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Published: October 20th 2017
Fort de Douaumont
After an easy day on Wednesday, Thursday proved to be the biggest day yet. Mostly because the drive to Verdun was about 3 hours. I had originally planned to stay a couple of nights in Verdun before heading to Strasbourg, but instead decided to spend the extra couple of nights in one place and just drive to Verdun for the day. That may have been a tad ambitious, but it worked out in the end.
Breakfast isn’t served at the hotel until 7:30, so it wasn’t until 8:30 that I was on the road. I hit the morning peak hour heading into Strasboug, so the first part of the journey was a bit slow. After Strasbourg though, it was smooth sailing along the motorway to Verdun. Other than the relentless roadworks and substantial tolls, that is.
I arrived in Verdun just after 11:30 and stopped at the tourist information centre. As I was only going to be there for the afternoon, I couldn’t book in for the tour of the citadel so there was no point in buying the discounted ticket. So the lady gave me a map and pointed me to the highlights of the Verdun battlefield and
off I went into the hillsides to the northeast of the town.
I only had a vague knowledge of the battle of Verdun before today. I knew there was an extensive siege where hundreds of thousands of French and German soldiers died, and the battle of the Somme was launched, in part, to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun. I had a mental image of the citadel at Verdun being under siege, but this proved to be incorrect. Most of the fighting was done in the surrounding hills and was focussed on a few forts, the two most famous being Fort de Vaux and Fort de Douaumont. Both of these forts were lost to the Germans, but were later recaptured after the Germans shifted troops to the Somme.
I decided to head to Fort de Vaux first and as I left the town of Verdun I was mesmerised by the beautiful landscapes in the hills where the battlefield was. It is difficult to believe that just 100 years ago the landscape was a hellish nightmare of death and destruction. The forest has returned and makes it difficult to get a grasp of what it was really like
at the time.
Arriving at the fort, I bought a ticket to visit both forts and entered inside the underground tunnels that make up Fort de Vaux. There are a couple of displays of how things were during the war, but mostly the parts of the fort you can access are stone tunnels with damp floors. The fort was designed for 280 soldiers, so I can’t imagine how it must have been for the 600 soldiers who spent 7 days fighting in there after they were cut off by the Germans. They ran out of water on the 3rd
day, so anybody making jokes about the French surrendering should visit Verdun and see what sort of resistance they put up in the First World War. Having said that, they did surrender after 7 days but I know I would not have lasted that long. It’s worth noting, too, that when the French launched an attack to recapture the fort later in 1916, the Germans did not last as long.
After looking around inside, I spent some time looking around the outside of the fort. The ground looks like a cratered moonscape except for the grass. The shelling it
received was incredible and would have made it all the more difficult for the defenders to keep their sanity. The view from the top of the fort is spectacular though, so you can see why it was a strategic asset. There was also a nice plaque outside for the pigeons that were the only means of communication for the fort after it was cut off.
After leaving the fort, I drove towards the Memorial de Verdun. I stopped for a look at a pillbox in the forest that was impressive for having been constructed during the battle of Verdun in 1916. I then arrived at the Memorial, which is really more of a museum, like the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
I spent quite a while looking around at the displays in the memorial, and reading the panels which thankfully were in English as well as French and German. In the centre of the building is a large multimedia display with footage and sound from the battle (or possibly a re-enactment, I’m not sure). The whole time you are walking around the museum there is a constant soundtrack of artillery fire coming from there, which really adds to
the atmosphere. The displays gave a thorough context for the battle, and details of what it was like. I would also say that it was just the right size too, not bogging down in detail or having too many of the same thing on display. All in all, I was impressed with the memorial and would say it’s a must-visit if you come to Verdun.
There is a cafeteria on the top floor of the memorial and I checked it out because it was well after lunchtime. However, the options were not great and the few lunch-type things did not look appealing, so I skipped it. My map said there was a restaurant up near the Ossuaire de Douaumont so I figured I would eat there instead.
The Oussaire was my next destination, although I was running out of time so I decided not to visit. It is what you would normally think of as a war memorial and is a visually stunning building, with a huge number of white crosses set out in the grounds in front. I headed to the nearby restaurant, which seemed to be undergoing renovations. Driving past later, I thought I may have
Fort de Vaux
been wrong and perhaps it was only the outside being renovated. Either way, it didn’t look very open so I decided to skip lunch and have an early dinner in Verdun before driving back to my hotel near Strasbourg.
I headed up to the other major fort – Fort de Douaumont. This fort was much larger than Fort de Vaux and it took quite a bit more time to look around. There were some really interesting things to see, such as the turret mechanism, the 40m deep well and the impressive stonework throughout. The underground tunnels also had multiple levels, so this is probably not a place for claustrophobics to visit! I finished off the visit by walking around the fort above ground. It too was a cratered landscape, and some of the reinforced concrete had been partially destroyed by the shelling. Again, it was a stunning view out to the lower ground to the east, so it must have been a vital strategic asset during the battle. It’s amazing that the French managed to keep the Germans out of Verdun itself after both forts had been captured.
With the sun hanging low in the sky, I decided
to make one of the destroyed villages my final stop on my visit to the battlefields of Verdun. Louvemont was a small village before the war with only a few hundred inhabitants. But it, like many other villages in the area, was so thoroughly destroyed that it was never rebuilt after the war. The surrounding countryside is so beautiful now, it must have been a lovely village back then. Walking around the ruins though, was quite eerie. The forest, with the trees in the late stages of autumn colour and leaf-line forest floor, was pretty but everywhere around were pieces of stone and small sections of walls that used to be someone’s house. It was a surreal juxtaposition that perfectly summed up my visit to Verdun.
In a sombre mood, I headed back into Verdun to finally have something to eat. I left just after 6pm and arrived back at nearly 9pm, thoroughly exhausted. The internet was still not working, so I processed about half my photos before heading to bed. I decided to finish the photos and write the blog this morning before heading to Colmar. Thankfully, after breakfast the internet started working again, so I
Fort de Vaux
will post this blog and the last before heading out.
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