A Hill in No-Man's Land VERDUN
It is quiet here now. No more shelling, no more screams of the wounded and dying. There is just the rusting barb wire and bomb craters to remind us of what was and hopefully will never be again.
“They had conquered a notorious hill. They had lived in trenches that had been alternately French and German. These trenches sometimes lay filled with bodies in different stages of decomposition. They were once men in the prime of their lives, but had fallen for the possession of this hill. This hill, that was partly built on dead bodies already. A battle after which they lay rotting, fraternally united in death….”
(Georges Blond - Verdun)
It was a cold, wet, and foggy day when I drove into Verdun. It is hard to imagine that in the 10 sq Km. (a little over 6 sq. miles) area surrounding the small and now peaceful town of Verdun, the longest and one of the bloodiest engagements of World War I (WWI) took place. It is here among these now these beautiful forests and rolling hills that two million men engaged in a battle that began on Feb. 21, 1916 and ended 300 days later on 15 Dec. 1916. The Battle of Verdun is considered one of the greatest and lengthiest in world history. Never before or since have so many fought for so long on such a tiny piece of land at
Momument to the Children of Verdun
Situated on the area of the old ramparts acros the Meuse River from the Victory Monument shows 5 soldiers, one from each of the 5 different armies. The soldiers form a single wall with their chests,symbolizing the resistance of the town.
a cost of between 700,000 and 900,000 dead, wounded, or missing.
The Battle of Verdun is interesting in the fact that one of the Germans’ main objective in starting the engagement at Verdun was to destroy the French by attrition and in doing so force the English, whom the Germans felt to be their real enemy, to seek peace terms with Germany or, as the Germans thought, be defeated in turn. The Germans had to select a place where the French would be willing to sacrifice their entire army. Geographically this had to be Verdun. In the Franco - Prussian war of 1870, France was overrun in six weeks and the Emperor Napoleon III was captured. In addition, the French surrendered the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and had to pay Germany an indemnity of $2 billion dollars (Rally big bucks back then!). The city of Verdun is a town of approximately 25,000. The forts surrounding Verdun and the French border, built after 1880, were to protect France from an embarrassing repeat performance by the Germans. Verdun played an important part in the line of defense, as it was the Northern gate to the Champagne plain and from there
Verdun - Victory Monument
The Victory Monument sits atop the old ramparts of Verdun. In the crypt below the monument you can see the books of all the names of those who received medals from Verdun
a relatively short distance to Paris. Verdun was a garrison town surrounded by a double ring of fortresses and fortifications situated among nearly impenetrable hills. However, the defense of Verdun had been seriously neglected since the beginning of the war. In 1915 the French supreme command judged the Verdun fortresses to be useless as the heavy German artillery had just destroyed similar fortresses in Belgium to pieces. The French fortresses were stripped from their guns and only a few men remained.
The battle began at 7:15 AM with 140,000 German troops to begin the attack. They were supported by 1,200 artillery guns that targeted 2,500,000 shells at the Verdun region. 1,300 ammunition trains were needed to supply these guns. The Germans also had complete air supremacy with 168 planes located in the area - the largest concentration of planes in history up to that point. To start with, the French only had 30,000 troops to oppose the Germans. Flame throwers were used in large numbers for the first time to help the Germans advance the eight miles they needed to if they were to capture Verdun. The Germans later also used a large amount chemical warfare in this battle.
Ancient Shell Craters from WWI
Throughout the area of the Verdun battlefield there are WWI shell craters everywhere, in the forests, around the many gun emplacements, and here the area surrouding the Ossuary of Douaumont.
Phosgene gas, an asphyxiating gas, was extremely deadly because it incapacitated a solder within 41 seconds. Even today, there are so many unexploded shells and poison gas canisters buried in the area that the French government has allowed little to no rebuilding of the area. It is just too dangerous. You can easily see, even today, the many shell craters throughout the area by plugging Verdun into Google Earth.
During the battle, Verdun was the end of the Voie Sacree, the sacred road, the main supply artery of the French. The Voie Sacree, about 60 Km (37 miles) long and 7 meters wide (23 feet), was used daily after the start of the Battle of Verdun by 6000 vehicles, carrying up to 90,000 troops and 50 tons of ammunition each week. Although the town was shelled and sustained serious damage by the Germans Verdun was never taken or captured.
In the roughly center of where the battle took place stands the Memorial de Verdun, a museum of weaponry and documents of the period, and interesting exhibits as to what the conditions were like during the battle. The museum has some very graphic pictures and movies of the soldiers
Tour Chaussee - 14th Century Gate
Built in the 14th century, the gate was part of the massive wall which protected the city. All convoys bound for the front passed under it arch.
wallowing in the mud and filth while trying to stay alive in the trenches. Even though the soldiers were only on the front lines for a couple weeks and returned to the rear for rest, many soldiers from both sides came down with trench foot, a serious fungus disease, caused by prolonged exposure to cold and damp conditions. It was fairly serious in that in 1914 alone some 20,000 British troops became causalities of this condition, which in some cases required the toes to be amputated. On a different note, I found the sniper’s helmet at the memorial (as seen in one of the pictures) to be quite interesting in that it was designed for either a right or left hand sniper. I wonder what it must have felt like when an enemy's bullet struck the sniper's helmet?
Driving though the battlefield area there are many gun emplacements, and even some of the trenches still discernable after more than 90 years. Some are now partially hidden by the forest of mostly pine trees which I read somewhere are the only thing that will grow in the still poisoned ground although I did see some other types of trees growing
Memorial De Verdun
A museum with various exhibitions of weaponry, uniforms, and documents, providing a very good detail of the battle and some background those who fought and died there.
around the area. Compared to the various pictures I have seen of the battle site, it is hard to believe that this quiet peaceful forest area was the site of some of the most intense fighting in WWI. At the end of the battle there was hardly a tree left standing anywhere as so great was the shelling by both sides.
During the battle as least nine villages located in the area were completely destroyed. The Chapelle de Fleury is a small memorial to one of the villages that no longer exist. Surrounding the Chapelle de Fleury are short concrete posts to which signs are attached indicating what shop or whose house was located in the village of Fleury. Walking among the signs and still noticeable bomb craters I wonder what it must have been like for the villagers, both at the start of the battle and then coming back, to see your whole village obliterated?
Walking in and around the forts of Douaumont and de Vaux, both of which took tremendous shelling during the battle, it is hard for me to imagine what it must have been like for the troops inside while shells pounded the forts
You can see (by the arrows) the tiny eye slits that allowed snipers from both armies to see their targets while allowing some protection from the enemy's snipers.
sometimes round the clock, dust and debris falling into their food and drink, the smell of cordite and death all around. I think I understand a little better why my grandfather, who fought in WWI in France, would never talk about his experiences there.
I look forward to returning to Verdun in the future as well as some of the other WWI and WWII battle sites.
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