Turckheim, France. Though I didn’t start life as a military history buff, I happened to marry one. That, in part, accounts for the fact that I’ve visited battlefields and war museums all over France. As a frequent traveler to this country, I now look forward to these excursions: They provide a richer understanding of the people, their culture and the role of European geography.
Nothing in the modern American experience compares with the wanton destruction and loss of human life that the French have suffered on their own soil, multiple times, just within the past 150 years. Peace is fragile.
Nowhere have I been so strongly reminded of that fact than on a recent visit to Verdun, a small city in northeast France. More than 100 years have passed since the World War I battle near there, which lasted a staggering 300 days during 1916 and resulted in nearly a million casualties.
Nine villages in the area that were completely destroyed during the conflict are marked as “red zones,” meaning that housing, forestry and farming are prohibited there. This designation was initially made for safety reasons, to avoid injuries from munitions left in the detritus. Though modern technology presumably provides the tools to clear these areas, they are still set aside as a remembrance.
Many trenches in the forest, from which the warfare was conducted, and which changed hands multiple times – often within the same day – have also been preserved. Though new trees have been planted in areas denuded during the war, they don’t obscure the bomb craters that inspire analogies to a lunar landscape.
Situated in the Lorraine region and surrounded by farms, Verdun is about a four-hour drive from the Alsatian village of Turckheim, where my husband, Ken, and I are spending the month of September, so this seemed like an opportune time to visit. Five years earlier, we had lived for a week in the Normandy fishing village of Port-en-Bessin-Huppain, a former World War II fueling station, while we explored the beaches where the D-Day landings took place. Our stay in Verdun would be significantly briefer – two days of touring separated by one overnight – so we needed to plan more strategically.
For background, we consulted the Michelin Green Guide Alsace Lorraine Champagne; Lonely Planet France; and Walking Verdun: A Guide to the Battlefield, by Christina Holstein. Of these, the latter was the most comprehensive, but could have kept us occupied for weeks. Like most visitors, we didn’t have that much time.
While the battle is named for Verdun, most of the fighting took place a short distance from the city. We started at Fort de Douaumont, situated seven miles northeast of there, on one of the high points in the area. This gigantic underground compound, covered in concrete and sand, was built by the French in 1857 to defend themselves against their longtime German enemies to the north and east. World War I, which began in 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, had been in progress for more than a year and a half when the Germans launched their attack on Verdun by seizing Fort de Douaumont, on February 25, 1916.
Instead of the nine-kilometer hike (6.3 miles) in which Holstein traces the fort’s surprise capture by the Germans, we opted for the superb, free audioguide that came with our admission ticket to the fort (€4, or about $4.60 at current conversation rates). Designed to function as a subterranean military stronghold, with living quarters, latrines, electricity, and even a bakery, Fort de Douaumont turned into a death trap as it came under shelling by the French; they ultimately recaptured it in October 1916. We were glad to have taken along sweaters and worn hiking boots as we toured the slippery, dank quarters; climbed the mushroom-shaped artillery positions, which could be raised and lowered to protect the gun and its crew; and breathed the stale air underground. (For hours and other information, click here.)
Outside the fort, life in the trenches (now with wooded paths alongside them) was surely even worse. Though we happened to be there on a brilliant September day, with summer-like temperatures, the horrors of the muddy battlefield have been well documented: severe weather conditions, vermin, and dead bodies unearthed as the ground underfoot shifted. In a letter found on one of them an unknown soldier wrote, “I imagined that I wouldn’t be going and here I am, being sent to the most terrible of all places.”
One of the most chilling memorials is La tranchée des baïonnettes (the Bayonet Trench), where an entire French battalion was buried alive when German artillery fire caused their dugout to cave in. Rifles protruding from the ground led to excavations after the war which revealed that some soldiers had died holding their rifles, still pointed upward.
