Verdun and World War 1: Exploring this historic French battlefield city
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Most sites of interest in the city are within an easy walk, although an automobile is necessary to tour the battlefield. A number of one-day excursion tours are available from the Office of Tourisme in the place de la Nation on the east bank of the Meuse River. Sharing the place de la Nation is the town’s war Memorial, a huge stone block in which are carved five figures representing the different branches of the French Army. Across the river is the Porte Chaussee, whose circular towers date from 1380 and through which many soldiers left the city for the battlefield. Verdun’s commercial and historic center is visible directly across the river.
A short river walk presents outdoor cafes and restaurants.
The colossal Monument de la Victoire stands seventy-three steps above the city’s commercial area in the place de la Liberation; its top is a mustached Gallic warrior, his hands resting upon the hilt of his sword. On the highest point in the city stands the twin-towered Cathedrale Notre-Dame, which was started in 990 and modified numerous times in its long history. In its crypt, columns supporting the roof are carved with scenes of trench warfare. Farther to the west is the Verdun Citadel designed by the famous French military engineer Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban, which offers a highly commercialized tour of its galleries.
Visiting the Verdun BattlefieldThe Verdun battlefield is northeast of the provincial city where four ridgelines provide a natural location for fortifications. The statistical measures of the Battle of Verdun easily eclipse any other battlefield in any other war. Over a 300-day period, 65 square kilometers of territory was shredded by 26 million artillery shells. Total casualty estimates range from 750,000 to over 1,000,000. Since the same ground was repeatedly fought over, a large number of the dead remain within the soil of Verdun.
After the war, the entire site was declared a ‘Zone Rouge’ by the French government because it was too dangerous to be inhabited or cleared. Nine villages were completely destroyed and their ground was so peppered with unexploded munitions that they were never rebuilt. For all of these reasons, the Verdun battlefield presents the most unique opportunity to witness the results of First World War warfare.
Visitors are strongly advised not to touch or dislodge any munitions that might be found on the battlefield. Shells, grenades, or bullets could unexpectedly explode, causing injury or death. The removal of artifacts is strictly prohibited by French law and severe penalties are applied for violations.
Leave Verdun to the east following the well marked roads towards Memorial Verdun. You will notice most of the street names have a military significance in keeping with the proud tradition of the town as the place where the German invasion of France was stopped.
While still in the outskirts of the city, turn left and follow the D112 as the back door into the Verdun battlefield. The highway winds up the hillside on the east bank of the Meuse River and offers dramatic views over the city before passing into the now forested valleys of the battlefield.
On the right, pass the monument to Andre Maginot, who was wounded at Verdun and as a post-war politician later gave his name to defenses constructed to bar the Germans in the next war.
Approximately one mile ahead are the Ossuaire de Douaumont and its adjoining French cemetery at what once was the Farm Thiaumont. The entire area was the scene of the most intense combat of the battle; during a two month period it changed hands sixteen times. After the war, the battlefield retained the remains of thousands of unidentifiable soldiers. The ossuary was constructed as a last resting place and monument to the futility of war. It is in the shape of a tunnel with a 50-meter artillery shell-shaped tower in the center. Inside are thirty-eight vaults, one for each sector of the battlefield and in which were placed the bones of 130,000 French and German soldiers. The tower section has a small but useful bookshop, a film room showing footage of the battlefield, and access to the tower observation room, from which restricted views over the battlefield are possible. At the rear of the building is a row of windows permitting views of the soldiers’ bones in the vaults. Spread across the slope in front of the ossuary is the Necropole Nationale de Douaumont, which contains an additional 15,000 French graves. One corner contains the graves of Muslim soldiers, whose headstones are aligned to face Mecca.
Again, one mile farther is Fort de Douaumont. Constructed in 1885 upon a hill which overlooked ravines radiating from it in numerous directions, Fort de Douaumont is now a grassy mound that is hardly recognizable as a military structure. Paths allow an ascent to the roof which presents the panoramic views that made this location defensively important. Carefully avoid metal barbed wire supports, chunks of destroyed concrete, and other debris.
The 155-mm gun turret is frozen partially up and a machine-gun turret is fully up. Observation bells still exist, and the crater from a French shell that pierced the fort is still evident. The long, narrow open area to the north is an active French Army gunnery range. Guided tours inside the fort are offered but they do not access all of the galleries due to internal damage and structural weakness.
The Verdun battlefield offers opportunities to walk its forested paths and view, without restriction, numerous other fortifications of varying types and sizes, fields covered with slowing eroding shell craters, and zigzagging trench lines. Frequently, isolated graves or individual Memorials are encountered. Hiking maps are available at the museum.
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Robert Mueller is a retired scientist and businessman who developed a love of travel and an enthusiasm for visiting historic locations. He served his
military service in the US Army Signal Corps during the Vietnam era. After five years of on-site research, he completed Fields of War: Fifty Key
Battlefields in France and Belgium, which has received three national book awards including First Prize in the Travel category. He is a member of the
Midwest Writers Association and the Military Writers Society of America.
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Photos by Robert Mueller
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author