Verdun

Trip Start Jun 30, 2008
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Trip End Aug 04, 2008


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Flag of France  , Lorraine,
Sunday, July 27, 2008

Since we were headed in the same direction, towards Luxembourg, we
decided we would stop at take a look at the World War I battlefield
sites at Verdun in France.  One of the big draws for history buffs are
the forts built by the French after the war in 1871 with the Prussians
(i hope I got my history correct).  The tourist office offers a bus
tour of four sites and we decided that was the best way to see the
sites and learn a bit before heading North.  Verdun is not a large
place but the people are super friendly, we got ourselves another
really nice room for a great price.  After dumping our gear we took a
stroll around the town, bisected by the Meuse River, and had a tasty
meal at one of the quai side restaurants.  There are a handful of huge
monuments to the war, photos were taken.  The next day we headed first
to the citadel, a stronghold of the French army in the town itself. 
Most of the battle actually took place about a dozen km from the town
which had been evactuated prior to the fighting.  The region had been
fortified, due to its location, prior to WWI.  In the citadel, which is
essentially a deep tunnel system, has an audio visual presentation
where you sit on a motorised cart which drives through the tunnels
stopping for small film clips of re-enactments shown on full sized
screens telling of life in the town and the citadel during the war. 
Very well done.

After the citadel we met up with the rest of the tour to head out to
Fort Douamont which sits North East of Verdun.  As you drive along you
see farmers fields, assorted buildings etc until the trees start and
then you can see the small ridges and holes in amongst the trees
Trench and shell hole remains are everywhere despite 90 plus years of
growth.  The arrival at the fort gives you the idea that not much is
there.  You can see what looks like windows and doorways in the walls
of what must be the fort.  Iron grates, barbed wire, and huge chunks of
concrete are layed out in front of the fort as well as the shell holes
and damage from years ago.  We go inside and begin the tour, the French
guide is excellent, Elke is translating, as we move through damp
tunnels with water dripping from over head.  The fort was intended for
800 but sometimes held 3300.  It was a transit stop to the front.  The
conditions were awful.  Knowing something about how bad it was for the
troops in the trenches its hard to decide which was worse.  There were
no proper toilets, the place was cold and wet and smelled horribly all
of the time.  They had no proper water system as that was constantly
damaged by shelling.  Electricity was brought in by the Germans after
it was captured.  Before that the ventilation was done by hand.  The
noise was deafening from fire from and against the fort.  We were able
to see were French soldiers were buried in one room that had been badly
damaged due to an explosion and another room that had been walled up as
it was used by the Germans to bury their dead during the time they held
the fort.  After that we moved outside and took a look at one of the
retractable guns from the outside (after shoeing a group of American
students lounging on it off).

After the fort we moved on to a memorial called the Trench of the
Bayonets.  During shelling the 137th French regiment was entirely
buried from the devastation and only found three years later when
someone in the sector noticed rows of bayonets sticking up from the
mud.  The memorial stands but many of the bayonets have actually been
stolen.



After the trench we moved to the Ossuary.  Imagine pulling up to a
monument and seeing arrayed before it some 30 thousand crosses and
markers for French troops killed at Verdun.  Now, before that concept
fully sinks in think now that the purpose of the Ossuary is to hold the
unidentified remains of more than 130,000 more dead French troops.  The
carnage that happened at Verdun is beyond sobering.  We watched a short
film in a small theatre in the ossuary then peeked in the windows at
the base of the building to see the bones of the dead stacked according
to the sector they were found on the battlefield.



After that we drove to the Verdun Memorial and looked at the displays
and walked through some of the locations of villages completely removed
from the earth as a result of the shelling.  The guide told us that
during the Second World War the Verdun sector was fairly quiet as a
result of so many French and German soldiers buried there from the
First World War. 



France is the only place Ive ever been where Ive seen houses, a
grocery store, houses, a German war dead cemetary, and a farmers field
all in a five minute stretch while travelling on the train. 



Tomorrow Luxembourg.
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