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Saturday, March 8, 2014

18+ Days In AEF's footsteps, Verdun to Fort Douaumont, lost villages and Ossuary

In center of Verdun stands a statue to its citizens
who endured attacks on their city during
La Grande Guerre. She is dressed in period clothing.
  My husband's and my visit to Verdun included not only The Citadel but a trip up into the hills which surround that very important city. Nestled as it is in the hollow of the Meuse, Verdun offers an easy access down that river into the heart of central France. Holding it from all attackers was a vital strategy for the French in any conflict.

Today, the old city is a vibrant place, peaceful on the quai beside the flowing waters of the Meuse. At the medieval bridge stands the carved monument to the French Soldiers who served and defended the city throughout the four years of war.

Five French soldiers on the Quai in Verdun: Artilleryman, Miner, Cavalryman, Poilu, Airman

Land near Fort Douaumont marked by foxholes and shell craters.
    Driving up into the hills surrounding the city, we passed numerous placards naming villages destroyed, their inhabitants never to return to their land. (In fact, on the cover of my novel HEROIC MEASURES, is one such landscape.) But as we drive, we also notice another heart-rending quality. The land is pockmarked still with foxholes, trench lines and huge shell holes. We are reminded visually that men fought, suffered and died here. In fact, remains of many of them are still being unearthed today. Only months ago, a person walking the dense forests here came across a shallow grave containing the skeletal remains of quite a few French soldiers. do enlarge the photo here to see the contours I write of.
    Fort Douaumont was one of a series of battlements ringing the city of Verdun. Today, only two remain, Douaumont and Vaux.

Built in late 1880s, Douaumont is underground. Carved into the hillside, it is bone-chillingly cold, damp, foul smelling and in general extremely unpleasant. Yet, thousands of French served in this fort and fought in some of the most bitter and costly engagements of the war. If you visit—and I suggest you do—you will definitely want to take a tour. Especially interesting to me are two areas: the gun turret room and the latrines. But you definitely come away from here stunned that men endured such hardships for long months at a time.
Entrance to Fort Douaumont
     A short drive away lies the Ossuary and Cemetery. Finished in 1932, this mausoleum houses the remains of an estimated 130,000 French and German soldiers who fought over Verdun and at the surrounding areas in the four years of la Grande Guerre. (An estimated 700,000 French and German fought over Douaumont, incurring more than 230,000 casualties.)
    A truly enormous building, the Ossuary overwhelms you with grief to stand and consider the loss of so many whose names are unknown but whose loss certainly grieved those who did know them, yearn for them and suffer at their passing. The tower stands 150 feet high, truly colossal as you stand beneath it.  The cloisters to each side reach over 450 feet long.
Central tower of the Ossuary. This scaffolding you see 
herewas a renovation begun for The Centenniel.

 Surrounding this structure is the largest French cemetery for those who died in World War One. More than 16,160 men repose here. One plot contains those whose names are known. Another, those who are known but to God. When the Ossuary was built, families of those deceased whose names were known contributed to the fund to bury those whose names were not.
Front entrance to Ossuary

Here pictured are a few of the graves. But other separate sections include a plot for Jewish soldiers and another for muslims.  France had one of the largest contingents of colonial troops fighting with French nationals during the war.

To one corner of the cemetery is this fine sculpture of a French soldier at rest at last.

French soldiers buried individually in front of Ossuary.
French soldiers buried at Ossuary, Known Only to God.

French soldier at peace in cemetery at the Ossuary.