France 55 - Verdun and a moments thought for the young men who died during the Great War

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May 30th 2013
Published: May 31st 2013
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Verdun Verdun Verdun

the war memorial
On the road again and only a few days left before we will be home and Suzy parked up. She needs a clean and a restock. It's amazing how the fridge soon empties, the emergency stocks are depleted and the cupboards like Old Mother Hubbards are bare. The carpets are covered in sand and mud and need a serious clean and the bedding needs to come out to be washed. But before that we are still in France and still have two more stops to go before we reach home. The weather is still poor and feels like winter.

Our planned stop was going to be Camping Breuils in Verdun. It is hard to get to this part of the world without thinking about the young soldiers who lost their lives unnecessarily fighting in the First World War between 1914 and 1918. Everywhere you look are signs telling the story of the battles and the battlefields. Helmuts placed on small monuments at the side of the road. Graveyards full of white stones some with names, others without. The french flag flying over the graveyards. It doesnt matter what country you go to the signs are there. From the Gurkha cemetery near to San Marino to the tiny village graveyards of France.

The campsite was a nice one with quite large plots reasonably shaded but again a little waterlogged. Our wheels were firmly parked on the ground so that we could get off if there was a problem. The wet weather has played havoc on camping this year. Breuils is one on the cheaper ACSI sites charging 14 Euro rather than 16 for a motorhome plus tourist tax of 1 euro 10 cents. There were two swimming pools on site but they were not open and looked as if they wouldnt open until later in the season. The showers were a bit old and in need of a facelift but were clean. Reception was very friendly. WiFi was free but could only be accessed from the office and even then it wouldnt work. We parked up and waited for them to open. We could order bread for the next day and order breakfast for 6 euros. It consisted of bread, croissants, jam and nutella so we didnt bother

We always smile a little at the description of the time it takes to walk into town from our campsite. This morning the walk into Verdun in the light drizzle would take 15 minutes. From where they start and end is hard to say and occaisionally you need to be a Mo Farrah or a Paula Radcliffe to do the distance in the times the campsite owners say it takes to walk it. Today it did take around 15 minutes .

Vauban visited the town in 1670 and drew up some very ambitious plans to fortify the town. When were his plans not ambitious I wonder? Every French town seems to have been blessed with a visit from Vauban. The town had a very chequered history being captured by the Prussians in 1792 so his fortifications did not entirely work. It was then later abandoned before being used to house prisoners of war from the Napoleonic conflict. The River Meuse runs through the town making it a pretty place as all riverside towns seem to be. It is possible to go on the river on a boat and enjoy a meal but as it was early o'clock nothing bar a few souvenir shops and a boulangerie and pattiserie were open.

Verduns main claim to fame was its role in one of the major battles of the First World War. The battle was a costly and a war of attrition. By 1916 the Salient was jutting into the German lines and the town was fiercely attacked and bombarded. Infantrymen attacked and troops were thrown into the battlefields with inpuny. There was little thought about loss of life and the human cost. The small roadside shrines displayed helmuts and were placed at regular intervals reminding us about the loss of life. There was much bitter resistance and the battle lasted 11 months and must have been hell for those fighting in it and those living amongst it. My grandfather was sent out to France. In Wales he was a platelayer on the railways and I wonder if he worked on the small railways around this area that serviced the battle lines.

I had wanted to go to the ossuary at Douarmont where the bones of 13 thousand men are buried in the huge graveyard. Even more unnamed are layed to rest in the vaults. How many of these young men on all sides looked for adventure and never came home. Even now almost a 100 years since the outbreak of the war the bones of the dead are still being dug up in and around the area.

The first place you come to in Verdun from our campsite is the Carrefour des Marechaix a roundabout decorated with statues which were donated by Paris in 1959 to Verdun. Although impressive they looked a little tired and in need of some serious TLC. From here we passed the citadel which was begun in 1623. The underground galleries wer dug through 16 metres of rock and were used to store arms and as barracks. In 1916 they became the logistical headquarters for the Battle of Verdun. The French unknown soldier was chosen from here. We didnt go in the souterains as it was so early in the morning and nothing was opened. By the time it opened there were queues waiting to go in so we missed it. The cathedral of Notre Dame sat high above the town a Romanesque building built in the 10th century. We didnt get up there either heading instead down the town streets .

The medieval nature of the town is shown through the medieval gates - the Porte Chatel the oldest of the town gates built in the 12th century was part of the town ramparts. They were mainly destroyed during the bombardment of the Battles of the First World War . A shame really that they were never rebuilt. The second gateway was the Porte St Paul with its two arches and the third the Porte Chausee. The Porte Chausee was the official town entrance.

The War memorial is impressive built in 1928 commemorating five sections of the French army - a sapper, a cavalryman, an infantryman, a gunner and a member of the Territorial Army. They represented the towns motto "They shall not pass".

From here we saw the Law Courts which were formally the Abbaye Saint Paul which was re-ordered in the 18th century. Another interesting statue was the one designed by Rodin - The Statue la defense. He showed a wounded soldier supported by Winged Victory and had been designed as part of a competition which it did not win due to it being rather gruesome and violent. A bronze copy was offered to Verdun by the Netherlands and it now stands pride of place. And mighty impressive it is too.

Our last visit was to see the Monument to Victory an impressive flights of steps 73 of them which climb upwards to a statue of a soldier leaning on his sword.

We headed back to our camp site and unhooked Suzy from the electrics. It was time to set off to our last port of call Peronne.

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