Most visitors to the Western Front arrive from across the English Channel. Due to work commitments in Germany I was driving from Frankfurt so I made my first overnight stop in Verdun.
I left Fussen at the base of the Bavarian Alps in Southern Germany and drove up to Frankfurt Airport, dropped off my business colleague, then headed toward France. The plan was to make it to Rheims. However commonsense took over and at around 8 p.m. I decided that Verdun would do. I am glad I did.
I was vaguely aware of the fighting around Verdun but did not realize how important it was, nor how fiercely it was fought over by the French, German and ultimately the American troops. I was unprepared for the unimaginable loss of life suffered in this now peaceful part of France.
The helpful staff at the Tourism Office in Verdun spoke English and I obtained some excellent guidebooks and ventured out of town. The ‘Verdun champs de bataille’ route map was easy to follow and was complemented by roadside signposts. ‘The Memorial Museum of the Battle of Verdun’ was very informative with French, German and English captions to most exhibits. Their English souvenir guide was very helpful. I also took time to visit the Douaumont Ossuary and the National Cemetery, the ruins of Fort Douaumont and the ‘Trench of the Bayonets’.
The Douaumont Ossuary was very moving. On every block in its interior walls are etched the names of French soldiers who lost their lives. The vaults contain the remains of 130,000 unknown soldiers and in front of this sanctuary a further 15,000 identified French soldiers lie buried in the National Military Cemetery.
The ‘Trench of the Bayonets’ highlights some of the horrors of war. One of the guidebooks I collected from the Verdun Tourist Office notes that on the 12th of June 1916, a detachment of the French 137th Infantry Regiment was caught by an intensive enemy bombardment, and buried in the trench in which they had sought shelter. After the battle, the only sign of these men were the several hundred bayonets protruding from the ground. I learnt after my visit that the American troops distinguished themselves on the Verdun front, in Argonne and in the area of Saint- Mihiel. Impressive monuments have been erected to their memory in Montfaucon and Montsec. In Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, the largest American military cemetery in Europe, lie the bodies of 15,000 American soldiers. I intend visiting these sites and others when I return to Verdun, the United Nations designated “World Capital of Peace, Freedom and Human Rights”.
As the Battle of the Somme was apparently staged in part to draw German forces away from Verdun and thus ease the pressure on the French forces, I am glad I took the opportunity to visit this moving area prior to driving to the Western Front.