27 November 2008

Journey to Verdun, part 1

"Ils ne passeront pas..." 
("They shall not pass..." - from the Order of the Day, 23 June 1916)
- Robert Georges Nivelle (1856 - 1924), 
French artillery officer and Commander the French Second Army at Verdun

I rolled over and stared at the window. It seemed awfully light out. I could hear cars and trains and people talking on the street below. I grabbed my watch and looked at the time. 7:55am. My heart missed a beat. I was supposed to catch the 8:18 train. I jumped into my clothes, grabbed my backpack and shot out the door. Luckily our hostel was just across the street from the métro stop Barbès-Rochechouart. I could hear the Metro pull into the station as I ran up the steps. I scrambled onto the platform just as the warning buzzer sounded and I leapt on as the doors closed behind me.

Gare de l'Est was only two stops away, and that was made in good time. I ran through the station, dodging people, jumping to the next platforms, scanning the boards for the train I needed heading east. The decidedly 19th-century mechanical "tick-tick-tick" sound of the destination board updating added to my anxiety. I saw my train just as it started to rock, shudder, and move forward. I grabbed a handle and pulled myself aboard as it began to pull away. If I had needed to stop and buy a ticket I would have missed it, but I had my Eurail pass and so I settled back to catch my breath and enjoy the journey. So much for my plans of getting up early, having a nice breakfast with lots of espresso, and then making my way to the train station at a leisurely pace.

We made our way out of the capital, the tracks playing out under the avenues and beneath the ancient buildings, eventually leaving Paris proper and then the suburbs behind. I bought a coffee, a Toblerone, and a baguette from the man with the food cart. After a brief stop to switch trains at Châlons-sur-Marne (today called Châlons-en-Champagne) I was soon headed toward my destination.

The French countryside, between the Marne river and the German border, was rolling hills. Vast fields of deep blue-green grass and endless stretches of bright yellow field-flowers broken up by intermitent waterways and canals that followed beside us, chasing the tracks and crossing under and back. The hills rose to high bluffs and then dropped into low valleys of geometric farmlands. The sky was overcast and a misty rain fell, wetting the grasslands and the windows. To the north were the vestages of the Ardennes forest, and to the south the forest of Argonnes. Some of the deeper valleys were cloaked in a low fog, wisps snaking between the trees, giving the landscape an ethereal, dreamy quality. In the distance an old, stone farmhouse had a light in one window and smoke curling from the chimney.

I had decided to leave RJ in Paris while I made a day-trip to a place that had held morbid fascination to me for years. Being a history buff I was particularly enamored of the period at the end of the 19th century through the two world wars, and especially the World War I era. The battles of the Marne, Ypres, Passchendaele & Flanders Fields, and the Somme had captivated me from reading about them as a young boy through studying them in college. The most terrifying battle of the war could be summed up by one cryptic, chilling word:
"Verdun." Known as the 'Mincing Machine of Verdun' or the 'Meuse Mill', the battle of Verdun came to symbolize both the atrocious waste of the strategy of 'war of attrition' and the indescribable horrors of what would become known as The Great War.

Straddling the Meuse river not 50 miles from the German border, Verdun was 139 miles east of Paris and had been a key strategic city for over a thousand years. Attilla the Hun had been foiled at the gates of Verdun in the 5th century as his horde swept through Gaul from the Central Asian steppes. It became part of the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne in 843 A.D. In the 1600s it became the possession of the French, and was an important part of their defensive line after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

After 1914, once the war had bogged down into the stalemate of trench warfare and both sides dug in for the long haul, Verdun would again play a crucial role. In late February 1916 the Germans began a bombardment at Verdun that was to last through almost to the end December. Just in those short months almost half a million French and German lives would be lost in and around Verdun. The city's forts would be lost and recaptured, and by the end of the battle, as the guns finally fell silent for a time, the front lines had moved little. Because of the system of French troop rotation, nearly 75% of all French soldiers fought at Verdun at some point during the war. Heavy artillery, poison gas, and for the first time flamethrowers were put in use during the battle.

My train was taking me toward a city shrouded in history and steeped in human suffering...

To be continued...  Click here to see "Journey to Verdun, Part 2"

KJT - Verdun, France (1998)


Graham said...

Whenever I think of the glorious dead I'm reminded of the quote: "The whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier" Bismarck. If only others had held that opinion.

KJT said...

This is another of my favorites:
"A great war leaves the country with three armies - an army of cripples, an army of mourners, and an army of thieves." ~German Proverb

cae said...

I was in Iowa once.