Remembering WW1 at Verdun


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Europe » France » Lorraine » Verdun
July 12th 2014
Published: October 22nd 2017
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On Thursday we left Austria and Camping Grubhof, one of the most relaxing and spacious sites we have ever stayed on, but in high season this comes at a price. But hey, we're on holiday!

We were soon over the border into Germany and on to the A8 motorway. I had read about horrendous delays on the stretch between Ulm and Stuttgart due to upgrading, but apart from a short standstill for a minor accident, we kept moving - with limitations, that is. When towing in Germany you are restricted to 50 mph and between certain times and carriageways there is no overtaking, so that adds to the journey, but on the positive it is toll-free motoring for the time being.

However, we arrived at our overnight stop, Camping Waldpark at Hohenstadt in rain and with an unseasonal 12 degrees on the thermometer, so we quickly pitched, put the heating on and had a hot meal. Shame really since others have reported that despite the proximity to the motorway it is quiet, relaxing and interesting surroundings. Not for us this time it's not. I'm afraid that we spent a total of 22.30€ (site fee and a loaf) in Germany, so we have not done much to boost their economy.

Next morning, it was damp and misty as we rejoined the motorway heading for Stuttgart, then due south before turning towards France where we crossed the border (though you wouldn't have known it) in the middle of the mighty Rhine. Our destination was Verdun since it was heading for home, not too far off the motorway and has some interesting WW1 sites and attractions. Although we are not history fanatics, given my previous employment with the Royal British Legion I have an interest in Remembrance, and we have visited many such locations (Normandy and Belgium) over the years. With centenary commemorations planned all over Europe in the next few years, we though this a worthwhile detour on the itinerary.

On this comparatively long transfer, we were within about half an hour of Camping Breuils when we spotted several coaches and support vehicles bearing logos for cycling teams on the opposite carriageway and groups of spectators on the side roads bearing flags. This got us thinking about 'Le Tour' and if it was passing through the area, since for once we hadn't booked ahead, would we have a pitch? A quick 'phone call put our minds at rest and we were soon setting up once again. As the fridge and cupboards were quite bare, we decided to go into Verdun itself to find something to eat and had a most enjoyable meal at a small restaurant - both of us choosing Quiche Lorraine (given our location) and fish - salmon in champagne sauce for me and prawns in cognac for him. We shared my favourite French dessert - Iles Flottante - poached meringue in a cold vanilla custard, garnished with caramel and almonds.

Next morning, grocery shopping done preparation of a picnic done, we drove to the first of our selected battlefield sites - there are so many to choose from, but some are closed for refurbishment ahead of the commemorations - the Ossuary at Douaumont. (I had to look the word up and it refers to a receptacle for bones.) The remains of some 130,000 unknown soldiers are laid to rest with their comrades for all eternity beneath the huge, elaborate memorial building. It sounds macabre, but you can actually peer through viewing windows and see them. Soon after we arrived, the bells rang out to signal noon - a mournful sound but very moving and atmospheric.

The ticket price includes admission to a small theatre for an informative audiovisual presentation with commentary in various languages via a headset. Sadly, we were told that quite a number of villages were destroyed in the conflict and never rebuilt, but most are marked with a memorial of some kind, thus highlighting the civilian casualties of war. Another reminder in the area of the intensity of the battle is the remaining craters, now grassed over, from the canon fire exchanged between the two sides.

In front of the building is a cemetery for hundreds of French casualties, each with a cross bearing an inscription, and a red rose bush planted in front, though many were now past their best.

Next stop was to see the American monument at Montfaucon. The US involvement was a revelation to me since I hadn't realised their contribution to WW1 but although they entered towards the end of four years, they were instrumental in the battle for Verdun and as a consequence lost thousands of men. This 60-metre high structure is topped by a statue representing Liberty and just below is a viewing platform (accessed by a spiral staircase) giving magnificent views of the surrounding countryside, most of which was conquered during the Meuse-Argonne offensive.

From the top, we could pick out the next location, some 7km away, which is the Romagne military cemetery where the remains of 14,246 American soldiers are lain to rest, with a further 486 unknowns remembered on the walls outside the Chapel. This is the largest US cemetery in Europe but as with Colville, Normandy, (WW2 and 'Saving Private Ryan' fame) it is kept pristine and you are overwhelmed by the perfect symmetry, a sharp contrast to the rolling, agricultural landscape outside the gates.

All in all, a thought provoking day to add to a very varied holiday.

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