Today marks the centennial of the opening of the battle of Verdun on the Western front. Along with the Somme offensive of the following July, it’s become symbolic in the minds of many people as to the nature of the fighting in northeast France during World War I. Last June I visited the battlefield for the first time — a short introduction, if you will, to a place I had read about and thought about, but had not seen.
In the months of fighting, with heavy artillery bombardments often the order of the day, entire villages and towns simply disappeared, leaving a cratered landscape that trees struggle to conceal a century later. So it is at Fleury-devant-Douaumont.
This memorial chapel now marks that site.
Nearby is a monument to the French soldiers who defended the area.
The monument is of recent vintage, as this marker reveals.
To the north is the far more imposing Douaumont Ossuary. If one chooses, they may peer through the windows of the building to see the skeletal remains of some of the 130,000 French and German soldiers who died during months of relentless combat and bombardment.
Inside the names of more dead are shown along the walls in a space where everything turns blood orange red.
Outside the rows of graves seem almost endless.
Note the headstones. French colonial troops died here, too.
Not too far away is a memorial denoting a tale that French soldiers were buried alive by one bombardment, with their bayonets marking where they had fallen.
The entire battlefield is a graveyard. I did not observe any children pretending to play soldier.
Several French forts remain in the area, including Fort Vaux, which the Germans captured.
The French held Verdun at great cost. “They shall not pass!” became the rallying cry of the defense after the Germans took Fleury. And so they did not. But the statue reminds us of that cost.
Visiting World War I battlefields on the Western front is a distinctly different experience than visiting a Civil War battlefield — at least it was for me. One struggles to comprehend the ebb and flow of combat, often settling for looking at more bite-size portions of the field while relying on maps and the occasional panoramic view to help with the larger picture. But one is far more conscious of sacrifice and death, with cemeteries large and small scattered across the region. More than anything else, I’ll remember that, as well as the silence everywhere. You would never know from the solemn quiet how loud those battlefields once were … unless you listen carefully.