A Lesson of World War I: The Battlefields of Verdun

Photo by T.W. Van Urk
Photo by T.W. Van Urk

A Lesson of World War I: The Battlefields of Verdun

by Stacy Roman
Stripes Europe

When people discuss the world wars, often we Americans automatically identify with World War II. Directly impacted as a nation, we were attacked on our own soil and saw our military fighting unimaginable horrors across the European and Pacific Theaters. It’s easy to push the other world war — “The War to End All Wars” or “The Great War” — to the back burner. It wasn’t taught as in-depth during in our high school history classes, and the lines of the stereotypical good and evil were fuzzier than WWII.

After living in Europe for more than three years now, I’ve found the history and lessons learned from World War I are just as poignant and meaningful as they were 100 years ago when the war ended. Since my family was lucky enough to be stationed in the Kaiserslautern area, we decided to make a trek to the battlefields of Verdun and the Meuse-Argonne American cemetery.

A little history about Verdun

Approximately 2.5 hours from the Kaiserslautern Military Community (KMC), the battlefields lie just northeast of the charming village of Verdun. Because of its strategic location on the Meuse River and as the gateway city to the French heartland, Verdun has seen epic battles over the past centuries. Because of this, a dual ring of 28 forts and ouvrages (smaller forts) stretching a circumference of 28 miles was constructed during the 1870s. These outposts were heavily fortified with artillery, armor, concrete trenches, communication command posts deep underground, and enough rations for six months.

The Battle of Verdun raged from Feb. 21 to Dec. 18, 1916. It was the longest and largest battle on the Western Front during WWI. More than 1.25 million casualties happened at Verdun between 1914-1918, with more than 700,000 of those during the 10-month battle. Notorious for brutal trench warfare, there is a 65-square-mile radius surrounding the battlefields known as Zone Rouge. This area has been declared uninhabitable due to unexploded ordnance and chemical shells. It is so toxic the French government has stated it will take centuries to clear before the land could be useful.

Fort Douaumont and the Douaumont Ossuary

Our first stop was the Douaumont Ossuary and memorial. Perfectly aligned white crosses dot the green hillsides in somber remembrance of those who gave their lives. Walking around the giant ossuary, you can peer in through the small windows below the towering memorial. Here lay the remains of tens of thousands of unidentified soldiers — French, German, African, American and more. In the end, it didn't matter. They fought against each other, yet died together.

After paying our respects at the ossuary, we drove a short distance to Fort Douaumont. For a small entry fee (4 euros for adults, 2 euros for children), we walked through the belly of this fortress. Original wrought-iron bunks were inside several. It was awe-inspiring to see the conditions that many soldiers lived through, for months and/or years at a time. As we clambered up the hills surrounding the fort, we saw beautiful French countryside marred with pock marks scarring the landscape. Exploded artillery shells left huge craters in the earth, and spiky barbed-wire still coiled around parts of the hills.

Fort Vaux

From there we headed over to another nearby bastion, Fort Vaux. Since it was so hot outside the day we visited, the cool, humid air inside the fort created an ethereal fog inside a few rooms. Fort Vaux was quite similar to Fort Douaumont — large craters in the ground, exposed bunkers and wires, and amazing history on display. There is a short video when you walk inside (French with English subtitles) about the history of the area. Although the ground is horrifically polluted with heavy metals and unexploded ordnance, nature has started reclaiming the area. Aside from clearing the mines and artillery, the government has let the land heal on its own. Red poppies and wildflowers were sprouting everywhere, and there were signs to watch out for wildlife.

The decimated villages and the Memorial of Verdun

During the Battle of Verdun, nine local villages — Beaumont, Bezonvaux, Cumières, Douaumont, Fleury-devant-Douaumont, Haumont, Louvemont, Ornes and Vaux — were razed to the ground. We stopped Fleury-devant-Douaumont ... or what was left of it. This once bustling little village was home to 422 residents. During WWI, it changed hands between the Germans and French not once, not twice, but sixteen times before it was completely and utterly destroyed. Deemed "The village that died for France," all that remains are stone foundations of what once was.

For a comprehensive visit, be sure to stop at the Mémorial de Verdun located next to Fleury-devant-Douaumont. With artifacts and interactive exhibits, this museum has recreated a replica of the battlefield on the ground floor. Visitors enter enclosed spaces which give the feeling of what it may have felt like to be crouched in the trenches. If claustrophobia kicks in, step out on to the terrace of the third floors and take in the sweeping views of the historical trail.

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery

A short 40-minute drive northwest of Verdun is the largest American military cemetery in Europe (the Lorraine American Military Cemetery in Saint-Avold, France is the largest one for WWII). The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 14,000 American service members. Corporal Freddie Stowers (the first African-American Medal of Honor recipient in history) and Captain Frank Luke (for whom Luke Air Force Base is named) are among those buried here. The atmosphere is very quiet and peaceful, as well as somber and reflective. Inside the welcome center is a fantastic history of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and stories of the men (and women) who were laid to rest at the cemetery.

The haunting and harrowing stories of the Battle of Verdun are ones that aren’t told in the week-long lesson in high school. Take a drive and discover the history first-hand. “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.” –Gen. John J. Pershing

For more information, visit memorial-verdun.fr or verdun-tourisme.com.

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