ALSACE-LORRAINE 2006 - Week 4
At first sight, Verdun is an
unremarkable little town, nestling into a bend of the River Meuse. What
gives Verdun such ominous associations was the ghastly battle fought
between February and November 1916 on the bleak wooded uplands
overlooking the town. These infernal events left lasting scars on the
landscape around Verdun, but also scarred the spirit of the French
nation and widowed a whole generation of young women.
It was to Verdun we came next to gain some understanding of what happened in 1916. Our base for these few days was the excellent if crowded Les Breuils campsite, and from here we walked into town to explore Verdun 90 years on from the suffering of 1916. To see Verdun today, it is impossible to comprehend the devastation the town and its civilian population must have suffered. The wide River Meuse still glides silently by the town's medieval Porte Chaussée (Photo 1) and fountains now play along the riverside marina where shells must have exploded in 1916 (Photo 2). Brooding gloomily over the town are the overgrown walls of Vauban's Citadelle, built to protect Verdun in the 17th century when France first acquired Alsace-Lorraine. In 1916, the miles of underground galleries provided safe shelter from the shelling for a hospital, communications centre, supply depots for food and munitions, and barracks for the war-weary Poilus, a slang term for French WW1 infantry, meaning literally 'hairy ones' - shaving was a rare luxury in the filth, mud and artillery bombardment of the trenches. A bronze statue by Rodin stands in the town, recalling the so-called victory of Verdun. The memorial takes the form of a Winged Victory figure, but not at all in the triumphant conventional form: this one is battered and bruised, 1 wing drooping; her features are tormented with rage and horror, screaming for survival, and her legs are tangled in the body of a dead soldier. It was a fitting memorial to the destruction. Verdun's Cathedral, now restored to its former Romanesque glory, stands proudly up on the hill, and next door, the Bishop's Palace now houses the Centre for World Peace, an organisation with a forlorn task at a time when a moronic war-monger masquerades as US President. On the northern outskirts of the town, a French war cemetery with 5,000 burials accounts for just a fraction of the dead (Photo 3). The regular lines of stark crosses stretched away into the distance towards the hills where the battle had raged. Many of the graves were marked simply 'inconnu', and it was from here in 1920 that the Unknown Soldier, whose grave now stands ceremoniously under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, was selected. The plaque movingly invoked the passing visitor to 'pause and pay respects; one of these might be your father, brother or friend'.
In order to gain a more empathetic, if uncomfortably realistic, feel for the inhuman events of 1916, we again needed to tread the ground in the hills north of Verdun where the battle was fought 90 years ago. We followed a forest track, past shell-holes and lines of trenches snaking across the churned up ground, to find the remains of Fort de Souville, part of the French lines of fortified defences where their infantrymen finally halted the German advance. Nearby were the remains of French concrete machine-gun casemates, the gun ports resembling the menacing eyes of some crouching infernal reptile (Photo 4). On a sunny morning, the forest was bright, and as at Mametz, the birds now sang. But the woods were heavy with the eerie feeling of death: one could almost sense the distant thunder of guns, and imagine this now peaceful if scarred scrub-land at the height of battle: stumps of wrecked trees, mud, filth and more mud, deep water-filled shell craters, trenches filled with Poilus huddled in fear alongside the mutilated remains of their comrades, the overwhelming noises of artillery and mortar fire, the whine of mutilating shrapnel, and the all-pervasive stench of death and destruction. We stood in the now silent wood, with this mental picture of 90 years ago; perhaps the pock-marked ground around us still contained the remains of the poor men who fought and died in these horrific conditions (Photo 5), such was the savagery of human destruction by artillery fire, machine guns, gas attacks, mortars and flame-throwers. By the battle's end, 9 villages in the 'zone rouge' had been totally destroyed, literally wiped off the face of the earth, never to be re-built. The entire area was reduced to utter devastation. It was a sombre experience walking through the former village street of Fleury, the sites of destroyed houses and shops now marked by white posts. This was without doubt the most dispiriting low point of our sorrowful 3 days at Verdun.
The massive German artillery barrage lasting 10 hours and firing 2 million shells into the French lines, focussed on the Forts of Vaux and Douaumont which formed a key part of the French defences around Verdun. Originally built in the late 19th century at unimaginable national cost, these enormous structures proved hopelessly inadequate against 20th century high explosive armour-piercing shells. Despite the reinforced concrete and armour-plating, the retractable gun turrets were soon put out of action (Photo 6). The forts were manned as advanced outposts by infantrymen, crammed into the dark damp underground galleries, dying of thirst from inadequate water supplies. There was no means of burying the dead or removing corpses, no toilets, rats gnawed at the living and the dead, and the atmosphere was foetid from lack of ventilation, blocked to prevent gas and flame-thrower attack. It was a Dante-esque scene of Hell for those defending the forts, with hand-to-hand fighting in the darkness and stench of the underground passages. The French commander sent off his last carrier-pigeon with the message, appealing for reinforcements: 'We are still holding but are undergoing a heavy gas and smoke attack. Come and relieve us urgently'. The poor bird, appropriately named Valiant, delivered its message before expiring, and received a posthumous award for bravery. We visited the Forts to see for ourselves the appalling conditions under which men died. Externally the forts resembled squat scarred heaps of crumbling concrete topped by rusty barbed wire and the Tricoleur (Photo 7). The open top of the forts was deeply pocked-marked from artillery fire, and 8 inch thick steel armour-plating lay around, smashed like egg shells. Inside was a maze of dark passageways, running with water; it was a ghastly place, where even today, death seemed to lurk at every turning. What these labyrinthine and foetid galleries, running with water, would have been like in 1916 defied imagination.
Unlike the Somme, where at least token graves were assigned to most casualties even the unknown, so intense was the all-destructive artillery shelling at Verdun, concentrated in such a localised area that little in the way of human remains, let alone bodies, could be gathered for burial. When the battle finally ended and the Armistice signed in 1918, the devastated ground must have been littered with fragments of human corpses; only 120,000 French bodies were ever identified, a third of the total killed. The unidentifiable remains that could be found were accumulated in a vast Ossuary at Douaumont, over which was built the French National Memorial to the Fallen at Verdun. This vast 1920s limestone monolithic structure, lacking any human grace or charm, is visible for miles around, its low wings resembling the vile reptilian machine gun casemates seen in the forest (compare Photos 4 and 8 for the likeness). Its tower rears into the heavens like a gargantuan artillery projectile (Photo 8). There was nothing of benign sacred imagery here. But the most ghoulish aspect is seen from close-up. Peering in through low-level windows, one sees massed heaps of human bones piled high in the Ossuary's basement, the detritus of a battlefield, gathered like the Grim Reaper's harvest. And as if to underline the death toll, a cemetery with 15,000 burials stretched out across the lawns in front of the Ossuary. Here was the most effective anti-war statement ever seen, far more chilling than all the guns and uniforms displayed in the museums.
The visit to Verdun had proved even more gruelling than our time in the Somme; hopefully our morbid fascination with the history of this dreadful period of WW1 has been leavened by our attempts to comprehend the levels of human suffering - both directly for the young men whose lives were cut short or scarred by the experiences, and for the countless families left widowed and fatherless by the war. This trip was billed as Alsace-Lorraine, but WW1 has consumed more time than planned. Next week, it's on to the Alsace Wine Road ... at last. Stay with us to share in our tastings of the incomparable Alsace wines.
Sheila and Paul Published: Monday 18 September