Verdun: 1916-2016

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.

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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.

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This memorial chapel now marks that site.

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Nearby is a monument to the French soldiers who defended the area.

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The monument is of recent vintage, as this marker reveals.

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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.

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Inside the names of more dead are shown along the walls in a space where everything turns blood orange red.

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Outside the rows of graves seem almost endless.

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Note the headstones. French colonial troops died here, too.

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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.

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The entire battlefield is a graveyard. I did not observe any children pretending to play soldier.

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Several French forts remain in the area, including Fort Vaux, which the Germans captured.

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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.

19 thoughts on “Verdun: 1916-2016

  1. jclark82 February 21, 2016 / 11:59 am

    It’s a big difference how they remember the Great War than we remember our Civil War.

    We tend to celebrate the heroes, mythology, and folklore of the war. Despite the outstanding effort of the Park Service to provide a nuanced, accurate remembrance of the war it’s akin to a day at Disney World for some people. Going to a battlefield here for a lot of people is not treated like a trip to a location of a momentous event in the history of mankind. It’s a picnic atmosphere and it ought not be.

    It seems for Verdun it is as you say a cemetery more than anything else. It is truly hallowed ground and a memorial to a battle that the French won at an exorbitant cost. The psychic wounds of that battle still haven’t fully healed. How they remember it shows as such.

    I doubt there’ll be older, obese men in terribly researched uniforms and equipment out there today “commemorating” the Battle of Verdun.

    • Ken Noe February 21, 2016 / 6:05 pm

      There were reenactors at Omaha Beach the day I was there.

      • John Foskett February 22, 2016 / 12:15 pm

        Apropos regarding Ken’s point, scroll down in this link to see a couple of guys who could probably have found roles in that Maxwell/Turner gem about Gettysburg if they’d been on this side of The Pond. Not sure where you can buy those helmets, but I’ll wager they go for more than a kepi does.

        http://www.theatlantic.com/static/infocus/wwi/century/

  2. Cotton Boll Conspiracy February 21, 2016 / 12:02 pm

    What stood out to me when I visited Verdun was the fact that nearly 100 years after the battle, shell craters were still quite obvious throughout the area – acres and acres of craters. And, yes, the entire battlefield was very somber.

    • The Other Mark February 23, 2016 / 9:54 am

      I visited Verdun about 20 years ago and found the experience incredibly depressing, something that has not happened when I’ve visited Civil War battlefields or even the Normandy cemetery and landing beaches. I won’t be returning.

  3. Joshism February 21, 2016 / 2:37 pm

    American casualties in the American Civil War: about 1.5 million (Union & Confederate combined)

    French casualties in World War I: 6+ million (not including British, German, Russian, Italian, etc.)

    That probably has something to do with how they’re remembered differently. And the numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.

  4. Mike Musick February 21, 2016 / 9:23 pm

    War is inherently horrendous. Yet for me, the late Paul Fussell, in “The Great War and Modern Memory,” brought out a trenchant truth. The unspeakable slaughter and futility of World War I were so great that they wrought a fundamental alteration in the consciousness of the western world. No more could patriotism, sacrifice, and suffering on the battlefield be seen in quite the same way they were before 1914-18. Fussell was working out in this book his own intense emotions about his service in the world war that followed, primarily through examining the poetry and memoirs of British troops on the Western Front. In contrast, when I read what has come down to us from the generation that fought in 1861-65, there is, beyond awareness of the horror, a kind of optimism whose like we will never see again.

  5. Lyle Smith February 22, 2016 / 7:39 am

    It’s some kind of awful that such memorials didn’t save France in 1940.

  6. Mark Snell February 22, 2016 / 9:14 am

    I have visited (and conducted tours of) Verdun many times. Unlike the Somme, which has been returned to farm land, Verdun still looks like moonscape. If you are brave enough to venture away from the memorials and roadways (which is not advisable, considering the unexploded ordnance that is underfoot), you can still stumble upon human remains. A horrible yet unforgettable experience.

    • John Foskett February 22, 2016 / 11:40 am

      A couple of years ago there was a BBC documentary using video footage shot from a plane in 1920 traveling over parts of the Western Front. It looked like the Apocalypse had hit. Even the photos of Verdun today evoke a much more pastoral setting than the square miles of churned earth shown in that video.

  7. Bob Huddleston February 22, 2016 / 12:04 pm

    In 1983 we took our 14 and 12 year old children to Europe – an “if its Tuesday it must be Belgium trip”. One of the stops was a day in Normandy.

