel we met up with the rest of the tour to head out to Fort Douamont which sits North East of Verdun. As you drive along you see farmers fields, assorted buildings etc until the trees start and then you can see the small ridges and holes in amongst the trees. Trench and shell hole remains are everywhere despite 90 plus years of growth. The arrival at the fort gives you the idea that not much is there. You can see what looks like windows and doorways in the walls of what must be the fort. Iron grates, barbed wire, and huge chunks of concrete are layed out in front of the fort as well as the shell holes and damage from years ago. We go inside and begin the tour, the French guide is excellent, Elke is translating, as we move through damp tunnels with water dripping from over head. The fort was intended for 800 but sometimes held 3300. It was a transit stop to the front. The conditions were awful. Knowing something about how bad it was for the troops in the trenches its hard to decide which was worse. There were no proper toilets, the place was cold and wet and smelled horribly all of the time. They had no proper water system as that was constantly damaged by shelling. Electricity was brought in by the Germans after it was captured. Before that the ventilation was done by hand. The noise was deafening from fire from and against the fort. We were able to see were French soldiers were buried in one room that had been badly damaged due to an explosion and another room that had been walled up as it was used by the Germans to bury their dead during the time they held the fort. After that we moved outside and took a look at one of the retractable guns from the outside (after shoeing a group of American students lounging on it off). After the fort we moved on to a memorial called the Trench of the Bayonets. During shelling the 137th French regiment was entirely buried from the devastation and only found three years later when someone in the sector noticed rows of bayonets sticking up from the mud. The memorial stands but many of the bayonets have actually been stolen. After the trench we moved to the Ossuary. Imagine pulling up to a monument and seeing arrayed before it some 30 thousand crosses and markers for French troops killed at Verdun. Now, before that concept fully sinks in think now that the purpose of the Ossuary is to hold the unidentified remains of more than 130,000 more dead French troops. The carnage that happened at Verdun is beyond sobering. We watched a short film in a small theatre in the ossuary then peeked in the windows at the base of the building to see the bones of the dead stacked according to the sector they were found on the battlefield. After that we drove to the Verdun Memorial and looked at the displays and walked through some of the locations of villages completely removed from the earth as a result of the shelling. The guide told us that during the Second World War the Verdun sector was fairly quiet as a result of so many French and German soldiers buried there from the First World War. France is the only place I´ve ever been where I´ve seen houses, a grocery store, houses, a German war dead cemetary, and a farmers field all in a five minute stretch while travelling on the train. Tomorrow Luxembourg.


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