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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

18+ Days in AEF's footsteps, Verdun, The Citadel, a bastion carved into the hills of the city!

During the Great War,  the French fought desperately to protect the city of Verdun, nestled in the hills along the Meuse River. Long a bastion protecting the gateway west to Paris and the lush Champagne region, Verdun sits amid a ring of fortifications first built in the medieval period. The French added to these over the centuries so that by 1914, the City of Verdun seemed to be well protected.

Meuse River as it flows through City of Verdun today.
Yet German ingenuity and military skill brought them into the hills above the City and their lightning attacks spread panic through the whole of France as they seized more land than any Frenchman imagined possible.

The Citadel, literally a fortification dug into the hillside south of the old city, served as the headquarters for protection of the this city. Today, the cave-like structure astounds for its durability and its vast expanse. Yes, it smells of mild dew. Yes, it is dark and dreary. But yes, it is also one of the most awe-inspiring sites in the northeast sector of front line Great War sites.

One story in particular about Verdun's Citadel that I found in primary records was of an American nurse who was sent with two orderlies up and an ambulance driver (from a base hospital south of Verdun) to the fortification. Their purpose was to lead back shell-shocked Doughboys. The US Medical Corps did operate a few base hospitals totally devoted to those who suffered from shell-shock, or as we now term it, PTSD. Usually these soldiers were examined by doctors carefully before they were categorized as needing (as they termed it) "neuro-psychiatric" treatment. But in this particular case, the need seemed urgent and the normal routine was suspended.  This was most likely due to the intense fighting of our troops in this Meuse-Argonne sector. Many orderly rituals of wound/disability analysis changed rapidly out of necessity as the fighting increased in the September through November 1918 in this region.

Did I include this in my novel, HEROIC MEASURES? I did want to. But as often occurs in plotting, the need to make the actions logical and the rule of thumb to ensure they are useful to the story arc, meant that I gave that up—and list it here for those of you who love intriguing historical fact as much as I do! What I did do in the novel was discuss briefly how neuro-psych cases were usually sent to one particular base hospital up in this northeast sector, a hospital by the name of La Faure.

Tours of the Citadel continue to this day and justly so in this vast cave that once housed thousands of French soldiers and their generals. Here, men lived and worked in the bitter cold and damp. French poilus baked their comrades' bread here, prepared their meals, repaired guns, collected ammunition and planned strategies to hold the city and the mountains surrounding it.

Notable for their tenacity here, the French sought to retain control over this town and river by sheer force of will. Outnumbered often throughout the four years of war, they held on. The ground around the city and up into the hills is riddled with foxholes, bomb craters and trench lines. It seems unimaginable to calculate the tens of thousands of men who lost their lives and were wounded here. In the town itself, thousands of civilians lost their lives, their homes, their livestock and livelihoods as the bombs continued to fall over and over again.
Entrance to Citadel, Verdun, carved into the side of this mountain. Tour possible. Do visit to marvel
at French dedication to hold this fort and city at all costs.
French 75 mm cannon emplacement, circa 1914-1919, outside entrance, protecting The Citadel.
Interesting aspects of the City itself are that almost everything is marked in French, English and German. Much of the architecture speaks of German Rhineland influence. So does the cuisine. Then too the land is so rich, so arable that it is easy to understand why the burgeoning German population of the period would find this Lorraine-Alsace area very attractive to produce crops.

For more about the Meuse-Argonne region and Americans campaign here, do return here to this blog. Simply fill in your email address in the block that says, Subscribe by Email.

And do buy my new novel, Heroic Measures, so accurate and rich in historical detail that you will have a rich experience viewing the war from the American nurses' point of view! Buy Links are to the top right of this blog!

Thank you!

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