    15 years later, living on opposite coasts, they both saw Saving Private Ryan and immediately called with the same statement. We had taken them to Arlington and Gettysburg and Antietam and the Presidio and they had bene concerned that they were not somberly impressed. Then, seeing the movie and the scenes at the huge cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer and they remembered their visit and understood.

    Judy and I also were startled: until the movie we did not remember it is on the bluff right by the ocean.

    We have not been to Verdun, but I can understand. Did you get to Ypres? On a smaller scale, it also is deeply moving.

  8. Sherree February 22, 2016 / 1:51 pm

    A very brilliant and moving post, Brooks. War: the horror.

  9. rcocean February 22, 2016 / 3:28 pm

    Very sad – thousands killed for nothing. oddly, after all this slaughter its the WW 1 vets that got WW2 going.

  10. rcolton3 February 22, 2016 / 5:29 pm

    Verdun, the Somme and many other WWI battles were horrific beyond our comprehension. In our War of the Rebellion, the South lost a higher percentage (25+) of men of fighting age than the percentages the countries involved in the Great War. While the World Wars had far more deaths military and civilian, we need to remember that our was horrific as well. Trench warfare was a major part of the siege of Petersburg.

    • John Foskett February 23, 2016 / 9:28 am

      The difference is that the ACW fatalities were vastly inflated by disease and by the surgical/recovery practices and conditions of the time. The casualties in WWI were primarily combat slaughter, since they at least knew about sepsis and (the 1918 flu aside) relatively better conditions regarding disease transmission and sanitation. I’d add that no ACW soldier confronted phosgene, mustard gas, etc.

  11. Eric A. Jacobson February 22, 2016 / 7:28 pm

    A brilliant post. I shared with my staff today as a reminder that we have a great obligation as employees and educators at a historic site.

  12. Buck Buchanan February 24, 2016 / 9:23 am

    DR Simpson,
    I am glad you got to visit Verdun. You are right, it is very moving.
    I was lucky as a young lieutenant stationed in Germany from 1981 to 1984 to participate in several moving ceremonies as a guest of the French Army. At Memorial Day 1982 I led an honor platoon of US Infantrymen to the World War I American Cemetery at the Meuse-Argonne near Verdun. The French sent a company of soldiers from the local garrison. After the dinner which followed a French major who I had been talking to over dinner took me on a night time tour of the battlefield…incredibly moving and eerie.
    In 1984 I got to participate in the 40th Anniversary D Day Ceremonies. I was standing in formation about 100 feet from the President at Pointe Du Hoc during those ceremonies and later I led the platoon in the parade at the celebration of the 101st Airborne in Carentan. As part of that trip we received a tour of the American Cemetery by it’s director and a tour of the American Battlefield. Our division chaplain had been a young PFC in the engineers who landed on EASY GREEN on OMAHA Beach in the 2nd Wave on 6 June 44. He gave us a tour of the beach and explained where each machine gun was that tried to kill him.
    My BA was in 20th Century Military history so those 3 years in the 1st Infantry Division in Europe were an extension of my education.
    In later years I studied the Civil War in grad school as an Army officer and then as a civilian employee. As a civilian employee I have conducted many staff rides and battlefield tours in the Central Virginia. I took a group of NATO officers on a staff ride of 1st Manassas and Petersburg. In return the French delegation got me a tour of Verdun for 2 days in May 2001 with a staff historian of St Cyr.
    It was much different than any tour of an Civil War battlefield…it was veneration of the events and what the French had done there in 1916. What stuck me was when my guide turned to me as we stood atop Fort Douaumont…”Verdun IS France.”
    I think that says so much.
    I have been lucky!

  13. Mike Musick February 24, 2016 / 3:35 pm

    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
    And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind,
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
    Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

    Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time.
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
    And floundering like a man in fire or lime –
    Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
    In all my dreams before my helpless sight
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

    If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from froth-corrupted lungs
    Bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

    – Wilfred Owen, BEF, KIA in France, 4 November, 1918

    • Sherree February 25, 2016 / 8:41 am

      Mike,

      This says it all. And, always-always–it is the same in every war: mangled and slaughtered soldiers; devastated countryside; murdered men, women, and children. When will we ever stop and find a way to resolve differences other than through the barbarism of war? So far this century does not look too promising. We can only hope and pray for the sake of future generations that that changes and that Verdun and Auschwitz and Bataan and My Lai and all the other remembered (and forgotten) battles never take place again.

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