Reliving the World War 1 battlefields of the Muese,Verdun.France

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August 21st 2013
Published: August 27th 2013
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We were well rested from our day of rest,relaxation and administration yesterday and ready for a day trip that would take us west to the World War 1 battlefields around Verdun and the Muese Valley.

The day has dawned clear although the overnight temperature must have fallen close to, if not into single figures, as the air felt decidedly cool as we started out after a leisurely breakfast.It is a pity that we are located on the first floor and don't really see any direct sunlight and it will probably mean we won't get to use the balcony often.

We had run the level of diesel down in the car and needed to top up before we got onto the open road and after a waltz around Amneville we finally found a gas station and filled up.

The road took us past what appeared to be a disused coal fired power station that was rusting away from disus,not a pretty sight but clearly the owners either went broke and can't afford to pull it down or they are waiting for it to fall down.Thank goodness we eventually left it behind and headed out into some beautiful French countryside.From an elevated advantage point on the road you could look out over the vast valley through which the Muese River runs and across the green and yellow fields pick out small villages dotted here there and everywhere.The telltale sign often was a tall church spire poking out from a thicket of trees sometimes on a ridge and sometimes in a valley.NZ has some stunning scenery but we cannot say that we have seen such a serene countryside view at home to equal this.

Our first stop was at a plain and simple cemetery for German soldiers.As the day progressed we found that all of the cemeteries for fallen German soldiers tended to be less formal and on lesser roads where we often just suddenly came upon them as we drove.Each black/dark grey cross had 4 names on it and on a wall as you entered the cemetery was a list of hundreds of names.The place was orderly and tidy but nowhere near as grand and striking as the French and American memorials and cemeteries were and there was no flag flying,perhaps because they were the losers of this insane war and their dead were buried on land they had tried to conquest and had failed.

Further on Gretchen spotted a memorial poking out above the treetops in the distance and the road led us to the Douaumont ossuary a huge area given over to the fallen French soldiers in the Battle of Verdun.230,000 men died out of 700,000 casualties in a battle that was fought over an area of 20 square kilometres an absolutely staggering fact that takes time for the mind today to comprehend.

The cemetery is on a gentle slope with perfectly straight row upon row of white crosses,many of which did not have a name as the huge number of those killed in WW1 were never identified.The tricolour flew proudly from a tall flagpost in the middle of the cemetery.On a ridge above the crosses is a very expansive white stone memorial building with a tower you could climb to get a wide view of the battlegrounds.We opted not to take the climb here but did so later at the American cemetery and memorial.

The road then took us onto the sizable town of Verdun which was fought over during two major battles,one for the greater part of 1916 and then again as the war came to an end in 1918.The Germans,as Prussians had been here before,in 1792,and had been victorious then on their march to Paris.One thing that strikes you as you enter the city are the number of memorials that are everywhere in the downtown area anyway.It is a peaceful town now and we had lunch beside the Meuse River enjoying our usual pasttime at lunch, of people watching.

On one side of the bridge we took into the town was what was left of the city walls,the very solid and impressive Chatel Gate from medieval times and it is amazing to see well it had stood up to the various wars and battles fought here.

Although it was getting on in the day we drove onto the American cemetery and memorial at Montfaucon,a town that was all but completely wiped off the map in the battle that took place there as the Americans,who entered the war in 1917,threw everything at the Germans in a battle that commenced in late September 1918 and led eventually to the Armistice in November 1918.Today just the remains of the village church below the memorial and tower are all that is left of the original town.A new town was built a short distance away after WW1.

The American cemetery is huge with over 14,000 buried or remembered here and is the largest American cemetery in Europe.The white crosses are perfectly in line which ever way you look and cover a vast gently sloping hillside.The memorial too is impressive and has a 180 foot tower which we climbed to get a 360 degree view of the battlefields.On a beautiful afternoon you could see for many kilometres.

It had been a long but thought provoking day and has bought new meaning,having now visited places we knew only by their name previously, to our attendance at the ANZAC Day parades that we go to as a family on 25th April each year when NZ and Australia commemorate their war dead.

We set the GPS to take us home the shortest route knowing that we would see different countryside than the trip out and that is exactly what it turned out like until we came back to the dreadful disused coal fired power station!

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