The largest memorial in Verdun is the Ossuaire de Douaumont, built to receive some of the unidentified remains of the battle. Adjacent to it is a huge cemetery, with more than 16,000 graves, most of them marked with crosses. In a separate section, devoted to the Muslim North-African colonial troops, the headstones are minaret-shaped and angled to face Mecca. We noticed one with a Vietnamese name buried among the Muslims. Why? Did he convert? As in all such places, one is left to ponder the stories of lives snuffed out far too soon.
Honoring the French and foreign Jews who died in the Battle of Verdun seems to have been an afterthought: A separate monument to them, to the left of the ossuary, was dedicated in June 1938, roughly 22 years after the battle ended.
En route to our hotel (Le Relais, about 7 miles away in Vacherauville), we stopped at Fluery-devant-Douaumont, one of the destroyed villages. Les villages détruits, as they are called, are marked with memorial plaques and chapels, without a trace of habitation. (While many of the villages around Verdun were destroyed, the city was relatively unscathed.) To see a destroyed village frozen in time, I highly recommend a visit to Oradour-sur-Glane, in southwest France. It has been a ghost town since its 1944 destruction by the Nazis in the next war to rock Europe.
After an afternoon spent contemplating past horrors, we had a glimpse of modern Verdun that evening. Not optimistic about getting a decent restaurant meal at anything but tourist prices, we had taken a picnic with us and set off in search of a scenic place to consume it. Heading into Verdun from the battlefields, we found one in the Parc Municipal Japiot, along the east bank of the Meuse River.
Having secured one of the few empty benches, we suddenly noticed that we were at the edge of a dirt ball court where there was a vigorous game of pétanque in progress. This is the French version of what the Italians call bocce. It is played with heavy metal balls, with a target ball placed in the middle of the court. The objective for players on each of the two teams is to toss his own two balls (I have never seen women play this game) closest to the target. One way to do this is by hitting another player’s ball to push it farther away from the target.
The game was just breaking up as we finished our bread, cheese, fruit and yogurt, and the players – none of whom looked younger than 50 and several of whom seemed to be considerably older – departed on foot or by bicycle. The next morning, from a perch up river, in the tiny village of Belleville-sur-Meuse, I swore I saw one of them, this time carrying a fishing rod, as we sat on a different bench eating breakfast procured from a local boulangerie.
On this tranquil Sunday, scullers rowed up the river; bikers and joggers sped by as they called out “bonjour”; and parents accompanied by small children strolled along the footpath carrying loaves of bread. A century earlier, German and French soldiers had fired against one another from opposite banks of this river.
We arrived at the Mémorial de Verdun, a high-tech, interactive museum, shortly after its 10 a.m. opening, and spent the next several hours there. Closed for renovations and relaunched in 2015, it is the most well curated and creative of the many war museums that I have visited (admission €11, or about $13). Divided into the stages of battle, it tells the story of Verdun with maps, films and personal articles. In such museums I’m especially moved by quotes from letters retrieved from the pockets of fallen soldiers and other personal effects left behind. This one also included an impressive collection of art, including works by the Belle Époque caricaturist Georges Goursat (AKA Sem).
In contrast with the gritty forts and battlefields that we visited, the museum, enhanced with 21st-century special effects, had an ersatz feeling. A documentary film, constructed mostly from still photos, accompanied by sound effects, is meant to convey the terror of being on the battlefields and is audible throughout the museum. One can traverse an irregular synthetic platform designed to resemble the harsh terrain. Adjacent to a sample field kitchen is a laminated set of menus for each day of the week, representing both German and French preparations; on Fridays both relied on canned sardines.
In an exhibit on communication, it’s possible to listen through headphones to radio dispatches in one of three languages – French, German and English. To do that, one must touch a live wire to an empty bullet shell that is part of the exhibit. Nearby was a taxidermied carrier pigeon, complete with a leg ring ready to hold an urgent message.
With these and other experiential exhibits, the museum helped put everything we had seen the day before in context and told a century-old war story. Given the much more powerful tools of destruction now available, it is a story we should not forget. As the writer and philosopher George Santayana once famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of the five-time award winning book, Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home, about her adventures — and misadventures — living in France. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.