In the morning we had our breakfast at the hotel while a few went to the grocery store down the street to pick up snacks for lunch later. After that we were on our way to the memorial sites near Verdun and the other towns which were completely destroyed during the war.
Once we arrived we headed towards the Douaumont Ossuary Memorial to view a film about the Battle of Verdun, the lives of the soldiers, and the ultimate resting place of a large number of unknown soldiers. That happened to be under the Ossuary itself, a massive pile of bones which were unknown soldiers you could peer at through windows on the sides of the Ossuary. Some of us found this a bit too voyeuristic and disrespectful, but it was yet another shocking way to see the results of the war.
The Battle of Verdun was one of the largest battles of World War One and as such one of the bloodiest. It began on the 21st of February, 1916 and lasted until the 18th of December of the same year. It is often referred to as “The War Within a War.” Nearly every French and German unit was rotated to fight in the battle at some time and many did not survive it.
Once we finished the film we walked to the Fort de Douaumont named after the town that was destroyed during the war. Along the way we passed the memorial to Muslim combatants and two tombs for soldiers with a plaque that read “two heroes amongst many” in French. There was also a memorial to the Israeli combatants, but I missed getting a picture of that one. When we arrived at the fort, we were taken on a tour through parts of the fort. First we received an overview of the battle in front of a map that made everything much clearer. The events that led to this battle can actually be traced all the way back to the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 when the French lost the territories of Alsace and Lorraine to the Prussians. The French thought that the Germans would attack again soon so they built many forts near Verdun in order to defend themselves. When World War One came around and the Germans did not immediately attack along these forts, the French actually disarmed most of the guns from the forts to use in other battles. Of course then the Germans attacked along there, bombing heavily; they actually made quite an advance, but instead of retreating, the French soldiers dug in. Due to some unfortunate weather as well the German troops were stalled and the French were able to call in reinforcements. However, the Germans were actually able to take the Fort de Douaumont without any shots fired. There are many versions of how that came to be- in the German newspapers they made it out to be a big battle, and the French spun it to seem like the French soldiers held out as long as they could.
We continued through more of the rooms with our tour guide explaining various things as we went and remarking upon some interesting facets of the fort. For instance, when we passed through the lavatories he explained that the Turkish toilets that were there were forbidden for anyone to use them because they were expensive to clean and so only used in times of siege. We also passed through the rooms where they had the bunk beds for the soldiers. The fort was made to house 900 French soldiers, but when the Germans occupied it the fort housed around 3,000 soldiers.
The tour guide also told us about the explosion that occurred on the 8th of May, 1916 at the fort where around 1,800 German soldiers died; 679 are entombed there. Apparently the fuel from some of the flamethrowers caught fire, causing a black smoke, and when the Germans ran out of the fort their comrades did not recognize them and started shooting and throwing grenades at them. One of these grenades fell into where they had stored the French shells and they exploded all at once. While this did not do great damage to the fort, the explosion traveled sideways killing many German troops. The dead would have been buried outside, but the Germans could not risk it under the fire from the French. The site has long been an official German War Grave and many Germans make the pilgrimage to see it.
The last room we visited was where the 155 mm gun turret was housed. After the tour we were given some free time to walk along the paths on the top of the fort. We then took the bus to a cafe that was closer to the trenches. These trenches were actually the first to be turned into a memorial and there is a story goes that a squadron of French soldiers had their guns at the ready, about to leap into battle, when they were shelled and buried under the dirt. Often during the battle of Verdun the hills were not suitable for digging trenches and many of the soldiers had to simply take shelter in craters made by shelling.
We had some free time there as well so some people went exploring while others had lunch at the cafe that was nearby. There were a few paths through the woods behind the trenches and a large path in front of it that lead back to the Ossuary Memorial. I went along with Cody and Travis back to the memorial where we went into it and we were actually able to climb the tower. There was a large room with the names of battles fought and various artifacts on the second floor of the tower, but we were not allowed to take pictures because it was a special place.
Once we got back to the bus we headed towards the city of Verdun to walk around a while before going on a boat tour on the river Meuse that runs through the city. We saw two memorials, one dedicated to the soldiers of World War One and Two, and the other dedicated to the glory of the soldiers of the Great War, both to those who died and those who survived. To be honest, some of us in the group found issue with the word “glory” in that memorial. After reading the poems of those who fought in the war and visiting these places where there was constant pain, suffering, and death, often without reason and with a terrible irony there just seemed something wrong with such a grand term for the memorial. This is not to say that the soldiers should not be remembered for what they went through, but this war of attrition, this war where men were thrown in front of machine guns and shells like a meat grinder, this war where thousands suffered for no just, clear cause should not be dressed up to be something it is not, should not be referred with such words as “glory.”
The boat tour was really beautiful although the tour guide was only pointing out things in French. After that we went to dinner at the Poivre Rouge again with slightly better food: quiche Lorraine, beef steak with fries, and chocolate mousse. Then we got all tucked in for bed for our last night in Verdun. Thanks for reading.
P.S. I am sorry this post was so late, I just wanted to check with my professor that all the World War One facts were correct. I’ll be sure to post what we did yesterday as well soon. Also I’ll try to get pictures up for the last couple of blogs tonight or I guess your afternoon.