Legacy of war in Verdun
PUBLISHED: 13:12 07 January 2014 | UPDATED: 10:44 10 November 2015
The Battle of Verdun claimed 300,000 lives and evidence of the carnage is written in the landscape nearly a century later, as Debbie Curtis explains
The hills and forests around the fortified city of Verdun in the Meuse département still bear the scars of the longest battle of World War I. Rob Holden and a small group of friends with an interest in military history have explored the battlefield on foot, and have discovered that the legacy of that savage conflict is still written in the landscape, if you know where to look.
“When the Germans left, the landscape was laid waste,” says Rob, a British IT consultant. “Before World War I, much of it was fertile farmland, but since then the area has been actively managed as a forest.”
During the fighting, around 26 million shells were fired – an average of six per square metre – and so much had been obliterated that the area was declared a zone rouge. Munitions and equipment were left where they lay and destroyed villages were not re-built. This means that massive bomb craters, razed villages and intricate trench lines can still be seen among the trees and on the hilltops; a stark and moving reminder of the carnage that took place here a century ago.
“I only started going recently,” says Rob, “but my friend Bill has been doing this for 20 years. He is interested in this specific battle and it’s great to go out walking with somebody who is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic. It’s interesting to look at the things you find on the ground, but also to see it in terms of the whole battle; to get a general’s-eye view of what was going on.”
The Battle of Verdun began on 21 February 1916 and what followed was a war of attrition, which lasted 300 days as the Germans fought to capture Verdun, and the French battled to stop them in their tracks.
The conflict raged in the hills above both sides of the River Meuse along a front of approximately 40 miles. French and German soldiers were dug in along the ridges in a network of intricate tunnels and trenches, and fighting broke out repeatedly around a number of the strategic forts that surrounded Verdun and had historically protected the eastern border of France.
In the ten months of combat, neither side gained the upper hand, and the resulting loss of life was appalling. After coming within three miles of the city, the Germans were driven back and the French re-captured the forts that had fallen into German hands at Vaux and Douaumont. By the time the Germans called off the attack, around 300,000 lives had been lost. Accurate totals will never be known.
Douaumont is the largest and highest of 19 forts that were built in the 1890s to defend Verdun. This vast edifice had huge concrete walls, deep defensive ditches and shooting galleries, and could accommodate more than 600 soldiers. After it was taken by the Germans in the early days of the battle, it was a matter of national pride for the French to re-capture it. In doing so, the fort was badly damaged, but still stands today as an awe-inspiring example of military engineering. Both Fort de Douaumont and nearby Fort de Vaux are open the public.
“There’s now a museum and a gift shop; and maps and books, and a guided tour of the inside,” Rob said. There was fierce fighting underground as well when the French tried to recapture Douaumont. It must have been an absolutely awful place to fight.”
Nearby memorials to the conflict including the Ossuaire de Douaumont and Les Éparges monument are also open to the public. The ossuary itself was completed in 1932 as a permanent memorial to those who died at Verdun. Outside, in front of the imposing monument, is a cemetery with 16,142 graves. These were the men who could be identified. The cloister holds the skeletal remains of 130,000 unknown soldiers and the walls bear the names of all those men who never came home.
But Rob and his friends are keen to leave the tourist trail and have taken an unofficial peek inside Fort de Moulainville, just east of Verdun. “It’s overgrown, there are trees growing into the fort, but it is possible to climb down over a collapsed bit of wall and see the scale of the shooting alleys, ditches, multiple levels and entrances down carefully designed staircases that make it difficult to enter. The unmaintained forts are so dangerous, though; quite often the first thing you find in a doorway is a massive sump which is there to catch people who shouldn’t be coming in. You could fall 20 metres on to a concrete floor.”
It is in the surrounding forest that Rob and his colleagues have made their most interesting discoveries. All kinds of objects left over from the war can still be found lying on the ground: equipment, weapons and even items of uniform. “We’ve found unexploded shells, canteens, eating utensils, wine bottles, entrenching tools, gas masks, helmets, a rifle, German stick grenades and French grenades, which were known as citrons because they were shaped like lemons.”
Their explorations off the beaten track can be dangerous work and are not something to be done during an afternoon stroll with the children. They are also conscious that thousands of people died here and so are respectful of what the land may hold.
“Once we found a canteen with a bullet or shrapnel hole in it,” Rob remembers. “Another time we found part of an old boot, complete with hobnails. There is something very poignant about shoes. It always gives you pause for thought whenever you find such things; it is a reminder of where you are and what was happening here a hundred years ago. One day we came across a dead tree with evidence of shrapnel wounds in it. It has been left standing while people have been managing the forest around it.”
They take nothing away but photograph the objects where they lie. “We’ll pick up some items and have a look at them; with others, we’ll stand at a safe distance and take a photograph,” Rob says. “We wouldn’t want to take anything away from the battlefield; it would be disrespectful.”
For similar reasons, they never dig for objects; preferring instead to keep their eyes on the forest floor, knowing they will soon stumble upon a new discovery. “Some people do excavate the dugouts, but I think our ‘treading lightly’ way is better,” says Rob. “Otherwise, you are effectively digging in graves and that’s not right.”
Whenever Rob and his colleagues are walking the forests where the battle took place, the significance of the surroundings often catches up with them. “I’ve seen the forest on mostly sunny days and it’s so peaceful,” says Rob. “If you step away from the people you’re with to contemplate, it’s quite difficult to imagine what it would have been like then, when it’s such a beautiful, tranquil place now.”
By road: Verdun is three-and-a-half hours from the northern ferry ports.
By rail: The nearest TGV station is Meuse, an hour from Paris and a half-hour by bus from Verdun.
By air: The nearest major French airports are Paris Charles de Gaulle and Strasbourg, both more than 200 kilometres away.
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
Hôtel-Restaurant de la Croix Blanche
1 Rue Carnot
Tel: (Fr) 3 29 80 73 13
WHERE TO VISIT
Ossuaire de Douaumont
Tel: (Fr) 3 29 84 54 81
Verdun tourism office
Tel: (Fr) 3 29 84 14 18